Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

"Freedom Convoy" 2022, Ottawa, Canada, February 12, 2022
Figure 1.15 People protesting Covid-19 public health measures in 2022. What are the causes of this social movement? How do participants and outsiders “read” this situation? (Photo courtesy of Maksim Sokolov/ Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 4.0

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 tentatively 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. Perspectives or paradigms are frameworks or models used within a discipline to tie different concepts, analyses, explanations, and ways of formulating problems together (Drengson, 1983). Sociologists use these models to pose or address research questions.

Talcott Parsons’ reformulation of Durkheim’s and others work as structural functionalism in the 1950s is an example of a paradigm because it provides a general model of analysis applicable to an unlimited number of research topics. As a framework for research, it can generate numerous specific theories or explanations. 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. Historical materialism and symbolic interactionism are two other examples of sociological paradigms which formulate explanatory frameworks and research problems 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 positivists and other schools of thought in sociology recognize that social reality is more complex. It is imbued with social meanings, historical contexts, political struggles, and human agency.


Figure 1.16 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.) CC BY 2.0

This makes social life a complicated, 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. People actively divide the flow of impressions through their consciousness into socially recognized categories of subjective and objective, and they 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. People assume that the others they interact with view the world through the natural attitude. Confusion ensues when they do not. But other societies have been based on different ways 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 empirical 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 Figure 1.16 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.

Jürgen Habermas
Figure 1.17 German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). (Image courtesy of Wolfram Huke/ Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 3.0

Within this general scientific framework, sociology can be broken into the same divisions that separate the forms of modern knowledge more generally. As Jürgen Habermas (1972) describes, by the time of the European 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 and reveal a different aspect of the world, 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 and consensus. Critique is oriented to developing activist knowledge 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 focuses on types of knowledge useful for promoting greater mutual understanding and consensus among members of society, and critical sociology focuses on types of knowledge useful for challenging power relationships and emancipating people from conditions of servitude. Each type of knowledge is useful for changing and improving the world. Within these three types of sociological knowledge, six paradigms of sociological thinking are discussed below: quantitative sociology, structural functionalism, historical materialism, feminism, symbolic interactionism and social constructivism.

Table 1.1 Types of Sociological Knowledge: Strengths, Limitations, and Practical Purposes [Skip table]
Types of sociological knowledge Paradigms Human interest or purpose
Positivist sociology Quantitative sociology

Structural functionalism

Rational choice theory

Logical positivism


Technical knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life
Interpretive sociology Symbolic interactionism

Social constructivism



Dramaturgical analysis


Hermeneutic knowledge useful for promoting greater mutual understanding and consensus among members of society
Critical sociology Historical materialism


Critical race theory

Queer theory

Deep ecology


Activist knowledge useful for challenging power relationships and emancipating people from conditions of servitude

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), the value of 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). On this basis, sociology is conceived as a predictive science: given a set of initial conditions, it makes predictions about possible future outcomes. For Durkheim, for example, measurably less social integration predicts measurably higher suicide rates. 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. The outcome of Durkheim’s analysis, for example, might be to prevent suicides by finding ways to increase the quantity and quality of people’s social ties, or to find more inclusive ways of organizing institutions like the family or school.

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: Scientists can only know about things that are actually given in experience. They 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 that predict future outcomes. Law-like statements concerning relationships between variables are often posed in the form of statistical relationships or multiple linear regression formulas. These mathematically formulate the degree of influence different causal or independent variables have on a particular outcome or dependent variable, usually in terms of statistical probabilities. (Independent and dependent variables will be discussed in Chapter 2. Sociological Research.) 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; See Chapter 15. Religion). 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 and quantify what people say their values are, but they cannot determine through quantitative means what is valuable or what should be valuable.

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, independently of the subjective understandings that individual members of society might have.

Following Durkheim’s insight, structural functionalism therefore sees society as composed of different social structures that perform specific social 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. Institutional arrangements that define roles and interactions in the family, workplace, or church, etc. are structures, for example. Functions refer to how the various social and biological needs of a society are satisfied. The continuity of society requires children to be properly socialized, food and resources to be distributed, and belief systems to be commonly shared. The family, the economy, and religious institutions perform these social functions. Different societies have the same basic functional requirements, but they meet them using different configurations of social structure (i.e., different types of kinship systems, economy, or religious practice). Thus, society is seen as a system not unlike the human body or an automobile engine. With respect to a system, when one structure changes, the others change as well. 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).

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, and the cultural 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 culture fails to provide a credible belief system, repercussions are felt throughout the system. The other structures have to adapt, causing further repercussions. Spencer continued the analogy to the body by pointing out that societies evolve from simple to complex forms just as the bodies of humans and other animals do (Maryanski and Turner, 1992).

