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A formal definition of sociology would be to say that it is the scientific study of human society or of social problems. The discipline examines all aspects of human behaviour and, in particular, interpersonal relationships and the development of social structures.

The sociological perspective is an insight on the things we take for granted. Behaviours like walking down a crowded pavement or waiting in line at a grocery store. Certain ways we act with certain rules we tend to follow to fit into a social setting.

There are three major ways of understanding sociology. The functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspective.

A functionalist view of society would be stable & well integrated. People are brought up to perform certain societal functions. & all aspects of society have a purpose that are needed for the long term survival of society.

A conflict point of view is characterized by a struggle between groups. The people and social order are formed by force & authority.

An interactionalist view of society is effected everyday through social interaction. People create their own social worlds through relationships and encounters with other people. The social order is maintained by an understanding of everyday behaviour.

Marx being a conflict theorist believed in class conflict, a society made up of two groups. Those who have the means to produce wealth and those who don’t. The capitalist class vs. the working class. A factory owner will gain income by allowing people to work for him. The people working for him must sell their labour power to survive. The rise and fall of different social structures will lead to more advanced social structures in the future. We learn from our mistakes & build from our accomplishments. Marx called this perspective dialectical materialism, which depicts a world of becoming rather than being. Marx believed that religion, family organization, education and government make up the superstructure of society.

Spencer viewed society as being very similar to a biological organism, that all different aspects of society have a special purpose to help it survive. He strongly believed in a Darwinian view of natural selection and applied the phrase “survival of the fittest” to the social world. He thought that governments shouldn’t interfere with society so that we could evolve into more sophisticated beings. Spencer believed in a functionalist society which is made up of institutions like, family, religion, education, state, and economy. He claimed that knowledge was of two kinds, knowledge gained by the individual, and knowledge gained by race. He said that intuition, or knowledge learned unconsciously, was the inherited knowledge or experience of the race.

Weber was an interactionist who studied the role religions play in economic development. He became famous for his controversial theory of the Puritan, or Calvinistic, origin of capitalism. He believed the critical aspect of sociology is the intensions, values, beliefs, and attitudes that underlie peoples behaviour. He wanted to learn the meaning behind the actions. Through this method sociologists try to place themselves in the shoes of other people to identify what they think & feel. Weber stressed the importance of a value free sociology where sociologists should not let their personal biases affect the conduct of their research.

Cooley who was also an interactionist, talked about the looking glass self which is the way we think other people view ourselves. He said its an ongoing process sectioned into three phrases. Imagining how we appear to others, imagining how others judge our appearance, and then developing some sort of feeling on the basis of what we perceive others’ judgements to be. He also talked about self image, which is a temporary mental conception we have of ourselves. Self conception, a more over riding view of ourselves. shyness, & choking.

The three general types of sociological theory are positivistic, interpretive

and critical theory. In determining which theory is the most appropriate for

sociology to adopt, a basic understanding of each theory’s strengths and

weaknesses is necessary. In defining each of these theories, it is important to

determine the ontological basis or the theory’s basis for determining what is

knowable; the epistemological basis or the theory’s relationship between the

knower and the knowable; and, finally, the methodological basis or the theory’s method for gathering data and obtaining knowledge.


1. Ontology.

The positivistic theory is based on an ontology of being a realist. The realistic slant of positivism is also known as determinism. The positivist knows that a reality is “out there” to be defined and categorized. The hard sciences from the time of Newton and Descartes have traditionally relied on the positivistic approach. The positivist hopes to be able to approximate “reality” in a detailed generalization or theory on how reality operates. The theories of a positivist generally take the form of cause and effect laws describing the outside reality. Robert Merton defined these theorems as “clear verifiable statements of the relationships between specified variables.”

2. Epistemology.

Positivism relies on an objective epistemology. The observer remains distant and does not interact with the observation or experiment. Values and any other factors that might lead to bias are to be carefully removed so that the cold, monological gaze of science can be used to analyse the data. The positivist is an objectivist.

3. Methodology.

The methodology of positivism is experimental and manipulative. The approach is the same as propounded in most junior high science classes: begin with a hypothesis on how “reality” works, then gather data and test the data against the hypothesis. The question propounded initially is tested against empirical data gathered in the experiment under carefully controlled conditions.


1. Ontology.

The interpretivist ontology is relativism. The belief, unlike the positivist, is that knowledge is relative to the observer. Reality is not something that exists outside the observer, but rather is determined by the experiences, social

background and other factors of the observer. Because of this view sociological law is not a constant, but a relationship between changing variables.

2. Epistemology.

The epistemology of interpretivism is the subjective. The inquirer in

interpretisim becomes part of an interaction or communication with the subject of the inquiry. The findings are the result of the interaction between the inquirer and the subject. Reality becomes a social construction.

3. Methodology.

The methodology of interpretivism can best be described as hermeneutic or dialectic. Hermeneutics is the study of how to make interpretive inquiry. Dialectic is reflective of the dialogue imagined in the subjective approach and the need to test interpretive theory against human experience. Max Weber described the methodology as “a science which aims at the interpretative understanding of social conduct and thus at the explanation of its causes, its course, and its effects.”

Through hermeneutics, the raw data consists of description. The description is made through the naturally symbolic use of language. The meaning of the language is derived in part by the society from which it arises. Interpretive theory is tested by referring back to human practice within the society. If the interaction produces the anticipated result then the theory is corroborated and vice versa.


1. Ontology.

Critical realism is the ontology of critical theory. Critical realism believes

that a reality exists “out there” and is not merely relative. However, reality

can never be fully comprehended or understood. Natural laws still control and drive reality and to the extent possible should be understood.

2. Epistemology.

Critical theory is value oriented. Therefore, the critical theorist is subjective to the extent that the inquiries are governed and conducted in the context of the values expounded by the theorist.

3. Methodology.

Critical theory has a transformative methodology. The answers provided should be on how we should live. The status quo is critiqued and attacked. Actions are criticized because of the result they will bring. The transformation is brought about by making societal participants more aware of the language and the world in which they live. By rallying members of society around a common, clear and “true” point, societal injustice and exploitation can be eliminated.


All three methodological approaches involve safeguards to regulate objectivity. This is not the same as objectivism. Each has its own “norms for proceeding with a particular form of inquiry in a rational manner.” However, because of the orientation of each theory, the end results will vary.

Based upon these difference, critical theory does not seem to be a theory that should be adopted by sociologists .It belongs more in the realm of politics and legislation. Critical theory in that context could take advantage of scientific inquiry by both positivistic and interpretive sociologists to make

determinations about social change. If indeed critical theorist are to be

involved in sociological study, full disclosure of prejudices and objectives

would be needed for any inquiry to be beneficial and trustworthy.

Postpositivism remains the best approach for observing the exteriors of

society. Coupled with the interpretivist’s view of the interior culture, the two

theories working hand in hand would be most beneficial for the sociologist in examining society .Utilizing a dual approach would be the most comprehensive and give the scientific inquiry both depth and span in evaluating our societies and creating a useable body of sociological research.

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