Introduction to Sociology - 2nd Canadian Edition

Introduction to Sociology - 2nd Canadian Edition

William Little

Sally Vyain, Gail Scaramuzzo, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Heather Griffiths, Eric Strayer, Nathan Keirns, and 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 – 2nd 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

A crowd of people celebrating Canada day
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 the concepts central to sociology.
  • Describe the different levels of analysis in sociology: micro-level sociology,  macro-level sociology, and global-level sociology.
  • Define the sociological imagination.

1.2. The History of Sociology

  • Explain why sociology emerged when it did.
  • Describe the central ideas of the founders of sociology.

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

  • Explain what sociological theories and paradigms are and how they are used.
  • Describe sociology as a multi-perspectival social science divided into positivist, interpretive and critical paradigms.
  • Define the similarities and differences between quantitative sociology, structural functionalism, historical materialism, feminism, 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, sporting matches and 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 you 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?

Two people lie in the middle of the road kissing. Riot police are in the foregroud and background.
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?

A crowded subway station.
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 or discourse 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 theories and methods to study a wide range of subject matter, and applies these studies to the real world.

The sociologist Dorothy Smith (b. 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.” They concern relationships, and they concern what happens when more than one person is involved. 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 processes lead to the decision that moving to the right rather than the left is normal? Think about the T-shirts in your chest of drawers at home. What are the sequences of linkages, exchanges, and social relationships that connect your T-shirts to the dangerous and hyper-exploitative 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?  Micro, Macro and Global Perspectives

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 in which 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 distinctions, however, are between micro-level sociology, macro-level sociology and global-level sociology.

The study of cultural rules of politeness in conversation is an example of micro-level 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 others’ 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-level sociology focuses on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions that extend beyond the immediate milieu of individual interactions: the dynamics of institutions, class structures, gender relations, or whole populations. 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, political, 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.

In global-level sociology, the focus is on structures and processes that extend beyond the boundaries of states or specific societies. As Ulrich Beck (2000) has pointed out, in many respects we no longer “live and act in the self-enclosed spaces of national states and their respective national societies.” Issues of climate change, the introduction of new technologies, the investment and disinvestment of capital, the images of popular culture, or the tensions of cross-cultural conflict, etc. increasingly involve our daily life in the affairs of the entire globe, by-passing traditional borders and, to some degree, distance itself. The example above of the way in which the world became divided into wealthy First World and impoverished Third World societies reflects social processes — the formation of international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and non-governmental organizations, for example — which are global in scale and global in their effects. With the boom and bust of petroleum or other export commodity economies, it is clear to someone living in Fort McMurray, Alberta, that their daily life is affected not only by their intimate relationships with the people around them, nor only by provincial and national based corporations and policies, etc., but by global markets that determine the price of oil and the global flows of capital investment. The context of these processes has to be analysed at a global scale of analysis.

The relationship between the micro, macro, and global remains one of the key conceptual problems confronting sociology. What is the relationship between an individual’s life and social life? The early 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 (1908/1971), 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 (1897/1951) 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; more specifically, the different degrees of social integration of these 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, population growth, and urban ways of life provide the shared context for everyday life but do not explain its specific 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 (1916-1962) 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’ lives in relation to history and social structure (1959/2000). 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%) were obese, up from 16% of men and 14.5% of women in 2003 (Statistics Canada, 2013). Obesity is therefore not simply a private concern related to 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. More importantly, however, 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 and therefore more profitable 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 preconceived 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. When general patterns persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction, they are referred to as social structures.

As we noted above, understanding the relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems. 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 reification 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, 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 their internal, subjective life and their external, socially-defined roles.

One 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. The individual is morally responsible for their behaviours and decisions. 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” for 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 types of moral questions. For sociologists, the conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex than the moral framework suggests and needs to be examined through evidence-based, rather than morality-based, research. 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. However, the manner in which individuals take on responsibilities, and sometimes the compulsion to do so, are socially defined. 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. At the same time, a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals.

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 (1887-1990) 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).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Individual in Society: Choices of Aboriginal Gang Members

A chest tattoo spelling out "Native Pride."
Figure 1.4. “Native Pride” (photo courtesy of Rap Dictionary at

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% of the prison population in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre were Aboriginal and 20% 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% of the Canadian population, in 2013 they made up 23.2% of the federal penitentiary population. In 2001 they made up only 17% 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”; he had 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.

1.2. The History of Sociology

Five early sociologists.
Figure 1.5. 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. The modern sociological term “norm” (i.e., a social rule that regulates human behaviour) comes from the Greek term nomos. 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 ideal community might be rational but it was not natural.

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 very similar 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 his insights into “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 corps is subsumed to institutional power and the intrigues of political factions.  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 brought about by the transition from the European feudal era to capitalism. This was a period of unprecedented social problems, from the breakdown of local communities to the hyper-exploitation of industrial labourers. 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 painting of Isaac Newton by William Blake.
Figure 1.6. Newton, William Blake, (1795). (Photo courtesy of William Blake/Wikimedia Commons)

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). The focus of knowledge shifted from intuiting the intentions of spirits and gods to systematically observing and testing the world of things through science and technology. 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 (Berman, 1981). 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 social life had to be clearly formulated and based on evidence-based procedures. It also gave sociology a technological cast as a type of knowledge which could be used to solve social problems.

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. Through the revolutionary process of democratization, 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 the 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 to serve 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; firstly, as an extension of the new worldview of science; secondly, as a part of the Enlightenment project and its focus on historical change, social injustice, and the possibilities of social reform; and thirdly, as a crucial response to the new and unprecedented types of social problems that appeared in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. 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 1.7. 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. They lived comfortably off his father’s earnings as a minor bureaucrat in the tax office. Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but after rejecting his parents’ conservative, monarchist views, he declared himself a republican and free spirit at the age of 13 and was eventually kicked out of school at 18 for leading a school riot. This ended his chances of getting a formal education and a position as an academic or government official.

He became a secretary to the utopian socialist philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) until they had a falling out in 1824 (after St. Simon reputedly 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 create a rational social order. Through science, each social strata would be reconciled with their place in a hierarchical social order. It is a testament to his influence in the 19th century 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 (1848/1977). 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. In principle, positivism, or what Comte called “social physics,” proposed that the study of society could be conducted in the same way that the natural sciences approach the natural world.

While Comte never in fact conducted any social research, 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 through the rule of sociologists who 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, 1830/1975).

Karl Marx: The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing

Figure 1.8. 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 (1802-1880). 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.

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 the 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.

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 1.9. Harriet Martineau.  (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 Macaulay, 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).

Émile Durkheim: The Pathologies of the Social Order

Figure 1.10. Émile Durkheim. (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 maladjustment being undergone by European societies and remedies which may relieve it” (1897/1951). 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. He described this breakdown as a state of normlessness or anomie — a lack of norms that give clear direction and purpose to individual actions. As he put it, anomie was the result of “society’s insufficient presence in individuals” (1897/1951).

Key to Durkheim’s approach was the development of a framework for sociology based on the analysis of social facts and social functions. Social facts are those things like law, custom, morality, religious rites, language, money, business 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, 1895/1964). 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.

Durkheim argued that each of these social facts serve one or more functions within a society. They exist to fulfill a societal need. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence and punish criminal behaviour, while another is to create collective standards of behaviour that people believe in and identify with. Laws create a basis for social solidarity and order. In this manner, each identifiable social fact could be analyzed with regard to its specific function in a society. Like a body in which each organ (heart, liver, brain, etc.) serves a particular function in maintaining the body’s life processes, a healthy society depends on particular functions or needs being met. Durkheim’s insights into society often revealed that social practices, like the worshipping of totem animals in his study of Australian Aboriginal religions, had social functions quite at variance with what practitioners consciously believed they were doing. The honouring of totemic animals through rites and privations functioned to create social solidarity and cohesion for tribes whose lives were otherwise dispersed through the activities of hunting and gathering in a sparse environment.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Durkheim and the Sociological Study of Suicide

A large gold chalice
Figure 1.11. The chalice is at the center of Catholic religious ritual and practice. In what way is it an example of a social fact? How does it function to bind the community of the faithful? (Photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch/Flickr)

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 external 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, 1895/1964).

This is the framework of Durkheim’s famous study of suicide. In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897/1997), 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. Moreover, 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. For example, suicide rates varied according to the religious affiliation of suicides. Protestants had higher rates of suicide than Catholics, even though both religions equally condemn suicide. In some jurisdictions Protestants killed themselves 300% more often than Catholics. 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 degree of authority religious beliefs hold over individuals, and the amount of collective ritual observance and mutual involvement individuals engage in in religious practice. A social fact — suicide rates — was explained by another social fact — degree of social integration.

The key social function of religion was to integrate individuals by linking them to a common external doctrine and to a greater spiritual reality outside of themselves. Religion created moral communities. In this regard, he observed that the degree of authority that religious beliefs held over Catholics was much stronger than for Protestants, who from the time of Luther had been taught to take a critical attitude toward formal doctrine. Protestants were more free to interpret religious belief and in a sense were were more individually responsible for supervising and maintaining their own religious practice. Moreover, in Catholicism the ritual practice of the sacraments, such as confession and taking communion, remained intact, whereas in Protestantism ritual was reduced to a minimum. Participation in the choreographed rituals of religious life created a highly visible, public focus for religious observance, forging a link between private thought and public belief. Because Protestants had to be more individualistic and self-reliant in their religious practice, they were not subject to the strict discipline and external constraints of Catholics. They were less integrated into their communities and more thrown back on their own resources. They were more prone to what Durkheim termed egoistic suicide: suicide which results from the individual ego having to depend on itself for self-regulation (and failing) in the absence of strong social bonds tying it to a community.

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 social fact, implying “the existence of collective tendencies exterior to the individual” (Durkheim, 1897/1997), and explained their variation with respect to another social fact: social integration. He wrote, “Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part” (Durkheim, 1897/1997).

Contemporary research into suicide in Canada shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 34 (behind death by accident) (Navaneelan, 2012). The greatest increase in suicide since the 1960s has been in the age 15-19 age group, increasing by 4.5 times for males and by 3 times for females.  In 2009, 23% of deaths among adolescents aged 15-19 were caused by suicide, up from 9% in 1974, (although this difference in percentage is because the rate of suicide remained fairly constant between 1974 and 2009, while death due to accidental causes has declined markedly). On the other hand, married people are the least likely group to commit suicide. Single, never-married people are 3.3 times more likely to commit suicide than married people, followed by widowed and divorced individuals respectively. How do sociologists explain this?

It is clear that adolescence and early adulthood is a period in which social ties to family and society are strained. It is often a confusing period in which teenagers break away from their childhood roles in the family group and establish their independence. Youth unemployment is higher than for other age groups and, since the 1960s, there has been a large increase in divorces and single parent families. These factors tend to decrease the quantity and the intensity of ties to society. Married people on the other hand have both strong affective affinities with their marriage partners and strong social expectations placed on them, especially if they have families: their roles are clear and the norms which guide them are well-defined. According to Durkheim’s proposition, suicide rates vary inversely with the degree of integration of social groups. Adolescents are less integrated into society, which puts them at a higher risk for suicide than married people who are more integrated. It is interesting that the highest rates of suicide in Canada are for adults in midlife, aged 40-59. Midlife is also a time noted for crises of identity, but perhaps more significantly, as Navaneelan (2012) argues, suicide in this age group results from the change in marital status as people try to cope with the transition from married to divorced and widowed.

Max Weber: Verstehende Soziologie

Figure 1.12. Max Weber. (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 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 taking risks 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 from a subject’s point of view. 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 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. Their 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 1.13. Georg Simmel. (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, he 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, 1908/1971). 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’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 expanded massively after the unification of Germany in the 1870s and, by 1900, became a major European metropolis of 4 million people. The development of a metropolis created a fundamentally new human experience. The inventiveness of people in creating new forms of interaction in response became a rich source of sociological investigation.

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

A protest rally
Figure 1.14. 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, 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 social 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 are two other sociological paradigms which formulate the explanatory framework and research problem differently.

The variety of paradigms and methodologies makes for a rich and useful dialogue among sociologists. It is also sometimes confusing for students who expect that sociology will have a unitary scientific approach like that of the natural sciences. However, the key point is that the subject matter of sociology is fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences. The existence of multiple approaches to the topic of society and social relationships makes sense given the nature of the subject matter of sociology. The “contents” of a society are never simply a set of objective qualities like the chemical composition of gases or the forces operating on celestial spheres. For the purposes of analysis, the contents of society can sometimes be viewed in this way, as in the positivist perspective, but in reality, they are imbued with social meanings, historical contexts, political struggles, and human agency.

Three drawings of blind men touching different parts of an elephant to figure out what it is.
Figure 1.15. The South Asian fable of the blind men and the elephant from the poem by John Godfrey Saxe. The inquisitive blind men want to know what an elephant is. The first one feels the elephant’s flank and says, “the elephant is very like a wall!” The second one feels the elephant’s tusk and says, “an elephant is very like a spear!” The third one feels the elephant’s trunk and says, “the elephant is very like a snake!” (Illustrations courtesy of Mlke Kline/Flickr)

This makes social life a complex, moving target for researchers to study, and the outcome of the research will be different depending on where and with what assumptions the researcher begins. Even the elementary division of experience into an interior world, which is “subjective,” and an exterior world, which is “objective,” varies historically, cross-culturally, and sometimes moment by moment in an individual’s life. From the phenomenological perspective in sociology, this elementary division, which forms the starting point and basis of the “hard” or “objective” sciences, is in fact usefully understood as a social accomplishment sustained through social interactions. We actively divide the flow of impressions through our consciousness into socially recognized categories of subjective and objective, and we do so by learning and following social norms and rules. The division between subjective impressions and objective facts is natural and necessary only in the sense that it has become what Schutz (1962) called the “natural attitude” for people in modern society. Therefore, this division performs an integral function in organizing modern social and institutional life on an ongoing basis. We assume that the others we interact with view the world through the natural attitude. Confusion ensues when we or they do not. Other forms of society have been based on different modes of being in the world.

Despite the differences that divide sociology into multiple perspectives and methodologies, its unifying aspect is the systematic and rigorous nature of its social inquiry. If the distinction between “soft” and “hard” sciences is useful at all, it refers to the degree of rigour and systematic observation involved in the conduct of research rather than the division between the social and the natural sciences per se. Sociology is based on the scientific research tradition which emphasizes two key components: empirical observation and the logical construction of theories and propositions.  Science is understood here in the broad sense to mean the use of reasoned argument, the ability to see general patterns in particular incidences, and the reliance on evidence from systematic observation of social reality. However, as noted above, the outcome of sociological research will differ depending on the initial assumptions or perspective of the researcher. Each of the blind men studying the elephant in the illustration above are capable of producing an empirically true and logically consistent account of the elephant, albeit limited, which will differ from the accounts produced by the others. While the analogy that society is like an elephant is tenuous at best, it does exemplify the way that different schools of sociology can explain the same factual reality in different ways

Within this general scientific framework, therefore, sociology is broken into the same divisions that separate the forms of modern knowledge more generally. As Jürgen Habermas (1972) describes, by the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the unified perspective of Christendom had broken into three distinct spheres of knowledge: the natural sciences, hermeneutics (or the interpretive sciences like literature, philosophy, and history), and critique. In many ways the three spheres of knowledge are at odds with one another, but each serves an important human interest or purpose. The natural sciences are oriented to developing a technical knowledge useful for controlling and manipulating the natural world to serve human needs.   Hermeneutics is oriented to developing a humanistic knowledge useful for determining the meaning of texts, ideas, and human practices in order to create the conditions for greater mutual understanding. Critique is oriented to developing practical knowledge and forms of collective action that are useful for challenging entrenched power relations in order to enable human emancipation and freedoms.

Sociology is similarly divided into three types of sociological knowledge, each with its own strengths, limitations, and practical purposes: positivist sociology focuses on generating types of knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life; interpretive sociology on types of knowledge useful for promoting greater mutual understanding and consensus among members of society, and critical sociology on types of knowledge useful for changing and improving the world, for emancipating people from conditions of servitude. Within these three types of sociological knowledge, we will discuss five paradigms of sociological thinking: quantitative sociology, structural functionalism, historical materialism, feminism, and symbolic interactionism.

1. Positivism

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 rule: All sciences have the same basic principles and practices whether their object is natural or human.
  4. The rule of 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 to quantify relationships between social variables. In line with the “unity of the scientific method” rule, quantitative sociologists argue that the elements of human life can be measured and quantified — described in numerical terms — in essentially the same way that natural scientists measure and quantify the natural world in physics, biology, or chemistry.  Researchers analyze this data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns or “laws” of human behaviour. Law-like statements concerning relationships between variables are often posed in the form of statistical relationships or multiple linear regression formulas; these measure and quantify the degree of influence different causal or independent variables have on a particular outcome or dependent variable. (Independent and dependent variables will be discussed in Chapter 2). 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). This approach is value neutral for two reasons: firstly because the quantified data is the product of methods of systematic empirical observation that seek to minimize researcher bias, and secondly because “values” per se are human dispositions towards what “should be” and therefore cannot be observed like other objects or processes in the world. Quantitative sociologists might be able to survey what people say their values are, but they cannot determine through quantitative means what is valuable or what should be.

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, 1895/1997) — and to explain them in terms of their social functions.

Following Durkheim’s insight, structural functionalism therefore sees society as composed of structures — regular patterns of behaviour and organized social arrangements that persist through time (e.g., like the institutions of the family or the occupational structure) — and the functions they serve: 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.  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. By “parts of society,” Spencer was referring to such social institutions as the economy, political systems, health care, education, media, and religion.

According to structural functionalism, society is composed of different social structures that perform specific functions to maintain the operation of society as a whole. Structures are simply regular, observable patterns of behaviour or organized social arrangements that persist through time. The institutional structures that define roles and interactions in the family, workplace, or church, etc. are structures. Functions refer to how the various needs of a society (i.e., for properly socialized children, for the distribution of food and resources, or for a unified belief system, etc.) are satisfied. Different societies have the same basic functional requirements, but they meet them using different configurations of social structure (i.e., different types of kinship system, economy, or religious practice). Thus, society is seen as a system not unlike the human body or an automobile engine.

In fact the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) likened society to a human body. Each structure of the system performs a specific function to maintain the orderly operation of the whole (Spencer, 1898). When they do not perform their functions properly, the system as a whole is threatened. The heart pumps the blood, the vascular system transports the blood, the metabolic system transforms the blood into proteins needed for cellular processes, etc. When the arteries in the heart get blocked, they no longer perform their function. The heart fails, and the system as a whole collapses. In the same way, the family structure functions to socialize new members of society (i.e., children), the economic structure functions to adapt to the environment and distribute resources, the religious structure functions to provide common beliefs to unify society, etc. Each structure of society provides a specific and necessary function to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the whole. However, if the family fails to effectively socialize children, or the economic system fails to distribute resources equitably, or religion fails to provide a credible belief system, repercussions are felt throughout the system. The other structures have to adapt, causing further repercussions. With respect to a system, when one structure changes, the others change as well. Spencer continued the analogy to the body by pointing out that societies evolve just as the bodies of humans and other animals do (Maryanski and Turner, 1992).

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 its means of goal attainment; on roles and norms to regulate social behaviour as its means of social integration; and on cultural institutions to 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 macro-level of systems and not at the micro-level of 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 can have more than one function. 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.

Criticisms of Positivism

The main criticisms of both quantitative sociology and structural functionalism have to do with whether social phenomena can truly be studied like the natural phenomena of the physical sciences. Critics challenge the way in which social phenomena are regarded as objective social facts. On one hand, interpretive sociologists suggest 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 itself. Similarly, interpretive sociology argues that structural functionalism, with its emphasis on macro-level 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 sociologists challenge the conservative tendencies of quantitative sociology and structural functionalism. Both types of positivist analysis represent themselves as being objective, or value-neutral, whereas critical sociology notes that the context in which they are applied is always defined by relationships of power and struggles for social justice. In this sense sociology cannot be neutral or purely objective. The context of social science is never neutral. 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 an ahistorical and deterministic picture of the world that cannot account for the underlying historical dynamics of power relationships and class, gender, or other struggles. One can empirically observe the trees but not see 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 relies on an essentially static model of society. The functions of each structure are understood in terms of the needs of the social system as it exists at a particular moment in time. Each individual has to fit the function or role designated for them. Change is not only dysfunctional or pathological, because it throws the whole system into disarray, it also is very difficult to understand why change occurs at all if society is functioning as a system. Therefore, structural functionalism has a strong conservative tendency, which is illustrated by some of its more controversial arguments. For example, Davis and Moore (1944) argued that inequality in society is good (or necessary) because it functions as an incentive for people to work harder. Talcott Parsons (1954) argued that the gender division of labour in the nuclear family between the husband/breadwinner and wife/housekeeper is good (or necessary) because the family will function coherently only if each role is clearly demarcated. In both cases, the order of the system is not questioned, and the historical sources of inequality are not analysed. Inequality in fact performs a useful function. Critical sociology challenges both the social injustice and practical consequences of social inequality. In particular, social equilibrium and function must be scrutinized closely to see whose interests they serve and whose interests they suppress.

2. Interpretive Sociology

The interpretive perspective in sociology is aligned with the hermeneutic traditions of the humanities like literature, philosophy, and history. The focus in interpretative sociology is on understanding or interpreting human activity in terms of the meanings that humans attribute to it. It is sometimes referred to as social constructivism to capture the way that individuals construct a world of meaning that affects the way people experience the world and conduct themselves within it. The world evidently has a reality outside of these meanings, but interpretive sociology focuses on analysing the processes of collective meaning construction that give us access 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 — action to which individuals attach subjective meanings and interpret those of others — is taken up later by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and various contemporary schools of social constructivism. The interpretive perspective is concerned with developing a knowledge of social interaction from the point of view of the meanings individuals attribute to it. Social interaction is a meaning-oriented practice. As a result of its research, interpretive sociology promotes the goal of greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is one of the main schools of interpretive sociology. It provides a theoretical perspective that helps scholars examine how relationships between individuals in society are conducted on the basis of shared understandings. 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 also 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” and the stages of child development as a sequence of role-playing capacities provides the classic analyses of the perspective. We will discuss Mead further in Chapter 5 (Socialization) but Mead’s key insight is that the self develops only through social interaction with others. We learn to be ourselves by the progressive incorporation of the attitudes of others towards us into our concept of self.

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:

  1. Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he or she encounters (Blumer, 1969).

In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same manner as natural events. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals reach common definitions of the situation in which they are involved. Through the back and forth of mutual interactions and communication (i.e., symbolic interaction), individuals move from ambiguous or undefined situations to those characterized by mutually shared meanings. On the basis of shared meanings, a common and coordinated course of action can be pursued. People are able to decide how to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, how to divide up responsibilities at work, or even how to agree to disagree when an irresolvable conflict arises. The passport officer at the airport makes a gesture with her hand, or catches your eye, which you interpret as a signal to step forward in line and pass her your passport so that she can examine its validity. Together you create a joint action — “checking the passport” — which is just one symbolic interaction in a sequence that travelers typically engage in when they arrive at the airport of their vacation destination. Social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that groups of individuals have the freedom and agency to define their situations in potentially numerous ways.

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, Howard Becker’s (1953) argued in his classic study of marijuana users that the effects of marijuana have less to do with its physiological qualities in the body than with the process of communication (or symbolic interaction) about the effects. New marijuana users need to go through three stages to become a regular user: they need to learn from experienced smokers how to identify the effects, how to enjoy them, and how to attach meaning to them (i.e., that the experience is funny, strange or euphoric, etc.). Becker emphasizes, therefore, that marijuana smoking is a thoroughly social process and that the experience of “being high” is as much a product of mutual interactions as it is a purely bio-chemical process. In a sense, smoking marijuana could be experienced in numerous ways because the individuals involved exercise agency. No fixed reality, physiological or otherwise, pre-exists the mutual interactions of the users.

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 social order. 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, for example, is picked up by police for an offense, defined by police and other authorities as a “young offender,” processed by the criminal justice system, and then introduced to criminal subcultures through contact with experienced offenders is understood 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, deviance is not simply a social fact, as Durkheim might argue, but the product of a process of definition by moral entrepreneurs, authorities, and other privileged members of society:

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, rather than quantitative methods because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live.

Criticisms of Interpretive Sociology

From the point of view of positivism, one of the problems of interpretive paradigms that focus 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 discussing the rich detail of the rituals and dynamics of authority in a street gang, can a sociologist make conclusions about the phenomenon of street gangs in general, or determine the social factors that lead individuals to join street gangs? Can one go from a particular observation to a general claim about society?

In a similar fashion, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or the relations of power that structure or condition face-to-face, symbolic interactions. The perspective on social life as a spontaneous, unstructured and unconstrained domain of agency and subjective meanings has difficulty accounting for the ways that social life does become structured and constrained. The emphasis on face-to-face processes of communication and the emergent or spontaneous qualities of social situations is unable to account for the reproduction of large-scale power relations and structures. Starting from a micro-level analysis, it is difficult to explain how the millions of ongoing symbolic interactions take on particular institutional forms or are subject to historical transformations. In the case of marijuana users, for example, it is difficult to go from Becker’s analysis of symbolic interaction between individuals to a strong explanation for the reasons why marijuana was made illegal in the first place, how the underground trade in marijuana works (and contextualizes the experience of the beginning user), or what the consequences of criminalization are on political discourses, the criminal justice system, and the formation of subcultures (i.e., like the jazz musician subculture Becker studied in the 1950s). Essential aspects of the political context of specific symbolic interactions fall outside the scope of the analysis, which is why, from a critical perspective, the insights of microsociology need to be broadened through the use of the sociological imagination.

3. 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 critique of 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 systematic analyses such as these is that they generate 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, and 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. That human life is worth living, or rather that it can be and ought to be made worth living; and
  2. In a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and the 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. 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.

Highland Clearances in Scotland. Long description available
Figure 1.16. The Last of the Clan painted by Thomas Faed, (1865). [Long Description] (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 can be called dialectical. Dialectics in sociology proposes that social contradiction, opposition, and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation. It emphasizes four components in its analysis (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 gradual accumulation of many social changes eventually create a qualitative transformation or social turning point.

For example, the self-immolation of the street vender Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 lead to the Tunisian revolution of 2011 because it “crystallized” the multitude of everyday incidences in which people endured the effects of high unemployment, government corruption, poor living conditions, and a lack of rights and freedoms. It is not possible to examine quantitative changes independently of the qualitative transformations they produce, and vice versa.

The fourth analytical component of the dialectical approach 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. The capitalist class and the working class do not simply exist side by side as other social groups do (e.g., model boat enthusiasts and Christian fundamentalists), but exist in a relationship of contradiction. Each class depends on the other for its existence, but their interests are fundamentally irreconcilable and therefore the relationship is fraught with tension and conflict. Social tensions and contradictions in society may simmer or they may erupt in struggle, but in either case 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.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

“Wanna go for a coffee?”

Figure 1.17. According to a 2010 study, 65% of Canadians drink coffee daily. The average coffee drinker drinks 2.8 cups of coffee per day. Source: Coffee Association of Canada, 2010. (Photo courtesy of Duncan C/Flickr)

A good example of the dialectical approach to everyday social life would be to think about all the social relationships that are involved in meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. This is a common everyday event that usually passes without a great deal of sociological reflection. On the one hand, it might offer the sociologist numerous opportunities to study the social aspects of this event in isolation or at a micro-level: conversation analysis, the dynamics of friend relationships, addiction issues with caffeine, consumer preferences for different beverages, beliefs about caffeine and mental alertness, etc. In this regard, a symbolic interactionist might ask: Why is drinking coffee at the center of this specific interaction? What does coffee mean for you and your friend who meet to drink it?

On the other hand, if we were to take a more systematic and critical sociological view of the activity of coffee drinking, we would note how the practice also embeds us in a series of relationships to others and the environment that are not immediately apparent if the activity is viewed in isolation (Swift, Davies, Clarke and Czerny, 2004). When we purchase a cup of coffee, we enter into a relationship with the growers in Central and South America. We are involved with their working conditions and with the global structures of private ownership and distribution that make selling coffee a profitable business. We are also involved with the barista at the counter who works in the coffee shop for a living; with the fluctuations of supply, demand, competition, and market speculation that determine the price of coffee; with the marketing strategies that lead us to identify with specific beverage choices and brands; and with the modifications to the natural environment where the coffee is grown, through which it is transported, and where, finally, the paper cups and other waste are disposed of, etc.

Ultimately, over our cup of coffee, we find ourselves in the midst of a long political and historical process that is part of the formation of low wage or subsistence farming in Central and South America, the transfer of wealth to North America, and recently, various forms of resistance to this process like the fair trade movement. Despite the fact that we can be largely unaware of the web of relationships that we have entered into when we sit down to coffee with our friend, a systematic analysis would emphasize that our casual chat over coffee is just the tip of a vast iceberg composed of the activities and circumstances of countless individuals, including the activities and work relationships we ourselves engage in to earn the money to pay for the coffee. These relationships involve us in economic and political structures every time we have a cup of coffee.


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 [hypocrisy], 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 and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes? How is the family,  law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, and the division between public and private spheres of life organized on the basis of inequality between the genders?

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 the different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:

  1. Gender differences are the central focus or subject matter.
  2. Gender relations are viewed as a social problem: the site of social inequalities, 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 and 1970s 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 abstract, institutional world of text-mediated 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 sociology was taught in the 1960s and 1970s, only contributed to the problem.

Criticisms of Critical Sociology

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 lead 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, interpretive sociology challenges critical sociology for implying that people are purely the products of macro-level historical forces and struggles 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).


Sociological perspectives and their founders. Long description available.
Figure 1.18. Theoretical Approaches Summary. [Long Description] (Source: William Little and TRU Media)

To get a clearer picture of how these three sociological perspectives differ, it is helpful to map them out using a diagram. As we noted above, the sociological perspectives differ according to the initial assumptions of the researcher. One way to show this is to position them along two axes according to (a) whether they view society as governed by agreed-upon norms (normative) or by power relations and conflict (conflictual), and (b) whether individuals are subject to structures beyond their control (structure) or are agents who act and change the conditions of their existence (agency). The emphasis of positivism on generating law-like statements suggests that individuals are not agents, but rather are subject to scientific laws (structure); moreover, its focus on empirical observation relies on the assumption that an underlying consensus exists about the meaning of observed behaviours. That is, there is no essential difficulty in understanding what one is “seeing,” and the agreement between the observer and the observed with respect to the meaning of the observed behaviours (normative) can be taken for granted. Interpretive sociology also emphasizes the importance of shared meanings that guide human behaviour (normative), but at the same time — especially in the tradition of symbolic interactionism — focuses on how these shared meanings are created through the mutual interactions of agents in concerted action (agency). Critical sociology does not assume that an underlying agreement or consensus exists about the norms governing society; rather, the accent is on analyzing relations of power and conflict (conflictual). Some perspectives in critical sociology like Marxism and feminism emphasize the agency of collective actors like the working class or women’s movements in praxis or struggles for change (agency), whereas other perspectives like poststructuralism emphasize the way in which subjects or agents are themselves constructed within relations of power (structure).

Overall, since social reality is complex and multi-faceted, the possibility of fundamental disagreement exists between the different theoretical approaches in sociology. Is society characterized by conflict or consensus? Is human practice determined by external social structures or is it the product of choice and agency? Does society have a reality over and above the lives of individuals or are the lives of individuals the only reality? Is human experience unique because it revolves around the meanings of social action, or is it essentially no different than any other domain studied by science? The answer to each of these questions is: it is both. Similar to the problem in physics about whether light is a particle or a wave, society appears in one guise or another depending on the perspective one takes or the research tool that one adopts. Using Habermas’ schema (discussed previously), sociology takes different forms depending on whether it is to be used for the purposes of administration (e.g., positivism), mutual understanding (e.g., interpretive sociology), or social change (e.g., critical sociology). However, just like the wave/particle uncertainty in physics, the fundamental ambiguity in determining which sociological perspective to adopt does not prevent brilliant insights into the nature of social experience from being generated.

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

Figure 1.19. Tommy Douglas (1904-1986). As premier of Saskatchewan’s CCF government, Douglas introduced legislation for the first publicly funded health care plan in Canada in 1961. Sociologist Bernard Blishen (b. 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 (b. 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.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Farming and Locavores: How Sociological Perspectives Might View Food Consumption

The consumption of food is a commonplace, a 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 the social system as a whole. Food production is a primary example of Talcott Parsons’ function of adaptation: how human systems adapt to environmental systems. In this regard the structural-functionalist would be interested in the potential for disequilibrium in the human/environment relationship that has resulted from increases in population and the intensification of agricultural production — from the early days of manual-labour farming to modern mechanized agribusiness. 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, promoted by Michael Pollan (2006) and others, 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 of the shared meaning of food, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, the attitudes towards food in fast food restaurants, 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 vegans (people who do not eat meat or dairy products) 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 the food industry, exploring where people’s right to information intersects with corporations’ drive for profit and how the government mediates those interests. Critical sociologists might also 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 and diet varies between different social classes. The industrialization of the food chain has created cheaper foods than ever, yet with the trade-off that the poorest people in society eat the food with the least nutritional content.