Part of the power of structural functionalism is its ability to provide explanations of social phenomena that can predict outcomes independently of the specific goals and intentions 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. Noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out for example that social processes can have more than one function. Manifest functions are purposes or goals that are consciously sought or anticipated in a social process or institution, while latent functions are the unsought consequences or purposes of a social process or institution.

A manifest function of university education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that utilizes that education. But students often wonder why universities make these goals so difficult to accomplish. They get distracted by the lure of partying, they get overworked by unexpected course loads, they find it easier to cheat or learn information by rote and forget it after exams, or they get trained in knowledges that do not have immediate or practical value in the work place, etc. These contradictions can be partially explained by the latent functions of the university, which are byproducts of its manifest purposes and can often exist at cross-purposes with them. One latent function is providing an institutional venue of social solidarity for young adults in their first fledging outside the family: meeting new people, participating in extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. This liminal period of freedom and adulthood can easily lead to excesses. On the other hand, the obligation for students to discipline their work habits, intensify their use of time and focus on minutiae, has a latent function of providing individual efficiency and self-autonomy that employers in the knowledge economy value and can exploit. The credentialism that requires advanced certificates and degrees for jobs that do not actually need them is a latent function of the increasing numbers of university graduates since the 1960s, creating a hierarchy of employment and limiting access to it.

Latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are called dysfunctions. Each of the latent functions of university education can be pursued to excess, for example, with a detrimental effect on the ability of the university to perform its manifest function of preparing students to participate in society: over-partying as a product of excessive social solidarity might lead to dropping out, cheating as a product of excessive concern with grades might lead to learning nothing, anxiety as a product of excessive overwork might lead to chronic mental illness, or over-education as a product of excessive academic rigour might lead to boredom with respect to job requirements. These dysfunctions are products of a system which has failed to integrate its component parts and has become dysfunctional.

Making Connections: Classic Sociologists

The AGIL Schema: A Sociological Explanation of Everything

Talcott Parsons
Figure 1.18 Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a major figure of American sociology from the 1940s to the 1970s. Founder of the paradigm of structural functionalism, his AGIL schema was the basis of a comprehensive research program in which everything could be explained sociologically. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.) Fair Dealing

Talcott 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: the relation of definable structures to their functions in relation to the needs or maintenance of the system. This system quality could be observed at all levels of social existence, from the micro to the macro. He noted that all systems have a limited number of needs or “functional requisites” which have to be satisfied in order for the society to be viable or to achieve “stable equilibrium” (Parsons, 1951). Parsons reduced these universal functional requisites to “four spheres of activity that any society must accomplish in order to maintain itself”: namely, Adaptation, Goal attainment, Integration, and Latent pattern maintenance. This became known in sociology as Parsons’ “AGIL” schema.

Because systems can be observed in phenomena from the micro-scale to the universal, 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 these four primary functions:

  • Adaptation (A): how the system adapts to its environment;
  • Goal attainment (G): how the system determines what its goals are and how it will attain them;
  • Integration (I): how the system integrates its members into harmonious participation and social cohesion;
  • (Latent) Pattern Maintenance (L): how basic cultural patterns, values, belief systems, etc. are regulated and maintained.
 The AGIL Schema
Adaptation (A)




Goal attainment (G)


Political System

(Latent) Pattern Maintenance (L)


Cultural institutions: common values

Integration (I)


Social roles and norms


So, for example, the social system as a whole relied on the economy to produce and 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 social roles and norms to regulate social behaviour as its means of social integration, and on cultural institutions to reproduce and circulate social values as its means of latent pattern maintenance. Following Durkheim, Parsons argued that explanations of social functions had to be made at the level of systems and system requirements and not simply as the sum of individuals’ wants and needs. The whole is more than the sum of its parts because it is a system. In a system, there is an interrelation of component parts where a change in one component affects the others regardless of the specific biographical details of the lives of individuals.

In this way, sociology promised to be the explanation of everything.  Any enduring feature of society must perform a function, which could be understood as part of a larger system of interrelated parts and functional requisites. The AGIL functions were universal properties of any system. No matter the variation in societies historically or cross-culturally, every society was a system and had the same universal functional requisites that had to be satisfied to be able to operate and survive through time.

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 struggle for social justice. In this sense sociology cannot be neutral or purely objective. The context of social science is never neutral.

For critical sociologists, 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 of 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 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 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 analyzed. Inequality, in fact, performs a useful function for those who hold power in society. Critical sociology challenges both the social injustice and the 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. In contrast to the deterministic and functionalist models of explanation, interpretive sociology emphasizes human agency to capture the way that individuals actively 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 analyzing the processes of collective meaning construction that give people 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 works toward greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is one of the main paradigms 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 and where these understandings come from. This perspective is centered on the notion that communication — or the exchange of meaning through language, gestures 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. This approach looks at society and people from a micro-level perspective where the processes of communication and meaning generation occur on an ongoing basis.

