It’s hard to shake off the sense that in many ways, I’m somewhat of a fraud in taking on a PhD. I know I’m not the first to feel this and am unlikely to be the last. One source of misgivingf the contributory factors is me entering the field of social sciences, having spent my undergraduate years, then all my teaching career in the physical sciences. In an attempt to address the resultant shortcomings in my knowledge base, I thought I ought to delve into where the sociology arose and the foundations on which it was built. To that end I bought a copy of Sociological Theory (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004) with the intention of understanding better the theoretical underpinnings of the concepts I might encounter. What follows here is no more than brief summary to act as an aide-memoir to which I can refer for pointers.
The book is arranged largely chronologically, with the opening chapter devoted to the origins of sociological theory, post-Enlightenment during the early 18th Century. It then turns to what some might argue are the founding fathers of sociological theory:
Marx, who saw contradictions in society as a driver for change, especially as a result of the inequities of capitalism
Durkheim, who sought to study society scientifically, prioritising the social over the individual
Weber’s theories ranged widely, fusing together historical research and sociological theorizing
Simmel, primarily a philosopher, like Marx, he adopted a dialectical approach and a microsociological lens.
In the second part, and following a historical romp through ‘modern’ sociological theories, each is then given a more detailed discussion. Some of these I had heard of, though knew little about, whilst others were completely new to me, so I present them here, purely as a personal reminder. The three major sociological perspectives which have had wide-ranging influence are first.
- Structural functionalism focuses on large-scale, societal concerns and interrelationships, and how social structures and institutions constrain actors resulting in stability.
- Conflict Theory attempted to address some of the shortcomings of structural functionalism by attending to change, rather than stability, and how power and coercion are used or required to maintain order.
- Symbolic Interactionism sees individuals inhabiting a social world in which they construct meaning through communication and interpretation.
- Exchange Theory is built from behaviourist principles in which related individuals make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis.
- Rational Choice Theory views individuals undertaking actions to achieve objectives consistent with their values or ‘preferences.’
- Feminist Theory is the work of an interdisciplinary, multicultural and international community which examines social life from a women-centred perspective, seeking to effect positive change on the social world.
The aforementioned theories and others are often classified as either micro- or macro-scale theories (based on discussions of the individual or society respectively). Or indeed from agency (capacity to act) versus structure (societal structures) perspectives. There followed a chapter exploring efforts to resolve these dichotomies by integrating micro and macro, and agency and structure.
In the final part of the book, the closing chapters, juxtapose modernity and postmodernity, recognising that there are those that do not recognise the latter, seeing instead a further development of the former. Modernism is exemplified by rationality, structure, a sense of identity and that ‘the truth’ iss discernible. In postmodernism however, truth is relative, the self can be transformed, there is incessant choice, consumerism, globalisation and radical intrusion of technology.
It’s surprising how difficult and time-consuming it is summarising 600+ pages into half that number of words, especially when you’re still grappling with many of the concepts within the book.
Yet it’s through that struggle that some semblance of an overview has begun to form and I’m beginning to see (albeit hazily!) the big picture. I don’t doubt that some of the above is incredibly naïve or trite, but the act of producing the summary forced me to revisit and review the whole and attempt to draw out the significant features. It’s like viewing Google Maps at the World view zoom level. I can make out land masses, see relative sizes and spatial relationships, even infer that nearer the equator it might be hotter. Somewhat like my understanding of sociological theory, detail is unavailable at this level. However should I need to better understand the geography of the southern tip of South America because I am about to visit, I can zoom in. Similarly I can also delve more deeply into whichever facets of theory become important to my continuing journey, as and when they become significant.