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, counseling (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.

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.

dialectics: A type of analysis that proposes that social contradiction, opposition and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation.

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.

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.

empiricism: The philosophical tradition that seeks to discover the laws of the operation of the world through careful, methodical, and detailed observation.

egoistic suicide: Suicide which results from the absence of strong social bonds tying the individual to a community.

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.

global-level sociology: The study of structures and processes that extend beyond the boundaries of states or specific societies.

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.

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.

macro-level sociology: The study of  society-wide social structures and processes.

manifest functions: Sought consequences of a social process.

micro-level 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.

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.

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.

Rationalism: The philosophical tradition that seeks to determine the underlying laws that govern the truth of reason and ideas.

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: 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.

structure: General patterns that persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction.

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

theory: A proposed explanation about social interactions or society.

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.

[Quiz answers at the end of the chapter]

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:

1.2. The History of Sociology
Many sociologists helped shape the discipline. Learn more about prominent sociologists and how they changed sociology:

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?
For a nominal fee, the Canadian Sociological Association has produced an informative pamphlet “Opportunities in Sociology” which includes sections on: (1) The unique skills that set sociology apart as a discipline; (2) An overview of the Canadian labour market and the types of jobs available to Sociology BA graduates; (3) An examination of how sociology students can best prepare themselves for the labour market; (4) An introduction, based on sociological research, of the most fruitful ways to conduct a job search:


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Simmel, Georg. (1971). The problem of sociology.  In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms (pp. 23–27). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (original work published 1908)

Simmel, Georg. (1971). Sociability. In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms (pp. 127–140). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (original work published 1910)

Simmel, Georg. (1971). Metropolis and mental Life.  In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms (pp. 324–339). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (original work published 1903)

Statistics Canada. (2011). Women in Canada: A gender based statistical report. [PDF] (Catalogue no. 89-503-X). Retrieved January 31, 2014  from

Weber, Max. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (original work published 1904)

Weber, Max. (1969). Science as a vocation. In H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 129-158). New York: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1919)

Weber, Max. (1997). Definitions of sociology and social action. In Ian McIntosh (Ed.), Classical sociological theory: A reader (pp. 157–164). New York: New York University Press. (original work published 1922)

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.

Coffee Association of Canada. (2010). 2010 Canadian coffee drinking survey. About coffee: Coffee in Canada. Retrieved May 5, 2015 from

Davis, Kingsley and Moore, Wilbert. (1944). Some principles of stratification. American sociological review, 10(2):242–249.

Drengson, Alan. (1983). Shifting paradigms: From technocrat to planetary person. Victoria, BC: Light Star Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1984). The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press. (original work published 1893)

Durkheim, Émile. (1964). The rules of sociological method. J. Mueller, E. George and E. Caitlin (Eds.) (8th ed.)  S. Solovay (Trans.). New York: Free Press. (original work published 1895)

Goffman, Erving. (1958). The presentation of self in everyday life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.

Habermas, Juergen. (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. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, and S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 135–163). New York: Springer.

Lerner, Gerda. (1986). The Creation of patriarchy. New York: 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 (Vol. II). 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). Theses on Feuerbach.  In David McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 156–158). Toronto: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1845)

Marx, Karl. (1977). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In David McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 300–325). Toronto: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1851)

Marx, Karl. (1978). For a ruthless criticism of everything existing.   In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader (pp. 12–15). New York: W. W. Norton. (original work published 1843)

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Naiman, Joanne. (2012). How societies work (5th ed.). Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Parsons, T. (1961). Theories of society: Foundations of modern sociological theory. New York: Free Press.

Schutz, A. (1962). Collected papers I: The problem of social reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

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.

Swift, J., Davies, J. M., Clarke, R. G. and Czerny, M.S.J. (2004). Getting started on social analysis in Canada. In W. Carroll (Ed.), Critical strategies for social research (pp. 116–124). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Weber, Max. (1997). Definitions of sociology and social action.  In Ian McIntosh (Ed.), Classical sociological theory: A reader (pp. 157–164). New York, NY: New York University Press. (original work published 1922)

Berger, Peter L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. New York: Anchor Books.

Department of Sociology, University of Alabama. (n.d.). Sociology: Is sociology right for you?. Huntsville: University of Alabama. Retrieved January 19, 2012 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 [Return to Quiz]

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  “Native Pride” (photo courtesy of Rap Dictionary

Figure 1.5c Ibn Khaldun by Waqas Ahmed ( used under CC BY-SA 3.0 (;

Figure 1.6.  Newton-WilliamBlake by William Blake ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.7 Auguste Comte ( is in public domain

Figure 1.9. Harriet Martineau portrait ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.10. Emile Durkheim ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.11. Chalice Silver with gilding depicting a youthful Christ with cruciform halo and saints Byzantine ( used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (

Figure 1.12. Max Weber ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.13. Georg Simmel by Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.15. Blindmen by MIke Kline ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 1.16. The Last of the Clan by Thomas Faed ( Faed-The_Last_of_the_Clan.JPG)  is in the public domain (

Figure 1.19. Hon. T.C. Douglas, Premier of Saskatchewan by Lieut. G. Barry Gilroy ( is in public domain.

Long Descriptions

Figure 1.16 Long Description: The Highland Clearances: A painting of men, women, and children looking upset and weary and surrounded by their belongings next to the ocean. Return to Figure 1.16

Figure 1.18 Long Description: Sociologists are placed into quadrants based on whether they privilege structure over agency or see society governed by normative vs. conflictual means.
Normative Conflictual
Structure Comte’s Positivism and Durkheim’s Structural Functionalism Foucault’s Poststructuralism
Agency Weber’s Interpretive Sociology and Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism Martineau’s Feminism and Marx’s Critical Sociology
[Return to Figure 1.18]



Chapter 2. Sociological Research

Figure 2.1. Ottawa map showing the sites of the October 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. One was the National War Memorial and the other the Centre Block parliament building. What social factors led to the process of radicalization and political violence? How do sociologists study these questions? (Courtesy of User:Veggies/Wikimedia Commons)

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 or textual analysis.
  • Understand why certain 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, and outline some of the issues of value neutrality in sociology.

Introduction to Sociological Research

In an unfortunate comment following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, the then Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “this is not a time to commit sociology.” He implied that the “utter condemnation of this kind of violence” precluded drawing on sociological research into the causes of political violence  (Cohen, 2013). In his [Harper’s] position, there is a disjunction between taking a strong political and moral stance on violence on one hand and working towards a deeper, evidence-based understanding of the social causes of acts of violence on the other. Behind the political and moral rhetoric of Stephen Harper’s statement are a number of densely solidified beliefs about the nature of a “terrorist” individual — “people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding, [who] are a threat to all the values that our society stands for” (Cohen, 2013). In this framework, the terrorist is a kind of person who is beyond reason and morality. Therefore, sociological analysis is not only futile in the former Prime Minister’s opinion but also, for the same reasons, contrary to the “utter determination through our laws and through our activities to do everything we can to prevent and counter [terrorist violence]” (Cohen, 2013).

Paradise Now movie poster
Figure 2.2. The film Paradise Now (2005) tells the story of two friends who are recruited for a suicide bombing mission in Israel (Courtesy of דוד שי/Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the research of Robert Pape (2005) a different picture of the terrorist emerges. In the case of the 462 suicide bombers Pape studied, not only were the suicide bombers relatively well educated and affluent, but as other studies of suicide bombers in general confirm, they were not mentally imbalanced per se, not blindly motivated by religious zeal, and not unaffected by the moral ambivalence of their proposed acts. They were ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary circumstances. How would this understanding of the terrorist individual affect the drafting of public policy and public responses to terrorism?

Sociological research is especially important with respect to public policy debates. The political controversies that surround the question of how best to respond to terrorism and violent crime are difficult to resolve at the level of political rhetoric. Often, in the news and in 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” 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 using evidence-based procedures. Posing the debate in these terms narrows the range of options available and undermines the ability to raise questions about what responses to crime actually work.

In fact policy debates over terrorism and crime seem especially susceptible to the various forms of specious, unscientific reasoning described later in this chapter. The story of the isolated individual, whose specific act of violence becomes the basis for the belief that the criminal justice system as a whole has failed, illustrates several qualities of unscientific thinking: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on over-generalization, and knowledge based on selective evidence. The sociological approach to policy questions is essentially different since it focuses on examining the effectiveness of different social control strategies for addressing different types of violent behaviour and the different types of risk to public safety. Thus, from a sociological point of view, it is crucial to think systematically about who commits violent acts and why.

Although moral claims and opinions are of interest to sociologists, sociological researchers use empirical evidence (that is, evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation) combined with the scientific method to deliver sound sociological research.  A truly scientific sociological study of the social causes that lead to terrorist or criminal violence would involve a sequence of prescribed steps: defining a specific research question that can be answered through empirical observation; gathering information and resources through detailed 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 re-examine the findings.

An appropriate starting point in this case might be the question “What are the social conditions of individuals who are drawn to commit terrorist acts?” In a casual discussion of the issue, or in the back and forth of Twitter or news comment forums, people often make arguments based on their personal observations and insights, believing them to be accurate. But the results of casual observation are limited by the fact that there is no standardization—who is to say if one person’s observation of an event is any more accurate than another’s? To mediate these concerns, sociologists rely on systematic research processes.

The unwillingness to “commit sociology” and think more deeply about the roots of political violence might lead to a certain moral or rhetorical image of an “uncompromising” response to the “terrorist threat,” but not a response that has proven effective in practice nor one that exhausts the options for preventing and countering acts of political violence. Contrary to the former Prime Minister’s statements, the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is precisely a moment to commit sociology if the issues that produce acts of violence are to be addressed.

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

New Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine.
Figure 2.3. Sherlock Holmes, known for his keen observational skills (Photo courtesy of Special Collections Toronto Public Library/Wikimedia Commons)

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 the world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method, 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.

Depending on the focus and the type of research conducted, sociological findings could be useful in addressing any of the three basic interests or purposes of sociological knowledge we discussed in the last chapter: the positivist interest in quantitative factual evidence to determine effective social policy decisions, the interpretive interest in understanding the meanings of human behaviour to foster mutual understanding and consensus, and the critical interest in knowledge useful for challenging power relations and emancipating people from conditions of servitude. It might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social phenomena but, as we have argued above, it is 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. 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. Depending on the nature of the topic and the goals of the research, sociologists have a variety of methodologies to choose from. In particular, in deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a positivist methodology or an interpretive methodology. Both types of methodology can be useful for critical research strategies. The following sections describe these approaches to acquiring knowledge.

Science vs. Non-Science

We live in an interesting time in which the certitudes and authority of science are frequently challenged. In the natural sciences, people doubt scientific claims about climate change and the safety of vaccines. In the social sciences, people doubt scientific claims about the declining rate of violent crime or the effectiveness of needle exchange programs.  Sometimes there is a good reason to be skeptical about science, when scientific technologies prove to have adverse effects on the environment, for example; sometimes skepticism has dangerous outcomes, when epidemics of diseases like measles suddenly break-out in schools due to low vaccination rates. In fact, skepticism is central to both natural and social sciences, but from a scientific point of view the skeptical attitude needs to be combined with systematic research in order for knowledge to move forward.

In sociology, science provides the basis for being able to distinguish between everyday opinions or beliefs and propositions that can be sustained by evidence. In his paper The Normative Structure of Science (1942/1973) the sociologist Robert Merton argued that science is a type of empirical knowledge organized around four key principles, often referred to by the acronym CUDOS:

  1. Communalism: The results of science must be made available to the public; science is freely available, shared knowledge open to public discussion and debate.
  2. Universalism: The results of science must be evaluated based on universal criteria, not parochial criteria specific to the researchers themselves.
  3. Disinterestness: Science must not be pursued for private interests or personal reward.
  4. Organized Skepticism: The scientist must abandon all prior intellectual commitments, critically evaluate claims, and postpone conclusions until sufficient evidence has been presented; scientific knowledge is provisional.

For Merton, therefore, non-scientific knowledge is knowledge that fails in various respects to meet these criteria. Types of esoteric or mystical knowledge, for example, might be valid for someone on a spiritual path, but because this knowledge is passed from teacher to student and it is not available to the public for open debate, or because the validity of this knowledge might be specific to the individual’s unique spiritual configuration, esoteric or mystical knowledge is not scientific per se. Claims that are presented to persuade (rhetoric), to achieve political goals (propaganda, of various sorts), or to make profits (advertising) are not scientific because these claims are structured to satisfy private interests. Propositions which fail to stand up to rigorous and systematic standards of evaluation are not scientific because they can not withstand the criteria of organized skepticism and scientific method.

The basic distinction between scientific and common, non-scientific claims about the world is that in science “seeing is believing” whereas in everyday life “believing is seeing” (Brym, Roberts, Lie, & Rytina, 2013). Science is in crucial respects based on systematic observation following the principles of CUDOS. Only on the basis of observation (or “seeing”) can a scientist believe that a proposition about the nature of the world is correct. Research methodologies are designed to reduce the chance that conclusions will be based on error. In everyday life, the order is typically reversed. People “see” what they already expect to see or what they already believe to be true. Prior intellectual commitments or biases predetermine what people observe and the conclusions they draw.

Many people know things about the social world without having a background in sociology. Sometimes their knowledge is valid; sometimes it is not. It is important, therefore, to think about how people know what they know, and compare it to the scientific way of knowing. Four types of non-scientific reasoning are common in everyday life: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on selective evidence, knowledge based on overgeneralization, and knowledge based on authority or tradition.

Table 2.1. Scientific and Non-Scientific Ways of Knowing (Source: Amy Blackstone, Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods. Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 License)
Way of Knowing Description
Casual Observation Occurs when we make observations without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of what we observed.
Selective Observation Occurs when we see only those patterns that we want to see, or when we assume that only the patterns we have experienced directly exist.
Overgeneralization Occurs when we assume that broad patterns exist even when our observations have been limited.
Authority/Tradition A socially defined source of knowledge that might shape our beliefs about what is true and what is not true.
Scientific Research Methods An organized, logical way of learning and knowing about our social world.

Many people know things simply because they have experienced them directly. If you grew up in Manitoba you may have observed what plenty of kids learn each winter, that it really is true that one’s tongue will stick to metal when it’s very cold outside. Direct experience may get us accurate information, but only if we are lucky. Unlike the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, in general we are not very careful observers. In this example, the observation process is not really deliberate or formal. Instead, you would come to know what you believe to be true through casual observation. The problem with casual observation is that sometimes it is right, and sometimes it is wrong. Without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of our observations, we can never really be sure if our informal observations are accurate.

Front page of a newspaper showing a winged ship.
Figure 2.4. “A Winged Ship in the Sky” seen by all in Sacramento in 1896 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Many people know things because they overlook disconfirming evidence. Suppose a friend of yours declared that all men are liars shortly after she had learned that her boyfriend had deceived her. The fact that one man happened to lie to her in one instance came to represent a quality inherent in all men. But do all men really lie all the time? Probably not. If you prompted your friend to think more broadly about her experiences with men, she would probably acknowledge that she knew many men who, to her knowledge, had never lied to her and that even her boyfriend did not generally make a habit of lying. This friend committed what social scientists refer to as selective observation by noticing only the pattern that she wanted to find at the time. She ignored disconfirming evidence. If, on the other hand, your friend’s experience with her boyfriend had been her only experience with any man, then she would have been committing what social scientists refer to as overgeneralization, assuming that broad patterns exist based on very limited observations.

Another way that people claim to know what they know is by looking to what they have always known to be true. There is an urban legend about a woman who for years used to cut both ends off of a ham before putting it in the oven (Mikkelson, 2005). She baked ham that way because that is the way her mother did it, so clearly that was the way it was supposed to be done. Her knowledge was based on a family tradition (traditional knowledge). After years of tossing cuts of perfectly good ham into the trash, however, she learned that the only reason her mother cut the ends off ham before cooking it was that she did not have a pan large enough to accommodate the ham without trimming it.

Without questioning what we think we know is true, we may wind up believing things that are actually false. This is most likely to occur when an authority tells us that something is true (authoritatve knowledge). Our mothers are not the only possible authorities we might rely on as sources of knowledge. Other common authorities we might rely on in this way are the government, our schools and teachers, and churches and ministers. Although it is understandable that someone might believe something to be true if someone he or she looks up to or respects has said it is so, this way of knowing differs from the sociological way of knowing. Whether quantitative, qualitative, or critical in orientation, sociological research is based on the scientific method.

The last four paragraphs on the four types of non-scientific reasoning adapted from Amy Blackstone, Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (V. 1.0). Used under Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 License.

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 hypotheses about elementary particles 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 quantitative methodologies, which seek to translate observable phenomena into unambiguous numerical data, and interpretive qualitative methodologies, which seek to translate observable phenomena into definable units of meaning. The social scientific method in both cases involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical (i.e., observable) evidence. The social scientific method is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the social world, and it strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of established steps known as the research cycle.

The scientific method. Long description available.
Figure 2.5. The research cycle passes through a series of steps. The conclusions and reporting typically generate a new set of questions, which renews the cycle. [Long Description]

However,  just because sociological studies use the scientific method it does not make the results less human. Sociological topics like the causes and conditions of political violence are typically not amenable to the mathematical precision or quantifiable predictions of physics or chemistry. In the field of sociology, results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before — knowledge of people’s social conditions, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, knowledge of trends and attitudes. Nevertheless, 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 want to maximize the study’s validity (how well the study measures what it was designed to measure).

A subtopic in the field of political violence would be to examine the sources of homegrown radicalization: What are the conditions under which individuals in Canada move from a state of indifference or moderate concern with political issues to a state in which they are prepared to use violence to pursue political goals? The reliability of a study of radicalization reflects how well the social factors unearthed by the research represent the actual experience of political radicals. Validity ensures that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study. An exploration of an individual’s propensity to plan or engage in violent acts or to go abroad to join a terrorist organization should address those issues and not confuse them with other themes such as why an individual adopts a particular faith or espouses radical political views. As research from the UK and United States has in fact shown, while jihadi terrorists typically identify with an Islamic world view, a well-developed Islamic identity counteracts jihadism. Similarly, research has shown that while it intuitively makes sense that people with radical views would adopt radical means like violence to achieve them, there is in fact no consistent homegrown terrorist profile, meaning that it is not possible to predict whether someone who espouses radical views will move on to committing violent acts (Patel, 2011). To ensure validity, research on political violence should focus on individuals who engage in political violence.

Sociologists 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, 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. These steps provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton, 1949/1968). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps, which are described below: 1) ask a question; 2) research existing sources; and 3) formulate a hypothesis.

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 time frame. “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.

Figure 2.6. Karl Popper (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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. Karl Popper (1902-1994) described the formulation of scientific propositions in terms of the concept of falsifiability (1963). He argued that the key demarcation between scientific and non-scientific propositions was not ultimately their truth, nor their empirical verification, but whether or not they were stated in such a way as to be falsifiable; that is, whether a possible empirical observation could prove them wrong. If one claimed that evil spirits were the source of criminal behaviour, this would not be a scientific proposition because there is no possible way to definitively disprove it. Evil spirits cannot be observed. However, if one claimed that higher unemployment rates are the source of higher crime rates, this would be a scientific proposition because it is theoretically possible to find an instance where unemployment rates were not correlated to crime rates. As Popper said, “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations” (1963).

Once a proposition is formulated in a way that would permit it to be falsified, the variables to be observed need to be operationalized. 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 do not speed; or those who courteously allow others to merge. But these driving behaviours could be interpreted differently by different researchers, so they 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. Asking the question, “how many traffic violations has a driver received?” turns the concepts of “good drivers” and “bad drivers” into variables which might be measured by the number of traffic violations a driver has received. Of course the sociologist has to be wary of the way the variables are operationalized. In this example we know that black drivers are subject to much higher levels of police scrutiny than white drivers, so the number of traffic violations a driver has received might reflect less on their driving ability and more on the crime of “driving while black.”

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 a university 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 sources 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 is 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. How does being a black driver affect the number of times the police will pull you over?

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:

It is important to note that while there has to be a correlation between variables for there to be a causal relationship, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The relationship between variables can be the product of a third intervening variable that is independently related to both. For example, there might be a positive relationship between wearing bikinis and eating ice cream, but wearing bikinis does not cause eating ice cream. It is more likely that the heat of summertime causes both an increase in bikini wearing and an increase in the consumption of ice cream.

The distinction between causation and correlation can have significant consequences. For example, Aboriginal Canadians are overrepresented in prisons and arrest statistics. As we noted in Chapter 1, in 2013 Aboriginal people accounted for about 4 percent of the Canadian population, but they made up 23.2 percent of the federal penitentiary population (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013). There is a positive correlation between being an Aboriginal person in Canada and being in jail. Is this because Aboriginal people are racially or biologically predisposed to crime? No. In fact there are at least four intervening variables that explain the higher incarceration of Aboriginal people (Hartnagel, 2004): Aboriginal people are disproportionately poor and poverty is associated with higher arrest and incarceration rates; Aboriginal lawbreakers tend to commit more detectable “street” crimes than the less detectable “white collar” crimes of other segments of the population; the criminal justice system disproportionately profiles and discriminates against Aboriginal people; and the legacy of colonization has disrupted and weakened traditional sources of social control in Aboriginal communities.

Statistics show that divorce rates in Maine and the consumption of margarine fell at the same rate
Figure 2.7. Correlation does not imply causation (Image courtesy of AltimeterGroup/Flickr)
Table 2.2. Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables. Typically, the Independent Variable Causes the Dependent Variable to Change in Some Way.
Hypothesis 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.

Hypothesis Formation in Qualitative Research

While many sociologists rely on the positivist hypothetico-deductive method in their research, others operate from an interpretive approach. While still systematic, this approach typically 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 fixed 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 than positivist research. 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.

For example, Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) classic elaboration of grounded theory proposed that qualitative researchers working with rich sources of qualitative data from interviews or ethnographic observations need to go through several stages of coding the data before a strong theory of the social phenomenon under investigation can emerge. In the initial stage, the researcher is simply trying to categorize and sort the data. The researchers do not predetermine what the relevant categories of the social experience are but analyze carefully what their subjects actually say. For example, what are the working definitions of health and illness that hospital patients use to describe their situation? In the first stage, the researcher tries to label the common themes emerging from the data: different ways of describing health and illness. In the second stage, the researcher takes a more analytical approach by organizing the data into a few key themes: perhaps the key assumptions that lay people make about the physiological mechanisms of the body, or the metaphors they use to describe their relationship to illness (e.g., a battle, a punishment, a message, etc.). In the third stage, the researcher would return to the interview subjects with a new set of questions that would seek to either affirm, modify, or discard the analytical themes derived from the initial coding of the interviews. This process can then be repeated until a thoroughly grounded theory is ready to be proposed. At every stage of the research, the researchers are obliged to follow the emerging data by revising their conceptions as new material is gathered, contradictions accounted for, commonalities categorized, and themes re-examined with further interviews.

Once the preliminary work is done and the hypothesis defined, it is time for the next research steps: choosing a research methodology, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. These research steps are discussed below.

Making Connections: Classic Sociologists

Harriet Martineau: The First Woman Sociologist?

Figure 2.8. Harriet Martineau. Painting by Richard Evans (1834) . (Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London/ Wikimedia Commons)

As was noted in Chapter 1, Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was one of the first women sociologists in the 19th century. 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 science 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 & 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 & 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.

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 that 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. The unique nature of human research subjects is that they can react to the researcher and change their behaviour under observation.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

The Hawthorne Effect

Figure 2.9. Hawthorne Works factory of the Western Electric Company, 1925.

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 & 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 pluses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use.

1. Surveys

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 written questionnaire. The survey is one of the most widely used sociological research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

Questionnaires for Statistics Canada's 2011 Census
Figure 2.10. 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 have 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 Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) (now called Numeris) ratings, which determine the popularity of radio and television programming in Canada through scientific market research. Their researchers ask a large random sample of Canadians, age 12 and over, to fill out a television or radio diary for one week, noting the times and the broadcasters they listened to or viewed. Based on this methodology they are able to generate an accurate account of media consumers preferences, which are used to provide broadcast ratings for radio and television stations and define the characteristics of their core audiences.

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, individual behaviours such as sleeping, driving, dietary, 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. The larger the sample size, the more accurate the results will be in characterizing the population being studied. For practical purposes, however, a sample size of 1,500 people will give acceptably accurate results even if the population being researched was the entire adult population of Canada. 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 1,500 or 10,000 people.

Typically surveys will include a figure that gives the margin of error of the survey results.  Based on probabilities, this will give a range of values within which the true value of the population characteristic will be. This figure also depends on the size of a sample. For example, a political poll based on a sample of 1,500 respondents might state that if an election were called tomorrow the Conservative Party would get 30% of the vote plus or minus 2.5% based on a confidence interval of 95%. That is, there is a 5% chance that the true vote would fall outside of the range of 27.5% to 32.5%, or 1 time out of 20  if you were to conduct the poll 20 times. If the poll was based on a sample of 1,000 respondents, the margin of error would be higher, plus or minus 3.1%. This is significant, of course, because if the Conservatives are polling at 30% and the Liberals are polling at 28% the poll would be inconclusive about which party is actually ahead with regard to actual voter preferences.

Problems with accuracy or validity can result if sample sizes are too small because there is a stronger chance the sample size will not capture the actual distribution of characteristics of the whole population. In small samples the characteristics of specific individuals have a greater chance of influencing the results. The validity of surveys can also 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. There is also a question of what exactly is being measured by the survey. In the BC election of 2013, polls found that the NDP had the largest popular support but on election day many people who said they would vote NDP did not actually vote, which resulted in a Liberal majority government.

After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask a list of standardized 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 the subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researchers present the subjects with an instrument or means of gathering the information. A common instrument is a structured written 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 the chief drawback of questionnaires, 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 another option next to a check box. 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 on Twitter? Those types of questions require short essay responses, and participants willing to take the time to write those answers will convey personal information about their beliefs, views, and attitudes.

Some topics that reflect internal subjective perspectives are impossible to observe directly. Sometimes they can be sensitive and difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum or with a stranger. 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 experienced in a natural setting. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, and 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 another 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. They can be quantitative if the questions are standardized and have numerically quantifiable answers: Are you employed? (Yes=0, No=1); On a scale of 1 to 5 how would you describe your level of optimism? They can also be qualitative if 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. Obviously, a sociological interview is also not supposed to be an interrogation. The researcher will benefit from gaining a subject’s trust by empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and by listening without judgement.

2. Experiments

You have 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 a 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.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

An Experiment in Action: Mincome

The historic Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station, in Dauphin, Manitoba
Figure 2.11. 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 drop out 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 married women, 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 drop out 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.

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, & 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.

3. Field Research

A group of young people sitting on a hill. Many of them have brightly dyed mohawks.
Figure 2.12. Sociological researchers travel across countries and cultures to interact with and observe subjects in their natural environments. (Photo courtesy of Patrick/Flickr)

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.

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?

Figure 2.13. 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 overdoses 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.

Street cafe scene with a woman taking a couple's order.
Figure 2.14. Is she a working waitress or a sociologist conducting a study using participant observation? (Photo courtesy of Zoetnet/Flickr)

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.

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 & Lynd, 1959).

Figure 2.15. 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.

Rows of individual office cubicles.
Figure 2.16. 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. It aims at developing a “thick description” of people’s behaviour that describes not only the behaviour itself but the layers of meaning that form the context of the behaviour (Geertz, 1973). An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small Newfoundland fishing town, an Inuit community, a scientific research laboratory, a backpacker’s hostel, 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 ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon might learn the language, watch the way shamans go about their daily lives, ask individuals about the meaning of different aspects of the activity, study the group’s cosmology, and then write a paper about it. To observe a Buddhist 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: Sociological Research

The Feminist Perspective: Institutional Ethnography

A quote by Dorothy Smith. Long description available.
Figure 2.17. A sociology for women. [Long Description] (Photo courtesy of Zuleyka Zevallos/Flickr)
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. A study of these textual practices reveals otherwise inaccessible processes that formal organizations depend on: their formality, their organized character, 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 make “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, which are 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.

4. 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 under represent “sympathetic” subgroups of the poor—the elderly and working poor—while over representing 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, public interest research groups, and global organizations like Statistics Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 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 high school diplomas 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 are 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, so 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 and Helen 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.

Reading Tables

Table 2.3. Firearm-Related Violent Crime, by Selected Offences, in Canada and the United States, 2012 (adapted from Cotter, 2014)
[Skip Table]
Country Offence Number Percent of total offences Rate (per 100,000 pop).
Canada Homicide 172 33 0.5
Major assault 1,459 4 5.5
Robbery 2,368 12 8.9
United States Homicide 8,813 69 3.5
Major assault 143,119 22 52.8
Robbery 122,174 41 45.1

One of the common forms in which one encounters secondary data is the contingency table. A contingency table provides a frequency distribution of at least two variables that allows the researcher to see at a glance how the variables are related. Table 2.3 shows the frequency of different types of firearm crime for Canada and the United States. In this table, the independent variable (the causal variable) is the country, either Canada or the United States. The dependent variable, displayed in the columns, is the frequency of offences that involve firearms in the two countries. This is given as an absolute number (“number”), as a percentage of the total number of crimes in that category (i.e., as a percentage of the total number of homicides, major assaults and robberies; “percent of total offences”), and as rate calculated per 100,000 population (“rate”).To interpret the table, the researcher has to pay attention to what adds up to 100%. In this table we have not been given the complete information in each column, but it is straight forward to recognize that if 33% of the homicides in Canada involved the use of a firearm, another 67% of homicides did not. The table, therefore, does not say that 33% of all firearm crimes in Canada were homicides. From these figures one can also calculate the total number of homicides that took place in Canada in 2012 by a simple ratio: If the 172 homicides that involved firearms represents 33% or 1/3 of all the Canadian homicides, then there were (approximately) 516 homicides in Canada in 2012.

The table suggests that there is a definite correlation between country and firearm-related violent crime. Violent crime in the United States tends to involve firearms much more frequently than violent crime in Canada. With respect to homicides, there were 8,813 homicides involving firearms in the United States in 2012, accounting for 69% of all homicides, while in Canada, firearms accounted for 33% of homicides. The column that gives the rates of firearm violence per 100,000 population allows the researcher to identify a comparison figure that takes into account the different population sizes of the two countries. The rate of firearm-related homicide in the United States was about seven times higher than in Canada in 2012 (0.5 per 100,000 compared to 3.5 per 100,000), firearm-related major assault was about ten times higher (53 per 100,000 compared to 5 per 100,000), and firearm-related robbery was about five times higher (8.9 per 100,000 compared to 45.1 per 100,000).

The question that this data raises is about causation. Why are firearm-related violent crimes so much lower in Canada than in the United States? One key element are the legal restrictions on firearm possession in the two countries. Canadian law requires that an individual has a valid license under the Firearms Act in order to own or possess a firearm or to purchase ammunition. Until 2012, all firearms also had to be registered, but with the repeal of the national gun registry provisions for long guns (rifles and shot guns), currently only hand guns and prohibited weapons (assault weapons, fully automatic firearms, and sawed-off rifles or shotguns) have to be registered. In the United States firearm regulations are state-specific and only a few states place restrictions on the possession of firearms. In 2007, there were 89 firearms for every 100 citizens in the United States, which is the highest rate of gun ownership of any country (Cotter, 2014). Nevertheless, as Canada’s firearm-related homicide rate is higher than several peer countries, most notably Japan and the United Kingdom, variables other than gun control legislation might be a factor.


As noted above, there is not only a variety of theoretical perspectives in sociology, but also a diversity of research methodologies that can be used in studying the social. In large part, the choice of research methodology follows from the choice of the research question. Of course, the choice of the research question itself depends on the same sort of underlying values and decisions about the nature of the world that divide the theoretical perspectives in sociology. In addition, the choice of the research question involves both the character of the social phenomenon being studied and the purpose of the research in the first place.

Different research methods. Long description available.
Figure 2.18. Research methods summary. [Long Description] (Source: William Little)

Again, it is useful to map out the different methodologies in a diagram. We can position them along two axes according to: (a) whether the subject matter or purpose of the research calls for highly reliable findings — consistent between research contexts (high reliability) — or for highly valid and nuanced findings true to the specific social situation under observation (unique observation), and (b) whether the nature of the object of research can be meaningfully operationalized and measured using quantitative techniques (quantitative data) or is better grasped in terms of the texture of social meanings that constitute it (qualitative data). The advantages and disadvantages of the different methodologies are summarized in Table 2.4 below.