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. This textbook discusses Mead further in Chapter 5. Socialization, but Mead’s key insight is that the self develops only through social interaction with others. The individual is not separate from society. The individual self is a thoroughly social being. People learn to be themselves by the progressive incorporation of the attitudes of others towards them into their concept of self.

His student Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) synthesized Mead’s work and popularized the theory. Blumer coined the term “symbolic interactionism” to emphasize that humans make meaning and interact by exchanging symbols like language or gestures.  He identified 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 they encounter (Blumer, 1969).

In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same cause and effect manner as natural events. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals interpret reality and 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.

In this way, 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 a passenger’s eye, which the passenger interprets as a signal to step forward in line and pass her their passport so she can examine its validity. Together the officer and passenger create a joint action — “checking the passport to cross a border” — which is just one symbolic interaction in a sequence that travelers typically link together in pursuing the sociological phenomenon known as “going on a vacation.” Randall Collins (2005) argues that all social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions like these into interaction ritual chains. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that individuals and groups have the freedom and agency to define their situations in potentially numerous ways but often find themselves following well-worn chains of interaction.

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 (1953) argued in his classic study of marijuana users that becoming a marijuana user has less to do with its physiological effects in the body than with the process of communication (or symbolic interaction) about the meaning of 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 of effects, 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 labeling 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 needs to be understood as a process of mutual definitions that create a new identity. Breaking the law does not automatically mean one becomes a “deviant.”  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 behaviour 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. Only on this basis can an adequate explanation of their behaviour be proposed.

Social Constructivism

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge that holds that the categories, facts, world views and cosmologies that make up knowledge are dependent on their social, cultural and historical context. For example, characteristics typically thought to be immutable or solely biological — such as gender, race, class, physical ability, and sexuality — are products of human definition and interpretation shaped by specific cultural and historical factors (Subramaniam, 2010). As such, social constructionism highlights the ways in which cultural categories — like “men,” “women,” “black,” “white”— are not “things” per se, but concepts created, changed, and reproduced through historical processes within institutions and culture. This approach differs from symbolic interactionism by the scale of the analysis. Whereas symbolic interactionists focus on micro-level inter-personal interactions of individuals in particular social settings, social constructivists are interested in large-scale social processes like the development of scientific classification systems, the formation of religious or moral categories, the circulation of images and representations in the media, and the interventions of social movements.

For example, human bodies exist independently of social categories, but that does not mean that social categories do not affect how bodies are perceived or lived in. Social constructivists examine how social categories based on selected bodily features are constructed, how meanings are attached to these categories, and how people are then placed into these categories and treated accordingly. By the “one-drop rule,” (i.e., one drop of African blood), regardless of their appearance, individuals with any African ancestor are considered Black in the United States (see Chapter 11. Race and Ethnicity). In contrast, racial conceptualization and thus racial categories are different in Brazil, where many individuals with African ancestry are considered to be white. This shows how identity categories are not based on strict biological characteristics, but on the social perceptions and meanings that are assumed. Modern biology itself, and biological ways of thinking, were themselves invented in the 19th century, and not without controversy. Categories are not “natural” or fixed and the boundaries around them are always shifting — they are contested and redefined in different historical periods and across different societies. Therefore, the social constructionist perspective is concerned with how meaning is created and given authority through processes by which groups of people, experience, and reality are defined and categorized in specific cultural and historical contexts.

Social constructionist approaches to understanding the world challenge the essentialist understandings that typically underpin contemporary “common sense” ways in which people think about race, gender, and sexuality. Essentialism is the idea that the characteristics of persons or groups are significantly influenced by an underlying human nature, and are therefore largely similar in all human cultures and historical periods. A key assumption of essentialism is that “a given truth is a necessary natural part of the individual and object in question” (Gordon and Abbott 2002). In other words, an essentialist understanding of sexuality would argue that not only do all people have a sexual orientation, but that the range of  sexual orientations do not vary across time or place. In this example, “sexual orientation” is a pre-given truth about individuals — it is thought to be inherent, biologically determined, and essential to the nature of their being.

