Through the Eyes of a Sociologist

Chapter 1: The Sociological Imagination Continued

Section 3: Through the Eyes of a Sociologist

Look how YOUNG I was! I can’t hardly stand it!

I started my sociological journey twenty years ago. Why? Well, back then I was a wilderness counselor for troubled teenage boys. I worked in a camp where young men were sent, either by their parents or by the courts, to receive therapy for their delinquent behaviors. My kids were dealing with all kinds of problems from petty delinquent behavior, like acting up in school or with their families, to drug problems, to even more serious criminal and gang related activities. Many had a combination of problems. 

Anyway, it was my job, and the job of my peers to fix the young men, to help them change their maladaptive behaviors into adaptive behaviors, allowing them to become successful. And we did just that.

…um…most of the time. 

Once the young men demonstrated that they could control their behaviors, we sent them home. That’s where the source of my frustration came from. I saw great kids whom I knew, just knew, were going to be successful return home upon graduating the program and end up in jail. How did this happen? Were they all faking it? That didn’t seem right. I wanted answers so I started making observations, ultimately enrolling in the graduate sociology program at the University of South Florida where I had the pleasure of working with some great professors.

I made the right choice. Studying sociology gave me a different insight into the young men with whom I worked. I had a framework from understanding the contextual and historical background of these teens. This life context and history shaped my clients by influencing their lived experiences, which in turn influenced how they thought, what they felt, even how they understood themselves in relation to others. In other words, a great deal of the variables influencing these young men were external to them. The source of their problems was often located in their social worlds, their neighborhoods and communities and in the nature of their interactions within these social worlds. The problem was not in the teen’s character, mentality or psychology.

Dr. William Glasser taught me to see personal troubles in terms of making choices in order to meet needs. But how does one’s contextual and historical background shape the nature of the choices that they may make?

You see, in my professional field there was a tendency to define the behaviors that I was seeing in terms of psychology, or centered around the kid himself. My particular program was based on William Glasser’s Choice Theory, the idea that people make choices in order to fulfill needs. The trick was teaching people how to make appropriate choices. Well, we did that, but why did they make appropriate choices when in the middle of a swamp with me, but didn’t when they went home with their parents? 

Some suggested that the kids were psychologically disturbed, or in the term that is popular among psychiatrists, were chemically imbalanced. But how was it that a kid would come to us with this “imbalance” then, over months, we get those chemicals, whatever they are, all balanced up, only to send him home and have those pesky chemicals get all imbalanced again? 

I also noticed that kids who came from some communities were more likely to fall back into delinquency than those from others. There were communities in which we knew there was virtually no chance of a young man staying out of trouble when he returned. And, we learned that certain forms of delinquency were specific to certain communities. 

Phenomena such as crime rates are often specific to communities. How does living in a “red” community as opposed to a “green” community influence the decisions of adolescent boys? (Boundless Sociology)

I began to think that maybe the problem wasn’t the kids. Maybe the problem was the communities. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was beginning to develop a sociological imagination. My professors helped me refine that imagination in order to analyze the world through a sociological lens, or a way of seeing the world as a sociologist. 

Look, every discipline develops a certain kind of imagination. If you are a musician, you understand the world through notes and chords. You listen more carefully than anyone else and delineate patterns, beats, rhythms and sounds in ways that I can’t understand. If you are a psychologist you understand personal troubles in terms of mind and/or brain. That’s what training in a particular field does. It imparts to the student a kind of lens through which to understand the world. Now this lens can open up meaningful and useful insights. Freud’s insight into the unconscious mind, for instance, has shaped our understanding of humanity in ways never before advanced. 

But these lenses can also be constraining. In 1973, psychiatrist D. L. Rosenhan published a controversial study. He sent perfectly sane volunteers to seek admission to mental hospitals. They were to exhibit normal behaviors, but report hearing a voice say a word like “hollow” and report feelings of meaninglessness. Upon admittance with diagnoses of schizophrenia, these pseudo-patients were to exhibit normal behaviors.  In each case, none of the volunteers were identified as being sane (except, ironically, by about a third of the patients). Their otherwise normal behaviors were often interpreted in terms of their diagnosis. In one case, a staff member took a note on a pseudo-patient’s “note taking behavior.” Apparently, note taking is a normal behavior for the staff, but abnormal for the “patient.” Why? 

Either way, the lesson here is that the presumed “schizophrenia” of the patients turned out to be based not on their actual mental health, but rather on their social position and status as patients in a mental hospital. As patients, the volunteers were labeled, then their behaviors were analyzed in terms of the label, not in terms of simply observing behavior. What’s more, when these patients were released from the mental hospital it was not because they were determined to be mentally healthy, it was because it was determined that their schizophrenia was in remission. 