Table 2.4. Main Sociological Research Methods. Sociological research methods have advantages and disadvantages.
[Skip Table]
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
  • Captures what people think and believe, but not necessarily how they behave in real life
Field Work
  • 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
  • Deliberate manipulation of social customs and mores
  • Tests cause and effect relationships
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Artificial conditions of research
  • Ethical concerns about people’s wellbeing
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 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 (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 they must 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 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 judgement, 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 was 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

authoritative knowledge: Knowledge based on the accepted authority of the source.

case study: In-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual.

casual observation: Knowledge based on observations without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of observations.

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.

contingency table: A statistical table that provides a frequency distribution of at least two variables.

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.

intervening variable: An underlying variable that explains the correlation between two other variables.

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.

overgeneralization: Knowledge that draws general conclusions from limited observations.

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.

selective observation: Knowledge based on observations that only confirm what the observer expects or wants to see.

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.

traditional knowledge: Knowledge based on received beliefs or the way things have always been done.

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.

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 Canadian Sociological Association (CSA) 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 included in your results
  4. responses from participants whom you both surveyed and interviewed

6. What method did Andrew Ivsins use to study crack cocaine 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; therefore, schools should take a greater role in preventing 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

[Quiz answers at the end of the chapter]

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? For reference, see the Canadian Sociological Association’s Statement of Professional Ethics (2012) [PDF] at 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
Information on current real-world sociology experiments:

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 the Canadian Sociological Association at


2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

Brym, R., Roberts, L., Lie, J., & Rytina, S. (2013). Sociology: Your compass for a new world (4th Canadian ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson.

Merton, R. (1973). The normative structure of science. In The sociology of science theoretical and empirical investigation (pp. 267-278).
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1942).

Merton, R. (1968). Social theory and social structure. New York, NY: Free Press (Original work published 1949).

Mikkelson, B. (2005). Grandma’s cooking secret. Rumor has it. Retrieved from 

Pape, R. (2005). Dying to win: The strategic logic of suicide terrorism. New York, NY: Random House.

Patel, F. (2011). Rethinking radicalization. Retrieved from

2.2. Research Methods

Cotter, A. (2014). Firearms and violent crime in Canada, 2012. Juristat (Statistics Canada catalogue No. 85-002-X). Retrieved from

Forget, E. (2011). The town with no poverty: Using health administration data to revisit outcomes of a Canadian guaranteed annual income field experiment. Canadian Public Policy, 37(3), 282-305.

Franke, R., & Kaul, J. (1978). The Hawthorne experiments: First statistical interpretation. American Sociological Review, 43(5), 632–643.

Geertz, C. (1977). Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture. In The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays (pp. 3-30). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gilens, M. (1996). Race and poverty in America: Public misperceptions and the American news media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 60(4), 515–541.

Grice, E. (2006). Cry of an enfant sauvage. The Telegraph. Retrieved from

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Stategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69–97.

Hartnagel, T. (2004). Correlates of criminal behaviour.  In Criminology: A Canadian  perspective (5th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson.

Ivsins, A. K. (2010). “Got a pipe?” The social dimensions and functions of crack pipe sharing among crack users in Victoria, BC [PDF] (Master’s thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria). Retrieved from

Lowrey, A. (2013, November 12). Switzerland’s proposal to pay people for being alive. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Lynd, R. S., & Lynd, H. M. (1959). Middletown: A study in modern American culture. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Lynd, S. (2005). Making Middleton. Indiana Magazine of History, 101(3), 226–238.

Marshall, B. D. L., Milloy, M. J., Wood, E., Montaner, J. S. G., & Kerr, T. (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.

Office of the Correctional Investigator, Government of Canada. (2013). Backgrounder: Aboriginal offenders—a critical situation. Retrieved from

Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. London: Routledge. 

Rothman, R. (2000, November 27). My fake job. The New Yorker, 120.

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. Retrieved from

Smith, D. (1990). Textually mediated social organization. In Texts, facts and femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling (pp. 209–234). London: Routledge.

Smith, D. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Toronto, ON: Altamira Press.

Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1985). Shedding light on the Hawthorne studies. Journal of Occupational Behavior 6, 125.

Wood, E., Tyndall, M. W.,  Montaner, J. S., & Kerr, T. (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 [PDF]. Retrieved from

Canadian Sociological Association. (2012). Statement of professional ethics [PDF]. Retrieved from

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and human interests. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Weber, M. (1949). Methodology of the social sciences (H. Shils & E. Finch, Trans.). 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, [Return to Quiz]

Image Attributions

Figure 2.9. Hawthorne Works factory of the Western Electric Company, 1925. By Western Electric Company (Western Electric Company Photograph Album, 1925.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.,_Illinois_Works_of_the_Western_Electric_Company,_1925.jpg

Figure 2.10. Didn’t they abolish the mandatory census? Then what’s this? by  Khosrow Ebrahimpour ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 2.11. Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station by Bobak Ha’Eri ( used under CC BY 3.0 license (

Figure 2.12. Punk Band by Patrick ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 2.13. Crack Cocaine Smokers in Vancouver Alleyway ( is in the public domain (

Figure 2.15. Muncie, Indiana High School: 1917 by Don O’Brien ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Long Descriptions

Figure 2.5 Long Description: The Scientific Method has a series of steps which can form a repeating cycle.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Research existing sources
  3. Formulate a hypothesis.
  4. Design and conduct a study
  5. Draw conclusions.
  6. Report results.

[Return to Figure 2.5]

Figure 2.17 Long Description:

A sociology for women would offer a knowledge of the social organization and determinations of the properties and events of our directly experienced world.

[Return to Figure 2.17]

Figure 2.18 Long description: Different Research Methods: Textual analysis uses qualitative data and is highly reliable. Participant observation uses qualitative data and is a unique observation. Experiments and survey research use quantitative data and are highly reliable. Journalism uses quantitative data and is a unique observation. [Return to Figure 2.18]


Chapter 3. Culture

A wall filled with graffiti
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.
  • Distinguish between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour.
  • Compare and contrast cultural universalism, cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and androcentrism.
  • Examine the policy of multiculturalism as a solution to the problem of diversity.

3.2. Elements of Culture

  • Understand the basic elements of culture: values, beliefs, and norms.
  • Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture.
  • Describe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
  • Distinguish material and nonmaterial culture.

3.3. Culture as Innovation: Pop Culture, Subculture, and Global Culture

  • Distinguish two modes of culture: innovation and restriction.
  • Discuss the distinction between high culture, pop culture, and postmodern culture.
  • Differentiate between subculture and counterculture.
  • Understand the role of globalization in cultural change and local lived experience.

3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification

  • Describe culture as a form of restriction on social life.
  • Explain the implications of rationalization and consumerism.

3.5. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

  • Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation.

Introduction to Culture

People ordering at a fast food restaurant.
Figure 3.2. Fast food nation. (Photo courtesy of Jon Bunting/Flickr)

Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant because they are designed to be casual, quick, and convenient. 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 their items from overhead menus before they order, swipe debit cards to pay, and stand to one side to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. This is a food system that has become highly rationalized in Max Weber’s terms. 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 a “breaching experiment” in 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; barter over the price of the burgers; 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. Although the rules are not written down, you will have violated deep seated tacit norms that govern behaviour in fast food restaurants.

This example reflects a broader theme in the culture of food and diet. What are the rules that govern what, when, and how we eat? Michael Pollan (b. 1955), for example, contrasts the North American culture of fast food with the intact traditions of eating sit-down, family meals that still dominate in France and other European nations (2006). Despite eating foods that many North Americans think of as unhealthy — butter, wheat, triple-cream cheese, foie gras, wine, etc. — the French, as a whole, remain healthier and thinner than North Americans.

The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. (Pollan, 2006)

Their cultural rules fix and constrain what people consider as food and how people consume food. The national cuisine and eating habits of France are well established, oriented to pleasure and tradition, and as Pollan argues, well integrated into French cultural life as a whole.

Figure 3.3. French dessert of raspberry crème brulee. Does a nation’s cuisine represent a rule-bound tradition, an innovative and inventive art, or both? (Photo courtesy of Йоана Петрова/Flickr)

In North America, on the other hand, fast food is just the tip of an iceberg with respect to a larger crisis of diet in which increasing levels of obesity and eating disorders are coupled with an increasing profusion of health diets, weight reducing diets, and food fads. While an alarming number of North American meals are eaten in cars (19 percent, according to Pollan), the counter-trend  is the obsession with nutritional science. Instead of an orientation to food based on cultural tradition and pleasure, people are oriented to food in terms of its biochemical constituents (calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, omega fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated fats, etc.). There are Atkins diets, zone diets, Mediterranean diets, paleolithic diets, vegan diets, gluten free diets, Weight Watchers diets, raw food diets, etc.; an endless proliferation that Pollan attributes to a fundamental anxiety that North Americans have about food and health. While each type of diet claims scientific evidence to support its health and other claims, evidence which is disturbingly contradictory, essentially the choice of diet revolves around the cultural meanings attributed to food and its nutritional components:

that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity. (Levenstein as cited in Pollan, 2006)

It is important to note that food culture and diet are not infinitely malleable, however. There is an underlying biological reality of nutrition that defines the parameters of dietary choice. In his documentary Super Size Me (2004), Morgan Spurlock conducted a version of the sociological participant observation study by committing himself to eating only McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result, he gained 24 pounds, increased his cholesterol and fat accumulation in his liver, and experienced mood swings and sexual dysfunction. It is clear that one cannot survive on fast food alone; although many teenagers and university students have been known to try.

Kentucky fried chicken instant mashed potato in a can
Figure 3.4. Kentucky Fried Chicken instant mashed potato, 1974. (Photo courtesy of Roadsidepictures/Flickr)

Sociologists would argue, therefore, that everything about fast food restaurants, choice of diet, and habits of food consumption reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Diet is a product of culture. It is a product of the different meanings we attribute to food and to the relationship we have with our bodies. The significant point is that while diet is a response to the fundamental conditions of biological life, diet is also a tremendous site of innovation and diversity. Culture in general is a site of two opposing tendencies: one is the way that cultures around the world lay down sets of rules or norms which constrain, restrict, habitualize, and fix forms of life; the other is the way that cultures produce endlessly innovative and diverse solutions to problems like nutrition. Cultures both constrain and continually go beyond constraints.

This raises the distinction between the terms “culture” and “society” and how sociologists conceptualize the relationship between them. In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between these terms, but they have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to how sociologists examine culture. If culture refers to the beliefs, artifacts, and ways of life that a social group shares, a society is a group that interacts within a common bounded territory or region. To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs, practices, and material artifacts of a group, while a society represents the social structures, processes, and organization of the people who share those beliefs, practices, and material artifacts. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other, but we can separate them analytically.

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?

Three toy replicas of Queen Elizabeth II.
Figure 3.5. What is culture? (Image courtesy of Chris Jones/Flickr)

Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens, nearly 200,000 years ago, people have grouped together into communities in order to survive. Living together, people developed forms of cooperation which created the common habits, behaviours, and ways of life known as culture — from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. Peter Berger (b. 1929) argued that this is the result of a fundamental human predicament (1967). Unlike other animals, humans lack the biological programming to live on their own. They require an extended period of dependency in order to survive in the environment. The creation of culture makes this possible by providing a protective shield against the harsh impositions of nature. Culture provides the ongoing stability that enables human existence. This means, however, that the human environment is not nature per se but culture itself.

Over the history of humanity, this has lead to an incredible diversity in how humans have imagined and lived life on Earth, the sum total of which Wade Davis (b. 1953) has called the ethnosphere. The ethnosphere is the entirety of all cultures’ “ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the Earth” (Davis, 2007). It is our collective cultural heritage as a species. A single culture, as the sphere of meanings shared by a single social group, is the means by which that group makes sense of the world and of each other. But there are many cultures and many ways of making sense of the world. Through a multiplicity of cultural inventions, human societies have adapted to the environmental and biological conditions of human existence in many different ways. What do we learn from this?

Firstly, 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. Being familiar with these written and unwritten rules of culture helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviours will not be challenged or disrupted. Behaviour based on learned customs is, therefore, not a bad thing, but it does raise the problem of how to respond to cultural differences.

A train so full that people are pressed up against the doors.
Figure 3.6. The cultural norms governing public transportation vary in Canada, Austria, Mumbai, and Tokyo. How would a visitor from a rural Canadian town act and feel on this crowded Tokyo train? (Photo courtesy of simonglucas/Flickr)

Secondly, culture is innovative. The existence of different cultural practices reveals the way in which societies find different solutions to real life problems. The different forms of marriage are various solutions to a common problem, the problem of organizing families in order to raise children and reproduce the species. The basic problem is shared by the different societies, but the solutions are different. This illustrates the point that culture in general is a means of solving problems. It is a tool composed of the capacity to abstract and conceptualize, to cooperate and coordinate complex collective endeavours, and to modify and construct the world to suit human purposes. It is the repository of creative solutions, techniques, and technologies humans draw on when confronting the basic shared problems of human existence. Culture is, therefore, key to the way humans, as a species, have successfully adapted to the environment. The existence of different cultures refers to the different means by which humans use innovation to free themselves from biological and environmental constraints.

Thirdly, culture is also restraining. Cultures retain their distinctive patterns through time. In global capitalism, although Canadian culture, French culture, Malaysian culture and Kazakhstani culture will share certain features like rationalization and commodification, they also differ in terms of languages, beliefs, dietary practices, and other ways of life. They adapt and respond to capitalism in unique manners according to their specific shared heritages. Local cultural forms have the capacity to restrain the changes produced by globalization. On the other hand, the diversity of local cultures is increasingly limited by the homogenizing pressures of globalization. Economic practices that prove inefficient or uncompetitive in the global market disappear. The meanings of cultural practices and knowledges change as they are turned into commodities for tourist consumption or are patented by pharmaceutical companies. Globalization increasingly restrains cultural forms, practices, and possibilities.

There is a dynamic within culture of innovation and restriction. The cultural fabric of shared meanings and orientations that allows individuals to make sense of the world and their place within it can either change with contact with other cultures or with changes in the socioeconomic formation, allowing people to reinvision and reinvent themselves, or it can remain rigid and restrict change. Many contemporary issues to do with identity and belonging, from multiculturalism and hybrid identities to religious fundamentalism, can be understood within this dynamic of innovation and restriction. Similarly, the effects of social change on ways of life, from the new modes of electronic communication to failures to respond to climate change, involve a tension between innovation and restriction.

Making Connections: Sociological Concepts

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

Different points on a face are marked by Chinese characters.
Figure 3.7. In the teaching of traditional Chinese acupuncture, meanings are literally written on the human body (Photo courtesy of Tomas Fano/Flickr)

The premise we will be exploring in this chapter is that the human world, unlike the natural world, cannot be understood unless its meaningfulness is taken into account. Human experience is essentially meaningful, and culture is the source of the meanings that humans share. What are the consequences of this emphasis on the meaningfulness of human experience? What elements of social life become visible if we focus on the social processes whereby meanings are produced and circulated?

Culture is the term used to describe this dimension of meaningful collective existence. Culture refers to the shared symbols that people create to solve real-life problems. What this perspective entails is that human experience is essentially meaningful or cultural. Human social life is necessarily conducted through the meanings humans attribute to things, actions, others, and themselves. In a sense, people do not live in direct, immediate contact with the world and each other; instead, they live only indirectly through the medium of the shared meanings provided by culture. This mediated experience is the experience of culture. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, humans live in an “openness” granted by language and by their ability to respond to the meaningfulness of things in a way that other living beings do not. The sociology of culture is, therefore, concerned with the study of how things and actions assume meanings, how these meanings orient human behaviour, and how social life is organized around and through meaning.

What is the “meaning of meaning” in social life, therefore? Max Weber notes that it is possible to imagine situations in which human experience appears direct and unmediated; for example, someone taps your knee and your leg jerks forward, or you are riding your bike and get hit by a car (1968, pp. 94–96). In these situations, experience seems purely physical, unmediated. Yet when we assimilate these experiences into our lives, we do so by making them meaningful events. By tapping your knee, the doctor is looking for signs that indicate the functioning of your nervous system. She or he is literally reading the reactions as symbolic events and assigning them meaning within the context of an elaborate cultural map of meaning: the modern biomedical understanding of the body. It is quite possible that if you were flying through the air after being hit by a car, you would not be thinking or attributing meaning to the event. You would be simply a physical projectile. But afterwards, when you reconstruct the story for your friends, the police, or the insurance company, the event would become part of your life through this narration of what happened.

Equally important to note here is that the meaning of these events changes depending on the cultural context. A doctor of traditional Chinese medicine would read the knee reflex differently than a graduate of the UBC medical program. The story and meaning of the car accident changes if it is told to a friend as opposed to a policeman or an insurance adjuster.

The problem of meaning in sociological analysis, then, is to determine how events or things acquire meaning (e.g., through the reading of symptoms or the telling of stories); how the true or right meanings are determined (e.g., through biomedically-based diagnoses or juridical procedures of determining responsibility); how meaning works in the organization of social life (e.g., through the medicalized relation to our bodies or the norms of traffic circulation); and how humans gain the capacity to interpret and share meanings in the first place (e.g., through the process of socialization into medical, legal, insurance, and traffic systems). Sociological research into culture studies all of these problems of meaning.

Culture and Biology

The central argument put forward in this chapter is that human social life is essentially meaningful and, therefore, has to be understood first through an analysis of the cultural practices and institutions that produce meaning. Nevertheless, a fascination in contemporary culture persists for finding biological or genetic explanations for complex human behaviours that would seem to contradict the emphasis on culture.

In one study, Swiss researchers had a group of women smell unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. The researchers argued that sexual attraction had a biochemical basis in the histo-compatibility signature that the women detected in the male pheromones left behind on the T-shirts. Women were attracted to the T-shirts of the men whose immune systems differed from their own (Wedekind et al., 1995). In another study, Dean Hamer (b. 1951) and his colleagues discovered that some homosexual men possessed the same region of DNA on their X chromosome, which led them to argue that homosexuality was determined genetically by a “gay gene” (Hamer et al., 1993). Another study found that the corpus callosum, the region of nerve fibres that connect the left and right brain hemispheres, was larger in women’s brains than in men’s (De Lacoste-Utamsing & Holloway, 1982). Therefore, women were thought to be able to use both sides of their brains simultaneously when processing visuo-spatial information, whereas men used only their left hemisphere. This finding was said to account for gender differences that ranged from women’s supposedly greater emotional intuition to men’s supposedly greater abilities in math, science, and parallel parking. In each of these three cases, the authors reduced a complex cultural behaviour — sexual attraction, homosexuality, cognitive ability — to a simple biological determination.

In each of these studies, the scientists’ claims were quite narrow and restricted in comparison to the conclusions drawn from them in the popular media. Nevertheless, they follow a logic of explanation known as biological determinism, which argues that the forms of human society and human behaviour are determined by biological mechanisms like genetics, instinctual behaviours, or evolutionary advantages. Within sociology, this type of framework underlies the paradigm of sociobiology, which provides biological explanations for the evolution of human behaviour and social organization.

Sociobiological propositions are constructed in three steps (Lewontin, 1991). First they identify an aspect of human behaviour which appears to be universal, common to all people in all times and places. In all cultures the laws of sexual attraction — who is attracted to whom — are mysterious, for example. Second, they assume that this universal trait must be coded in the DNA of the species. There is a gene for detecting histo-compatibility that leads instinctively to mate selection. Third, they make an argument for why this behaviour or characteristic increases the chances of survival for individuals and, therefore, creates reproductive advantage. Mating with partners whose immune systems complement your own leads to healthier offspring who survive to reproduce your genes. The implication of the sociobiological analysis is that these traits and behaviours are fixed or “hard wired” into the biological structure of the species and are, therefore, very difficult to change. People will continue to be attracted to people who are not “right” for them in all the ways we would deem culturally appropriate — psychologically, emotionally, socially compatible, etc. — because they are biologically compatible.

A man's angry face.
Figure 3.8. Is male aggression innate? (Image courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini/Flickr)

Despite the popularity of this sort of reason, it is misguided from a sociological perspective for a number of reasons. For example, Konrad Lorenz’s (1903-1989) arguments that human males have an innate biological aggressive tendency to fight for scarce resources and protect territories were very popular in the 1960s (1966). The dilemma he posed was that males’ innate tendency towards aggression as a response to external threats might be a useful trait on an evolutionary scale, but in a contemporary society that includes the development of weapons of mass destruction, it is a threat to human survival. Another implication of his argument was that if aggression is instinctual, then the idea that individuals, militant groups, or states could be held responsible for acts of violence or war loses its validity. (Note here that Lorenz’s basic claim about aggression runs counter to the stronger argument that, if anything, the tendency toward co-operation has been central to the survival of human social life from its origins to the present).

However, a central problem of sociobiology as a type of sociological explanation is that while human biology does not vary greatly throughout history or between cultures, the forms of human association do vary extensively. It is difficult to account for the variability of social phenomena by using a universal biological mechanism to explain them. Even something like the aggressive tendency in males, which on the surface has an intuitive appeal, does not account for the multitude of different forms and practices of aggression, let alone the different social circumstances in which aggression is manifested or provoked. It does not account for why some men are aggressive sometimes and not at other times, or why some men are not aggressive at all. It does not account for women’s aggression and the forms in which this typically manifests. If testosterone is the key mechanism of male aggression, it does not account for the fact that both men and women generate testosterone in more or less equal quantities. Nor does it explain the universal tendencies of all societies to develop sanctions and norms to curtail violence. To suggest that aggression is an innate biological characteristic means that it does not vary greatly throughout history, nor between cultures, and is impervious to the social rules that restrict it in all societies. Ultimately, this means that there is no point in trying change it despite the evidence that aggression in individuals and societies can be changed.

A smiling baby
Figure 3.9. The baby’s smile: instinctive or learned? (Photo courtesy of Llee Wu/Flickr)

The main consideration to make here is not that biology has no impact on human behaviour, but that the biological explanation is limited with respect to what it can explain about complex cultural behaviours and practices. For example, research has shown that newborns and fetuses as young as 26 weeks have a simple smile: “the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). This observation about a seemingly straightforward biological behaviour suggests that smiling is inborn, a muscular reflex based on neurological connections. However, the smile of the newborn is not used to convey emotions. It occurs spontaneously during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Only when the baby matures and begins to interact with his or her environment and caretakers does the smile begin to represent a response to external stimuli. By age one, the baby’s smile conveys a variety of meanings, depending on the social context, including flirting and mischief. Moreover, from the age of 6 months to 2 years, the smile itself changes physically: Different muscle groups are used, and different facial expressions are blended with it (surprise, anger, excitement). The smile becomes more complex and individualized. The point here, as Anne Fausto-Sterling points out, is that “the child uses smiling as part of a complex system of communication” (2000).  Not only is the meaning of the smile defined in interaction with the social context, but the physiological components of smiling (the nerves, muscles, and stimuli) also are modified and “socialized” according to culture.

Therefore, social scientists see explanations of human behaviour based on biological determinants as extremely limited in scope and value. The physiological “human package” — bipedalism, omnivorous diet, language ability, brain size, capacity for empathy, lack of an estrous cycle (Naiman, 2012) — is more or less constant across cultures; whereas, the range of cultural behaviours and beliefs is extremely broad. These sometimes radical differences between cultures have to be accounted for instead by their distinct processes of socialization through which individuals learn how to participate in their societies. From this point of view, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) put it:

We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions. The differences between individuals who are members of different cultures, like the differences between individuals within a culture, are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood, and the form of this conditioning is culturally determined (1935).
Figure 3.10. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was the founder of eugenics (Image coutesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Aside from the explanatory problems of biological determinism, it is important to bear in mind the social consequences of biological determinism, as these ideas have been used to support rigid cultural ideas concerning race, gender, disabilities, etc. that have their legacy in slavery, racism, gender inequality, eugenics programs, and the sterilization of “the unfit.” Eugenics, meaning “well born” in ancient Greek, was a social movement that sought to improve the human “stock” through selective breeding and sterilization. Its founder, Francis Galton (1822-1911) defined eugenics in 1883 as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally” (Galton as cited in McLaren, 1990). In Canada, eugenics boards were established by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia to enable the sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Based on a rigid cultural concept of what a proper human was, and grounded in the biological determinist framework of evolutionary science, 4,725 individuals were proposed for sterilization in Alberta and 2,822 of them were sterilized between 1928 and 1971. The racial component of the program is evident in the fact that while First Nations and Métis peoples made up only 2.5% of the population of Alberta, they accounted for 25% of the sterilizations. Several hundred individuals were also sterilized in British Columbia between 1933 and 1979 (McLaren, 1990).

The interesting question that these biological explanations of complex human behaviour raise is: Why are they so popular? What is it about our culture that makes the biological explanation of behaviours or experiences like sexual attraction, which we know from personal experience to be extremely complicated and nuanced, so appealing? As micro-biological technologies like genetic engineering and neuro-pharmaceuticals advance, the very real prospect of altering the human body at a fundamental level to produce culturally desirable qualities (health, ability, intelligence, beauty, etc.) becomes possible, and, therefore, these questions become more urgent.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Pop Gene

Figure 3.11. Coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA (Image courtesy of National Human Genome Research Institute/Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of the gene and the idea of genetic engineering have entered into popular consciousness in a number of strange and interesting ways, which speak to our enduring fascination with biological explanations of human behaviour. Some sociologists have begun to speak of a new eugenics movement in reference to the way the mapping and testing of the genome makes it possible, as a matter of consumer choice, to manipulate the genes of a foetus or an egg to eliminate what are considered birth “defects” or to produce what are considered desired qualities in a child. If the old eugenics movement promoted selective breeding and forced sterilization in order to improve the biological qualities and, in particular, the racial qualities of whole populations, the new eugenics is focused on calculations of individual risk or individual self-improvement and self-realization. In the new eugenics, individuals choose to act upon the genetic information provided by doctors, geneticists, and counsellors to make decisions for their children or themselves (Rose, 2007).

This movement is based both on the commercial aspirations of biotechnology companies and the logic of a new biological determinism or geneticism, which suggests that the qualities of human life are caused by genes (Rose, 2007). The concept of the gene is a relatively recent addition to the way in which people begin to think about themselves in relationship to their bodies. The German historians Barbara Duden and Silja Samerski argue that the gene has become a kind of primordial reference point for the fundamental questions people ask about themselves (2007): Where do I come from; who am I; and what will happen to me in the future? The gene has shifted from its specific place within the parameters of medical science to become a source of popular understanding and speculation: a “pop gene.” Most tellingly, the gene has become a Trojan horse through which “risk consciousness” is implanted in people’s bodies. The popularization of the idea of the gene entails the development of a new relationship to the human body, health, and the genetic predispositions to health risks as we age.

In 2013, the movie star Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy, not because she had breast cancer but because doctors estimated she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer due to a mutation in the BRCA1 gene (Jolie, 2013). On the basis of what might happen to her based on probabilities of risk from genetic models she decided to take drastic measures to avoid the breast cancer that her mother died of. Her very public stance on her surgery was to raise public awareness of the genetic risks of cancers that run in families and to normalize a medical procedure that many would be hesitant to take. At the same time she further implanted a notion of the gene as a site of invisible risk in peoples lives, encouraging more people to think about themselves in terms of their hidden dispositions to genetically programmed diseases.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
Figure 3.12. Angelina Jolie (2013): “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman”. (Photo courtesy of Hot Gossip Italia/Flickr)

Many misconceptions exist in popular culture about what a gene actually is or what it can do. Some of these misconceptions are funny — Duden and Samerski cite a hairdresser they interviewed as saying that her nail biting habit was part of the nature she was born with — but some of them have serious consequences that can lead to the impossible decisions some individuals, including couples who are having a child, are forced to make. Informed decision making in genetic counselling often works with statistical probabilities of “defects” based on population data (e.g., “With your family history, you have a 1 in 10 chance of having a child with the genetic mutation for Down’s syndrome”), but what does this mean to a particular individual? The actual causal mechanism for that particular individual is unknown (i.e., it is unlikely that they will actually have 10 children, one of whom might have Down’s syndrome); therefore, what does this probability figure mean to someone who is pregnant? In this sense, the gene defines a set of cultural parameters by which people in the age of genetics make sense of themselves in relationship to their bodies. Like biological determinism in general, the gene introduces a kind of fatalism into the understanding of human life and human possibility.

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 (1897-1985) 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. Humour 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?

A man singing on stage
Figure 3.13. Queenscliff Music Festival 2013 (Image courtesy of Tony Proudfoot/Flickr)

Imagine that you are sitting in a theatre, watching a film. The movie opens with the hero sitting on a park bench with 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 hero 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 she 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 hero 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, and 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 reveals 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 Canada, 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 might 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 (1840-1910) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others (1906). 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 Aboriginal peoples 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 Toronto might find the nightly silence of rural Alberta 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 Toronto traveller was initially captivated with Alberta’s quiet beauty, and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an Canadian-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 are not always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger discovered this when conducting participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic (1971). 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.

Ruth Benedict
Figure 3.14. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” (Photo courtesy of Ruth Benedict/Wikimedia Commons)

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. The logic of cultural relativism is at the basis of contemporary policies of multiculturalism. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies, such as Canada — societies in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether the widespread practice of female genital circumcision in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of a 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 does not have to lead to imposing its values on others. Nor does an appreciation for another culture preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye. In the case of female genital circumcision, a universal right to life and liberty of the person conflicts with the neutral stance of cultural relativism. It is not necessarily ethnocentric to be critical of practices that violate universal standards of human dignity that are contained in the cultural codes of all cultures, (while not necessarily followed in practice). Not every practice can be regarded as culturally relative. Cultural traditions are not immune from power imbalances and liberation movements that seek to correct them.

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 read writing that uses the personal pronoun “he” or the word “man” to represent people in general or humanity. 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.

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

Multiculturalism in Canada

A group of people holding shovels around a hole in the ground
Figure 3.15. Multiculturalism tree planted in Stanley Park to bring B.C.’s 2012 Multiculturalism Week to a close. The gesture of planting the tree is meant to “symbolize the deep roots and flourishing growth of B.C.’s diverse communities.” Is multiculturalism just a gesture or is it a meaningful attempt to recognize and support Canadian diversity? (Image courtesy of the Province of British Columbia/Flickr

One prominent aspect of contemporary Canadian cultural identity is the idea of multiculturalism. Canada was the first officially declared multicultural society in which, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared in 1971, no culture would take precedence over any other. Multiculturalism refers to both the fact of the existence of a diversity of cultures within one territory and to a way of conceptualizing and managing cultural diversity. As a policy, multiculturalism seeks to both promote and recognize cultural differences while addressing the inevitability of cultural tensions. In the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, the federal government officially acknowledged its role “in bringing about equal access and participation for all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of the nation” (Government of Canada, as cited in Angelini & Broderick, 2012).

However, the focus on multiculturalism and culture per se has not always been so central to Canadian public discourse. Multiculturalism represents a relatively recent cultural development. Prior to the end of World War II, Canadian authorities used the concept of biological race to differentiate the various types of immigrants and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This focus on biology led to corresponding fears about the quality of immigrant “stock” and the problems of how to manage the mixture of races. In this context, three different models for how to manage diversity were in contention: (1) the American “melting pot” paradigm in which the mingling of races was thought to be able to produce a super race with the best qualities of all races intermingled, (2) strict exclusion or deportation of races seen to be “unsuited” to Canadian social and environmental conditions, or (3) the Canadian “mosaic” that advocated for the separation and compartmentalization of races (Day, 2000).

After World War II, the category of race was replaced by culture and ethnicity in the public discourse, but the mosaic model was retained. Culture came to be understood in terms of the new anthropological definitions of culture as a deep-seated emotional-psychological phenomenon. In this conceptualization, to be deprived of culture through coercive assimilation would be a type of cultural genocide. As a result, alternatives to cultural assimilation into the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture were debated, and the Canadian mosaic model for managing a diverse population was redefined as multiculturalism. Based on a new appreciation of culture, and with increased immigration from non-European countries, Canadian identity was re-imagined in the 1960s and 1970s as a happy cohabitation of cultures, each of which was encouraged to maintain their cultural distinctiveness. So while the cultural identity of Canadians is diverse, the cultural paradigm in which their coexistence is conceptualized — multiculturalism — has come to be equated with Canadian cultural identity.

However, these developments have not alleviated the problems of cultural difference with which sociologists are concerned. Multicultural policy has sparked numerous, remarkably contentious issues ranging from whether Sikh RCMP officers can wear turbans to whether Mormon sects can have legal polygamous marriages. In 2014, the Parti Québécois in Quebec proposed a controversial Charter of Quebec Values that would, to reinforce the neutrality of the state, ban public employees from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols and headgear. This position represented a unique Quebec-based concept of multiculturalism known as interculturalism. Whereas multiculturalism begins with the premise that there is no dominant culture in Canada, interculturalism begins with the premise that in Quebec francophone culture is dominant but also precarious in the North American context. It cannot risk further fragmentation. Therefore the intercultural model of managing diversity is to recognize and respect the diversity of immigrants who seek to integrate into Quebec society but also to make clear to immigrants that they must recognize and respect Quebec’s common or “fundamental” values.

