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Core Document in this Module

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Some things vary according to how you look at them


INTRODUCTION: A Matter of How You Look at It

In many ways, sociology is the study of things we see in every day life, but that we do not see in the same way. This is a characteristic of many sciences.

We talk, for example, of the "sun coming up every morning," or "going down every evening."

The science of astronomy, however, taught us long ago that the world is not flat and not the centre of the universe, but is a globe turning on its axis and, as it turns, it only appears that the sun is coming up or going down: it is not.

When we look around us and see walls and/or objects, we see them a solid things.

Nuclear physics, however, teaches us that what we see as solid, continuous matter, consists mainly of nothing.

Empty space.

It is mainly atomic nuclei surrounded by vacuum, around which a few things such as electrons buzz.

In relative sizes, it is like a fly on a football field.

With the limited ability of our eyes, we look at those millions of nuclei and electrons, and see solid matter.

Empiricists are people who say we can understand only things we can observe, that we do not need theory to interpret those things.

Astronomy, nuclear physics, and sociology teach us that we need perspective before we can see things –– that raw observations can not in themselves lead to understanding.

In everyday life, we may think of society of consisting of people.

In sociology, society is not people.

Individual persons carry society in their beliefs and actions (and interactions), but are not society in themselves.

Society is a system of beliefs and actions carried by human beings, but it is something which transcends those same carriers.

That means, then, that social organisations, such as family or community, are not people.

They are systems, or patterns, of beliefs and actions, by people, which are carried by people.

This is not to say we can define society (or social institutions) any way we want, or see it in any way we personally wish.

Sociology is a discipline, and it takes discipline to understand it.

For those involved in applied sociology, interventions that will affect families or communities.

It is necessary to understand sociology. That means to be able to understand the sociological perspective.

Society is in the eye of the beholder.



There is an old proverb, saying that we, "Can not see the forest for the trees."

We can apply this idea to the sociological perspective.

The proverb implies that a forest is large, too large to see all at once, and up close, all we can see is trees.

We may be seeing part of the forest, but that does not give us a good understanding of the forest as a whole.In everyday life, we come into contact with other people.

We can see them; we can (usually) talk with them.

Sometimes we can touch them (but we have to be careful where).

We can not see a society, a community or a family, and we can not touch a society, a community or a family.

Even if we were to take an aeroplane up into the sky we could not see a forest, because it is an ecosystem, and includes all the interactions between the soil, the plants, the animals and the air in that system.

It is far more than a collection of trees.

So too a society.

It does not consist of people (that we can see), but of beliefs and actions, and is a system; there is no physical position from which we can see a society.

Families and communities are social organisations, and are therefore something other than the individuals in them.



We can use the word "atomistic" to indicate a non sociological (or anti-sociological) perspective.

From what we know about atoms, which tend to stick together, perhaps it is not the best word coined.

It implies that people are separate individuals and that there is nothing beyond the individual.

I would say that the best illustration of an atomistic perspective is a quote from Margaret Thatcher, a right wing conservative prime minister of the UK.

She said, "There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals."

So long as you do not believe that society exists, you will not see it, nor is it likely that will you be able to have any influence on its organisation or direction of change and growth.

One way to compare differences in perspective is to observe a game of competition such as poker.

The players are focused on winning, and on competing with each other.

For them, that competition affects their perspective, and they see the competition as the most important element of the game.

If we are standing by, we can also see there is a considerable amount of co-operation in the game.

Shared values and shared meanings are manifested in that co-operation.

There is agreement, for example, about the value of each card, and that a three is higher than a two.

Most of these agreements are unspoken and taken for granted, which contributes to them not being at the forefront of consciousness or awareness of the players. See Poker Game

In a similar way, in society, "players" in games such as "marketing" or "politics" may see the competition more easily than the underlying ground rules and shared meanings.

Margaret Thatcher, a declared champion of corporations and private enterprise, had a perspective that magnified the competition and overlooked the co-operation.



In the history and development of sociology, three separate perspectives were created and elaborated.

They all owe their origins to thinking about applying the scientific method to the study of society in the middle and late nineteenth century.

Karl Marx, who never called himself a sociologist, was concerned with the underlying competition between resources.

He concentrated on the differences between the class of people who owned the factors of production, the bourgeoisie, and the class of people who had only their labour to sell in return for survival, the proletariat.

From his analysis has grown the perspective in sociology which we now call "Conflict." The dynamics and changes in society are linked to various conflicts. See Karl Marx

Emile Durkheim took a different approach.

He argued that we can look at rates of behaviour and find explanations outside the individuals who are doing the acting.

He saw some sort of a conscience which acted as if it were external to individuals even though it was carried in the thoughts of individuals.

He argued, in contrast to Marx, that various characteristics of social elements contribute to the living and growing of society and its institutions.

This idea is carried through today as the "Functionalist" perspective in sociology. See Durkheim

Max Weber also disagreed with Marx, but went in a different direction.

He said we can not understand society unless we understand the meanings that people put on their actions and beliefs.

He argued that the industrial revolution was caused by a shift in values and beliefs associated with the ideas of John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation.

From his analysis is derived the third main sociological perspective, "Symbolic Interaction." See Weber

For over a century, sociologists have fought great battles based on these three radically different ways of perceiving society.

Sometimes those battles are echoed in debates today.

Like the famous feuding pair of Appalachian extended families, the Hatfields and McCoys, the battles have been now put to rest, and there is much effort put in finding ways to reconcile them.

I support the idea that all three are valuable, and we should try to internalize them as merely different ways of looking at the same things.

See the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

In each of the historical or classical perspectives, the intent is to justify or use a sociological approach.

Social behaviour is not explained by psychological theories, nor is it a product of genetic inheritance. (That is called "reductionism").



While some people have tried to call Feminist Sociology a fourth perspective, the practitioners themselves use all three of the historical perspectives in their analyses.

While there are inequities and inequalities based upon sex, these are similar to those based upon age or race.

Biological differences in people (age, race, sex) are extrapolated by people who make social assumptions about each of them.

These are important topics in sociology, but are not separate perspectives.

Search for: Harriet Martineau.

Sociology borrows terminology from linguistics here.

Biological (genetically inherited) differences between males and females are called differences in "sex."

Sociological differences (transmitted and stored by symbols) between masculine and feminine are called differences in " gender."



If we define culture and society as the sum total of everything we learn, then it is useful to identify six dimensions of culture or society.

In mathematics we define three dimensions as height, width and depth.

(Some mathematicians have added time as fourth).

These are analytical constructs, and do not exist in themselves in empirical reality.

I find that many of the perspectives and theories can be better understood by using the concept of dimensions.

As in mathematics, these are constructs which exist in the minds of the observers.

In mathematics, if we remove any one dimension, say height, then, by definition and analysis, the whole object disappears.

So too with the social or cultural dimensions.

They are technological, economic, political, institutional (or interactional), values and beliefs.

These are not simply aspects of society, but dimensions.

If any one is removed, all six are removed.

They all extend from the broad sweep of the whole of humanity and macro theories, to micro sociology and the local interaction between as few as two people.

These are described in more detail in  "What is Community?"



The sociological study of society is an interesting and challenging adventure.

For the pure scientist, it reveals more about how things work, and sociological perspectives give us immense insight into social phenomena.

For the applied social scientist, especially one considering interventions into families, communities, or organisations, the social perspectives provide very valuable material to understanding those institutions, and predicting what things may result from those interventions.


A Training Session:

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