After Rosenhan’s study was published a number of mental health officials stated that they would have been able to identify a fake patient. Rosenhan said he would take them up on the challenge and send them phony patients. Over forty imposters were identified…however, Rosenhan had never actually sent any volunteers. He was bluffing. Ooops~!

So maybe I was doing the same thing. I was analyzing my kids based not on their actual behaviors and interactions, but on my labeling of their behaviors in a particular social context. Maybe I need to look behind the social curtain to get a better idea of how to understand and ultimately help my target population. 

That’s the subject of this chapter. How does a sociologist focus his or her particular perspective lens in order to analyze society, especially a society in which he or she lives? What kind of a perspective does a sociologist exercise in order to do sociology? 

And the word “perspective” is the key. As sociologists we want to ground our interpretations of society in such a way that our work can be understood as Valid and Reliable. To help us do this, sociologists ground our observations in three major perspectives. These three perspectives are the basic tools of the sociological approach. They help us focus our observations in such a way that we are able to draw consistent conclusions. They also help our peers confirm our observations and design tests for our analyses.

What does this mean? Well, there are countless ways to look at poverty. I can analyze poverty as a curse from God, for instance. In which case, you are poor because God does not like you. Poverty may also be a test from God. These are both interesting perspectives, maybe there’s even something to learn from these perspectives, but they are not sociology. These are a Theological or even Theist perspectives. You may agree with the perspective, but since there is no way to test the whims of God for Validity or Reliability, we are not talking science. Sociologists analyze poverty from three basic premises drawing from two main traditions for looking at society. The rest of this chapter will describe these two traditions, the three perspectives and then introduce some critiques of the three perspectives that also inform our sociological lens.

Positivism and Phenomenology

Sociology as a discipline emerged from two basic traditions. Positivism and Phenomenology. 

You remember Positivism from Chapter 2’s discussion on our crazy friend Auguste Comte. Be careful with this term. Many disciplines use this term, but not quite in the same way sociologists do. In sociology, the positivist tradition strives to make the study of society as empirical as possible. In other words, the sociologist tries to use similar processes as are used in the natural sciences like biology and chemistry to analyze society. Positivists apply a strict scientific method in which they formulate a hypothesis and test it. The positivist makes the assumption that society is, like the natural world, guided by certain laws. Understanding these laws can lead to a greater understanding of society and, perhaps, a way to make societies better. 

Now the positivist tradition is very powerful and very important. Sociological researchers often come up with very innovative ways to test hypotheses based on social theory. Their research, often involves meticulous statistical analysis and is absolutely crucial in understanding the social world.

But there are some problems in the positivist tradition. The biggest critique of the positivist tradition is its inference of sociological determinism. In other words, human behavior is determined solely by sociological forces. Yet there seems to be little support for this claim. For instance, if societies follow certain laws, then how is it that individual societies have so many problems? I mean, in physics, an object in motion must remain in motion unless affected by an outside force. There’s no variation on that theme. Particles speeding through a super-collider will act in certain definite ways. That’s not true in sociology. In sociology we very often see exceptions to the rules and, when we run the numbers, the best we can do is calculate probabilities that can be applied to social groups.  

The phenomenologist points out that the problem with trying to empirically study social life is that human beings, unlike objects in motion or strands of DNA, have free will.

Well…free will–ish. Sociologists don’t use the term free will. We are skeptical of just how much of human behavior is free or an act of will. Instead we talk about agency, and agency is pretty slippery when you try to get a finger on it. The bottom line is that human beings do not respond like plant cells to sunlight. Human beings often make decisions when interacting within this social matrix. Our decisions are more or less informed or misinformed. They are the result of our historical context, social environment, personal background, emotional states, prospects for the future and any of a number of variables that are too numerous to list. Of course, human beings may very well respond to situations with little actual choice involved, but these responses are often influenced by the very things that motivate our choices. So then it becomes very difficult to determine exactly how much of what we do comes from our own supposed free will, and how much is a response to our social environment. Add on top of that the fact that sociology looks at interactions, which means that our analysis is complicated by the fact that we have multiple subjects making decisions in relation to others in a social context, each with a personal history, each with a particular prospect for the future…

I know! Right?

That’s why a few months ago the great cosmologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson Tweeted “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard.”

Great! If Neil DeGrasse Tyson can’t figure this stuff out, what chance do I have?

The phenomenologist has a solution. Instead of trying to work out the laws of social interaction and pare down the empirical details of human interaction, the sociologist is better off focusing on the interactions themselves and looking at how people, through their interactions, both respond to and shape social reality. Imagine how someone who has never been in a classroom before would behave upon walking into your classroom. He or she would see how you and your fellow students are behaving. A classroom is not real to that visitor until she witnesses your interactions, then defines how she is expected to act based on what you are doing. Imagine this visitor whose first day happens to be at a time when the teacher is absent and your rowdy class is immiserating a hapless substitute. How might those interactions shape her understanding of what it means to be in a classroom?