Critics of multiculturalism identify four related problems:

  • Multiculturalism only superficially accepts the equality of all cultures while continuing to limit and prohibit actual equality, participation, and cultural expression. One key element of this criticism is that there are only two official languages in Canada — English and French — which limits the full participation of non-anglophone/francophone groups.
  • Multiculturalism obliges minority individuals to assume the limited cultural identities of their ethnic group of origin, which leads to stereotyping minority groups, ghettoization, and feeling isolated from the national culture.
  • Multiculturalism causes fragmentation and disunity in Canadian society. Minorities do not integrate into existing Canadian society but demand that Canadians adopt or accommodate their way of life, even when they espouse controversial values, laws, and customs (like polygamy or sharia law).
  • Multiculturalism is based on recognizing group rights which undermines constitutional protections of individual rights.

On the other hand, proponents of multiculturalism like Will Kymlicka describe the Canadian experience with multiculturalism as a success story. Kymlicka argues that the evidence shows:

“Immigrants in Canada are more likely to become citizens, to vote and to run for office, and to be elected to office than immigrants in other Western democracies, in part because voters in Canada do not discriminate against such candidates. Compared to their counterparts in other Western democracies, the children of immigrants have better educational outcomes, and while immigrants in all Western societies suffer from an “ethnic penalty” in translating their skills into jobs, the size of this ethnic penalty is lowest in Canada. Compared to residents of other Western democracies, Canadians are more likely to say that immigration is beneficial and less likely to have prejudiced views of Muslims. And whereas ethnic diversity has been shown to erode levels of trust and social capital in other countries, there appears to be a “Canadian exceptionalism” in this regard.”(2012)

3.2. Elements of Culture

Values and Beliefs

The first two elements of culture we will discuss, and perhaps the most crucial, are values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning desirable states in society (what is true, good, just, or beautiful). 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 desirable.

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and what should be sought or avoided. Consider the value that North American culture places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, North Americans 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 primary values. As we will see below, 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 2, the classical sociologist Harriet Martineau made a basic distinction between what people say they believe and what they actually do, which 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 is 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.

Two men in army uniforms walk down the street holding hands
Figure 3.16. 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. As opposed to values and beliefs which identify desirable states and convictions about how things are, a norm is a generally accepted way of doing things. 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 because their violation invokes some degree of sanction. They define the rules that govern behaviour.

Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviours worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and no running 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 is against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft 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. 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

Figure 3.17. Harold Garfinkel, founder of ethnomethodology in sociology (Image courtesy of Arlene Garfinkel/Wikimedia Commons).

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 (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 the 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, but they are not necessarily rational. Why should we not talk to someone in a public bathroom, or haggle over the price of a good in a store? Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by. They indicate the degree to which the world we live in is fragile, arbitrary and ritualistic; socially structured by deep, silent, tacit agreements with others of which we are frequently only dimly aware.

Folkways, Mores, and Taboos

Norms may be further classified as mores, folkways, or taboos. Mores (pronounced morays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. They are based on social requirements. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In Canada, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it is punishable by law (a formal norm). 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 else the student should use special stylistic forms such as quotation marks and a system of citation, like MLA (Modern Language Association) style, for crediting the words to 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 even result in expulsion.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. They are based on social preferences. 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 a 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 is not acceptable. In northern Europe, it is fine for people to go into a sauna or hot tub naked. Often 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 one’s mouth 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. Folkways might be small manners, but they are by no means trivial.

Taboos refer to actions which are strongly forbidden by deeply held sacred or moral beliefs. They are the strongest and most deeply held norms. Their transgression evokes revulsion and severe punishment. In its original use taboo referred to being “consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean, or cursed” (Cook & King, 1784). There was a clear supernatural context for the prohibition; the act offended the gods or ancestors, and evoked their retribution. In secular contexts, taboos refer to powerful moral prohibitions that protect what are regarded as inviolable bonds between people. Incest, pedophilia, and patricide or matricide are taboos.

Many mores, folkways, and taboos are taken for granted in everyday life. People need to act without thinking to get seamlessly through daily routines; we can not stop and analyze every action (Sumner, 1906). The different levels of norm enable the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of individuals’ activities” as Dorothy Smith put it (1999). These different levels of norm help people negotiate their daily life within a given culture and as such their study is crucial for understanding the distinctions between different cultures.

Symbols and Language

(A): a sign with a pedestrian crossing and an arrow; (B): a sign with writing in Chinese.
Figure 3.18. Some road signs are universal. But how would you interpret sign (b)? (Photo (a) courtesy of Andrew Bain/Flickr; photo (b) courtesy of HonzaSoukup/Flickr)

Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols — such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words — are tangible marks that stand in for or represent something else. Symbols provide clues to understanding the underlying experiences, statuses, states, and ideas they express. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies. In the words of George Herbert Mead:

Our symbols are universal. You cannot say anything that is absolutely particular, anything you say that has any meaning at all is universal. (Mind, Self and Society, 1934)

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 purpose other than to represent accomplishments. 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 a police officer in uniform or in a police car triggers reassurance in some citizens but annoyance, fear, or anger in others.

It’s easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about the signs on the doors of public restrooms, but the figures on the signs are more than just symbols that tell men and women which restroom 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 somewhat uncommon to encounter unisex bathrooms.

A sign with a large rectangle. A hand was drawn on to look like it holds the rectangle like a brick.
Figure 3.19. An exercise in detournement in Barcelona transforms the symbol for “do not enter” into a hand holding a brick, a symbol for insurrection (Image courtesy of acb/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 the internet phenomenon lolcats because of the funny, nonsensical nature of its non sequitur message. An image of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a folksy sweater holding a cute cat was altered to show him holding an oily duck instead; this is a detournement with a 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, or between communism and capitalism.

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, there is one that is common to all: the use of 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 sounds. 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 (Oxford English Dictionary, 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 download, text, and blog. 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 the world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that we initially develop language to express concepts that emerge from our experience of the world, but afterwards language comes back to shape our experience of the world (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. If a person cannot describe the experience, the person cannot have the experience.

Similarly, in Wade Davis’ (2007) discussion about the ethnosphere — the sum total of “ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the earth” — that we began the chapter with, each language is understood to be more than just a set of symbols and linguistic rules. Each language is an archive of a culture’s unique cosmology, wisdom, ecological knowledge, rituals, beliefs and norms.  Each contributes its unique solution to the question of  what it means to be human to the ethnosphere. The compilers of Ethnologue estimate that currently 7,105 languages are used in the world (Lewis et al., 2013). This would suggest that there are at least 7,105 distinct cultural contexts through which humans interpret and experience the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would suggest that their worlds differ to the degree that their languages differ. However Davis notes that today half of the world’s languages are no longer being passed down to children. When languages die out or fail to be passed on to subsequent generations, whole ways of knowing and being in the world die out with them and the ethnosphere is diminished.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Is Canada Bilingual?

A Starbucks store front with "coffee" spelt in english and french.
Figure 3.20. Starbucks on Rue University, Montreal (Image courtesy of 12th St David/Flickr)

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. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 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 receive 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 province with the highest proportion of people who spoke French at home was New Brunswick at 31.4 percent. 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 speak Cantonese, 8 percent speak Punjabi, 7 percent speak an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 5.9 percent speak Urdu, and 5.7 percent speak 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 16.0 percent who speak Cantonese, 12.2 percent who speak an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 11.8 percent who speak Mandarin, and 6.7 percent who speak Philippine Tagalog.

Today, the government of Canada still conducts business in both official languages. French and English are the dominant languages in the workplace and schools. Labels on products are required to be in both French and English. But increasingly a lot of product information is also made available 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 in the two official languages.

A sign that says, "Please, do not feed the birds," in five different languages.
Figure 3.21. 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)

 Material and Nonmaterial Culture

Even an action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal of cultural propriety. 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 in Canada, a passenger finds a marked bus stop or station, waits for the bus or train, pays an agent before or after boarding, and quietly takes 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 are expected to extend an arm to indicate that they want the bus to stop for them. 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, the different cultural responses are seen as various solutions to a common problem, the problem of public transportation. The problem is shared, but the solutions are different. Cultural solutions consist of two components: thoughts or perceptual orientations (expectations about personal space, for example) and tangible things (bus stops, trains, and seating capacity). Culture includes both material and non-material elements. Material culture refers to the artifacts, technologies, and products 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 knowledge and beliefs, forms of communication, and norms of behaviour of a society. Both material and nonmaterial components of culture are variables within the cultural “package” social groups use to adapt themselves or respond to the tasks of life.

It is important to point out here that material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A bus or transit 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. We notice this 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.

3.3. Culture as Innovation: Pop Culture, Subculture, Global Culture

Various pulp fiction books.
Figure 3.22. Pop culture heroes from the early days of pulp fiction. The term “pulp” refers to the cheap and disposable wood-pulp paper the books and magazines were published on (Image courtesy of Terry McCombs/Flickr)

In the introduction of this chapter we noted that culture is the source of the shared meanings through which we interpret and orient ourselves to the world. While cultural practices are in some respects always a response to biological givens or to the structure of the socioeconomic formation, they are not determined by these factors. Culture is innovative; it expresses the human imagination in its capacity to go beyond what is given, to solve problems, to produce innovations — new objects, ideas, or ways of being  introduced to culture for the first time. At the same time, we are born into cultures that pre-exist us and shape us: Languages, ways of thinking, ways of doing things, and artifacts we do not invent but inherit; they are ready made forms of life that we fit ourselves into. Culture can, therefore, also be restrictive, imposing forms of life, beliefs, and practices on people, and limiting the possibilities of what we can think and do. As Marx said, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (1852).

In the next two sections of this chapter we will examine aspects of culture which are innovative–high culture and popular culture, subculture, and global culture — and aspects of culture which are restrictive — rationalization and consumerism.

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 magazines about celebrities? In each pair, one type of entertainment is considered high brow and the other low brow. Sociologists use the term high culture to describe a form of cultural experience characterized by formal complexity, eternal values, or intrinsic authenticity such as is provided by the Greek classics, Beethoven’s symphonies, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballets, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, aesthetic taste, elitism, wealth, and prestige. Pierre Bourdieu (1984) argues high culture is not only a symbol of distinction, but a means of maintaining status and power distinctions through the transfer of cultural capital: the knowledge, skills, tastes, mannerisms, speaking style, posture, material possessions, credentials, etc. that a person acquires from his or her family background. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal — attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance — and the people who are in a position to appreciate these events, despite the difficulty, are often those who have enjoyed the benefits of an enriched and exclusive cultural background.

The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society: cultural experiences well liked by “the people.” Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or a rock concert. Rock and pop music — “pop” is 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 the TV show House of Cards when making small talk in the check-out 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” (2000s to the present, 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).

Figure 3.23. Celebration Town Hall in the Walt Disney town of Celebration, Florida is an example of postmodern architecture that playfully borrows and blends elements from historical styles (Greek stoa left, grain silo right) instead of inventing new styles in the modern tradition. The Town Hall is also, perhaps unintentionally, ironic because the town has no mayor or local municipal government. Disney Corporation directly administers the town, which is modelled on Walt Disney World resort’s nostalgic image of small-town America. (Image courtesy of trevor.patt/Flickr)

Contemporary popular 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 19th– and 20th-century 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. The other side of high culture was the tradition of conserving and passing down the highest and most refined expressions of human cultural possibility: the eternal values and noble sensibilities contained in the “great works” of culture. High culture also had a civilizing mission to preserve and pass down. In both forms, high culture appealed to a limited but sophisticated audience. Popular culture, on the other hand, was simply the culture of the people; it was immediately accessible and easily digestible, either in the form of folk traditions or commercialized mass culture.

In postmodern culture — the form of culture that came after modern 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 recycled samples of original hooks and melodies; symphony orchestras performing the soundtracks of cartoons; architecture that playfully borrows and blends historical styles; etc. Rock music is the subject of many high brow histories and academic analyses, just as the common objects of popular culture are transformed and represented as high art (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans or the classic film noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s). The dominant sensibility of postmodern popular culture is both playful and ironic, as if the blending and mixing of cultural references, like in the television show The Simpsons, is one big in-joke. Postmodern culture has been referred to as a “culture of quotations” (Jameson, 1985) in the sense that instead of searching for new, authentic forms as in avant-garde modernism, it recycles and remixes (i.e. quotes) elements of previous cultural production.

At a more serious level, postmodern culture is seen to challenge modern culture in a number of key ways. The postmodern eclectic mix of elements from different times and places challenges the modernist concepts of authentic expression and progress; the idea that cultural creations can and should seek new and innovative ways to express the deep meanings of life. The playfulness and irony of postmodern culture seem to undermine the core values of modernity, especially the idea that cultural critique or innovations in architecture, art, and literature, etc. have an important role in, not just entertaining people, but improving the quality of social life.  In postmodernity, nothing is to be taken very seriously, even ourselves. Moreover, in postmodernity everyone with access to a computer and some editing software is seen to be a cultural producer; everyone has an important voice and access to knowledge is simply a matter of crowd-sourcing. The modernist myth of the great creator or genius is rejected in favour of a plurality of voices.

Jean Francois Lyotard (1984) defined postmodern culture as “incredulity towards metanarratives” meaning that postmoderns no longer really believe in the big (i.e., meta) stories and social projects of modernity. Postmoderns are skeptical of the claims that scientific knowledge leads to progress, that political change creates human emancipation, that Truth sets us free. Some argue that the outcome of this erosion of authority and decline in consensus around core values is a thorough relativism of values in which no standard exists to judge one thing more significant than another. Everyone will make up their own little stories, each as valid as the next, as we see when creationists seek to debunk the “myths” of evolutionary theory, for example. Others argue that the outcome leads to a necessary critique of the unexamined assumptions of power and authority in modern culture–the rhetoric of “family values” or “scientific progress” lampooned in The Simpsons, for example. Instead of the privileged truths of elites and authorities, postmodernity witnesses the emergence of a plurality of different voices that had been relegated to the margins. Culture moves away from homogeneous sameness to heterogeneous diversity.

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. For example, 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. But even as members of a subculture band together around a distinct identity, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.

Sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which are a type of subculture that explicitly reject 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. The post-World War II period was characterized by a series of “spectacular” youth cultures — teddy boys, beatniks, mods, hippies, bikers, skinheads, rastas, punks, new wavers, ravers, hip-hoppers, and hipsters — who in various ways sought to reject the values of their parents’ generation. The hippies, for example, were a subculture that became a counterculture, blending protest against the Vietnam War, technocracy and consumer culture with a back to the land movement, non-Western forms of spirituality, and the practice of voluntary simplicity. Counterculture, in this example, refers to the cultural forms of life taken by a political and social protest movement.

Cults, a word derived from cultus or the “care” owed to the observance of spiritual rituals, are also considered countercultural groups. They are usually informal, transient religious groups or movements that deviate from orthodox beliefs and often, but not always, involve an intense emotional commitment to the group and allegiance to a charismatic leader. In pluralistic societies like Canada, they represent quasi-legitimate forms of social experimentation with alternate forms of religious practice, community, sexuality and gender relations, proselytizing, economic organization, healing and therapy. However, sometimes their challenge to conventional laws and norms is regarded as going too far by the dominant society. For example, 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.

A group of skinheads
Figure 3.24. Skinhead style consisted of “cropped hair, braces, short, wide Levi jeans or functional Sta-Prest trousers, plain or button-down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished Doctor Marten boots” (Hebdige, 1979). (Image courtesy of Paul Townsend/Flickr).

The degree to which countercultures reject the larger culture’s norms and values is questionable, however. In the analysis of spectacular, British working class youth subcultures like the teddy boys, mods, and skinheads, Phil Cohen (1972) noted that the style and the focal concerns of the groups could be seen as a “compromise solution between two contradictory needs: the need to create and express autonomy and difference from parents…and the need to maintain parental identifications” (as cited in Hebdige, 1979). In the 1960s and 70s, for example, skinheads shaved their heads, listened to ska music from Jamaica, participated in racist chants at soccer games, and wore highly polished Doctor Marten boots in a manner that deliberately alienated their parents while expressing their own alienation as working class youth with few job prospects in deindustrialized England. At the same time, noted Cohen, their subcultural outfit was more or less a “caricature of the model worker” their parents aspired to and their attitude simply exaggerated the proletarian, puritanical, and chauvinist traits of their parents’ generation. On one hand the invention of skinhead culture was an innovative cultural creation; on the other hand it just exaggerated the already existing contradictions of the skinheads’ class situation and that of their parents.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Evolution of North American Hipster Subculture

A woman in quirky clothes. Long description available
Figure 3.25. Intellectual and trendy, today’s hipsters define themselves through cultural irony. [Long description] (Photo courtesy of Lorena Cupcake/Wikimedia Commons)

Skinny jeans, chunky glasses, ironic moustaches, retro-style single speed bicycles 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. At the same time they evince a concern that borders on a fetish with the pedigree of the music, styles, and objects that identify their focal concerns.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 (1923 – 2007), in his essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (1957), defined those who were “hep” or “hip” as largely white youth living by a black 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.

Black and white photo of young men in suits. Two of the men hold musical instruments.
Figure 3.26. 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, another variation on the subculture was on the rise. The beat generation, a title coined by Quebecois-American writer Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969), was defined as a generation that was nonconformist and anti-materialistic. Prominent in this movement were writers and poets who listened to jazz, studied Eastern religions, experimented with different states of experience, and embraced radical politics of personal liberation. They bummed around, hitchhiked the country, sought experience, and lived marginally. Even in the early stages of the development of the subculture there was a difference between the emphasis in beat and hipster styles:

. . . the hipster was . . . [a] typical lower-class dandy, dressed up like a pimp, affecting a very cool, cerebral tone – to distinguish him from the gross, impulsive types that surrounded him in the ghetto – and aspiring to the finer things in life, like very good “tea”, the finest of sounds – jazz or Afro-Cuban . . . [whereas] . . . the Beat was originally some earnest middle-class college boy like Kerouac, who was stifled by the cities and the culture he had inherited and who wanted to cut out for distant and exotic places, where he could live like the “people”, write, smoke and meditate (Goldman as cited in Hebdige, 1979)

While the beat was focused on inner experience, the hipster was focused on the external style.

By the end of the 1950s, the influence of jazz was winding down and many traits of hepcat culture were becoming mainstream. 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. The subculture became visible and was covered in Life magazine, Esquire, Playboy, and other mainstream media. Herb Caen (1916 – 1997), 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.” They were subsequently lampooned as lazy layabouts in television shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959 – 1963) or dangerous, drug-abusing delinquents in movies like High School Confidential (1958).

Betty the Beatnik's wardrobe. Long description available.
Figure 3.27. By the late 1950s and early 1960s beatnik subculture was being parodied. [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Sarah/Flickr)

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 1960s and 70s became known simply as hippies. Others note that hippie was a derogatory label invented by the mainstream press to discredit and stereotype the movement and its non-materialist aspirations.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, or the long-haired back to the land movement of the 1960s, an 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 an appropriation of consumer capitalism that seeks authenticity in and of itself.In his New York Times article “The Hipster in the Mirror” 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” (2010). What tends to be cool is an ironic pastiche of borrowed styles or tastes that signify other identities or histories: alternative music (sometimes very obscure),  used vintage clothing, organic and artisanal foods and products, single gear bikes, and countercultural values and lifestyles.Young people are often drawn to oppose mainstream conventions. Much as the hepcats of the 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.

Global Culture

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 neoliberalization, 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, which is the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates a similar process to the integration of global 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.

The increasing flows of global migration and movement also facilitate the diffusion of cultural ideas and artifacts as people from around the world spread out into global diasporas: The dispersions of a people from their original homeland. As Arjun Appadurai  (1996) suggests, “More people than ever before seem to imagine routinely the possibility that they or their children will live and work in places other than where they were born: this is the wellspring of the increased rates of migration at every level of social, national, and global life.” This likelihood of movement, whether actual or imagined, changes the cultural coordinates of how people see themselves in the world.

All migrants, refugees, temporary foreign workers, or travellers bring their beliefs, attitudes, languages, cuisines, music, religious practices, and other elements of local ways of life with them when they move, and they encounter new ones in the places where they arrive. What would appear to be different in the contemporary era of global migration is the way in which electronic media make it possible for migrants and travellers to keep in touch daily with not only friends and family, but also favourite TV shows, current events, sports, music, and other elements of culture from home. In the same way, electronic media give migrants access to the culture of their new homes just as they allow local residents to imagine future homes elsewhere in the world. In the era of globalization, the experience of culture is increasingly disembedded from location. The ways people imagine themselves and define their individual attachments, interests, and aspirations criss-cross and intertwine the divisions between cultures formerly established by the territorial boundaries of societies.

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 (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 3.28. Officially patented in 1893 as the “clasp locker” (a), 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)

Making Connections: Big Picture

Is There a Canadian Identity?

A Tim Hortons store in winter
Figure 3.29. To what degree does Tim Hortons represent Canadian culture? Is it a cultural icon endangered by its sale to the international consortium 3G Capital, or does it already manipulate Canadians’ desire to identify with their national culture in order to sell a product? (Image courtesy of Doug/Flickr).

The recent purchase of the Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons by 3G Capital, the American-Brazilian consortium that owns Burger King, raised questions about Canadian identity that never seem far from the surface in discussions of Canadian culture. For example, an article by Joe Friesen in The Globe and Mail (2014) emphasized the potential loss to Canadian culture by the sale to foreign owners of a successful Canadian-owned business that is also a kind of Canadian institution. Tim Hortons’s self-promotion has always emphasized its Canadianness: from its original ownership partner, Tim Horton (1930 – 1974), who was a Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, to being a kind of “anti-Starbucks,” the place where “ordinary Canadians” go. Friesen’s article reads a number of Canadian characteristics into the brand image of Tim Hortons. For example, the personality of Tim Horton himself is equated with Canadianness of the chain: “He wasn’t a flashy player, but he was strong and reliable, traits in keeping with Canadian narratives of solidity and self-effacement” (Friesen). 

How do we understand Canadian culture and Canadian identity in this example? Earlier in the chapter, we described culture as a product of the socioeconomic formation. Therefore, if we ask the question of whether a specific Canadian culture or Canadian identity exists, we would begin by listing a set of distinctive Canadian cultural characteristics and then attempt to explain their distinctiveness in terms of the way the Canadian socioeconomic formation developed.

Seymour Martin Lipset (1990) famously described several characteristics that distinguished Canadians from Americans:

  • Canadians are less self-reliant and more dependent on state programs than Americans to provide for everyday needs of citizens.
  • Canadians are more “elitist” than Americans in the sense that they are more respectful and deferential towards authorities.
  • Canadians are less individualistic and more collectivistic than Americans, especially in instances where personal liberties conflict with the collective good.
  • Overall, Canadians are more conservative than Americans, and less likely to embrace a belief in progress or a forward looking, liberal outlook on political or economic issues.

Lipset’s explanation for these differences is that while both Canada and the United States retain elements from their British colonial experiences, like their language and legal systems, their founding historical events were opposites: the United States was created through violent revolution against British rule (1775-1783); whereas, Canada’s origins were counter revolutionary. Canada was settled in part by United Empire Loyalists who fled America to remain loyal to Britain, and it did not become an independent nation state until it was created by an act of the British Parliament (the British North America Act of 1867). (Note: The idea that Canada — with its influential socialist tradition responsible for Canada’s universal health care, welfare and employment insurance, strong union movement, culture of collective responsibility, etc. — is more conservative than the United States may strike the reader as strange. Lipset’s assessment is based on uniquely American cultural definitions of conservatism and liberalism.) While Lipset’s analysis is disputed, especially by those who do not see American and Canadian cultural differences as being so great (Baer et al., 1990), the logic of his analysis is to see the cultural difference between the nations as a variable dependent on their different socioeconomic formations.

In this analysis, the national characteristics that Friesen argues are embodied by Tim Hortons — modesty, unpretentiousness, politeness, respect, etc. — would be seen as qualities that emerged as a result of a uniquely Canadian historical socioeconomic development. However, how well do they actually represent Canadian culture? As we saw earlier in the chapter, one prominent aspect of contemporary Canadian cultural identity is the idea of multiculturalism. The impact of globalization on Canada has been increased cultural diversity (see Chapter 11). The 2011 census noted that visible minorities made up 19.1 percent of the Canadian population, or almost one out of every five Canadians. In Toronto and Vancouver almost half the population are visible minorities. In a certain way, the existence of diverse cultures in Canada undermines the notion that a unified Canadian culture exists. Canada would appear to be a fragmented nation of hyphenated identities — British-Canadians, French-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, South Asian-Canadians, Caribbean-Canadians, Aboriginal-Canadians, etc. — each with its unique cultural traditions, languages, and viewpoints. In what way are we still able to speak about a Canadian identity except insofar as it is defined by multiculturalism; essentially many identities?

3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification

In the previous section we examined culture in its innovative guise. Culture in this guise is the site of “all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness” as Wade Davis put it (2002). Culture is what enables humans to go beyond the “given” of their biological and social reality. The innovations of high culture in expanding the range of human sensibility and the inventiveness of pop culture, subculture, and globally hybrid culture in creating and diffusing new cultural forms attests to the innovative side of culture. However, culture can also be examined in its restrictive guise, as source of restriction on human possibilities. Two contemporary modes of culture as restriction can be seen in the processes of rationalization and consumerism.


Harold Lloyd hangs from a broken clock above a New York City street in the film, Safety Last.
Figure 3.30. Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923). What is the relationship between time and stress? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Max Weber’s analysis of modern society centres 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? Why did the Western world modernize and develop modern science, industry, military, and democracy first when, for centuries, Asia, 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 — choosing the most efficient means to achieve defined goals — and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which in Chapter 1 we referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). In modernity, everything is subject to the cold and rational gaze of the scientist, the technician, the bureaucrat, and the business person. “There are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play… rather… one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted” (Weber, 1919).  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. Weber’s question was, what are the consequences of rationality for everyday life, for the social order, and for the spiritual fate of humanity?

Through rationalization, all of the institutional structures of modern society are reorganized on the principles of efficiency, calculability, and predictability, which are the bases of the “technical and economic conditions of machine production” that Weber refers to in passages from The Protestant Ethic (1904). As rationalization transforms the institutional and organizational life of modernity, other forms of social organization are eliminated and other purposes of life—spiritual, moral, emotional, traditional, etc.—become irrelevant. Life becomes irrevocably narrower in its focus, and other values are lost. Our attitude towards our own lives becomes oriented to maximizing our own efficiency and eliminating non-productive pursuits and downtime. This is the key to the metaphor of the iron cage by which Weber evokes the new powers of production and organizational effectiveness, the increasingly narrow specialization of tasks and the loss of the Enlightenment ideals of a well-rounded individual and a “full and beautiful humanity.” Having forgotten its spiritual or other purposes of life, humanity succumbed to an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber, 1904). The modern subject in the iron cage is essentially a narrow specialist or bureaucrat, “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber, 1922).

One of the consequences of the rationalization of everyday life is stress. In 2010, 27 percent of working adults in Canada described their day-to-day lives as highly stressful (Crompton, 2011). Twenty-three percent of all Canadians aged 15 and older reported that most days were highly stressful in 2013 (Statistics Canada, 2014). In the case of stress, rationalization is a double-edged sword in that it allows people to get more things done per unit of time more efficiently in order to “save time,” but ironically efficiency–as a means to an end–tends to replace other goals in life and becomes an end in itself. The focus on efficiency means that people regard time as a kind of limited resource in which to achieve a maximum number of activities. The irrationality in rationalization is: Saving time for what? Are we able to take time for activities (including sleep) which replenish us or enrich us? Even the notions of  “taking time” or “spending quality time” with someone uses the metaphor of time as a kind of expenditure in which we use up a limited resource. Stress is in many respects a product of our modern “rational” relationship to time. As we can see in the table below, for a significant number of people, there is simply not enough time in the day to accomplish what we set out to do.

Table 3.1. Perceptions of time for the population aged 15 and over, by age group, Canada, 2010
[Skip Table]
Perceptions of time Age group
15 and over 15 to 24 25 to 34 35 to 44 45 to 54 55 to 64 65 to 74 75 and over
Do you plan to slow down in the coming year? 19% 13% 16% 21% 22% 23% 16% 20%
Do you consider yourself a workaholic? 25% 22% 29% 31% 28% 23% 18% 14%
When you need more time, do you tend to cut back on your sleep? 46% 63% 60% 59% 45% 31% 20% 15%
At the end of the day, do you often feel that you have not accomplished what you had set out to do? 41% 34% 46% 48% 46% 40% 29% 35%
Do you worry that you don’t spend enough time with your family or friends? 36% 34% 47% 53% 41% 27% 14% 10%
Do you feel that you’re constantly under stress trying to accomplish more than you can handle? 34% 35% 41% 47% 40% 27% 15% 10%
Do you feel trapped in a daily routine? 34% 33% 41% 46% 40% 28% 15% 15%
Do you feel that you just don’t have time for fun any more? 29% 20% 36% 43% 38% 23% 11% 11%
Do you often feel under stress when you don’t have enough time? 54% 65% 66% 69% 59% 41% 22% 16%
Would you like to spend more time alone? 22% 19% 30% 35% 24% 15% 9% 7%
Note: The percentages represent the proportion of persons who answered “yes” to the questions on perceptions of time.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2010 (Statistics Canada, 2011).

The Commodity, Commodification, and Consumerism as a Way of Life

An advertisement saying, "I shop therefore I am"
Figure 3.31. Barbara Kruger’s subversive billboard art piece “I shop therefore I am” is here revised as an actual advertising slogan in a Selfridges department store in Birmingham, England. Is this the ultimate in cynical advertising or simply a fact of life in the age of consumerism? (Photo courtesy of Mark Hillary/Flickr)

The commodity is simply an object, service, or a “good” that has been produced for sale on the market. Commodification is the process through which objects, services, or goods are increasingly turned into commodities, so they become defined more in terms of their  marketability and profitability than by their intrinsic characteristics. Prior to the invention of the commodity market, economic life revolved around bartering or producing for immediate consumption. Real objects like wool or food were exchanged for other real objects or were produced for immediate consumption according to need. The commodity introduces a strange factor into this equation because in the marketplace objects are exchanged for money. They are produced in order to be sold in the market. Their value is determined not just in regard to their unique qualities, their purpose, or their ability to satisfy a need (i.e., their “use value”), but also their monetary value or “exchange value” (i.e., their price). When we ask what something is worth, we are usually referring to its price.

This monetization of value is strange in the first place because the medium of money allows for incomparable, concrete things or use values to be quantified and compared. Twenty dollars will get you a chicken, a novel, or a hammer; these fundamentally different things all become equivalent. It is strange in the second place because the use of money to define the value of commodities makes the commodity appear to stand alone, as if its value was independent of the labour that produced it or the needs it was designed to satisfy. We see the object and imagine the qualities it will endow us with: a style, a fashionability, a personality type, or a tribal affiliation (e.g., PC people vs. Mac people). We do not recognize the labour and the social relationships of work that produced it, nor the social relationship that tie us to its producers when we purchase it. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) called this phenomenon commodity fetishism (1867).

A Mac versus PC ad campaign. Long description available
Figure 3.32. The Mac vs. PC ad campaign plays on the idea that the computer you purchase defines your style of life, or vice versa. In this way commodities and their branding strategies insinuate themselves into our self-definitions [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Jose Antonio Gelado/Flickr)

With the increased importance of maintaining high levels of commodity turn over and consumption that emerged with the system of late capitalism, commodity fetishism plays a powerful role in producing ever new wants and desires. Consumerism becomes a way of life. Consumerism refers to the way in which we define ourselves in terms of the commodities we purchase. To the degree that our identities become defined by the pattern of our consumer preferences, the commodity no longer exists to serve our needs but to define our needs. As Barbara Kruger put it, the motto of consumer culture is not “I think therefore I am” but “I shop therefore I am.” Thinking is precisely what consumerism entices us not to do, except in so far as we calculate the prices of things.

3.5. 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 material and nonmaterial items 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 (1902 – 1979) 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 (1884 – 1942) described the way that the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea used magic at each stage of preparation for fishing (1925). 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 fishermen 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 fishermen to risk their lives 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 the 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 jogging in the cold or to do another repetition down at the gym.

Figure 3.33. 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 for clothes with a friend is well aware. What variables are 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 (1858-1918) 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 (1904). Being fashionable involves a highly nuanced negotiation between these two poles.

Critical sociologists view social structure as inherently unequal and based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a critical sociologist, culture is not a unified tradition that is experienced the same way by all people in a society. The female genital mutilation practiced by several social groups in Africa and Asia is a cultural practice that is rooted in gender inequality. It is an example of a cultural practice that reinforces and perpetuates inequalities and differences in power. Unlike the functionalists, who examine culture in terms of its function in social cohesion, 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.