In response to essentialism, social constructivism firstly makes apparent how even the things commonly thought to be “natural” or “essential” in the world are socially constructed. Understandings of “nature” change through history and across place according to systems of human knowledge. Secondly, the social construction of essences and the differences between them occurs within relations of power and privilege. Sociologist Abby Ferber (2009) argues that these two aspects of the social construction of difference cannot be separated, but must be understood together. Discussing the construction of racial difference, she argues that inequality and oppression actually produce ideas of essential racial difference, (i.e. not the other way around as in many biological determinist arguments). The racial categories that are thought to be “natural” or “essential” are created within the context of racialized power relations— in the case of African-Americans in the United States, that includes slavery, laws regulating interracial sexual relationships, lynching, and white supremacist discourse. Social constructionist analyses seek to better understand the processes through which racialized, gendered, or sexualized differentiations occur, in order to untangle the power relations within them.

Because social constructionist analyses examine categories of difference as fluid, dynamic, and changing according to historical and geographical context, a social constructionist perspective suggests that existing inequalities are neither inevitable nor immutable.

This section on social constructivism is adapted from Miliann Kang et al. Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies. Used under a CC by 4.0 [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (].

Criticisms of Interpretive Sociology

From the point of view of positivism and critical sociology, 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? For critical sociologists moreover, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or the societal relations of power and deprivation that structure or condition face-to-face, symbolic interactions of gang members.

In the case of Becker’s 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.

A second issue for positivists, specifically, is the emphasis on meanings of social behaviour and the use of empathy to understand these meanings. If “meaning” is, strictly speaking, unobservable and therefore not verifiable through empirical methods, how can anything definitive be said about it? Carl Hempel (1965) argues for example that empathic understanding does not guarantee a sound explanation for a social behaviour because there is a danger of “reading into” it an interpretation that is incorrect or has little predictive value. A psychological factor like empathy is too variable to serve as a standard in assessing worth of an explanation. Empathic understandings “lack cognitive significance unless supplemented by testable explanatory principles in the form of laws or theories” (Hempel, 1965).

For positivists, the social constructivist emphasis on the constructed nature of social reality makes it difficult to formulate law-like relationships between variables or to predict outcomes given certain initial conditions. As the ability to predict is key to the validity of scientific claims, positivists have difficulty with the fluid, processual nature of social reality proposed by social constructivists. The positivist position is typically aligned more with forms of essentialism.

On the other hand, critical sociologists are more in agreement with social constructivism. Social constructivist sociology largely comes from the critical tradition, with its attention to how constructed categories of race, sexuality, gender are used in organizing relationships of power.  As Kang et al. (2017) explain:

This perspective is especially useful for the activist and emancipatory aims of feminist movements and theories. By centering the processes through which inequality and power relations produce racialized, sexualized, and gendered difference, social constructionist analyses challenge the pathologization of minorities who have been thought to be essentially or inherently inferior to privileged groups. Additionally, social constructionist analyses destabilize the categories that organize people into hierarchically ordered groups through uncovering the historical, cultural, and/or institutional origins of the groups under study. In this way, social constructionist analyses challenge the categorical underpinnings of inequalities by revealing their production and reproduction through unequal systems of knowledge and power.

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 is 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 — i.e., 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 people’s 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 people’s everyday lives are structured by the connection between history, 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 different historical ways human societies have acted 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 (see Chapter 4. Society and Modern Life).

Highland Clearances in Scotland. Long description available
Figure 1.19 The Last of the Clan painted by Thomas Faed, (1865). (Photo courtesy of Thomas Faed/Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

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 peoples 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 (1876), 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 people’s livelihoods, their relationships to each other, their relationship to the environment, and their 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, (i.e., the owners “provide” employment for workers; the worker’s exploited labour “provides” profit for the owners), but their interests are fundamentally irreconcilable, (i.e., owners need to cut wages to compete; workers need more wages to survive), 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 1.20 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.) CC BY-NC 2.0

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 the friends who meet to drink it?

On the other hand, if one was to take a more systematic and critical sociological view of the activity of coffee drinking, one would note how the practice also embeds people 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 a person purchases a cup of coffee, they enter into a relationship with the growers in Central and South America. They are involved with their working conditions and with the global structures of private ownership and distribution that make selling coffee a profitable business. They 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 people 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 a cup of coffee, people find themselves 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 people can be largely unaware of the web of relationships that they have entered into when they sit down to coffee with a friend, a systematic analysis would emphasize that their 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 people themselves engage in to earn the money to pay for the coffee. These relationships involve people in dialectical economic and political processes every time they have a cup of coffee. One question for sociologists is therefore about how modern life can be so structured that people typically remain unaware of this vast network of economic relationships and catastrophes?


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 practiced 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 unequal 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 institutions and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes? How is the family, the law, the occupational structure, the 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). Smith 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. 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 radical, 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).

Theoretical Approaches Summary

Figure 1.21 Theoretical Approaches Summary. (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 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’ framework discussed above, 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 justice (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.

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