So which of these traditions is right? Well, they both are. You will find that sociologists are shaped by both positivism, a desire to empirically understand what is going on in the social world and make valid and reliable observations as well as the understanding that what we are really looking at is the product of interaction. Some perspectives emphasize one tradition more-so than others, however. 

Three sociological perspectives

From these traditions, three sociological perspectives have emerged. Nobody sat down and decided that there would be three perspectives. In fact, some textbooks describe five perspectives, or four. No. These perspectives emerged over time. But in the past hundred and fifty years or so, all sociological analysis, more or less, breaks down into three main categories. The Functionalist Perspective. The Conflict Perspective and the Interactionist Perspective. Now I’ll go over each of these more fully in the next three sections. But for now, let’s just get an overview of what I’m talking about. 

The first perspective is the Functionalist Perspective. Now each perspective begins with a basic assumption or premise about the nature of society. Functionalists see society as stable and orderly systems. The 19th century philosopher, Herbert Spencer, offered an Organic Model to explain society. All parts of the society, called social structures, work together to create a healthy social body much like the organs of one’s physiology work together to make the human body function. Healthy organs equates to healthy bodies. So when a functionalist analyzes a social phenomenon she is is asking “How does this phenomenon contribute to the functioning and stability of society.” 

According to the Functionalist, those things in society that are dysfunctional, or disruptive of the functioning of society, tend to be short lived because society will ultimately find a way to stabilize. When a natural disaster happens, for instance, societies alter their function in order to deal with the disaster. Once the disaster is resolved, society goes back to normal. Disruptive ideas may develop that destabilize society. They are either shunned and marginalized, or incorporated into the larger society. Technologies may be developed that cause disruption, but eventually society develops norms or rules for dealing with these innovations.

The functionalist also points out that those things in our society that appear to be disruptive or dysfunctional may actually be functional when examined. For instance, war is often considered a social disruption, but war can be an effective way to create a sense of unified purpose in society. It’s a great justification for mobilizing considerable wealth resources. War serves to employ people and can stimulate the economy. Rather than being disruptive, war is often functional.

So the functionalist perspective is really powerful and valuable. It forces us to turn around our assumptions about society and look at social phenomena in a different light…

…except when it doesn’t.

Senator Gerald Nye confronted World War I war profiteers

In some ways, the functionalist perspective discourages critical examination when it comes to social phenomena that benefits dominant groups in society, but may be detrimental to those groups with less power. So war may be functional, but wars also tend to benefit some groups in society more than others. In the 1930’s, Senator Gerald Nye investigated the vast profits made by ammunition manufacturers during World War I, almost none of whom actually took the risk to fight in the war. In 2006, journalist Robert Greenwald produced a documentary on war profiteering during the Iraq War called Iraq for Sale. In the meantime, increasing numbers of military service personnel are dependent on food stamps. 

Clearly there’s a disconnect. 

Robert Greenwald, Iraq for Sale

This might be functional, but the functions benefit some at the expense of others. 

To deal with this issue, the second sociological perspective is the Conflict Perspective. The premise of the Conflict Perspective is that society is composed of different social groups that co-exist in a state of conflict for access to social resources. Now these resources could be material resources like wealth, capital, or land. This is the perspective introduced by Karl Marx. According to Marx, all conflicts can be largely broken down into conflicts over material need between those who have the stuff and those who do not. This is called dialectical materialism. Other conflict sociologists point out that issues like control over events, status, privilege, even deference may also be resources for which groups may contend. 

The Conflict sociologist is interested in analyzing which groups dominate and how this domination is maintained and justified. Who benefits from these social arrangements, who is exploited and in what ways do subordinate groups deal with or even resist these arrangements? 

Now the two perspectives above tend to be Macro Level analyses. In other words, sociologists using the functionalist and the conflict perspectives are interested in getting a big picture understanding of larger social phenomena. This was the dominant practice of sociology for much of the late 19th and early 20th century and remains an important driver of social research today. Remember, the original goal was to understand basic laws of society that can be applied to build a good and just social world. 

But the macro level analysis is limiting.

Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon? If you are a typical visitor to the Grand Canyon you have almost certainly taken the drive along the South Rim, stopping at designated spots in which to take in some absolutely breathtaking vistas. In these areas you get a big picture understanding of just how awesome this natural formation is. That’s the macro level. You are taking in the amazing big scene. 

The Macro Level Approach

But that’s not the only way to experience the Grand Canyon. If you are especially adventurous, you can hike into the Canyon, or raft the Colorado River. You can camp out and get to know the wildlife, the flora, examine millions of years of sedimentary rock layers. That’s a whole different understanding of the Grand Canyon…one I recommend. 