World War I Canadian nurses voting
Figure 3.34. 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 practiced at the expense of others. Following 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 property owners had been able to vote prior to Confederation.) It was not until 1947 and 1948 that Canadians of Japanese, Chinese, and South Asian origins were permitted to vote. Aboriginal 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 the dominant culture’s 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.

Culture as Source of Innovation and Constraint

A young girl wears white clothing that only shows her face. She smiles at the camera.
Figure 3.35. This child’s clothing may be culturally specific, but her facial expression is universal. (Photo courtesy of Beth Rankin/Flickr)

Culture in general is a site of two opposing tendencies: One is the way that cultures around the world lay down sets of rules or norms which constrain, restrict, habitualize and fix forms of life; the other is the way that cultures produce endlessly innovative and diverse solutions to problems like nutrition. Cultures both constrain and continually go beyond constraints.

We began this chapter by asking what is culture. 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 unique individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought and language that shapes our perceptions and patterns our behaviour, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics. In this sense culture defines the normative patterns that constrain us to live according to the given rules. On the other hand, the incredible variety of  ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of orienting oneself on the Earth, which Wade Davis calls the ethnosphere, attests to the endlessly innovative responses to the human condition that culture affords. Human possibilities are not determined by society or biology. Culture also reflects the imaginative capacity of human beings to go beyond what is given.

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 also 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.

Key Terms

androcentricism: 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.

beliefs: Tenets or convictions that people hold to be true.

commodity: An object, service, or good that has been produced for sale on the market.

commodity fetishism: Regarding commodities as objects with inherent qualities independent of the labour that produced them or the needs they were designed to satisfy.

commodification: The process through which objects, services, or goods are turned into commodities.

consumerism: The tendency to define ourselves in terms of the commodities we purchase.

counterculture: A group that rejects and opposes 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.

detournement: The conscious subversion of messages, signs, and symbols by altering them slightly.

diaspora: The dispersion of a people from their original homeland.

diffusion: The spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another.

discoveries: Things and ideas found from what already exists.

ethnocentrism: Evaluating another culture according to the standards of one’s own culture.

folkways: Norms based on social preferences that direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture.

formal norms: Established, written rules.

geneticism: A form of biological determinism that suggests the qualities of human life are caused by genes.

globalization: The integration of international trade and finance markets.

high culture: Forms of cultural experience characterized by formal complexity, eternal values, or intrinsic authenticity.

hybridity: New forms of culture that arose from cross-cultural exchange in the aftermath of the colonial era.

ideal culture: The standards a society would like to embrace and live up to.

informal norms: Casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to.

innovation: New objects or ideas introduced to a culture for the first time.

invention: Combining pieces of existing reality into new forms.

iron cage: Max Weber’s metaphor for the modern condition of life circumscribed by the demand for maximum efficiency.

language: A symbolic system of communication.

material culture: The objects or belongings of a group of people.

mores: Norms based on social requirements which are based on 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.

postmodern culture: The form of culture that comes after modern culture characterized by the playful mixture of forms and “incredulity towards metanarratives”.

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: The structure of a social group of people who interact within a definable territory and who share a culture.

socioeconomic formation: The concrete set of social structures that form around a specific mode of production or economic system.

subculture: A group that shares a specific identity apart from a society’s majority, even as the members exist within a larger society.

symbol: Gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture.

taboos: Strong prohibitions based on deeply held sacred or moral beliefs.

values: A culture’s standard for discerning desirable states in society (what is true, good, just, or beautiful).

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.

3.5. 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

3.5. 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

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

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.

3.5. 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. [PDF]:

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 Babel-17:

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.:


3.1. What Is Culture?
Barger, K. (2008). “Ethnocentrism.” Indiana University. Retrieved from

Barthes, R. (1977). “Rhetoric of the image.” In, Image, music, text (pp. 32-51). New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Berger, P. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a theory of religion. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Darwin, C. R. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London, UK: John Murray.

DuBois, C. (1951, November 28). Culture shock [Presentation to panel discussion at the First Midwest Regional Meeting of the Institute of International Education. Also presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954].

Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., . . . Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music. Current Biology, 19(7). doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058.

Kymlicka, W. (2012). Multiculturalism: Success, failure, and the future. [PDF] Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177–182.

Smith, D. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. New York, NY: Ginn and Co.

3.2. Elements of Culture

Angelini, P., & Broderick, M. (2012). Race and ethnicity: The obvious diversity. In Paul Angelini (Ed.), Our society: Human diversity in Canada (pp. 93-125). Toronto, ON: Nelson

Cook, J., & King, J. (1784). A voyage to the Pacific Ocean. London, UK: W. and A. Strahan. Retrieved from

Lipset, S. M. (1990). Continental divide: The values and institutions of the United States and Canada. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall.

McRoberts, K. (1997). Misconceiving Canada: The struggle for national unity. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.

Mash potato. (2005, June). In Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Passero, K. (2002, July). Global travel expert Roger Axtell explains why. Biography, pp. 70–73, 97–98.

Statistics Canada. (2007). Languages in Canada: 2001 census [PDF]. (Catalogue no. 96-326-XIE). Retrieved from

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. New York, NY: Ginn and Co.

Swoyer, C. (2003). The linguistic relativity hypothesis. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Supplement to Relativism). Retrieved from

Knox, J. (2014, February 16). Poll: B.C. women pickier than most in Canada on romance. Times Colonist, p. A2.

Weber, B. (2011, May 3). Harold Garfinkel, a common-sense sociologist, dies at 93The New York Times. Retrieved from

Westcott, K. (2008, March 20). World’s best-known protest symbol turns 50. BBC News. Retrieved from

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Bosker, B. (2013). Original copies: Architectural mimicry in contemporary China. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Friesen, J. (2014, August 27 ). Tim Hortons: How a brand became part of our national identity. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Greif, M. (2010, November 12). The hipster in the mirror. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London, UK: Methuen.

Lipset, S. M. (1990). Continental divide: The values and institutions of the United States and Canada. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.

Marx, K. (1977). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 300-325). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1852).

Scheuerman, W. (2010, June 4). Globalization. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer ed.). Retrieved from

3.4. Culture as Restriction: Rationalization and Commodification

Crompton, S. (2011, October 13). What’s stressing the stressed? Main sources of stress among workers [PDF]. (Statistics Canada catalogue no. 11-008-X). Retrieved from

Davis, W. (2002). The naked geography of hope. Whole Earth, Spring, 57-61.

Marx, K. (1977). Capital. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 415-507). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1867).

Statistics Canada. (2011). General social survey – 2010 overview of the time use of Canadians: Highlights. (Catalogue no. 89-647-X). Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2014). Perceived life stress, 2013. (Catalogue no. 82-625-X). Retrieved from

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (Original work published 1904).

Weber, M. (1969). Science as a vocation. In Gerth & Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 129-156). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1919).

Weber, M. (1922). The permanent character of the bureaucratic machine. In Gerth & Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 228-230). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

3.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
Elections Canada. (2014). A history of the vote in Canada. Retrieved from

Malinowski, B. (1954). Magic, science and religion. New York, NY: Doubleday. (Original work published 1925).

Simmel, G. (1971). Fashion. In D. Levine (Ed.), On individuality and social forms (pp. 294–323). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1904).

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, [Return to Quiz]

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

Long Descriptions

Figure 3.25 Long description: A young woman leans against an old-style blue bike. She wears bright clothes, large glasses, knee high socks and an owl backpack.” [Return to Figure 3.25]

Figure 3.27 Long description: Betty the Beatnik with a collection of fashion choices including black, long sleeve shirts and turtlenecks, black pants, and long black dresses. [Return to Figure 3.27]

Figure 3.32 Long description: One man in an ill-fitting suit holds a sign ductaped together that says, “cobble, together, assorted software, to do music, movies and websites.’; The other man is dressed casually and holds a simple sign that says, “I come with iLife.” [Return to Figure 3.32]


Chapter 4. Society and Modern Life

A carving of a person.
Figure 4.1. Effigy of a Shaman from Haida Tribe, late 19th century. (Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons)

Learning Objectives

4.1. Types of Societies

  • Compare ways of understanding the evolution of human societies.
  • Describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, postindustrial and postnatural societies.
  • Understand how a society’s relationship to the environment impacts societal development.

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on the Formation of Modern 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. Living in Capitalist Society

  • Understand the relationship between capitalism and the incessant change of modern life.

Introduction to Society

In 1900 a young anthropologist, John Swanton, transcribed  a series of myths and tales — known as qqaygaang in the Haida language — told by the master Haida storyteller Ghandl. The tales tell stories of animal and human transformations, of heroes who marry birds, of birds who take off their skins and become women, of mussels who manifest the spirit form of whales, and of poles climbed to the sky.

After she’d offered him something to eat, Mouse Woman said to him, “When I was bringing a bit of cranberry back from my berry patch, you helped me. I intend to lend you something I wore for stalking prey when I was younger.”

She brought out a box. She pulled out four more boxes within boxes. In the innermost box was the skin of a mouse with small bent claws. She said to him, “Put this on.”

Small though it was, he got into it. It was easy. He went up the wall and onto the roof of the house. And Mouse Woman said to him, “You know what to do when you wear it. Be on your  way” (Ghandl, quoted in Bringhurst, 2011).

To the ear of contemporary Canadians, these types of tales often seem confusing. They lack the standard inner psychological characterization of protagonists and antagonists, the “realism” of natural settings and chronological time sequences, or the plot devices of man against man, man against himself, and man against nature. However, as Robert Bringhurst (2011) argues, this is not because the tales are not great literature or have not completely “evolved.” In his estimation, Ghandl should be recognized as one of the most brilliant storytellers who has ever lived in Canada. Rather, it is because the stories speak to, and from, a fundamentally different experience of the world: the experience of nomadic hunting and gathering people as compared to the sedentary people of modern capitalist societies. How does the way we tell stories reflect the organization and social structures of the societies we live in?

Ghandl’s tales are told within an oral tradition rather than a written or literary tradition. They are meant to be listened to, not read, and as such the storytelling skill involves weaving in subtle repetitions and numerical patterns, and plays on Haida words and well-known mythological images rather than creating page-turning dramas of psychological or conflictual suspense. Bringhurst suggests that even compared to the Indo-European oral tradition going back to Homer or the Vedas, the Haida tales do not rely on the auditory conventions of verse. Whereas verse relies on acoustic devices like alliteration and rhyming, Haida mythic storytelling was a form of noetic prosody,  relying on patterns of ideas and images. The Haida, as a preagricultural people, did not see a reason to add overt musical qualities to their use of language. “[V]erse in the strictly acoustic sense of the word does not play the same role in preagricultural societies. Humans, as a rule, do not begin to farm their language until they have begun to till the earth and to manipulate the growth of plants and animals.” As Bringhurst puts it, “myth is that form of language in which poetry and music have not as yet diverged“(Bringhurst, 2011, italics in original).

Figure 4.2. A Haida ceremonial rattle in the form of the mythical thunder bird. (Photo courtesy of British Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps more significantly for sociologists, the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Haida also produces a very different relationship to the natural world and to the non-human creatures and plants with which they coexisted. This is manifest in the tales of animal-human-spirit transformations and in their moral lessons, which caution against treating the world with disrespect. With regard to understanding Haida storytelling, Bringhurst argues that:

following the poetry they [hunting gathering peoples] make is more like moving through a forest or a canyon, or waiting in a blind, than moving through an orchard or field. The language is often highly ordered, rich, compact — but it is not arranged in neat, symmetrical rows (2011).

In other words, for the hunter who follows animal traces through the woods, or waits patiently for hours in a hunting blind or fishing spot for wild prey to appear, the relationship to the prey is much more akin to “putting on their skins” or spiritually “becoming-animal” than to be a shepherd raising livestock. A successful hunting and gathering people would be inclined to study how animals think from the inside, rather than controlling or manipulating them from the outside. For the Haida, tales of animal transformations would not seem so fantastic or incomprehensible as they do to modern people who spend most of their life indoors. They would be part of their “acutely personal relations with the wild” (Bringhurst, 2011).

Similarly, the Haida ethics, embodied in their tales and myths, acknowledge a complex web of unwritten contracts between humans, animal species, and spirit-beings.

The culture as Ghandl describes it depends — like every hunting culture — not on control of the land as such but on control of the human demands that are placed upon it (Bringhurst, 2011).

In the tales, humans continually confront a world of living beings and forces that are much more powerful and intelligent than they are, and who are quick to take offense at human stupidity and hubris.

What sociologists learn from the detailed studies of the Haida and their literature is how a fundamentally different social relationship to the environment affects the way people think and how they see their place in the world. Nevertheless, although the traditional Haida society of Haida Gwaii in the Pacific Northwest is very different from that of contemporary post-industrial Canada, both can be seen as different ways of expressing the human need to cooperate and live together in order to survive. For the sociologist, this is a lesson in how the type of society one lives in — its scale and social structure — impacts one’s experience of the world at a very fundamental perceptual level.

4.1. Types of Societies

Figure 4.3. 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)

Haida, Maasai, modern Canadians — each is a society. But what does this mean? Exactly what is a society? In sociological terms, a society refers to a group of people who interact in a definable territory and share the same culture. In practical, everyday terms, societies consist of various types of institutional constraint and coordination exercised over our choices and actions. The type of society we live in determines the nature of these types of constraint and coordination. The nature of our social institutions, the type of work we do, the way we think about ourselves and the structures of power and social inequality that order our life chances are all products of the type of society we live in and thus vary globally and historically.

The founder of sociology, August Comte (1798–1857), provided the first sociological theory of the evolution of human societies. His best known 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 conceptualized causation or how they understood 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, social contracts, or “self-evident” truths. This was the basis of Comte’s 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 contradiction. This lead to inevitable conflict and moral anarchy. Finally, in the positive stage, humans explain causes in terms of positivist, scientific observations 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 positivist science could empirically determine how society should be organized. Science could 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, 1830/1975).

Karl Marx offered another model for understanding the evolution of types of society. Marx argued that the evolution of societies from primitive to advanced was not a product of the way people thought, as Comte proposed, but of the power struggles in each epoch between different social classes over control of property. The key variable in his analysis was the different modes of production or “material bases” that characterized different forms of society: from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, to industrial production.  This historical materialist approach to understanding society explains both social change and the development of human ideas in terms of underlying changes in the  mode of production. In other words the type of society and its level of development is determined principally by how a people produces the material goods needed to meet its needs. Their world view, including the concepts of causality described by Comte, followed from the way of thinking involved in the society’s mode of production.

On this basis, Marx categorized the historical types of society into primitive communism, agrarian/slave societies, feudalism, and capitalism.  Primitive communists, for example, are hunter gatherers like the Haida whose social institutions and worldview develop in sync with their hunting and gathering relationship to the environment and its resources. They are defined by their hunter-gatherer mode of production.

Marx went on to argue that the historical transformations from one type of society to the next are generated by the society’s capacity to generate economic surpluses and the conflicts and tensions that develop when one class monopolizes economic power or property: land owners over agricultural workers, slave owners over slaves, feudal lords over serfs, or capitalists over labourers. These class dynamics are inherently unstable and eventually lead to revolutionary transformations from one mode of production to the next.

To simplify Comte’s and Marx’s schemas, we might examine the way different types of society are structured around their relationship to nature. Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924-2015) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. With each advance in technology the relationship between humans and nature is altered. Societies with rudimentary technology are at the mercy of the fluctuations of their environment, while societies with industrial technology have more control over their environment, and thus develop different cultural and social features. On the other hand, societies with rudimentary technology make relatively little impact on their environment, while industrial societies transform it radically. The changes in the relationship between humans and their environment in fact goes beyond technology to encompass all aspects of social life, including its mental life (Comte) and material life (Marx). Distinctions based on the changing nature of this relationship enable sociologists to describe societies along a spectrum: from the foraging societies that characterized the first 90,000 years of human existence to the contemporary postnatural, anthropocene societies in which human activity has made a substantial impact on the global ecosystem.

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. Production was (for the most part) for immediate consumption, although evidence of trade between groups also goes back the earliest archaeological records. The very first occupation was that of hunter-gatherer.

Hunter-Gatherer Societies

A Blackfoot tribe gathered in front of teepees.
Figure 4.4. The Blackfoot or Siksika were traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers who moved camp frequently during the summer months to follow the buffalo herds. (Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)

Of the various types of preindustrial societies, Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the strongest dependence on the environment. As the basic structure of all human society until about 10,000–12,000 years ago, these groups were based around kinship or tribal affiliations. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival — they hunted wild animals and foraged for uncultivated plants for food. They survived on what nature provided and immediately consumed what they obtained. They produced no surpluses. When resources became scarce, the group moved to a new area to find sustenance, meaning they were nomadic. The plains Indians of North America, moved frequently to follow their main source of food. Some groups, like the Haida, lived off of abundant, non-depleting resources like fish, which enabled them to establish permanent villages where they could dwell for long periods of the year before dispersing to summer camps. (See “People of the Far Northwest” below).

Most of the caloric intake of hunters and gatherers came from foraging for edible plants, fruits, nuts, berries, and roots. The largely meat-based diet of the Inuit is a notable exception. Richard Lee (1978) estimated that approximately 65% of the hunter-gatherer diet came from plant sources, which had implications for the gender egalitarianism of these societies. With the earliest economic division of labour being between male hunters and women gatherers, the fact that women accounted for the largest portion of the food consumed by the community ensured the importance of their status within the group. On the other hand, early reports of missionaries among the Algonquins of the north shore of Lake Superior observed women with their noses cut off and small parts of their scalp removed as punishment for adultery, suggesting that (at least among some groups) female subordination was common. Male Algonquins often had seven or eight wives (Kenton, 1954).

As a result of their unique relationship and dependence on the environment for sustenance, the ideal type or model that characterized hunter-gatherer societies includes several common features (Diamond, 1974):

  1. The distribution of economic surplus is organized on a communalistic, shared basis in which there is little private property, work is cooperative, and gift giving is extensive. The use of resources was governed by the practice of usufruct, the distribution of resources according to need (Bookchin, 1982).
  2. Power is dispersed either shared equally within the community, or shifting between individual members based on individual skills and talents.
  3. Social control over the members of society is exercised through shared customs and sentiment rather than through the development of formal law or institutions of law enforcement.
  4. Society is organized on the basis of kinship and kinship ties so there are few, if any, social functions or activities separate from family life.
  5. There is little separation between the spheres of intimate private life and public life. Everything is a matter of collective concern.
  6. The life of the community is all “personal” and emotionally charged. There is little division of labour so there is no social isolation.
  7. Art, story telling, ethics, religious ritual and spirituality are all fused together in daily life and experience. They provide a common means of expressing imagination, inspiration, anxiety, need and purpose.

One interesting aspect of hunter-gatherer societies that runs counter to modern prejudices about “primitive” society, is how they developed mechanisms to prevent their evolution into more “advanced” sedentary, agricultural types of society. For example, in the “headman” structure, the authority of the headman or “titular chief” rests entirely on the ongoing support and confidence of community members rather than permanent institutional structures. This is a mechanism that actively wards off the formation of permanent institutionalized power (Clastres, 1987). The headman’s main role is as a diplomatic peacemaker and dispute settler, and he held sway only so long as he maintained the confidence of the tribe. Beyond a headman’s personal prestige, fairness in judgement and verbal ability, there was no social apparatus to enable a permanent institutional power or force to emerge.

Similarly the Northwest Pacific practice of the potlatch, in which goods, food, and other material wealth were regularly given away to neighboring bands,  provided a means of redistributing wealth and preventing permanent inequality from developing. Evidence also shows that even when hunter-gatherers lived in close proximity with agriculturalists they were not motivated to adopt the agricultural mode of production because the diet of early agricultural societies was significantly poorer in nutrition (Stavrianos, 1990; Diamond, 1999). Recent evidence from archaeological sites in the British Isles suggests for example that early British hunter-gatherers traded for wheat with continental agriculturalists 2,000 years before agricultural economies were adopted in ancient Britain (Smith et. al., 2015; Larson, 2015). They had close contact with agriculturalists but were not inclined to adopt their sedentary societal forms, presumably because there was nothing appealing about them.

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. Still, in 2014, members of the Amazonian Mashco-Piro clan emerged out of their voluntary isolation at the border of Peru and Brasil to make “first contact” with the Brazilian government’s Indigenous people’s authority (Funai) in order to seek protection from suspected drug-traffickers (Collins, 2014). Hunter-gatherer groups largely disappeared under the impact of colonization and European diseases, but it is estimated that another 75 uncontacted tribes still inhabit the Amazonian rainforest.

Making Connections: Big Picture

People of the Far Northwest

Vancouver Island and the surrounding mainland coastal area has more than 15 indigenous groups.
Figure 4.5. The Salish Sea (as Georgia Strait is now widely known) was an ecologically and culturally rich zone occupied by related but unallied peoples. (Image courtesy of Arct/Wikimedia Commons).

The Pacific Northwest region was utterly separate from the Plains and other cultural zones. Its peoples were many and they shared several cultural features that were unique to the region.

By the 1400s there were at least five distinct language groups on the West Coast, including Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Wakashan, and Salishan, all of which divide into many more dialects. However, these differences (and there are many others) are overshadowed by cultural similarities across the region. An abundance of food from the sea meant that coastal populations enjoyed comparatively high fertility rates and life expectancy. Population densities were, as a consequence, among the highest in the Americas.

The people of the Pacific Northwest do not share the agricultural traditions that existed east of the Rockies, nor did they influence Plains and other cultures. There was, however, a long and important relationship of trade and culture between the coastal and interior peoples. In some respects it is appropriate to consider the mainland cultures as inlet-and-river societies. The Salish-speaking peoples of the Straight of Georgia (Salish Sea) share many features with the Interior Salish (Okanagan, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux, Stl’atl’imx), though they are not as closely bound as the peoples of the Skeena and Stikine Valleys (which include the Tsimshian, the Gitxsan, and the Nisga’a). Running north of the Interior Salish nations through the Cariboo Plateau, and flanked on the west by the Coast Mountain Range, are societies associated with the Athabascan language group. Some of these peoples took on cultural habits and practices more typically associated with the Pacific Northwest coastal traditions than with the northern Athabascan peoples who cover a swath of territory from Alaska to northern Manitoba. In what is now British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in, the Dakelh, Wet’suwet’en, and Sekani were part of an expansive, southward-bound population that sent offshoots into the Nicola Valley and deep into the southwest of what is now the United States.

Most coastal and interior groups lived in large, permanent towns in the winter, and these villages reflected local political structures. Society in Pacific Northwest groups was generally highly stratified and included, in many instances, an elite, a commoner class, and a slave class. The Kwakwaka’wakw, whose domain extended in pre-contact times from the northern tip of Vancouver Island south along its east coast to Quadra Island and possibly farther, assembled kin groups (numayms) as part of a system of social rank in which all groups were ranked in relation to others. Additionally, each kin group “owned” names or positions that were also ranked. An individual could hold more than one name; some names were inherited and others were acquired through marriage. In this way, an individual could acquire rank through kin associations, although kin groups themselves had ascribed ranks. Movement in and out of slavery was even possible.

The fact that slavery existed points to the competition that existed between coastal rivals. The Haida, Tsimshian, Haisla, Nuxalk, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv (Oowekeeno), Kwakwaka’wakw, Pentlatch/K’ómoks, and Nuu-chah-nulth regularly raided one another and their Stó:lō neighbours. Many of the winter towns were in some way or other fortified and, indeed, small stone defensive sniper blinds can still be discerned in the Fraser Canyon. The large number of oral traditions that arise from this era regularly reference conflict and the severe loss of personnel. Natural disasters are also part of the oral tradition: they tell of massive and apocalyptic floods as well as volcanic explosions and other seismic (and tidal) events that had tremendous impacts on local populations.

The practice of potlatch (a public feast held to mark important community events, deaths, ascensions, etc.) is a further commonality. It involved giving away property and thus redistributing wealth as a means for the host to maintain, reinforce, and even advance through the complex hierarchical structure. In receiving property at a potlatch an attendee was committing to act as a witness to the legitimacy of the event being celebrated. The size of potlatching varied radically and would evolve along new lines in the post-contact period, but the outlines and protocols of this cultural trademark were well-elaborated centuries before the contact moment. Potlatching was universal among the coastal peoples and could also be found among more inland, upriver societies as well.

Horticulture — the domestication of some plants — was another important source of food. West Coast peoples and the nations of the Columbia Plateau (which covers much of southern inland British Columbia), like many eastern groups, applied controlled burning to eliminate underbrush and open up landscape to berry patches and meadows of camas plants that were gathered for their potato-like roots. This required somewhat less labour than farming (although harvesting root plants is never light work), and it functioned within a strategy of seasonal camps. Communities moved from one food crop location to another for preparation and then, later, harvest. A great deal of the land seized upon by early European settlers in the Pacific Northwest included these berry patches and meadows. These were attractive sites because they had been cleared of huge trees and consisted of mostly open and well-drained pasture. Europeans would see these spaces as pastoral, natural, and available rather than anthropogenic (human-made) landscapes — the product of centuries of horticultural experimentation.

“People of the Far Northwest” excerpted from John Belshaw, 2015, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation, (Vancouver: BCCampus). Used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Horticultural and Pastoral Societies

The ancestors of modern corn. Teocinte is very small with only 11 kernals.
Figure 4.6. Teocinte (top) is the undomesticated ancestor of modern corn (bottom). Teocintes were the natural source of one of the most important food crops cultivated by the horticultural societies of Mesoamerica. (Image courtesy of John Doebley/Wikimedia Commons)

Around 10,200 BCE, another type of society developed in ancient Anatolia, (now part of Turkey), 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 hunter-gatherer societies to relocate in search of food sources. Horticultural societies formed in areas where rainfall and other conditions provided fertile soils to grow stable crops with simple hand tools. Their increasing degree of control over nature decreased their dependence on shifting environmental conditions for survival. They no longer had to abandon their location to follow resources and were able to find permanent settlements. The new horticultural technology created more stability and dependability, produced more material goods and provided the basis for the first revolution in human survival: the neolithic revolution.

Changing conditions and adaptations also led some societies to rely on the domestication of animals where circumstances permitted. Roughly 8,000 BCE, human societies began to recognize their ability to tame and breed animals. 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.

With the emergence of horticultural and pastoral societies during the neolithic revolution, stable agricultural surpluses began to be generated, population densities increased, specialized occupations developed, and societies commenced sustained trading with other local groups. Feuding and warfare also grew with the accumulation of wealth. One of the key inventions of the neolithic revolution therefore was structured, social inequality: the development of a class structure based on the appropriation of surpluses. A social class can be defined as a group that has a distinct relationship to the means of production. In neolithic societies, based on horticulture or animal husbandry as their means of production, control of land or livestock became the first form of private property that enabled one relatively small group to take the surpluses while another much larger group produced them. For the first time in history, societies were divided between producing classes and owning classes. Moreover, as control of land was the source of power in neolithic societies, ways of organizing and defending it became a more central preoccupation. The development of permanent administrative and military structures, taxation, as well as the formation of specialized priestly classes to spiritually unite society originated on the basis of the horticultural and pastoral relationship to nature.

Agricultural Societies

A soldier leading two men with a rope tied around their necks.
Figure 4.7. Roman collared slaves depicted in a marble relief from Smyrna (modern Turkey) in 200 CE. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes, agricultural societies relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 3,000 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, which led 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 era in which some classes of people had the time and comfort to engage in more contemplative and thoughtful activities, such as music, poetry, and philosophy, 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 became further entrenched. Kinship ties became secondary to other forms of social allegiance and power. Those with the power to appropriate the surpluses were able to dominate the society on a wider scale than ever before. Classes of nobility and religious elites developed. As cities expanded, ownership and protection of resources became an ever pressing concern and the militarization of society became more prominent. Difference in social standing between men and women, already initiated in neolithic societies, became more pronounced and institutionalized. Slavery — the ownership and control of humans as property — was also institutionalized as a large scale source of labour. In the agricultural empires of Greece and Rome, slavery was the dominant form of class exploitation. However, as slaves were largely acquired through military acquisition, ancient slavery as an institution was inherently unstable and inefficient.

Making Connections: Sociological Concepts

The Dialectic of Culture,  the Monuments of Easter Island and the Cult of Progress

A group of tall, human-like stone statues.
Figure 4.8. A group of Moais on Easter Island. (Image courtesy of Alberto Beaudroit/Flickr)

The mystery of the monuments of moai on Easter Island speaks to a key puzzle in the analysis of society and societal change. This mystery has to do with the way that cultural attitudes and beliefs have an ability to become rigid and inflexible, sometimes to the degree that they become independent of the material reality they are intended to interpret or give meaning to. Cultural beliefs can take on a life of their own whether they have relevance to the survival of a people or not. The idea of a dialectic of culture refers to the way in which the creation of culture — beliefs, practices, ways of life, technologies, and material artifacts, etc. — is both constrained by limits given by the environment and a means to go beyond these natural limits, to adapt and modify the environment to suit human purposes and needs. This dialectic provides a model for understanding how societies evolve and change, but it also reveals the precarious nature of the human/environment relationship.

The anthropologist Ronald Wright (2004) described this phenomenon with regard to the history of the indigenous people of Easter Island in the South Pacific. The archaeological record shows that Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, once had a lush, richly soiled, and densely treed ecosystem that sustained a population of approximately 10,000 people. However, by the time the Dutch arrived in the early 18th century, the ecosystem of the island was barren, and only 2,000 poorly nourished inhabitants were living there. At the same time, approximately 1,000 massive, 30-foot high monuments or “moai”, the height of 3 story buildings, were there — one for every 10 inhabitants at the height of the island’s population. The origins of the moai struck European observers as mysterious because the means of their construction had long vanished. Commentators as late as the 1970s claimed that these must have been the work of some vanished ancient civilization or even visitors from outer space (e.g., von Daniken, 1969).

However, as archeologists discovered, the monuments had been erected through concerted human labour to honour the ancestors of rival island clans when the islands were more populated and forested. As the rivalry between clans became more intense, around the time of the European Middle Ages, the stone images became increasingly extravagant. Each generation built larger and larger moai by using up valuable resources, especially timber. By 1400, the island was treeless. As Wright puts it, the compulsion of the statue cults to build more and larger moai to honour the ancestors was an “ideological pathology” (2004), a fixed cultural idea that so defied practical sense that it undermined the ability of a people to survive.

Wright makes the analogy between the statue cults of Easter Island and the contemporary “cult of progress” in which an increasing exploitation of resources and an accumulation of wealth are valued in themselves. As a modern version of ideological pathology, the cult of progress has no regard for social and environmental sustainability. He cites Bahn and Flenley:

[The islanders] carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash. Do we have to repeat the experiment on a grand scale? Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree? (Wright, 2004, p. 63)

To understand this dynamic, it is important to attend to the dialectic of culture. Culture is the means that a society uses to make sense of the world. It responds to changes in the mode of production or economy of a society. As new types of production are created, the relationship to the world is modified, and new cultural understandings emerge. People begin to see the world in a different way because they are interacting with it in a different way. These understandings are of course influenced by the corresponding relations of power in society, which determine whose perspectives on the world become “truths” and whose do not.

In this dialectical model, it is important to point out that changes in the mode of production do not determine or cause cultural beliefs in some sort of mechanical relationship, just as the invention of the piano did not cause Mozart’s piano concertos to be written. As Marx puts it:

mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation” (1859/1977).

To this, we might add that the “tasks” or cultural possibilities set by the material conditions of a society can be taken up in many different ways, or not at all. On the other hand, as Wright’s examples show, cultural beliefs, practices, and tasks can become rigid and unresponsive to material reality, unhinged from the ability of the environment or the economy to sustain them. Therefore, it is appropriate to view culture as being in a fluid and dialectical relationship with the mode of production. One does not cause the other in a deterministic manner; rather, both provide the limits or parameters within which the other develops. If a culturally driven process exceeds the capacity of material reality to sustain it, the culture is in danger of no longer being viable.

Feudal Societies

In Europe, the 9th century gave rise to feudal societies. Feudal societies were still agriculturally based but organized according to a strict hierarchical system of power founded on land ownership, military protection, and duties or mutual obligations between the different classes. Feudalism is usually used in a restricted sense by historians to describe the societies of post-Roman Europe, from roughly  the 9th to the 15th centuries (the “middle ages”), although these societies bare striking resemblance to the hierarchical, agricultural-based societies of Japan, China, and pre-contact America (e.g., Aztec, Inca) of the same period.

