Sociology, a social science that studies human societies, their interactions, and the processes that preserve and change them. It does this by examining the dynamics of constituent parts of societies such as institutions, communities, populations, and gender, racial, or age groups. Sociology also studies social status or stratification, social movements, and social change, as well as societal disorder in the form of crime, deviance, and revolution.

Social life overwhelmingly regulates the behaviour of humans, largely because humans lack the instincts that guide most animal behaviour. Humans therefore depend on social institutions and organizations to inform their decisions and actions. Given the important role organizations play in influencing human action, it is sociology’s task to discover how organizations affect the behaviour of persons, how they are established, how organizations interact with one another, how they decay, and, ultimately, how they disappear. Among the most basic organizational structures are economic, religious, educational, and political institutions, as well as more specialized institutions such as the family, the community, the military, peer groups, clubs, and volunteer associations.

Sociology, as a generalizing social science, is surpassed in its breadth only by anthropology—a discipline that encompasses archaeology, physical anthropology, and linguistics. The broad nature of sociological inquiry causes it to overlap with other social sciences such as economics, political science, psychology, geography, education, and law. Sociology’s distinguishing feature is its practice of drawing on a larger societal context to explain social phenomena.

Sociologists also utilize some aspects of these other fields. Psychology and sociology, for instance, share an interest in the subfield of social psychology, although psychologists traditionally focus on individuals and their mental mechanisms. Sociology devotes most of its attention to the collective aspects of human behaviour, because sociologists place greater emphasis on the ways external groups influence the behaviour of individuals.Get unlimited access to all of Britannica’s trusted content.

The field of social anthropology has been historically quite close to sociology. Until about the first quarter of the 20th century, the two subjects were usually combined in one department (especially in Britain), differentiated mainly by anthropology’s emphasis on the sociology of preliterate peoples. Recently, however, this distinction has faded, as social anthropologists have turned their interests toward the study of modern culture.

Two other social sciences, political science and economics, developed largely from the practical interests of nations. Increasingly, both fields have recognized the utility of sociological concepts and methods. A comparable synergy has also developed with respect to law, education, and religion and even in such contrasting fields as engineering and architecture. All of these fields can benefit from the study of institutions and social interaction.

Historical Development Of Sociology

Though sociology draws on the Western tradition of rational inquiry established by the ancient Greeks, it is specifically the offspring of 18th- and 19th-century philosophy and has been viewed, along with economics and political science, as a reaction against speculative philosophy and folklore. Consequently, sociology separated from moral philosophy to become a specialized discipline. While he is not credited with the founding of the discipline of sociology, French philosopher Auguste Comte is recognized for having coined the term sociology.

The founders of sociology spent decades searching for the proper direction of the new discipline. They tried several highly divergent pathways, some driven by methods and contents borrowed from other sciences, others invented by the scholars themselves. To better view the various turns the discipline has taken, the development of sociology may be divided into four periods: the establishment of the discipline from the late 19th century until World War I, interwar consolidation, explosive growth from 1945 to 1975, and the subsequent period of segmentation.

Founding the discipline

Some of the earliest sociologists developed an approach based on Darwinian evolutionary theory. In their attempts to establish a scientifically based academic discipline, a line of creative thinkers, including Herbert Spencer, Benjamin Kidd, Lewis H. Morgan, E.B. Tylor, and L.T. Hobhouse, developed analogies between human society and the biological organism. They introduced into sociological theory such biological concepts as variance, natural selection, and inheritance—asserting that these evolutionary factors resulted in the progress of societies from stages of savagery and barbarism to civilization by virtue of the survival of the fittest. Some writers believed that these stages of society could be seen in the developmental stages of each individual. Strange customs were explained by assuming that they were throwbacks to useful practices of an earlier period, such as the make-believe struggle sometimes enacted between the bridegroom and the bride’s relatives reflecting the earlier custom of bride capture.

In its popular period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social Darwinism, along with the doctrines of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, touted unrestricted competition and laissez-faire so that the “fittest” would survive and civilization would continue to advance. Although the popularity of social Darwinism waned in the 20th century, the ideas on competition and analogies from biological ecology were appropriated by the Chicago School of sociology (a University of Chicago program focusing on urban studies, founded by Albion Small in 1892) to form the theory of human ecology that endures as a viable study approach.