Well the same can be said of sociology. Yes, I can get a big picture understanding of, say, racism in the United States. Important conclusions can be drawn. But it’s not a complete picture unless I also study the experience of racism through the lived experience of individuals. After all, societies are composed of people, and the phenomena which sociologists wish to study involve people interacting in relation to these phenomena.

So that leads us to one of the most challenging perspectives, the Interactionist Perspective

The Interactionist Sociologist begins with the principle that society is the outcome of interactions between individuals and small groups. It’s through interaction that people form an identity, embrace and establish rules that they are taught. In some cases rejecting such rules. Regardless, the sum effect of millions of people interacting simultaneously reinforces the rules that millions of people in the past already constructed through their own interactions. That we largely agree to interact in much the same ways as millions of other people is no accident. It’s a process of socialization that Constructs our understanding of reality. 

Now the three perspectives have been the mainstay of sociological thinking for decades, and it’s hard to imagine a perspective that could be added. But some innovations have been developed over the years. 

So we have a Macro Level approach that looks at the big social picture and the Micro level approach that looks at interactions. It seems pretty intuitive that there must be a level of analysis that is somewhere between your classroom of a couple dozen people and the nation of millions. So sociologists have developed mid-range approaches that look at institutions and organization.

Also, modern innovations in travel and communication as well as the expansion in international trade are creating an increasingly integrated world. So sociologists are in the process of developing globalized perspectives for understanding the world as a single system. 

Two Critical Perspectives

So these innovations have developed out of changing historical factors and the resulting demands coming from those changes. Other innovations were developed to challenge the underlying assumptions of the perspectives themselves. 

By the 1960’s academic women were challenging male dominance in the sciences, especially sociology. If you remember Chapter 2, women weren’t particularly well represented. Women doing sociology couldn’t help but point out that all of the perspectives were drawn from male experience with almost no regard for the roles of women. A great deal of social research, like Milgram’s famous experiment on authority and obedience, included no women at all. It was as if the female perspective didn’t exist. For instance, research into social mobility ignored women, assuming that social mobility for women was bound to the social mobility of their husbands. 

The Feminist perspective can be applied to any of the Three Perspectives. Functional phenomena in any given society may look very different from a woman’s point of view than that of a man. Conflict Feminists investigate the discrepancies and inherent conflicts women face in a patriarchal society. Feminist scholars also analyze gender based variations in patterns of interaction and how gender itself is socially constructed. 

Probably the most radical innovation from the three perspectives is the postmodern perspective. Postmodernism is more than a sociological concept. It has its origins in the arts, architecture, and literature. It’s mostly a critique of modern culture. In sociology, postmodernism is understood as a challenge to the modernistic concepts of sociology. 

Sociology as a discipline arose out of a modernist tradition. Modernism is characterized by increased emphasis on Enlightenment principles of individual freedom, reason and religious tolerance. What we call the Modern Age largely began with the fall of Napoleon and is characterized by the political dominance of the nation state and expanding industrial production, both of which led to an increase in rationalization as defined in Chapter 2 as meaning more bureaucracy. The Modern Age is also one of growing urbanization and multiculturalism. Though there were clearly problems, the existence of sociology was an offshoot of the ultimately positive prospects that many scholars, including Marx, believed lay in store for humanity.

The Three Perspectives can be said to have grown out of the desire and the necessity of understanding the changes taking place as a result of modernism. 

The postmodernists recognize that perspectives based on modernism may be limiting when it comes to understanding our own rapidly changing technological, media-driven and globalized age. Reason and scientific method may have led to some amazing things, but was also instrumental in the massive death tolls of two world wars and the human capacity to end civilization through nuclear annihilation. Multiculturalism and individualism and the very existence of multiple perspectives makes sociology not only hard, but impossible. Postmodernists, playing off of Interactionism, suggest that reality is really just a subjective interpretation of the world held by each individual. Instead of there being an objective reality that can be observed by sociologists, there are multiple realities held by individuals.

Again, postmodernism, though it draws most of its influence from Interactionism, can be applied to all three of the perspectives. The postmodernist might look at how technology is changing the functions of interaction in society, or the society’s response to a more dispersed and atomized concept of the family, or how media provides the unifying narratives that used to be given through shared traditions. The postmodernist might examine how control of knowledge production and propaganda can be used to dominate subordinate groups or how texting is altering our concept of what it means to interact with others. 

The Three Perspectives, Functionalism, Conflict and Interactionism, with later innovations and even innovations to come, are foundational to developing a sociological imagination. As you can see, these perspectives are fairly broad. The truth is that there’s no limit to what can be studied using these particular sociological lenses. What will you look at and what kind of new insights will you see?

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