Figure 4.9. 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)

In Europe the class system of feudalism was organized around the parceling out of manors or estates by the aristocracy to vassals and knights in return for their military service. 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. These individual pieces of land, known as fiefdoms, were cultivated by the lower class of serfs. Serfs were not slaves, in that they were at least nominally free men and women, but they produced agricultural surpluses for lords primarily through forced agricultural service. In return for maintaining and working the land, serfs were guaranteed a place to live and military protection from outside enemies. They were able to produce food and goods for their own consumption on private land allotments, or on common allotments shared by the community. Power in feudal society was handed down through family lines, with serf families serving lords for generations and generations.

In later forms of feudalism, the forced labour of the serfs was gradually replaced by a system of rents and taxation. Serfs worked their own plots of land but gave their lords a portion of what they produced. Gradually payment in the form of goods and agricultural surplus was replaced by payment in the form of money. This prompted the development of markets in which the exchange of goods through bartering was replaced by the exchange of goods for money. This was the origin of the money economy. In bartering, the buyer and the seller have to need each other’s goods. In a market economy, goods are exchanged into a common medium of value — money — which can then be exchanged for goods of any nature. Markets therefore enabled goods and services to be bought and sold on a much larger scale and in a much more systematic and efficient way. Money also enabled land to be bought and sold instead of handed down through hereditary right. Money could be accumulated and financial debts could be incurred.

Ultimately, the social and economic system of feudalism was surpassed by the rise of capitalism and the technological advances of the industrial era, because money allowed economic transactions to be conceived and conducted in an entirely new way. In particular, the demise of feudalism was initiated by the increasing need to intensify labour and improve productivity as markets became more competitive and the economy less dependent on agriculture.

Industrial Societies

A group of women sitting at a long table wrapping soap.
Figure 4.10. Wrapping bars of soap at the Colgate-Palmolive Canada plant, Toronto, 1919. (Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library/Wikimedia Commons)

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 were 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 were able to amass fortunes in their lifetimes. In Canada, a new cadre of financiers and industrialists like Donald Smith (1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal) and George Stephen (1st Baron Mount Stephen) 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 “postindustrial” technologies (like computers) at the end of the 20th century ended the industrial age, much of our social structure and social ideas — such as the nuclear family, left-right political divisions, and time standardization — have a basis in industrial society.

Figure 4.11. 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, it played a fundamental role in the settlement and development of the West. (Photo courtesy of McCord Museum, File no. I-14179.1 Wikimedia Commons)

Postindustrial Societies

A desk with books, coffee, a laptop, and a computer monitor.
Figure 4.12. The ubiquitous e-work place of the 21st century. (image courtesy of Charlie Styr/Flickr)

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, Microsoft and RIM 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.

Postnatural Society: The Anthropocene

Red blood cells travelling through blood vessels
Figure 4.13. Advances in micro-biochemistry make it possible to manipulate the body at the molecular level. (image courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr)

Recent scientific and technological developments transform the relationship to nature to a such a degree that it is possible to talk about a new postnatural society. Advances in computing, genetics, nano-technology and quantum mechanics create the conditions for society in which the limits imposed by nature are overcome by technological interventions at the molecular level of life and matter. Donna Haraway (1991) describes the new “cyborg” reality that becomes possible when the capacities of the body and mind are enhanced by various prosthetic devices like artificial organs or body parts. When these artificial prosthetics do not simply replace defective anatomy but improve upon it, one can argue that the conditions of life have become postnatural. In his science fiction novel Holy Fire (1996), Bruce Sterling extrapolates from recent developments in medical knowledge to imagine a future epoch of posthumanity, i.e., a period in which the mortality that defined the human condition for millennia has effectively been eliminated through the technologies of life preservation.

Through genetic engineering, scientists have been able to create new life forms since the early 1970s. This research is fueled by the prospect of using genetic technologies to solve problems, like disease and aging, at the level of the DNA molecule that contains the “blueprint” of life. Food crops can be designed that are pest-resistant, drought-resistant or more productive.  These technologies are therefore theoretically capable of solving environmentally imposed restrictions on our collective ability to feed the hungry. Similarly, nanotechnologies, which allow the physical properties of materials to be engineered at the atomic and subatomic level, pose the possibility of an infinitely manipulable universe. The futurologist Ray Kurzweil (2009) suggests that on the basis of nanotechnology “we’ll be able to create just about anything we need in the physical world from information files with very inexpensive input materials.” Others caution that the complexity of risks posed by the introduction of these molecular technologies into the environment makes their use decidedly dangerous and their consequences incalculable. This is a very postnatural dilemma; one that would not have occurred to people in earlier types of society.

What are the effects of postnatural technologies on the structure and forms of social life and society? At present, these technologies are extremely capital-intensive to develop, which suggests that they will have implications for social inequality — both within societies and globally. Wealthy nations and wealthy individuals will be the most likely beneficiaries. Moreover, as the development of postnatural technologies do not impact the basic structures of capitalism, for the forseeable future decisions on which avenues of research are to be pursued will be decided solely on the basis of profitable returns. Many competing questions concerning the global risks of the technologies and the ethics of their implementation are secondary to the profit motives of the corporations that own the knowledge.

In terms of the emergent life technologies like genetic engineering or micro-biochemical research, Nikolas Rose (2007) suggests that we are already experiencing five distinct lines of social transformation:

  1. The “molecularization” of our perspective on the human body, or life in general, implies that we now visualize the body and intervene in its processes at the molecular level.  We are “no longer constrained by the normativity of a given order.” From growing skin in a petri dish to the repurposing of viruses, the body can be reconstructed in new, as yet unknown forms because of the pliability of life at the molecular level.
  2. The technologies shift our attention to the optimization of the body’s capacities rather than simply curing illness. It becomes possible to address our risk and susceptibility to future illnesses or aging processes, just as it becomes feasible to enhance the body’s existing capacities (e.g., strength, cognitive ability, beauty, etc.).
  3. The relationship between bodies and political life changes to create new forms of biological citizenship. We increasingly construct our identities according to the specific genetic markers that define us, (e.g., “we are the people with Leber’s Amaurosis”), and on this basis advocate for policy changes, accommodations, resources, and research funding, etc.
  4. The complexity of the knowledge in this field increasingly forces us to submit ourselves to the authority of the new somatic specialists and authorities, from neurologists to genetics counselors.
  5. As the flows of capital investment in biotechnology and biomedicine shift towards the creation of a new “bioeconomy,” the fundamental processes of life are turned into potential sources of profit and “biovalue.”

Some have described the postnatural period that we are currently living in as the Anthropocene. The anthropocene is defined as the geological epoch following the Pleistocene and Holocene in which human activities have significantly impacted the global ecosystem (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). Climate change is the primary example of anthropocenic effect, but it includes a number of other well-known examples from soil erosion and species extinction to the acidification of the oceans. Of course this impact began at least as early as the 19th century with the effects on the environment caused by the industrial revolution. Arguably, however, it is the recently established knowledge and scientific evidence of these effects which constitutes the current era as the anthropocene. In the anthropocene we become aware of the global nature of the catastrophic risks that human activities pose to the environment. It is also this knowledge that enables the possibility of institutional, economic, and political change to address these issues. Current developments like the use of cap and trade or carbon pricing to factor in the cost the environmental impact into economic calculations, the shift to “green” technologies like solar and wind power, or even curbside recycling have both global implications and direct repercussions for the organization of daily life.

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on the Formation of Modern Society

T. Eaton Co. department store in 1901. Long description available.
Figure 4.14. Image of the T. Eaton Co. department store in Toronto, Canada from the back cover of the 1901 Eaton’s catalogue. [Long Description] (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While many sociologists have contributed to research on society and social interaction, three thinkers provide the basis of modern-day perspectives. Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber developed different theoretical approaches to help us understand the development of modern capitalist society. In Chapter 3, we discussed how the members of a society come to share common norms and values: a way of life or culture. In the following discussion of  modern society, we examine Durkheim’s, Marx’s and Weber’s analytical focus on another foundational sociological concept: social structure.

As we saw in Chapter 1, social structures can be defined as general patterns of social behaviour and organization that persist through time. Here Durkheim’s analysis focuses on the impacts of the growing division of labour as a uniquely modern social structure, Marx’s on the economic structures of capitalism (private property, class, competition, crisis, etc.), and Weber’s on the rationalized structures of modern organization. While the aspect of modern structure that Durkheim, Marx and Weber emphasize differs, their common approach is to stress the impact of social structure on culture and ways of life rather than the other way around. This remains a key element of sociological explanation today.

Émile Durkheim and Functionalism

Émile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) key focus in studying modern society was to understand the conditions under which social and moral cohesion could be reestablished.  He observed that European societies of the 19th century had undergone an unprecedented and fractious period of social change that threatened to dissolve society altogether.  In his book The Division of Labour in Society (1893/1960), Durkheim argued that as modern societies grew more populated, more complex, and more difficult to regulate, the underlying basis of solidarity or unity within the social order needed to evolve. His primary concern was that the cultural glue that held society together was failing, and that the divisions between people were becoming more conflictual and unmanageable. Therefore Durkheim developed his school of sociology to explain the principles of cohesiveness of societies (i.e., their forms of social solidarity) and how they change and survive over time. He thereby addressed one of the fundamental sociological questions: why do societies hold together rather than fall apart?

Two central components of social solidarity in traditional, premodern societies were the common collective conscience — the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society shared by all — and high levels of social integration — the strength of ties that people have to their social groups. These 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 minimal division of labour and a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms. 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 among the feudal serfs. When people tend to do the same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and act alike.

Modern societies, according to Durkheim, were more complex. Collective consciousness was increasingly weak in individuals and the ties of social integration that bound them to others were increasingly few. Modern societies were characterized by an increasing diversity of experience and an increasing division of people into different occupations and specializations. They shared less and less commonalities that could bind them together.  However, as Durkheim observed, their ability to carry out their specific functions depended upon others being able to carry out theirs. Modern society was increasingly 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., like an organism (Durkheim, 1893/1960).

According to his theory, as the roles individuals in the division of labour become more specialized and unique, and people increasingly have less in common with one another, they also become increasingly interdependent on one another. Even though there is an increased level of individual autonomy — the development of unique  personalities and the opportunity to pursue individualized interests — society has a tendency to cohere because everyone depends on everyone else. 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 member of society relies on the others. In premodern societies, the structures like religious practice that produce shared consciousness and harsh retribution for transgressions function to maintain the solidarity of society as a whole; whereas in modern societies, the occupational structure and its complex division of labour function to maintain solidarity through the creation of mutual interdependence.

While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society, Durkheim noted that it creates periods 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 ties to the land and shared labour; the rise of individualism, which removed limits on what individuals could desire; and the rise of secularism, which removed ritual or symbolic foci and traditional modes of moral regulation. 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

For Marx, the creation of modern society was tied to the emergence of capitalism as a global economic system. In the mid-19th century, as industrialization was expanding, Karl Marx (1818–1883) observed that 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.

Figure 4.15. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Figure 4.16) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and “have-not” groups. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 4.16. Friedrich Engels. (Photo courtesy of George Lester/Wikimedia Commons) 
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, 1867/1995).

As we saw at the beginning of the chapter, Marx’s explanation of the exploitative nature of industrial society draws on a more comprehensive theory of the development of human societies from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the modern era: historical materialism. For Marx, the underlying structure of societies and of the forces of historical change was predicated on the relationship between the “base and superstructure” of societies.  In this model, society’s economic structure forms its base, on which the culture and other 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.

A pyramid: the base is the economy, which supports government, religion, education, and culture
Figure 4.17. 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 is 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 since the early “primitive communist” foraging societies, 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 in the early Agrarian societies. Throughout history, societies have been divided into classes with 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 (1848/1977).

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” (1848/1977).

Making Connections: Sociological Concepts

Marx and the Theory of Alienation

People working on an assembly line clothed in white suits that only leave the eyes uncovered.
Figure 4.18. Assembly of notebook hard drives in Seagate’s “clean room.” Wuxi China (Photo courtesy of Robert Scoble/Twitter)

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 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 purely on 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” (1932/1977).

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]” (1932/1977). 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 exactly the way they are 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” (1848/1977).

Alienation from one’s humanity. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and what makes them 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 — only 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.

Like other elements of the superstructure, “consciousness,” is a product 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 (1848/1977).

Capitalism developed the industrial means by which the problems of economic scarcity could be resolved and, at the same time, intensified the conditions of exploitation due to competition for markets and profits. Thus emerged the conditions for a successful working class revolution. 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, 1848/1977). 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.

To summarise, for Marx, the development of capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries was utterly revolutionary and unprecedented in the scope and scale of the societal transformation it brought about. In his analysis, capitalism is defined by a unique set of features that distinguish it from previous modes of production like feudalism or agrarianism:

These features are structural, meaning that they are built-into, and reinforced by, the institutional organization of the economy. They are structures, or persistent patterns of social relationship that exist, in a sense, prior to individuals’ personal or voluntary choices and motives. As structures, they can be said to define the rules or internal logic that underlie the surface or observable characteristics of a capitalist society: its political, social, economic, and ideological formations. Some isolated cases may exist where some of these features do not apply, but they define the overall system that has come to govern the contemporary global economy.

Marx’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism is historical and materialist because it focuses on the changes in the economic mode of production to explain the transformation of the social order. The expansion of the use of money, the development of commodity markets, the introduction of rents, the accumulation and investment of capital, the creation of new technologies of production, and the early stages of the manufactory system, etc. led to the formation of a new class structure (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat), a new political structure (the nation state), and a new ideological structure (science, human rights, individualism, rationalization, the belief in progress, etc.). The unprecedented transformations that created the modern era — urbanization, colonization, population growth, resource exploitation, social and geographical mobility, etc. — originated in the transformation of the mode of production from feudalism to capitalism. “Only the capitalist production of commodities revolutionizes … the entire economic structure of society in a manner eclipsing all previous epochs” (Marx, 1878). In the space of a couple of hundred years, human life on the planet was irremediably and radically altered. As Marx and Engels put it, capitalism had “create[d] a world after its own image” (1848/1977 ).

Max Weber and Interpretive Sociology

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. Arguably, the primary focus of Weber’s entire sociological oeuvre was to determine how and why Western civilization and capitalism developed, and where and when they developed. Why was the West the West? Why did the capitalist system develop in Europe and not elsewhere? Like Marx and Durkheim, he feared that capitalist industrialization would have negative effects on individuals but his analysis differed from theirs in significant respects. Key to the answer to his questions was the concept of rationalization. If other societies had failed to develop modern capitalist enterprise, modern science, and modern, efficient organizational structures, it was because in various ways they had impeded the development of rationalization. Weber’s question was: what are the consequences of rationality for everyday life, for the social order, and for the spiritual fate of humanity?

Unlike Durkheim’s functionalist emphasis on the sources of social solidarity and Marx’s critical emphasis on the materialist basis of class conflict, Weber’s interpretive perspective on modern society emphasizes the development of a rationalized worldview or stance, which he referred to as 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” (1919/1969).  In other words, the processes of rationalization and disenchantment refer principally to the mode in which modern individuals and institutions interpret or analyze the world and the problems that confront them. As we saw in Chapter 3, rationalization refers to the general tendency in modern society for all institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of rational principles of efficiency and calculation. It overcomes forms of magical thinking and replaces them with cold, objective calculations based on principles of technical efficiency. Older styles of social organization, based on traditional principles of religion, morality, or custom, cannot compete with the efficiency of rational styles of organization and are gradually replaced.

To Weber, capitalism itself became possible through the processes of rationalization. The emergence of capitalism in the West required the prior existence of rational, calculable procedures like double-entry bookkeeping, free labour contracts, free market exchange, and predictable application of law so that it could operate as a form of rational enterprise. Unlike Marx who defined capitalism in terms of the ownership of private property, Weber defined it in terms of its rational processes. For Weber, capitalism is as a form of continuous, calculated economic action in which every element is 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 and spent on luxuries, capitalism rested “on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is, on (formally) peaceful chances for profit.” This implied a continual rationalization of commercial procedures in terms of the logic of capital accumulation. “Where capitalist acquisition is rationally pursued, the corresponding action is adjusted to calculations in terms of capital” (Weber, 1904/1958).

Weber’s analysis of rationalization did not exclusively focus on the conditions for the rise of capitalism however. Capitalism’s “rational” reorganization of economic activity was only one aspect of the broader process of rationalization and disenchantment. Modern science, law, music, art, bureaucracy, politics, and even spiritual life could only have become possible, according to Weber, through the systematic development of precise calculations and planning, technical procedures, and the dominance of “quantitative reckoning.”  He felt that other non-Western societies, however highly sophisticated, had impeded these developments by either missing some crucial element of rationality or by holding to non-rational organizational principles or some element of magical thinking. For example, Babylonian astronomy lacked mathematical foundations, Indian geometry lacked rational proofs, Mandarin bureaucracy remained tied to Confucian traditionalism and the Indian caste system lacked the common “brotherhood” necessary for modern citizenship.

Weber argued however that although the process of rationalization leads to efficiency and effective, calculated decision making, it is in the end an irrational system. The emphasis on rationality and efficiency ultimately has negative effects when taken to its conclusion. 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, ethical values, the integrity of human relationships, the enjoyment of beauty and relaxation) rationalization becomes irrational.

Charlie Chaplin plays a character that struggles to survive in a modern, industrialized world.
Figure 4.19. 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)

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 bolts into place over and over again. The work is paced by the unceasing rotation of the conveyor belt and the technical efficiency of the division of labour. 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. We are trapped in a cage, or literally a “steel housing”(stahlhartes Gehäuse), of efficiently organized processes because rational forms of organization have become indispensable. We must continuously hurry and be efficient because there is no time to “waste.” Weber argued that 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, 1904/1958).

A row of individual work cubicles.
Figure 4.20. Cubicles are used to maximize individual work space in an office. Such structures may be rational, but they are also isolating and dehumanizing. (Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson/flickr)

Making Connections: Sociological Concepts

Max Weber and the Protestant Work Ethic

An advertisement that says, "Puritan Soap Flakes, for everything from baby clothes to blankets."
Figure 4.21. Puritan soap flakes. (Image courtesy of Paul Townsend/Twitter)

If Marx’s analysis is central to the sociological understanding of the structures that emerged with the rise of capitalism, Max Weber is a central figure in the sociological understanding of the effects of capitalism on modern subjectivity: how our basic sense of who we are and what we might aspire to has been defined by the culture and belief system of capitalism. The key work here is Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905/1958) in which he lays out the characteristics of the modern ethos of work. Why do we feel compelled to work so hard?

An ethic or ethos refers to a way of life or a way of conducting oneself in life. For Weber, the Protestant work ethic was at the core of the modern ethos. It prescribes a mode of self-conduct in which discipline, work, accumulation of wealth, self-restraint, postponement of enjoyment, and sobriety are the focus of an individual life.

In Weber’s analysis, the ethic was indebted to the religious beliefs and practices of certain Protestant sects like the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptists who emerged with the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648). The Protestant theologian Richard Baxter proclaimed that the individual was “called” to their occupation by God, and therefore, they had a duty to “work hard in their calling.” “He who will not work shall not eat” (Baxter, as cited in Weber, 1958). This ethic subsequently worked its way into many of the famous dictums popularized by the American Benjamin Franklin, like “time is money” and “a penny saved is two pence dear” (i.e., “a penny saved is a penny earned”).

In Weber’s estimation, the Protestant ethic was fundamentally important to the emergence of capitalism, and a basic answer to the question of how and why it could emerge. Throughout the period of feudalism and the domination of the Catholic Church, an ethic of poverty and non-materialist values was central to the subjectivity and worldview of the Christian population. From the earliest desert monks and followers of St. Anthony to the great Vatican orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, the image of Jesus was of a son of God who renounced wealth, possessions, and the material world. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). We are of course well aware of the hypocrisy with which these beliefs were often practiced, but even in these cases, wealth was regarded in a different manner prior to the modern era. One worked only as much as was required. As Thomas Aquinas put it “labour [is] only necessary … for the maintenance of individual and community. Where this end is achieved, the precept ceases to have any meaning” (Aquinas, as cited in Weber, 1958). Wealth was not “put to work” in the form of a gradual return on investments as it is under capitalism. How was this medieval belief system reversed? How did capitalism become possible?

The key for Weber was the Protestant sects’ doctrines of predestination, the idea of the personal calling, and the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship to God. In the practice of the Protestant sects, no intermediary or priest interpreted God’s will or granted absolution. God’s will was essentially unknown. The individual could only be recognized as one of the predestined “elect” — one of the saved — through outward signs of grace: through the continuous display of moral self-discipline and, significantly, through the accumulation of earthly rewards that tangibly demonstrated God’s favour. In the absence of any way to know with certainty whether one was destined for salvation, the accumulation of wealth and material success became a sign of spiritual grace rather than a sign of sinful, earthly concerns. For the individual, material success assuaged the existential anxiety concerning the salvation of his or her soul. For the community, material success conferred status.

Weber argues that gradually the practice of working hard in one’s calling lost its religious focus, and the ethic of “sober bourgeois capitalism” (Weber, 1905/1958) became grounded in discipline alone: work and self-improvement for their own sake. This discipline of course produces the rational, predictable, and industrious personality type ideally suited for the capitalist economy. For Weber, the consequence of this, however, is that the modern individual feels compelled to work hard and to live a highly methodical, efficient, and disciplined life to demonstrate their self-worth to themselves as much as anyone. The original goal of all this activity — namely religious salvation — no longer exists. It is a highly rational conduct of life in terms of how one lives, but is simultaneously irrational in terms of why one lives. Weber calls this conundrum of modernity the iron cage. Life in modern society is ordered on the basis of efficiency, rationality, and predictability, and other inefficient or traditional modes of organization are eliminated. Once we are locked into the “technical and economic conditions of machine production” it is difficult to get out or to imagine another way of living, despite the fact that one is renouncing all of the qualities that make life worth living: spending time with friends and family, enjoying the pleasures of sensual and aesthetic life, and/or finding a deeper meaning or purpose of existence. We might be obliged to stay in this iron cage “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (Weber, 1905/1958).

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.

Recall from Chapter 3:  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.

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% of the food, their economic power in the society was assured. Where headmen 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).

An 11.1 centimetre high statuette of a female figure.
Figure 4.22. 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 (1884/1972) 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” (1884/1972). 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, 1884/1972). 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 famous 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% of the farm assets in the divorce, the judge ruled that 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, and were kept ignorant and isolated within the domestic sphere. These conditions still exist in the world today. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report (2014) shows that in a significant number of countries women are severely restricted with respect to economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment, and basic health outcomes. Yemen, Pakistan, Chad, Syria, and Mali were the five worst countries in the world in terms of women’s inequality.

Yemen is the world’s worst country for women in 2014, according to the WEF. In addition to being one of the worst countries in women’s economic participation and opportunity, Yemen received some of the world’s worst scores in relative educational attainment and political participation for females. Just half of women in the country could read, versus 83% of men. Further, women accounted for just 9% of ministerial positions and for none of the positions in parliament. Child marriage is a huge problem in Yemen. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2006, 52% of Yemeni girls were married before they reached 18, and 14% were married before they reached 15 years of age (Hess, 2014).

With the rise of capitalism, Engels noted that there was also an improvement in women’s condition when they began to work outside the home. Writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792/1997) were also 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 in order to press their claims for equality.

As the World Economic Forum (2014) study reports, “good progress has been made over the last years on gender equality, and in some cases, in a relatively short time.” Between 2006 and 2014, the gender gap in the measures of economic participation, education, political power, and health narrowed for 95% of the 111 countries surveyed. In the top five countries in the world for women’s equality — Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark — the global gender gap index had closed to 80% or better. (Canada was 19th with a global gender gap index of 75%).

4.3. Living in Capitalist Society

One of the key arguments that sociologists draw from Marx’s analysis is to show that capitalism is not simply an economic system but a social system. The dynamics of capitalism are not a set of obscure economic concerns to be relegated to the business section of the newspaper, but the architecture that underlies the newspaper’s front page headlines; in fact, every headline in the paper. At the time when Marx was developing his analysis, 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. Today capitalism has left no place on earth and no aspect of daily life untouched.

As a social system, one of the main characteristics of capitalism is incessant change, which is why the culture of capitalism is often referred to as modernity. The cultural life of capitalist society can be described as a series of successive “presents,” each of which defines what is modern, new, or fashionable for a brief time before fading away into obscurity like the 78 rpm record, the 8-track tape, and the CD. As Marx and Engels put it, “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fast-frozen relations … are swept away, all new ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…” (1848/1977, p. 224). From the ghost towns that dot the Canadian landscape to the expectation of having a lifetime career, every element of social life under capitalism has a limited duration.

Key Terms

alienation: The condition in which an individual is isolated from his or her society, work, sense of self and/or common humanity.

anomie: A situation of uncertain norms and regulations in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness.

anthropocene:  The geological epoch defined by the impact of human activitieson the global ecosystem.

bourgeoisie: The owners of the means of production in a society.

class consciousness: Awareness of one’s class position and interests.

collective conscience: The communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society.

dialectic of culture:  The way in which the creation of culture is both constrained by limits given by the environment and a means to go beyond these natural limits.

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

ethos:  A way of life or a way of conducting oneself in life.

false consciousness: When a person’s beliefs and ideology are in conflict with his or her best interests.

feudal societies: Agricultural societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership, protection and mutual obligations.

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.

iron cage: A situation in which an individual is trapped by the rational and efficient processes of social institutions.

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

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.

neolithic revolution:  The economic transition to sedentary, agriculture based societies beginning approximately 10,200 years.

organic solidarity:  Social solidarity or cohesion through a complex division of labour, mutual interdependence and restitutive law.

pastoral societies: Societies based around the domestication of animals.

proletariat: The wage labourers in capitalist society.

Protestant work ethic: The duty to work hard in one’s calling.

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.

social class: A group defined by a distinct relationship to the means of production.

social integration: How strongly a person is connected to his or her social group.

social structure: General patterns of social behaviour and organization that persist through time.

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

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 the Formation of Modern 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.


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.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

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?

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:

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. Introduction to Society and Social Interaction
Maasai Association. (n.d.). Facing the lion: By Massai warriors. Retrieved January 4, 2012 (

4.1. Types of Societies

Bookchin, Murray. (1982). The ecology of freedom: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy. (Palo Alto, CA.: Cheshire Books).

Carrington, Damian. (2014, August 1). Amazon tribe makes first contact with outside world. The Guardian. Retrieved September 24, 2015 from

Clastres, Pierre. (1987). Society against the state: Essays in political anthropology. NY: Zone Books

Comte, August. (1975). The nature and importance of the positive philosophy. In Gertrud Lenzer (Ed.), Auguste Comte and positivism: the essential writings. NY: Harper and Row. (original work published 1830)

Crutzen, Paul and  Eugene Stoermer,  (2000, May). The Anthropocene. [PDF] Global change newsletter. No. 41: 17-18. Retrieved Oct. 4, 2015 from

Diamond, Jared. (1999, May 1). The worst mistake in the history of the human race. Discover. Retrieved Oct. 1, 2015 from (originally published in the May 1987 Issue)

Diamond, Stanley. (1974). In search of the primitive. Chicago: Transaction Books

Haraway, Donna. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature (Ch. 8). London: Free Association

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. (2005, July 29). Israel: Treatment of Bedouin, including incidents of harassment, discrimination or attacks; State protection (January 2003–July 2005). Refworld. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Kenton, Edna. (1954). The Jesuit relations and allied documents. NY: Vanguard Press.

Kjeilen, Tore. (n.d.). Bedouin. Retrieved February 17, 2012 (

Kurzweil, Ray. (2009). Ray Kurzweil on the future of nanotechnology. Big think. Retrieved, Oct. 4, 2015, from

Larson, Gregor. (2015). How wheat came to Britain. Science, Vol. 347 (6225): 945-946.

Lee, Richard. (1978). Politics, sexual and nonsexual, in an egalitarian society. Social science information, 17.

Marx, Karl. (1977). Preface to a critique of political economy. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (pp. 388–392). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1859)

Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Oliver, Garry Momber, Richard Bates, Paul Garwood, Simon Fitch, Mark Pallen, Vincent Gaffney, Robin G. Allaby. (2015). Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years ago. Science, Vol. 347 (6225): 998-1001 

Stavrianos, Leften. (1990). Lifelines from our past: A new world history.  NY: LB Taurus

Sterling, Bruce. (1996). Holy fire. New York: Bantam Spectra.

von Daniken, E. (1969). Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved mysteries of the past. London: Souvenir.

Wright, Ronald. (2004). A short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

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). The Division of labor in society. (George Simpson, Trans.). New York: Free Press. (original work published 1893).

Durkheim, Émile. (1982). The Rules of the Sociological Method. (W. D. Halls, Trans.). New York: Free Press. (original work published 1895)

Endicott, Karen. (1999). Gender relations in hunter-gatherer societies.  In R.B. Lee and R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 411–418). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engels, Friedrich. (1972). The origin of the family, private property and the state. New York: International Publishers. (original work published 1884)

Engels, Friedrich. (1892). The Condition of the working-class in England in 1844. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Hess, Alexander. (2014, November 29). 10 Worst Countries For Women. Huffpost Business: Huffington Post. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015 from

Lerner, Gerda. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford Press.

Marx, Karl. (1995). Capital: A critique of political economy. Marx/Engels Archive [Internet]. Retrieved February 18, 2014 ( (original work published 1867)

Marx, Karl. (1977). Economic and philosophical manuscripts. In David McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 75–112). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1932)

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. (1977). The Communist manifesto (Selections).  In David McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 221–247). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1848)

Weber, Max. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (original work published 1904)

Weber, Max. (1969). Science as a Vocation. In H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 129-158). NY: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1919)

Wollstonecraft, Mary. (1997). A vindication of the rights of women. In D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (Eds.), The vindications: The rights of men and the rights of woman. Toronto: Broadview Literary Texts. (original work published in 1792)

World Economic Forum. (2014). The global gender gap report: 2014. [PDF] Insight Report. Geneva: World economic forum. Retrieved Oct 18, 2015 from

Solutions to Section Quiz

1 C, | 2 A, | 3 C, | 4 B, | 5 C, | 6 A, | 7 D, | 8 A, | 9 A | [Return to quiz]

Image Attributions

Figure 4.1. “Effigy of a Shaman from Haida Tribe, late 19th century” from Wellcome Library  (,_late_19th_century._Wellcome_L0007356.jpg) is licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 4.2.Ceremonial rattle in the form of the mythical thunder-bird” from the British Museum Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections (1910)  by Internet Archive Book Images ( is licensed under the rule that “no known copyright restrictions” exist (

Figure 4.4. “Blackfoot Indians” from Library and Archives Canada ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.5. “The Salish Sea” by Arct ( is licenced under  CC-BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 4.6. “Maize-teosinte” by John Doebley ( is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Figure 4.7. “Roman Collared Slaves” from the  Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England ( is licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0 .

Figure 4.8. “Isla de Pascua – 628 .-“ by Alberto Beaudroit  ( is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 4.9.  Bayeux Tapestry – Scene 23 by Myrabella ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.10. “Women wrapping and packing bars of soap in the Colgate-Palmolive Canada plant on the northwest corner of Carlaw and Colgate Avenues in Toronto, Ontario, Canada” by Pringle & Booth, Toronto ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.11. George Stephen, 1965 by William Notman ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.12. “The Desk” by Charlie Styr ( used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license (

Figure 4.13. “Dengue virus infection” by Sanofi Pasteur ( used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license (

Figure 4.14. 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 4.18. Seagate’s clean room by Robert Scoble ( used under CC BY 2.0 licence (

Figure 4.19. Charlie Chaplin by Insomnia Cured Here ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 license (

Figure 4.20. I Love Cubicles by Tim Patterson ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 4.21. Puritan soap packet by Paul Townsend ( used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (

Figure 4.22. Venus of Willendorf by MatthiasKabel ( used under CC BY SA 3.0 license (

Long Descriptions

Figure 4.14 Long Description: Pencil drawing of a large, multi-floor building and a tall smoke stack to the far right. People fill the surrounding sidewalk and street cars and horses move through the streets. [Return to Figure 4.14.]


Chapter 5. Socialization

Four children walking on stepping stones to get accross a small pond.
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

  • Describe the self as a social structure.
  • Explain the four stages of role development in child socialization.
  • Analyze the formation of a gender schema in the socialization of gender roles.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters

  • Analyze the importance of socialization for individuals and society.
  • Explain the nature versus nurture debate.
  • Describe both the conformity of behaviour in society and the existence of individual uniqueness.

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 people are socialized into new roles at age-related transition points.
  • Describe when and how resocialization occurs.

Introduction to Socialization

Victor of Aveyron
Figure 5.2. Victor, the wild boy or “feral child” of Aveyron, France grew up alone in the woods until age 12. He was only able to learn rudimentary language and social skills. Victor was the subject of the Francois Truffault film L’Enfant Sauvage (1970). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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 Mysterious Girl in the Window?