Replacing Darwinist determinism

Since the initial interest in evolutionary theory, sociologists have considered four deterministic theories to replace social Darwinism. This search for new approaches began prior to World War I as emphasis shifted from economic theory to geographic, psychological, and cultural theory—roughly in that order.

Economic determinism

The first theory, economic determinism, reflects the interest many sociologists had in the thought of Karl Marx, such as the idea that social differentiation and class conflict resulted from economic factors. This approach had its greatest popularity in Europe, where it remained a strong influence on some sociologists until the 1980s. It did not gain a significant foothold in the United States, because American society was thought to be socially mobile, classless, and oriented to the individual. This neglect of Marxism by American sociologists, however, was not due to scholarly ignorance. Sociologists of all periods had read Marx as well as Charles A. Beard’s economic interpretation of American history and the work of Werner Sombart (who had been a Marxist in his early career). Instead, in the 1960s, neo-Marxism—an amalgam of theories of stratification by Marx and Max Weber—gained strong support among a minority of sociologists. Their enthusiasm lasted about 30 years, ebbing with the breakup of the Soviet system and the introduction of postindustrial doctrines that linked class systems to a bygone industrial era. The persistence of social and economic inequality is now explained as a complex outcome of factors, including gender, race, and region, as well as global trade and national politics.

Human ecology

Representing the second theoretical area, human geographers—Ellsworth Huntington, Ellen Semple, Friedrich Ratzel, Paul Vidal de La Blache, Jean Brunhes, and others—emphasized the impact of climate and geography on the evolution of those societies that flourished in temperate zones. Their theories found no place in mainstream sociological thought, however, except for a brief period in the 1930s when human ecology sought to explain social change by linking environmental conditions with demographic, organizational, and technological factors. Human ecology remains a small but vital part of sociology today.

Social psychology

Psychological theories emphasized instincts, drives, motives, temperament, intelligence, and human sociability in social behaviour and societal evolution. Social psychology modifies these concepts to explain the broader phenomena of social interaction or small group behaviour. Although American sociology even today retains an individualistic (and therefore psychological) bias, by the 1930s sociologists had concluded that psychological factors alone could not explain the behaviour of larger groups and societies.

Cultural theory

Finally, cultural theories of the 1930s emphasized human ability to innovate, accumulate, and diffuse culture. Heavily influenced by social and cultural anthropology, many sociologists concluded that culture was the most important factor in accounting for its own evolution and that of society. By 1940 cultural and social explanations of societal growth and change were accepted, with economic, geographic, and biopsychological factors playing subsidiary roles.

Early schools of thought

Early functionalism

Scholars who established sociology as a legitimate social science were careful to distinguish it from biology and psychology, fields that had also begun to generalize about human behaviour. They did this by developing specific methods for the study of society. French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), prominent in this regard, argued that various kinds of interactions between individuals bring about certain new properties (sui generis) not found in separate individuals. Durkheim insisted that these “social facts,” as he called them—collective sentiments, customs, institutions, nations—should be studied and explained on a distinctly societal level (rather than on an individual level). To Durkheim the interrelations between the parts of society contributed to social unity—an integrated system with life characteristics of its own, exterior to individuals yet driving their behaviour. By positing a causal direction of social influence (from group to individual rather than the reverse, the model accepted by most biologists and psychologists of the time), Durkheim gave a much-needed framework to the new science of sociology. Some writers called this view “functionalism,” although the term later acquired broader meanings.

Durkheim pointed out that groups can be held together on two contrasting bases: mechanical solidarity, a sentimental attraction of social units or groups that perform the same or similar functions, such as preindustrial self-sufficient farmers; or organic solidarity, an interdependence based on differentiated functions and specialization as seen in a factory, the military, government, or other complex organizations. Other theorists of Durkheim’s period, notably Henry Maine and Ferdinand Tönnies, made similar distinctions—status and contract (Maine) and Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft(Tönnies)—and predicted that civilization would progress along the lines of specialization, contractual relations, and Gesellschaft.