Entering the house, Detective Holste and his team were shocked. It was the worst mess they had 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 is where he found a 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 would not look anyone in the eyes, did not know how to chew or swallow solid food, did not cry, did not respond to stimuli that would typically cause pain, and did not 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. It also describes the way people come to be aware of themselves and to reflect on the suitability of their behaviour in their interactions with others.  Socialization occurs as people engage and disengage in a series of roles throughout life. Each role, like the role of son or daughter, student, friend, employee, etc., is defined by the behaviour expected of a person who occupies a particular position.

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. Without socialization, Danielle had not learned about the material culture of her society (the tangible objects a culture uses): For example, she could not hold a spoon, bounce a ball, or use a chair for sitting. She also had not learned its nonmaterial culture, such as its beliefs, values, and norms. She had no understanding of the concept of family, did not 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.

In the following sections, we will examine the importance of the complex process of socialization and learn 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 a “self” that is then able to be socialized.

5.1. Theories of Self Development

Danielle’s case underlines an important point that sociologists make about socialization, namely that the human self does not emerge “naturally” as a process driven by biological mechanisms. What is a self? What does it mean to have a self? The self refers to a person’s distinct sense of identity. It is who we are for ourselves and who we are for others. It has consistency and continuity through time and a coherence that distinguishes us as persons. However, there is something always precarious and incomplete about the self. Selves change through the different stages of life; sometimes they do not measure up to the ideals we hold for ourselves or others, and sometimes they can be wounded by our interactions with others or thrown into crisis. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, one’s distinct sense of identity is a “postulated self,” a “horizon towards which I strive and by which I assess, censure and correct my moves” (2004). It is clear, however, that the self does not develop in the absence of socialization. The self is a social product.

The American sociologist George Herbert Mead is often seen as the founder of the school of symbolic interactionism in sociology, although he referred to himself a social behaviourist. His conceptualization of the self has been very influential. Mead defines the emergence of the self as a thoroughly social process: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience” (Mead, 1934).

In this description, you should notice first that the key quality of the self that Mead is concerned with is the ability to be reflexive or self-aware (i.e., to be an “object” to oneself). One can think about oneself, or feel how one is feeling. Second, this key quality of the self can only arise in a social context through social interactions with others. In Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self,” others, and their attitudes towards us, are like mirrors in which we are able to see ourselves and formulate an idea of who we are (Cooley, 1902). Without others, or without society, the self does not exist: “[I]t is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience” (Mead, 1934, p. 293).

Figure 5.3. “What iss he, my preciouss?” Gollum in The Hobbit lived in isolation under the Misty Mountains for 500 years. To the degree that he had a coherent self, it was because he still had a robust and ongoing internalized conversation with the ring of power, his “precious.” (Image courtesy of Brenda Clarke/Flickr)

Even when the self is alone for extended periods of time (hermits, prisoners in isolation, etc.), an internal conversation goes on that would not be possible if the individual had not been socialized already. The examples of feral children like Victor of Aveyron or children like Danielle who have been raised under conditions of extreme social deprivation attest to the difficulties these individuals confront when trying to develop this reflexive quality of humanity. They often cannot use language, form intimate relationships, or play games. So socialization is not simply the process through which people learn the norms and rules of a society, it also is the process by which people become aware of themselves as they interact with others. It is the process through which people are able to become people in the first place.

The necessity for early social contact was demonstrated by the research of Harry and Margaret Harlow. From 1957–1963, 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 terry cloth “mother.” The monkeys systematically preferred the company of a soft, terry cloth 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 & 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.

Rhesus moneys
Figure 5.4. Baby rhesus monkeys, like humans, need to be raised with social contact for healthy development. (Photo courtesy of Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Flickr)

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 sociology, have described the process of self development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud
Figure 5.5. The Austrian Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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 universal psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Each stage involves the child’s discovery and passage through the bodily pleasures linked to breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud, 1905).

Key to Freud’s approach to child development was his emphasis on tracing the formations of desire and pleasure in a 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 that the child 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 the failure of a child to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage of 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.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based on the work of Freud. However, Erikson was also interested in the social and cultural dimensions of Freud’s child development schema (1963). Following Freud, he noted that each stage of psychosexual 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 he believed 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 communally-based Sioux First Nation was not to wean infants but to breastfeed until the infant 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 practice early weaning of children, which leads to a more distrustful character structure. Children develop a possessive disposition toward objects that carries with them through to adulthood.  The result of early weaning is that 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 like the Sioux, 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 based on individualism, competition, self-reliance, and self-control (Erikson, 1963).

Making Connections: Sociological Concepts

Sociology or Psychology: What’s the Difference?

Sub fields of social psychology. Long description available.
Figure 5.6. Social psychology (SP): The overlap between sociological social psychology (SSP) and psychological social psychology (PSP) [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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, for example? 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 across 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).

Charles Horton Cooley

People can use Facebook to reflects an ideal image of themselves. Long description available
Figure 5.7. Do contemporary social media like Facebook present a new mode of “looking glass self” today? [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Joelle L/Fickr)

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives on self-development was the American Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929). Cooley 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). According to Cooley, we base our image on what we think other people see (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).

The self or “self idea” is thoroughly social. It is not an expression of the internal essence of the individual, or of the individual’s unique psychology which emerges as the individual matures. It is based on how we imagine we appear to others. It is not how we actually appear to others but our projection of what others think or feel towards us.  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 judgement of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification” (Cooley, 1902).

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead
Figure 5.8. George Herbert Mead, along with Cooley, is considered the founder of the symbolic interactionist tradition in sociology (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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. As we noted above, he argued 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”?  In Mead’s theory of childhood development, the child develops through stages in which the child’s increasing ability to play roles attests to his or her increasing solidification of a social sense of self. A role is the behaviour expected of a person who occupies particular social status or position in society. In learning to play roles one also learns how to put oneself in the place of another, to see through another’s eyes. At one point in their life, a child simply cannot play a game like baseball; they do not “get it” because they cannot insert themselves into the complex role of the player. They cannot see themselves from the point of view of all the other players on the field or figure out their place within a rule bound sequence of activities. At another point in their life, a child becomes able to learn how to play. Mead developed a specifically sociological theory of the path of development that all people go through by focusing on the developing capacity to put oneself in the place of another, or role play: the four stages of child socialization.

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 him- or herself. The separation of I and me does not yet exist in an organized manner to enable the child to relate to him- or herself.

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 cell phone the way they see their father do.

He plays that he is, for instance, offering himself something, and he buys it; he gives a letter to himself and takes it away; he addresses himself as a parent, as a teacher; he arrests himself as a policeman…. The child says something in one character and responds in another character, and then his responding in another character is a stimulus to himself in the first character, and so the conversation goes on. (Mead, 1934)

However, children 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. They “pass[..] from one role to another just as a whim takes [them]” (Mead, 1934).

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, etc.

Young children playing baseball
Figure 5.9. In the game of baseball each player “must know what everyone else is going to do in order to carry out his [or her] own play” (Mead, 1934). (Image courtesy of Public Affairs Office Fort Wainwright/Flickr).

Mead uses the example of a baseball game. “If we contrast play with the situation in an organized game, we note the essential difference that the child who plays in a game must be ready to take the attitude of everyone else involved in that game, and that these different roles must have a definite relationship to each other” (Mead, 1934). At one point in learning to play baseball, children 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 know simultaneously the role of every other player on the field. They have to see the game from the perspective of others. “What he does is controlled by his being everyone else on that team, at least in so far as those attitudes affect his own particular response” (Mead, 1934). The players have to be able to anticipate the actions of others and adjust or orient their behaviour accordingly. Role play in games like baseball involves the understanding that ones own role is tied to the roles of several people simultaneously and that these roles are governed by fixed, or at least mutually recognized, rules and expectations. 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 several 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. “[O]nly in so far as he takes the attitudes of the organized social group to which he belongs toward the organized, cooperative social activity or set of such activities in which that group as such is engaged, does he develop a complete self” (Mead, 1934). This capacity defines the conditions of thinking, of language, and of society itself as the organization of complex co-operative processes and activities.

It is in the form of the generalized other that the social process influences the behavior of the individuals involved in it and carrying it on, that is, that the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members; for it is in this form that the social process or community enters as a determining factor into the individual’s thinking. In abstract thought the individual takes the attitude of the generalized other toward himself, without reference to its expression in any particular other individuals; and in concrete thought he takes that attitude in so far as it is expressed in the attitudes toward his behavior of those other individuals with whom he is involved in the given social situation or act. But only by taking the attitude of the generalized other toward himself, in one or another of these ways, can he think at all; for only thus can thinking — or the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking-occur. And only through the taking by individuals of the attitude or attitudes of the generalized other toward themselves is the existence of a universe of discourse, as that system of common or social meanings which thinking presupposes at its context, rendered possible. (Mead, 1934)

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and Gilligan’s Theory of Gender Differences

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 is not 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 North Americans believing that everyone has equal rights and freedoms. 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 autocracy, they were using postconventional morality. They understood that although their government was legal, it was not morally correct.

Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was conducted only on male subjects. Would female 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, laws, and individual rights. They learn to morally view the world in terms of categorization and separation. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective; they are concerned with responsibilities to others and consider people’s reasons behind behaviour that seems morally wrong. They learn to morally view the world in terms of connectedness.

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).

The Socialization of Gender

A Cinderella doll with a dress for cleaning, a ball gown, and a wedding dress.
Figure 5.10. Royal Style Cinderella Disney Princess (Image courtesy of Mike Mozart/Flickr)

How do girls and boys learn different gender roles? Gender differences in the ways boys and girls play and interact develop from a very early age, sometimes despite the efforts of parents to raise them in a gender neutral way. Little boys seem inevitably to enjoy running around playing with guns and projectiles, while little girls like to study the effects of different costumes on toy dolls. Peggy Orenstein (2012) describes how her two-year-old daughter happily wore her engineer outfit and took her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox to the first day of preschool. It only took one little boy to say to her that “girls don’t like trains!” for her to ditch Thomas and move on to more gender “appropriate” concerns like princesses. If gender preferences are not inborn or biologically hard-wired, how do sociologists explain them?

As the Thomas the Tank Engine example suggests, doing gender — performing tasks based upon the gender assigned by society — is learned through interaction with others in much the same way that Mead and Cooley described for socialization in general. Children learn gender through direct feedback from others, particularly when they are censured for violating gender norms. Gender is in this sense an accomplishment rather than an innate trait. It takes place through the child’s developing awareness of self. Whereas in the Freudian model of gender development children become aware of their own genitals and spontaneously generate erotic fantasies and speculations whose resolution lead them to identify with their mother or father, in the sociological model, it is adults’ awareness of a child’s genitals that leads to gender labelling, differential reinforcement and the assumption of gender roles.

From a very early age children develop a gender schema, a rudimentary image of gender differences, that enables them to make decisions about appropriate styles of play and behaviour (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). As they integrate their sense of self  into this developing schema, they gradually adopt consistent and stable gender roles. Consistency and stability do not mean that the gender roles that are learned are permanent, however, as would be suggested by a biological or hard-wired model of gender. Physical expressions of gender such as “throwing like a girl” can be transformed into a new stable gender schema when the little girl joins a softball league.

Fagot and Leinbach’s (1986, 1989) research into the development of gender schemas  showed that very young children, averaging about two years old, could not correctly classify photographs of adults and children by their gender; whereas, slightly older children, averaging 2.5 years old, could. They concluded that the younger children had not yet developed a gender schema. They also observed that the older children who could correctly classify the photos by gender demonstrated gender specific play; they tended to choose same-gender play groups and girls were less aggressive in their play. The older children were integrating their sense of self into their gender schemas and behaving accordingly.

Similarly, when they studied children at home, they found that children at age 1.5 could not assign gender to photographs correctly and did not engage in gender-typed play. However, by age 2.25 years about half of the children could classify the photos and were engaging in gender specific play. These “early labellers” were distinguished from those who could not classify photos by the way their parents interacted with them. Parents of early adopters were more likely to use differential reinforcement in the form of positive and negative responses to gender-typed toy play.

It is interesting, with respect to the difference between the Freudian and sociological models of gender socialization, that the gender schemas of young children develop with respect to external cultural signs of gender rather than biological markers of genital differences. Sandra Bem (1989) showed young children photos of either a naked child or a child dressed in boys or girls clothing. The younger children had difficulty classifying the naked photos but could classify the clothed photos. They did not have an understanding of biological sex constancy — i.e. the ability to determine sex based on anatomy regardless of gender signs — but used cultural signs of gender like clothing or hair style to determine gender. Moreover, it was the gender schema and not the recognition of anatomical differences that first determined their choice of gender-typed toys and gender-typed play groups. Bem suggested that “children who can label the sexes but do not understand anatomical stability are not yet confident that they will always remain in one gender group” (1989).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

What a Pretty Little Lady!

A young girl wearing a pink "princess" dress.
Figure 5.11. Peggy Orenstein on “princess culture”: “Within a month [of starting preschool], Daisy threw a tantrum when I tried to wrestle her into pants. As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. She gazed longingly into the tulle-draped windows of the local toy stores and for her third birthday begged for a “real princess dress” with matching plastic high heels” (Orenstein, 2012). (Image courtesy of Dave Jacquin/Flickr)

“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. 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 do not 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 before baseball 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.

Two people sitting in a restaurant.
Figure 5.12. 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 and 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.

Figure 5.13. Identical twins may look alike, but their differences can give us clues to the effects of socialization. (Photo courtesy of D. Flam/Flickr)

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 or 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, by then age 35, were 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 this 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. As we noted in Chapter 3, the logic of biological explanation usually involves three components: the identification of a supposedly universal quality or trait of human behaviour, an attribution of a genetic source of the behavioural trait, and an argument why this behaviour makes it more likely that the genes that code for it will be passed successfully to descendents. The conclusion of this reasoning is that this behaviour or quality is hard-wired or difficult to change (Lewontin, 1991).

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: Case Study

The Life of Chris Langan, the Smartest Man You’ve Never Heard Of

Christopher Michael Langan as a young boy
Figure 5.14. Christopher Michael Langan (left), stands with a relative during the 1950’s, in San Francisco, CA. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Bouncer. Firefighter. Factory worker. Cowboy. Chris Langan (b. 1952) has spent the majority of his adult life just getting by with jobs like these. He has no college degree, few resources, and a past filled with much disappointment. Chris Langan also has 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 in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), 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, and he was moved 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 University, 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 has in brilliance, he lacks in 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).

Individual and Society

How do sociologists explain both the conformity of behaviour in society and the existence of individual uniqueness? The concept of socialization raises a classic problem of sociological analysis: the problem of agency. How is it possible for there to be individual differences, individual choice, or individuality at all if human development is about assuming socially defined roles? How can an individual have agency, the ability to choose and act independently of external constraints? Since Western society places such value on individuality, in being oneself or in resisting peer pressure and other pressures to conform, the question of where society ends and where the individual begins often is foremost in the minds of students of sociology. Numerous debates in the discipline focus on this question.

However, from the point of view emphasized in this chapter, it is a false question. As noted previously, for Mead the individual “agent” already is a “social structure.” No separation exists between the individual and society; the individual is thoroughly social from the inside out and vice versa.

Mead addressed the question of agency at the level of the relationship between the “I” and the “me” as two “phases” that flip back and forth in the life of the self. The “me” is the part of the self in which one recognizes and assumes the expectations or “organized sets of attitudes” of others: our social roles, our designations, our personalities (as they appear to others), and so on. On the basis of the “me” the individual knows what is expected of him or her in a social situation and what the consequences of an action will be. The “I” represents the part of the self which acts or responds to the organized attitudes of others. It is, however, the unpredictable part of the self which embodies the principles of novelty, spontaneity, freedom, initiative (and the possibility of change) in social action because we can never be sure in advance how we will act, nor be certain of the outcome of our actions. “Exactly how we will act never gets into experience until after the action takes place” (Mead, 1934). Both phases are thoroughly social — the individual only ever experiences him- or herself “indirectly” from the standpoint of others — but without the two phases “there could be no conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience” (Mead, 1934).

In a similar manner, sociologists argue that individuals vary because the social environments to which they adapt vary. The socialization process  occurs in different social environments — i.e., environments made up of the responses of others — each of which impose distinctive and unique requirements. In one family, children are permitted unlimited access to TV and video games; in another, there are no TV or video games, for example. When they are growing up, children adapt and develop different strategies of play and recreation. Their parents and others respond to the child’s choices, either by reinforcing them or encouraging different choices. Along a whole range of social environmental differences and responses, support and resistance, children gradually develop stable and consistent orientations to world, each to some degree unique because each is formed from the vantage point unique to the place in society the child occupies. Individual variation and individual agency are possible because society itself varies in each social situation. Indeed, the configuration of society itself differs according to each individual’s contribution to each social situation.

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. Individuals learn and assume different social roles as they age. The roles come with relatively fixed norms and social expectations attached, which allow for predictable interactions between people, but how the individual lives and balances their roles is subject to variation. 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 with different expectations about their place in society according to their gender, social class, and race. As in the life of Chris Langan, this creates different and unequal opportunities and, therefore, differences between unique individuals. A symbolic 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. For the symbolic interactionist, though, how these messages are formulated and how they are interpreted are always situational, always renewed, and defined by the specific situations in which the communication occurs.

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 the child 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 education 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 said, 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 Swedish 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?

A man washing a baby's hair under the tap.
Figure 5.15. 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 not necessarily friends but 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. This is often a period of parental-child conflict and rebellion as parental values come into conflict with those of youth peer groups. 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. They are especially influential, therefore, with respect to preferences in music, style, clothing, etc., sharing common social activities, and learning to engage in romantic relationships. With peers, adolescents experiment with new experiences outside the control of parents: sexual relationships, drug and alcohol use, political stances, hair and clothing choices, and so forth. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence. Conflict between parents and teenagers is usually temporary and in the end families exert more influence than peers over educational choices and political, social, and religious attitudes.

Peer groups might be the source of rebellious youth culture, but they can also be understood as agents of social integration. The seemingly spontaneous way that youth in and out of school divide themselves into cliques with varying degrees of status or popularity prepares them for the way the adult world is divided into status groups. The racial characteristics, gender characteristics, intelligence characteristics, and wealth characteristics that lead to being accepted in more or less popular cliques in school are the same characteristics that divide people into status groups in adulthood.

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 and 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.

Children sit on the floor around a teacher as she reads to them.
Figure 5.16. These kindergarteners are not just learning to read and write; they are being socialized to norms like keeping their hands to themselves, standing in line, and singing the national anthem. (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 of A, B, C, etc. students (Bowles & 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 practice 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, to wait their turn, and to sit 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 school 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, recent textbook editions include information about the mistreatment of First Nations which 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: Sociology in the Real World

Controversial Textbooks

Figure 5.17. 1809 map of Korea and Japan by Edinburgh cartographer John Pinkerton. (Courtesy of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps/Wikimedia Commons).

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 these people were 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.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Girls and Movies

A collections of small pink clothes.
Figure 5.18. 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 ten 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 relative to male characters, 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 express 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 company’s first film to star 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).


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 — adult, taxpayer, senior — 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, & Rideout, 2005; Oliveira, 2013). Statistics Canada reports that for the sample of people they surveyed about their time use in 2010, 73 percent said they watched 2 hours 52 minutes of television on a given day (see the Participants column in Table 5.1 below). Television continues to be the mass medium that occupies the most free time of the average Canadian, but the internet has become the fastest growing mass medium. In the Statistics Canada survey, television use on a given day declined from 77 percent to 73 percent between 1998 and 2010, but computer use increased amongst all age groups from 5 percent to 24 percent and averaged 1 hour 23 minutes on any given day. People who played video games doubled from 3 percent to 6 percent between 1998 and 2010, and the average daily use increased from 1 hour 48 minutes to 2 hours 20 minutes (Statistics Canada, 2013).  People learn about objects of material culture (like new technology, transportation, and consumer options), as well as nonmaterial culture—what is true (beliefs), what is important (values), and what is expected (norms).

Table 5.1. Average time per day spent on various activities for participants aged 15 and over, grouped by sex, Canada, 2010

[Skip Table]

Activity group Population Participants Participation rate
Total Male Female Total Male Female Total Male Female
hours and minutes hours and minutes percentage
1. Television, reading, and other passive leisure 02:29 02:39 02:20 03:08 03:19 02:58 79 80 79
Watching television 02:06 02:17 01:55 02:52 03:03 02:41 73 75 71
Reading books, magazines, newspapers 00:20 00:18 00:23 01:26 01:29 01:25 24 20 27
Other passive leisure 00:03 00:03 00:02 01:04 01:16 00:52 4 4 4
2. Active leisure 01:13 01:27 00:59 02:22 02:42 02:01 51 54 49
Active sports 00:30 00:37 00:23 01:54 02:12 01:34 26 28 25
Computer use 00:20 00:23 00:17 01:23 01:32 01:14 24 25 23
Video games 00:09 00:14 00:04 02:20 02:40 01:38 6 9 4
Other active leisure 00:14 00:13 00:15 02:05 02:06 02:04 11 10 12
Note: Average time spent is the average over a 7-day week.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2010 (Statistics Canada, 2011). Note: this survey asked approximately 15,400 Canadians aged 15 and over to report in a daily journal details of the time they spent on various activities on  a given day. Because they were reporting about a given day, the figures sited about the average use of television and other media differ from reports provided by BBM and other groups on the average weekly usage, like the figure of 4 hours per day of TV cited in Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout (2005) above.

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. Human development is not simply a product of the biological changes of physical maturation or the cognitive changes of psychological development, but follows a pattern of  engaging and disengaging from a succession of roles that does not end with childhood but continues through the course of our lives.

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. At each point in life, as an individual sheds previous roles and assumes new ones, institutions or situations are involved, which requires both learning and revising one’s self-definition: You are no longer living at home; you have a job! You are no longer a child; you in the army! You are no longer single; you are going to have a child! You are no longer free; you are going to jail! You are no longer in mid-life; it is time to retire!

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.

Adolescence in general is a period stretching from puberty to about 18 years old, characterized by the role adjustment from childhood to adulthood. It is a stage of development in which the self is redefined through a more or less arduous process of “socialized anxiety” (Davis, 1944), re-examination and reorientation. As Jean Piaget described it, adolescence is a “decisive turning point … at which the individual rejects, or at least revises his estimate of everything that has been inculcated in him, and acquires a personal point of view and a personal place in life” (1947).  It involves a fundamental “growth process” according to Edgar Friedenberg “to define the self through the clarification of experience and to establish self esteem” (1959).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Gap Year: How Different Societies Socialize Young Adults

Figure 5.19. Prince William, who took a gap year after secondary school. (Photo courtesy of Alexandre Goulet/Wikimedia Commons)

Have you ever heard of a 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 upon. 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 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 countries? Can you think of similar social norms — related to life age-transition points — that vary from country to country?

In some cultures, adolescence is marked and ritualized through a clear rite of passage, a ritual that marks a life cycle transition from a previous status to a new status. Wade Davis described the rite of passage of Algonquin boys of northeastern North America when they hit puberty: Traditionally, the boys were isolated from the rest of the tribe in longhouses for two or three weeks and consumed nothing but a hallucinogenic plant from the datura family (1985). During the long disorienting period of intoxication brought on by the plant the boys would forget what it meant to be a child and learn what it was to be a man.

In modern North American society, the rites of passage are not so clear cut or socially recognized. Already in 1959, Friedenberg argued that the process was hindered because of the pervasiveness of mass media that interfered with the expression of individuality crucial to this stage of life. Nevertheless, North American adolescence provided a similar trial by fire entry into adulthood: “The juvenile era provides the solid earth of life; the security of having stood up for yourself in a tough and tricky situation; the comparative immunity of knowing for yourself just exactly how the actions that must not be mentioned feel…the calm gained from having survived among comrades, that makes one ready to have friends” (Friedenberg, 1959).

Graduation from formal education — high school, vocational school, or college — involves a formal, ceremonial rite of passage yet again and socialization into a new set of expectations. Educational expectations vary not only from culture to culture, but from social class to social 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 others within their family may have done before them.

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. University students volunteer, take internships, or enter co-op programs to get a taste for work in their chosen careers. 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,  “a society in which the conditions under which its members act change faster than it takes the ways of acting to consolidate into habits and routines” (2005).  As opposed to previous eras when one could expect to have a predictable sequence of role transitions — from school to work to retirement, from single to married to parenting to empty nest, etc. — 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, more open to taking on new roles or picking and choosing from a globalized palette of cultural values and practices.

Bauman observes that this has lead to a new basis of calculation when it comes to passing through the stages of transition in the adult life cycle. In the absence of any clear, permanent, institutional structures of continuity and stable transition through the life course, people are thrown back on themselves to provide their own continuity. Jobs disappear overnight, marriages end, friends and family move, and online communities emerge. Under these circumstances each life choice is regarded as temporary and provisional and, thereby, it involves a calculated trade off between maximizing flexibility or commitment. It is a risk to put all one’s eggs in one basket. The individual has to continually decide “which one of the alternative identities to select and how long to hold on to it once the choice has been made?” (Bauman, 2004). Therefore, individuals enter jobs with an eye to their exit strategy, seizing opportunities to continually retrain, upgrade skills, and make contacts to be prepared for a better job to show up. They enter into amorous relationships on the basis of what Bauman calls “confluent love:” “a relationship that lasts only as long as, and not a moment longer than, the satisfaction it brings to both partners” (2004). In love, dumping the partner is a normal event to be planned for. They cultivate a wider network of “weak ties” rather than committing to deep friendships.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Long Road to Adulthood for Millennials

A Y hanging on a wall
Figure 5.20. Generation Y. (Image courtesy of Patrick Marione/Flickr)

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” (2010). These social milestones are taking longer for Millennials to attain, if they are attained at all. Sociologists wonder what long-term impact this generation’s situation may have on society as a whole. It is possible that adulthood will need to be redefined with new milestones. Meanwhile, preliminary survey research on Generation Z, born after 2000, suggests that these children of the post-boomer Generation X are both completely fluent in digital technology and raised to be more self-reliant. It is also estimated that for each Generation Z member to enter the workforce, three baby boomers will be retiring. However, the world they confront is characterized by monumental global risks such as climate change,  geopolitical insecurity and increasing inequality (Bland, 2016).


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, asylums, 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 a total institution (Sapers, 2013). As another example, every branch of the military is a total institution.

A group of women walk in straight lines perfectly in sync with one another.
Figure 5.21. 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)

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. Erving Goffman referred to the process of being stripped of ones external identity as a “mortification of the self” (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.

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, march in correct formations, and salute when in the presence of superior officers.

Figure 5.22. Riverview mental hospital, Port Coquitlam, B.C. (Image courtesy of Niall Williams/Flickr)

In Asylum (1961), Goffman provides an acute analysis of some of the perverse implications of resocialization within the structure of total institutions. In institutions of resocialization, inmates pass through a standard sequence of changes with respect to how their capacity to act “morally” (i.e., as someone answerable for their actions) is established, recognized,  and affirmed by others (and by themselves), which Goffman refers to as their moral career. Goffman observed that the strategems for securing recognition of viable selfhood or moral capacity from others — mental patients from ward staff, for example — often undermined the stated goals of rehabilitation. As it was the psychiatric authorities who decided who had viable selfhood and who did not, and as tangible benefits of status and privileges were at stake, the setting of the mental institution provided the conditions under which amoral strategies of self became effective. Patients found that “it is not very practicable to sustain solid claims about oneself” because these were easily torn down by staff after glancing at the patients records (Goffman, 1961). Instead it was easier give up the goal of “moral” rehabilitation and just mimic what the staff wanted to get privileges.

Learning to live under conditions of imminent exposure and wide fluctuation in regard, with little control over the granting or withholding of this regard, is an important step in the socialization of the patient, a step that tells something important about what it is like to be an inmate in a mental hospital. Having one’s past mistakes and present progress under constant moral review seems to make for a special adaptation consisting of a less than moral attitude to ego ideals. One’s shortcomings and successes become too central and fluctuating an issue in life to allow the usual commitment of concern for other persons’ views of them. It is not very practicable to try to sustain solid claims about oneself. The inmate tends to learn that degradations and reconstructions of the self need not be given too much weight, at the same time learning that staff and inmates are ready to view an inflation or deflation of a self with some indifference. He learns that a defensible picture of self can be seen as something outside oneself that can be constructed, lost, and rebuilt, all with great speed and some equanimity. He learns about the viability of taking up a standpoint — and hence a self — that is outside the one which the hospital can give and take away from him.

The setting, then, seems to engender a kind of cosmopolitan sophistication, a kind of civic apathy. In this unserious yet oddly exaggerated moral context, building up a self or having it destroyed becomes something of a shameless game, and learning to view this process as a game seems to make for some demoralization, the game being such a fundamental one. In the hospital, then, the inmate can learn that the self is not a fortress, but rather a small open city; he can become weary of having to show pleasures when held by troops of his own, and weary of how to show displeasure when held by the enemy. Once he learns what it is like to be defined by society as not having a viable self, this threatens definition — the threat that helps attach to the self society accords them — is weakened. The patient seems to gain a new plateau when he learns that he can survive while acting in a way that society sees as destructive of him. (Goffman, 1961)

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

adolescence: A period stretching from puberty to about 18-years-old characterized by the role adjustment from childhood to adulthood.

agency: The ability to choose and act independently of external constraints.

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.

doing gender: When people perform tasks based upon the gender assigned to them by society.

game stage: The stage in child development in which children begin to recognize and interact with others 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 judgement of others.

mass media: The distribution of impersonal information to a wide audience via television, newspapers, radio, and the internet.

moral career: A standard sequence of changes in a person’s moral capacity to be answerable for their actions.

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.

rite of passage: A ritual that marks a life cycle transition from a previous status to a new status.

role: The behaviour expected of a person who occupies a particular position.

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 old 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:

  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 celebrations.
  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. Family
  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.

[Quiz answers at the end of chapter]

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 use both male and female participants when conducting research. 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? 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 a university 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. 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:

5.3. Agents of Socialization
See the controversy surrounding one Canadian couple’s refusal socialize their child into gender norms:

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 of homeless veterans.


5. Introduction to Socialization
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5.1. Theories of Self Development

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5.2. Why Socialization Matters
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5.3. Agents of Socialization
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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, [Return to Quiz]

Image Attributions

Figure 5.8. Prince William by Alexandre Goulet ( used Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license (

Long Descriptions

Figure 5.6 Long Description: Psychology and sociology have some overlap. Sociological social psychology (SSP) emphasizes a subject’s location in social order, their socialized roles, and historical social context. Psychological social psychology (PSP) emphasizes a subject’s mental processes, dispositions, experiences, and immediate social situation. [Return to Figure 5.6].

Figure 5.7 Long Description: A girl wears a sweater and jeans and looks into a mirror. The mirror represents Facebook and shows her reflection wearing a long, professional dress. [Return to Figure 5.7].


Chapter 6. Groups and Organizations

A large crowd of people gathered on the street. One sign says, "Peoples Assembly of Victoria."
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. How is Society Possible?

  • Understand Simmel’s argument “there is no such thing as society as such.”
  • Distinguish the forms and contents of social interactions.
  • Situate sociological structures within three levels of analysis: micro, meso, and macro.

6.2 Groups

  • Analyze the operation of a group as more than the sum of its parts.
  • Understand primary and secondary groups as two key sociological groups.
  • Recognize in-groups, out-groups, and reference groups as subtypes of primary and secondary groups.
  • Distinguish between different styles of leadership.
  • Explain how conformity is impacted by group membership.

6.3. Networks

  • Distinguish between groups, social networks, and formal organizations.
  • Analyze the dynamics of dyads, triads, and larger social networks.

6.4. Formal Organizations

  • Categorize the different types of formal organizations.
  • Define 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.
  • Apply the sociological study of groups and bureaucracies to analyze the social conditions of the Holocaust.

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).

The slogan, “We are the 99%,” emblematic of the Occupy movement that flourished in North America in 2011 and 2012, refers to the  redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the upper class (the “one percenters”). Even during the severe economic crisis after 2008, the personal income, bonuses, and overall share of social wealth of the elite 1% increased. Occupiers observed that the very people responsible for the crisis and the massive loss of wealth in the economy were paying themselves bonuses for a job well done, even while they were receiving billions of dollars in bailouts from the government. This would seem to be a grievance worthy of a movement, but simply having a grievance does not explain the ways in which movements take form as groups.

In Victoria, B.C., a tent community sprang 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 decided 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. 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. As the tent cities of the Occupy movement began to be dismantled, forcibly in some cases, a separate movement, Idle No More, emerged to advocate for Aboriginal justice and organized itself according to Aboriginal principles of decentralized leadership. Horizontal decision making processes, progressive stack, and decentralized leadership refer to the different organizational structures these social movements experimented with in rethinking traditional hierarchical structures of organization.

Numerous groups made up the Occupy movement, yet there was 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? What unites the people protesting from New York City to Victoria, B.C.? Are homeless people truly aligned with law school students? Do Aboriginal people genuinely feel for the environmental protests against pipelines and fish farming?  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 that such groups rely on? How do members come to share a common set of meanings concerning what the movement is about?

Figure 6.2. Slavoj Žižek addresses the crowd at Occupy Wall Street: “You don’t need to be a genius to lead, anyone can be a leader.” (Photo courtesy of Daniel Latorre/Flickr)

At one point during the occupation of Wall Street in New York, speakers like Slovenian social critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek 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. How did this communicational format, despite its cumbersome nature, come to be an expression of the group’s solidarity?

6.1. How is Society Possible?

One of the basic questions raised in sociology is: How is society possible? What holds society together? What gives society form and continuity? This was the classical sociologist Georg Simmel’s basic question. In his essay, “The Problem of Sociology,” Simmel (1908/1971) begins by saying: “Society exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction.” This would appear to be a truism. After all, what else could society be? However, a few pages later, he reaches the conclusion that:

With each formation of parties, with each joining for common tasks or in a common feeling or way of thinking, with each articulation of the distribution of positions of submission and domination, with each common meal, with each self-adornment for others — with every growth of new synthesizing phenomena such as these, the same group becomes “more society” than it was before. There is no such thing as society “as such”; that is, there is no society in the sense that it is the condition for the emergence of all these particular phenomena. For there is no such thing as interaction “as such” — there are only specific kinds of interaction. And it is with their emergence that society too emerges, for they are neither the cause nor the consequence of society but are, themselves, society. The fact that an extraordinary multitude and variety of interactions operate at any one moment has given a seemingly autonomous historical reality to the general concept of society (Simmel, 1908/1971, emphasis is the editor’s).

There is no such thing as society as such. There is no such thing as “society” outside of the interactions between the individuals that compose it. Society is the name we give to the “extraordinary multitude and variety” of specific interactions between individuals that are occurring at any particular moment.

If society is nothing but these simultaneous interactions, Simmel’s problem of sociology is clear. Sociology, as the “science of society,” appears to be a discipline without an object! Society is not an object or a thing; it is a mirage, a name we have given to the multitude of ongoing, unfinished processes of interaction between individuals. This means we have to ask the questions of sociology at a more basic level. How do these processes hold together and take shape? How are we able to recognize and talk about different social phenomena like the formation of parties, the joining together in common tasks, the creation of hierarchies, the wearing of jewellery, etc.? If society is nothing but a number of individuals who have entered into specific interactions, how do widespread norms of behaviour, structured relations of power, and predictable relationships between social variables form?

The 3-string punk-blues manfiesto
Figure 6.3. Punk rock’s stripped down “do it yourself” manifesto was illustrated in a diagram from the punkzine Sideburns in 1977. The attitude of building music from nothing was central to the creation of punk as a new musical form or genre within rock and roll. (Image courtesy of Mark Cottle, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License)

Punk rock in the 1970s saw itself returning to the roots of rock and roll. Part of this was to simplify the structure of the music to renew rock and roll as a form of music. This is a good metaphor for how Simmel understands social interaction between individuals as both a mutual attunement and an act of creation. For a coherent interaction to take place, everyone tunes their instruments together (at least somewhat) and plays the same notes and chords. However, this attunement also enables everyone to introduce new elements into the interaction and to invent new musical or social forms (or renew old ones). Along with the new musical form of punk rock came new lyrical and thematic contents: anger, disillusionment, anarchy, class politics, etc.

Simmel’s solution to the problem of how society is possible is based on the idea that the mutual influence of individuals on each other during interaction creates mutual attunements, not unlike a band tuning its instruments. This mutual influence in turn creates enduring social forms (hence the term formal sociology to describe Simmel’s work). We will discuss Simmel’s formal sociology later in the chapter. In general, however, the solution to the question — How is society possible? — differs depending on the level of analysis used to pose the question. Excluding the global for the time being, sociologists describe three levels of social interaction: micro, meso, and macro.

Micro Meso Macro

At the micro-level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of face-to-face interaction: How are specific individuals in specific locations able to interact in a coherent and consistent manner? For example, how is a conversation possible? How do you know when it is your turn to speak or when someone has been speaking too long? We discussed various types of social interaction at the micro-level in the chapter on social interaction.

At the meso-level of analysis, the focus shifts to the characteristics of specific networks, groups, and organizations (i.e., collectivities). The meso-level refers to the connection, interaction and ongoing coordination of numerous different social roles simultaneously. When we speak of a school, for example, we need to move beyond the analysis of single face-to-face interactions–interactions in a single setting where participants are co-present–to examine the combined interactions and relationships between students, parents, teachers, and administrators. At this level, we ask, how do the properties of different types of social collectivity affect or alter the behaviour of individuals? Why does an individual’s behaviour change when they are in a collectivity? How do collectivities constrain or enable their members to act in certain ways? What is it about collectivities that entice people to conform? In these meso-level examples we are still talking about specific, identifiable individuals–albeit not necessarily in direct face-to-face situations–but take into account the complex entwinement of their lives to account for their behaviour.

Finally, at the macro-level of analysis, the focus is on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions: the dynamics of institutions, classes, or whole societies. The macro therefore extends beyond the immediate milieu or direct experience of individuals. These large-scale social structures might be nothing more than the aggregations of specific interactions between individuals at any particular moment as Simmel argues. However, the properties of structures, institutions, and societies — described by statistical analysis, cross-cultural comparisons, or historical research — also have a reality that Emile Durkheim called sui generis (i.e., of their own kind). The properties that make society possible at a macro scale cannot be explained by, or reduced to, their components without missing their most important features.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks
Figure 6.4. Hockey is a social activity that can be examined at micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of analysis. (Image courtesy of Jerry Meaden/Flickr)

To illustrate the micro, meso, and macro distinction, we might consider how a sociologist would analyze the game of hockey. At the micro-level of analysis, the sociologist would be interested in the interpersonal structures and role-play that governs how various specific individuals (players, coaches, managers, owners, fans, etc.) interact face to face. With respect to the players, how do they interact on the ice in a coherent manner? How do they coordinate their activities to win games? How do they make the game work? In part, this analysis is a matter of simply knowing the rules of the game and each player’s role or position (center, winger, defense, goalie). From a different angle, the analysis has to do with the players practicing the plays by which they move the puck out of the defensive zone, cross the blue line into the offensive zone, defend against offensive plays, cycle the puck behind the net, set up a power play, etc. From another angle, the analysis is also a matter of the personal dynamic between individual players, their ability to read each other’s cues, to anticipate each other’s moves, and to work off each other’s strengths, etc. (or the failure to do so). In this regard, hockey is an entirely symbolic interaction, which depends on individuals sending signals and interpreting signals. It is, after all, a game based on chasing a small disk of rubber around a frozen surface of ice. It is thoroughly symbolic.

At the meso-level of analysis, a sociologist takes into account group dynamics involving a number of different roles simultaneously such as team membership or fandom. How and why do fans get so emotionally involved in the fortunes of their favourite team? How do they sort themselves into categories — “true” fans and “occasional” fans — and with what consequences? How do team rivalries develop? Similarly, the sociologist might be interested in the hockey team as a type of institutional arrangement of roles that organizes its members by collectively defining roles, functions, norms, official rules, hierarchical relationships, and channels of communication, etc.

The meso-level sociologist might also be interested in trying to define what defines hockey as a type of activity — a “game.” Roger Caillois (1961) noted that games, or what Simmel called the “play forms” of association, constitute a separate and unique type of activity. We cross a boundary whenever we leave the ordinary world of everyday life to enter the zone of play. In particular, games are defined by six characteristics:

  1. They are free (playing cannot be obligatory),
  2. They are separate (play is distinct from ordinary life),
  3. They are uncertain (outcomes cannot be determined in advance),
  4. They are unproductive (play by itself creates neither goods nor wealth),
  5. They are governed by rules (under conventions that suspend ordinary laws), and
  6. They are make-believe (they partake in a second reality or a “free unreality”).

In part, due to the distinction between games and normal life, activities like the use of violence and the infliction of injury — that would be punishable by law off the ice — are events that are frequently celebrated (or at most deplored) when they occur on the ice. It is the status of hockey as a game that makes the issue of its violence both ambiguous and subject to arbitrary assessments and punishments.

At the macro-level of analysis, the sociologist would be interested in how hockey is structured by the type of society in which it is embedded. The Micmac game of wolchamaadijik, which is cited as an early stick and ball progenitor of Canadian hockey, was played in the context of ceremonial exchanges between native tribes (Rand, 2005). NHL hockey, on the other hand, is a capitalist enterprise, and as such, it takes the form of a commodity produced for sale on the market for profit. The commodity is the spectacle of the hockey game, which fans pay to see and advertisers pay to use as a vehicle for promoting their products. Therefore, the organization and dynamics of the sport are defined by the logic of capital as Marx defined it — a logic in which teams are competitive corporations that invest in their players like any other asset; in which team hometowns are assessed in terms of their viability as profitable markets (hence the oddity of having teams based in Florida or California where natural ice probably has not existed for 10,000 years); in which the logic of class struggle periodically leads to disruptions in play (such as lock-outs and strikes); and in which an elaborate set of regulations (like salary caps and organized draft picks) are instituted by the league to ensure the viability of the competition and manage the excesses and crises that are tendencies of capitalist accumulation.

Making Connections: Classical Sociologists

Georg Simmel and Formal Sociology

Figure 6.5. Georg Simmel. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was an early German sociologist and contemporary of Max Weber. He developed what he called formal sociology, or the sociology of social forms, in order to understand how a collection of individuals driven by their own individualistic interests could coalesce into a group with common purposes that could persist and develop through time.  When he said that “society exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction” (1908/1971), he meant that whenever people gather, something happens that would not have happened if the individuals had remained alone. They begin to “correlate their condition” with that of others. They influence others and are influenced in return. A “reciprocity of effects” or “reciprocal influence” occurs that Simmel calls “sociation.” 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.

Key to Simmel’s analysis is the distinction he makes between the contents and forms of sociation. Individuals enter into interaction on the basis of their specific drives, needs, purposes, or interests (erotic, spiritual, acquisitive, defensive, playful, etc.). He defines these specific factors as the contents of the interaction. As Simmel  says, “In themselves, these materials which fill life, these motivations which propel it, are not social… strictly speaking”(1908/1971). It is “only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolated individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another… in which individuals grow together into a unity and within which their interests are realized” that these contents become social (emphasis is the editor’s).

Therefore, the forms of sociation are the true objects of sociology because only through these forms can the social (i.e., “reciprocal influence”) be said to exist. Simmel (1908/1971) notes that innumerable types of forms are possible, including “superiority, subordination, competition, division of labour, formation of parties, representation, inner solidarity coupled with exclusiveness from the outside,” etc. These forms are the patterns of behaviour that guide individuals’ actions in different social settings. Therefore, his analysis shifts from the micro-level to the meso- and macro-levels when he posits how the forms themselves endure and work on the individuals who compose them.

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 if someone suddenly tried to sell you an insurance policy or confided 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.

Men dressed in suits and women in bright dresses gather around a table with food.
Figure 6.6. Cocktail parties as the play form of interaction. What are the rules for “gracious entertaining”? (Image courtesy of James Vaughan/Flickr)

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, 1910/1971). 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 cocktail party form); the other is sexual desire (the flirtation form). Different contents or interests can be realized in different forms and vice versa with quite different consequences for the individuals involved. The same erotic impulse (content) can be expressed through the forms of a flirtation, a casual sexual relationship, a dating relationship, a marriage, or a transaction with a prostitute. On the other hand, the same form of competition can organize the impulse to play hockey, to gain financially, to learn, or to dress stylishly. The emphasis on forms is why Simmel called his approach to the study of society “formal sociology.”

Simmel’s work on social forms was not just 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 the forms of art, music, 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 assimilate, organize,  appreciate, and make sense of 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.

6.2.  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” (1908/1950). 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. At this meso-level of interaction, 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 the next emergency, 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, 1909/1963). 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% of their sample had no close personal contacts of this sort, while 5% 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 various professional consultants. 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: Case Study

Best Friends She’s Never Met

Assessing potential online communities graph. Long description available.
Figure 6.7. What are the parameters of online communities? [Long Description] (Image courtesy of 10ch/Flickr)

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, find out who had recently sold what, and 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.

On the other hand, Zygmunt Bauman (2004) discusses the way electronically mediated groups like this online web forum tend to be frail communities, “easy to enter and easy to abandon.” They do not substitute for the more tangible and solid “we” feeling of face to face forms of togetherness, which require commitment and risk. Virtual communities “create only an illusion of intimacy and a pretense of community. They are not valid substitutes for ‘getting your knees under the table, seeing people’s faces, and having real conversation.'” They are a version of what Bauman calls cloakroom communities, places where one can hang one’s identity like a cloak for the duration of the “show”– i.e., one’s interest in the group’s theme and interactions — and then collect it again when it’s time to move on.

So is this online writers’ forum 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. How are our needs for primary group intimacy altered in the age of electronic media?

Figure 6.8. 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, 1906/1959). 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: Social Policy and Debate

Bullying and Cyberbullying: How Technology Has Changed the Game

A girl crying while an older woman reads something on her phone looking upset.
6.9. Cyberbullying is a 21st century problem. (Image courtesy of Brice Pinson/Flickr)

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% 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 reported that 7% of internet users aged 18 and over have been cyberbullied, most commonly (73%) 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

A group of hockey players celebrating on the ice.
Figure 6.10. 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 particular reference group, but it may still impact and influence 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

A girl throws her opponent to the ground.
Figure 6.11. Aikido practice. 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 Kesara Rathnayake/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.

A group of young cadets in a parade wearing the same uniforms march in sync.
Figure 6.12. Cadets illustrate how strongly conformity can define groups. (Photo courtesy David Spender/flickr)

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.

One can think of three main social forms by which the content or activity of a group might be organized to prevent division and lack of cohesion: domination, cooperation, and competition. No matter what the organization is — a hockey franchise, a workplace, or a social movement — the choice of one form of organization over the others has consequences in terms of the loyalty of members and the efficiency and effectiveness of the group in achieving its goals. In the form of domination, power is concentrated in the hands of leaders while the power of subordinates is severely restricted or constrained. In extreme versions of domination, like slavery, loyalty and efficiency are low because fear of coercion is the only motivation. In the form of cooperation on the other hand, power is distributed relatively equally and loyalty and efficiency are high because the group is based on mutual trust and high levels of commitment. In the form of competition, power is distributed unequally but there is latitude for movement based on the outcome of competition for prestige or money. Loyalty and efficiency are relatively high but only as long as the pay-offs are high.

In a Star Trek episode from the 1960s, “Patterns of Force,” the crew of the Enterprise discover that a rogue historian has gone against the Prime Directive and reorganized a planet’s culture on the basis of Nazi Germany. In order to address the planet’s condition of chaos, he appealed to the “efficiency” of Nazism only to unleash a systematic persecution of one native group by the other. The ensuing drama in the episode reveals that the historian mistook domination for efficiency. As Spock puts it at the end of the episode, how could such a noted historian make the logical error of emulating the Nazis? Captain Kirk responds by saying that the failure was in putting so much power in the hands of a dictator, to which Dr. McCoy adds that power corrupts. In fact, as historians point out, Nazi Germany was startlingly inefficient, if only because all major decisions were filtered through Hitler himself who was notoriously unpredictable, hard to get the attention of, and lacked any form of personal routine (Kershaw, 1998). The irony of the Star Trek episode is of course that the Starship Enterprise itself is organized on the formal basis of domination. It is only the leadership style that differs.

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 do not emerge, but formal leadership is rare.

In a series of small group studies at Harvard in the 1950s, Robert Bales (1970) studied the group processes that emerged around solving problems. No matter what the specific tasks were, he discovered that in all the successful groups — i.e., in the groups that were able to see their tasks through to the end without breaking up — three types of informal leader emerged: a task leader, an emotional leader, and a joker. The task leader was the person who stepped up to organize the group to solve the problem by setting goals and distributing tasks. The emotional leader was the person who helped the group resolve disagreements and frustrations when strong feelings emerged. The joker made fun and fooled around but also had the knack for releasing group tension by making jokes. These leadership roles emerged spontaneously in the small groups without planning or awareness that they were needed. They appear to simply be properties of task-oriented, face-to-face groups.

Making Connections: Case Study

Women Leaders and the Glass Ceiling

Elizabeth May being interviewed for radio.
Figure 6.13. Green Party leader Elizabeth May stands out 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% of men’s, and their representation in leadership roles (legislators, senior officials, and managers) has remained at 50% 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% (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 the inherent qualities in women’s expressive leadership, which in many cases is more effective, their skills, merits, and achievements go unrecognized. In terms of political leadership, 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).

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.

A nutcracker for sale that looks like Hillary Clinton. Long description available
Figure 6.14. This gag gift demonstrates how female leaders may be viewed if they violate social norms. [Long Description] (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. The group is essentially cooperative. 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?


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 to determine 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, despite the actor crying out in pain, and the voltage dial labelled with warnings like “Danger: Severe shock.”

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Groupthink: Conforming to Expectations

2 rectangles. The left rectangle has 1 line and the right rectangle has 3 lines of different lengths
Figure 6.15. 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. This phenomenon is known as groupthink, the tendency to conform to the attitudes and beliefs of the group despite individual misgivings. 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.  Networks

Dyads, Triads, and Social Networks

Figure 6.16. A visual representation of network connections formed through Facebook showing dense nodes of tightly interconnected friends and outliers. (Image courtesy of David Jones/Flickr)

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, 1908/1950). 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. The forms of sociation available to individuals differ significantly for dyads and triads, no matter the specific reason (content) for the sociation (e.g., friendship, love, business, leisure, etc.). The social dynamic inheres in the number of individuals, no matter who they are or their specific interests. This insight forms the basis of the analysis of networks, which are another of the major meso-level social phenomena examined in sociology.

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 who exchange resources (emotional, informational, financial, etc.) 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 resources flow 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 densities of network connections indicate the centrality of key insurgents and 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. Network analysis reveals the break up of national-based corporate elite networks, and the establishment of a unified and coordinated transatlantic capitalist class (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% if a friend becomes obese; it increases by 20% if it is a friend’s friend who becomes obese; and it increases 10% if it is a friend’s friend’s friend who becomes obese. Beyond the third degree of separation, there is no measurable influence.

6.4. 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 (1922/1946). 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 6.17. 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 people join because they 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 can be described as an ideal type of formal organization. This does not mean that they are ideal in an ethical sense but that the logic of their components can be laid out according to an idealized model. Not all formal organizations or bureaucracies will necessarily conform to the ideal type.  Pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1922/1946) popularly characterized bureaucracy through an ideal type description as having a hierarchy of authority, a clear division of labour, explicit rules, and impersonality. Bureaucracies were the basic form 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 each person to know who he or she is answerable to or responsible for, which is necessary for 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?

Max Weber (1922/1946) summarizes:

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs — these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration … Bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations . . . The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

There are several positive aspects of bureaucracies. They are intended to improve efficiency, ensure equal opportunities, and increase efficiency. There are times when rigid hierarchies are needed. However, there is also 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” (1922/1946). 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 (1911/1949) 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. Smaller organizations are often more innovative and competitive because they have flatter hierarchies and more democratic decision making, which invites more communication, greater networking, and increased individual participation of members. 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” (1922/1946).

A McDonald's storefront in Egypt with its name in English and Arabic.
Figure 6.18. 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: Sociological Research

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?

A bar graph that projects a significant growth in the number of fast food jobs from 2009 to 2018.
Figure 6.19. Fast-food jobs are expected to grow more quickly than most industries. (Graph courtesy of U.S. Department of Labor)


A painting of Adolf Hitler and a swastika with images of violence, anger, and death.
Figure 6.20. Polish-Jewish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). Anti-Christ (1942). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

We end this chapter with a sociological analysis of the Holocaust to indicate the significance of some of the sociological dynamics of group behaviour. In sociology the group is always more than the sum of its parts. We have examined this with regard to how individuals change their behaviour when they are around others under various circumstances. In chapter 1 we noted how being in a crowd affected people very differently during the exuberance of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the riots of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. In this chapter we have seen how being a member of a social group influences people to conform or to choose in-group and out-group attachments. Depending on where one is located in a social network, individuals are enabled, to a lesser or greater degree, to share and receive resources of various sorts from friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, in ways which are also deeply influential. Formal organizations structure the relationships between individuals to be able to achieve organizational goals that individuals could not achieve on their own. How does the insight that the group is more than the sum of the parts help us to understand how the Holocaust was possible?

The Holocaust (literally “whole burnt”) refers to the the systematic program of extermination of European Jews and Gypsies (Roma) by Nazis between 1941 and 1945. During this period, it is estimated that 6,000,000 Jews and Gypsies were killed by the Nazis. How was it possible? It is difficult to imagine how this event could merely be the product of isolated individuals entering into interaction. It needs to be understood at the level of group behaviour.

Clearly, a significant minority of the population of Germany in the 1930s were anti-Semitic, but even among these individuals the concept of the Final Solution would have been unthinkable. Often, the explanation that has been put forward is that the Nazi era in 20th century Germany was a temporary aberration, a period of mass irrationality and social breakdown; an imposition of racism, hatred, and violence on the population by a megalomaniacal madman — Adolf Hitler — devoted to world domination. This explanation has an element of truth in that the combination of war reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War, the hyper-inflation of the 1920s, and the onset of a global capitalist crisis in the 1930s (the Great Depression) created conditions of instability and widespread desperation. Desperate people do not think clearly.

However, the sociological analysis of the rise of the Nazis and the implementation of the Holocaust is far more discomforting. The Nazis were democratically elected into power not once but twice (in 1932 and 1933); the suspension of the Weimar constitution and the institution of emergency rule were enacted through legal, constitutional means; the imposition of totalitarian rule and the internment of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and political opponents were enabled by the voluntary contributions of ordinary citizens; and perhaps most perplexingly, all of this was accomplished in one of the most modern, cultured, technologically advanced, and rational societies of Europe. Explanations of the behaviour of the perpetrators that relies on the idea that they were sadists, criminals, or madmen have been discredited for lack of evidence. While there were clearly a few individuals in the camps known for their sadistic cruelty, “by conventional clinical criteria no more than 10 per cent of the SS could be considered ‘abnormal'” (Kren and Rappoport, quoted in Bauman, 1989).

As Zygmunt Bauman (1989) has argued, the Holocaust could not have occurred without the existence of modern, rational forms of social organization:

The Holocaust was not an irrational outflow of the not-yet-fully-eradicated residues of pre-modern barbarity. It was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house (Bauman, 1989).

Bauman argues in particular that it was the rational, efficient organization of the Nazi bureaucracy which, once the problem of a Judenfrei Germany was posed by Hitler — a Germany “free” of Jews — enabled a series of solutions to be examined and rejected before the Final Solution was settled on. Bureaucracy also provided the three conditions which made overcoming individual emotional and moral aversion to the mass killing possible. Firstly, the violence was authorized according to correct bureaucratic procedures and hierarchical channels of command. Secondly, the violence was routinized by the rule-bound practices and clear division of labour of bureaucratic organization. Thirdly, the victims of the violence were dehumanized through, not only ideological propaganda and media spin, but also the impersonality inherent in bureaucracy (Bauman, 1989).

The point is that the Holocaust was the product of the same ordinary sociological phenomena that operate in society today, including the formation of in-groups and out-groups, conformity to structures of authority, groupthink, and the ‘rational’ structure of bureaucratic organizational forms. Therefore, an answer to the question about how the Holocaust was possible must begin with a study of Simmel’s forms of collective behaviour. Why do individuals conform to the will of collectivities even when this means overcoming strong personal moral convictions or rational thinking? An answer to this problem is difficult to get at if we begin simply from a micro-level perspective of interpersonal interactions. We need to examine the properties of groups at meso- and macro-levels to understand how the effect of the whole is more than the sum of the individual parts.

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.

contents: The specific drives, needs, purposes, or interests of individuals that motivate them to interact with others.

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.

formal sociology:  The study of how specific social contents are organized into regular, coordinated social forms.

forms: The patterns of behaviour that guide individuals’ actions in different social settings.

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.

groupthink:  The tendency to conform to the attitudes and beliefs of the group despite individual misgivings.

hierarchy of authority: A clear chain of command found in a bureaucracy.

ideal type: An abstract model of a recurring social phenomenon that describes the form and logical relation of components.

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.

macro-level of analysis: A research focus on the properties of large scale, society-wide, social interactions.

meso-level of analysis: A research focus on the characteristics of networks, groups, and organizations.

micro-level of analysis: A research focus on the social dynamics of small groups and face-to-face interaction.

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.

pure sociability: The residual qualities like pleasure that people experience from the mere fact of being together, regardless of the content of the interaction.

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.

tragedy of culture: The tendency for cultural creations to detach themselves from lived experience and become increasingly complex, specialized, alienating, or oppressive. 

triad: A three-member group.

utilitarian organization: An organization that people join to fill a specific material need.

Section Summary

6.1.  How is society possible?
Georg Simmel argues that “there is no such thing as society as such” because “society” is nothing except for the ongoing interactions between individuals at any particular moment. Nevertheless the forms of interaction can be analyzed independently of the contents of interaction. Whether at a micro, meso, or macro level of analysis, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

6.2.  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.

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.

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.  Networks
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.

6.4. 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. How is society possible?
1. Which of the following is an example of a social phenomenon that would be best understood at the meso-level of analysis?

  1. The gender differences in facial expressions of couples on first dates.
  2. The impact of social class on voter preference.
  3. The informal networks that form within bureaucratic structures.
  4. The transition effect of new technologies on knowledge transfer between First World and Third World nations.

2. An example of a social form would be:

  1. An employment application.
  2. Sexual desire.
  3. A hockey player.
  4. Cooperation.

6.2. Groups

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

8. 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

9. 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

10. 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

11. 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. Networks
12. 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

6.4. 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.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

6.1. How is society possible?

  1. Choose an example of a social activity like hockey. How would this activity be approached at a micro, meso, and macro level of analysis?
  2. Think of a recent social encounter in which you interacted with one or more people. What purely individual  drives, needs, purposes, or interests (i.e., contents) drew you together?  Can you describe the characteristics of the form of the interaction (e.g., cooperation, competition, division of labour, polite, informal, etc.)? Were there a set of implicit rules that structured the encounter? Can you list them?

6.2 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 (Canada) 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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. Networks

  1. From personal experience, describe how the group dynamics between two people changes when a third person joins the group (or vice versa, when one person leaves a group of three). Do your observations corroborate Simmel’s analysis of dyads and triads?
  2. How often do you get valuable information from a friend? From a friend of a friend? How significant do network connections seem to be in your life, i.e., with regard to your political preferences, your body weight and dietary choices, your life style, etc.?
  3. How many friends would you call “close”? How many friends would your parents and grand parents call close? Does this correspond with Marsden’s research that the size of one’s “core discussion group” decreases as one ages?

6.4 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

6.2.  Groups
Information about cyberbullying causes and statistics:

Take the What is your leadership style? quiz:

Explore other experiments on conformity:

6.3. Networks
If you have a Facebook account, you might be interested in downloading the networking software “Touchgraph” from Christakis and Fowler’s website to see a visual representation of your own network connections (

6.4 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
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6.1. How is Society Possible?

Callois, Roger. (1961). Man, Play and Games. New York, NY: Free Press of Glencoe.

Rand, S. (2005). Legends of the Micmacs. West Orange, NJ: Invisible Books.

Simmel, Georg. (1971). The problem of sociology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms (pp. 23–27 i).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (original work published 1908)

Simmel, Georg. (1971). Sociability. In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms (pp. 127–140). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (original work published 1910)

6.2 Groups

Bales, Robert F. (1970). Personality and Interpersonal Behavior. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bauman, Zygmunt. (2004). Identity. Cambridge UK: Polity

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). Social organizations: A study of the larger mind. New York: Shocken. (original published 1909)

Cyberbullying Research Center. (n.d.) Retrieved November 30, 2011, from (

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 from ( wall street&st=cse).

Occupy Solidarity Network. (n.d.) About. Occupy Wall Street. Retrieved November 27, 2011, from (

Perreault, Samuel. (2011, September 15). Self-reported internet victimization in Canada, 2009. [PDF] Juristat. Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-002-X. Retrieved September 20, 2014, from

Simmel, Georg. (1971). The problem of sociology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms (pp. 23–27).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1908)

Sumner, William. (1959). Folkways. New York: Dover. (original work published 1906)

6.3. Networks
Allemang, John. (2009, April 18). 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

Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2006). Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. [PDF] Marine Corps Warfighting Publication. FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, C1. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from (publication has since been revised May 13, 2014)

Dowd, Maureen. (2008, January 9). Can Hillary cry her way back to the White House? New York Times. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Foot, Richard. (2008, October 13). 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! [PDF] 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 isolated individual and the dyad. The sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. (original work published 1908)

Tannen, Deborah. (1994). You just don’t understand. NY: William Morrow and Co.

Weeks, Linton. (2011, June 9). The Feminine effect on politics. National public radio (NPR). Retrieved February 10, 2012, from (

Zuckerman, Ethan. (2011, January 14). The first Twitter revolution? Foreign policy. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

6.4. Formal Organizations

Bauman, Zygmunt. (1989). Modernity and the holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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). Political parties. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. (original work published 1911)

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, from (

Weber, Max. (1946). Bureaucracy. In H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills (Eds.) From Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 196-244). NY: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1922)

Weber, Max. (1968). Economy and society: An outline of interpretative sociology. New York: Bedminster. (original work published 1922)

Solutions to Section Quiz

1 C, | 2 D, | 3 A, | 4 C, | 5 D, | 6 C, | 7 D, | 8 C, | 9 A, | 10 D, | 11 A, | 12 B, | 13 D, | 14 A, | 15 B, | 16 A, | 17 D, | 18 C, | 19 A, [Return to quiz]

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 6.3. Now Form A Band by Mark Cottle ( licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License

Figure 6.4. Sedin’s fun by Jerry Meaden ( used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (

Figure 6.10. Hayley Wickenheiser celebrates her first CIS goal with her teammates by Canada Hky ( used under CC BY SA 3.0 (

Figure 6.14. Elizabeth May on CBC Radio One by ItzaFineDay ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 6.17. (a) Brownie and Cub compare badges by Girl Guides of Canada ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Long Descriptions

Figure 6.7 Long Description: A graph with the x axis representing where a community exists (‘online’ or ‘in real life’) and the y axis representing the technology infrastructure (‘Do it yourself’ or ‘hosted’). The Z axis describes the state of tribe at outset (‘Scattered’ or ‘well formed’). Do it yourself online communities start out “scattered”. Hosted communities in real life start out “well formed.” [Return to Figure 6.7].

Figure 6.14 Long Description: A Hillary Nutcracker: The box says, “Is America ready for this nutcracker?” and “Stainless steel thighs crack the toughest nuts!” [Return to Figure 6.14].


Chapter 7. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

The TV character Dexter, looking at blood splatter on a wall.
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 different methods of social control.
  • Understand social control as forms of government including penal social control, discipline, and risk management.

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance

  • Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society including social disorganization theory, control theory, and strain theory.
  • Define how critical sociology understands the relationship between deviance, crime, and class inequality.
  • Explain feminist theory’s unique contributions to the critical perspective on crime and deviance.
  • Describe the symbolic interactionist approach to deviance, including differential association theory and labelling theory.

7.3. Crime and the Law

  • Identify and differentiate between different types of crimes.
  • Differentiate the different sources of crime statistics, and examine the falling rate of crime in Canada.
  • Examine the overrepresentation of different minorities in the corrections system in Canada.
  • Examine alternatives to prison.

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, 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.

Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), an Italian professor of legal psychiatry, 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 James Fallon (b. 1947), 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 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 Fallon 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 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 (1860–1927) 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 a type of criminal who “lives next door” or “blends 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 are otherwise concealed. Secondly, Fallon acknowledged 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 psychopathology in himself after seeing the brain scan. This is the problem of what Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect” (see the discussion of looping effect in 7.1 “Deviance and Control”) that affects the sociological study of deviance (2006). In summary, what Fallon’s example illustrates is the complexity of the study of social deviance.

7.1. Deviance and Control

Men dressed in bright pink clothes and dresses.
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 (1840–1910), deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). As we learned in Chapter 3, 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 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 (1994). 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 or addiction, which are not illegal in themselves but are widely regarded as serious or harmful. People agree that these behaviours 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, or for some cool, but harmless.

The point is that the question, “What is deviant behaviour?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. No act or person is intrinsically deviant. 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.

Howard Becker (b. 1928) 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 (1963). 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 LGBTQ 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 this chapter, it is a central tenet of symbolic interactionist labelling theory, that individuals become criminalized through contact with the criminal justice system (Becker, 1963). The well-known problem of using imprisonment to respond to criminal offenders is that prison influences individual behaviour and self-understanding, but often not in the way intended. Prisons are agents of socialization. The act of imprisonment itself modifies individual behaviour to make individuals more criminal. 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 outc