Later anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, developed a doctrine of functionalism that emphasized the interrelatedness of all parts of society. They theorized that a change in any single element would produce a general disturbance in the whole society. This doctrine eventually gained such a following among social anthropologists that some advocated a policy of complete noninterference, even with objectionable practices in preliterate societies (such as cannibalism or head-hunting), for fear that eliminating the practice might produce far-reaching social disorganization.

The functionalist-conflict debate

American sociology began undergoing significant development in the 1940s. The monumental growth of university enrollment and research after World War II was fueled by generous federal and private funding of research. Sociologists sought to enhance their status as scientists by pursuing empirical research and by conducting qualitative analysis of significant social problems. Many universities developed large research organizations that spurred important advances in survey research application, measurement, and social statistics. At the forefront were Columbia University(focusing on cultural surveys) and the University of Chicago (specializing in quantitative analysis of social conditions and detailed studies of urban problems). The struggle over the meaningful use of statistics and theory in research began at this time and remained a continuing debate in the discipline.

The gap between empirical research and theory persisted, in part because functionalist theory seemed divorced from the empirical research programs that defined mid-20th-century sociology. Functionalism underwent some modification when sociologist Talcott Parsons enunciated the “functional prerequisites” that any social system must meet in order to survive: developing routinized interpersonal arrangements (structures), defining relations to the external environment, fixing boundaries, and recruiting and controlling members. Along with Robert K. Merton and others, Parsons classified such structures on the basis of their functions. This approach, called structural-functional analysis (and also known as systems theory), was applied so broadly that Marion Levy and Kingsley Davis suggested it was synonymous with the scientific study of social organization.

That structural-functional emphasis changed in the 1960s, however, with new challenges to the functionalist notion that a society’s survival depended on institutional practices. This belief, along with the notion that the stratification system selected the most talented and meritorious individuals to meet society’s needs, was seen by some as a conservative ideology that legitimated the status quo and thereby prevented social reform. It also ignored the potential of the individual within society. In a response to the criticism of structural-functionalism, some sociologists proposed a “conflict sociology.” In this view, the dominant institutions repress the weaker groups. This view gained prominence in the United States with the social turmoil of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War over the 1960s and ’70s and prompted many younger sociologists to adopt this neo-Marxist view. Their interpretation of class conflict seemed consistent with the principal tenet of general conflict theory: that conflict pervades all of society, including the family, the economy, polity, and education.

Rising segmentation of the discipline

One of the consequences of the functionalist-conflict divide, recognized by the 1970s as unbridgeable, was a decline in general theory building. Others were growing specialization and controversy over methodology and approach. Communication between the specialties also diminished, even as ideological disputes and other disagreements persisted within the specialty areas. New academic journals were introduced to meet the needs of the emerging specializations, but this further obscured the core of the discipline by causing scholars to focus on microsociological issues. Interestingly, theory building grew within the specialties—fractured as they were—especially as international comparative research increased contact with other social sciences.


What Is Deviance?

The word deviance connotes odd or unacceptable behavior, but in the sociological sense of the word, Deviance is simply any violation of society’s norms. Deviance can range from something minor, such as a traffic violation, to something major, such as murder.

Each society defines what is deviant and what is not, and definitions of deviance differ widely between societies. For example, some societies have much more stringent rules regarding gender roles than we have in the United States, and still other societies’ rules governing gender roles are less stringent than ours.

Gender And Deviance

In the United States, women who cry in public in response to emotional situations are not generally considered deviant—even women who cry frequently and easily. This view of women has remained relatively constant. Over the past fifty years, however, society’s perception of men who cry has changed. A man who cried publicly in the 1950s would have been considered deviant. Today, men who cry in response to extreme emotional situations are acting within society’s norms. Male politicians cry when announcing defeat, male athletes cry after winning a championship, and male actors cry after winning an award. By today’s standards, none of these men is committing a deviant act.

Relativism and Deviance

Deviance is a relative issue, and standards for deviance change based on a number of factors, including the following:

  • Location: A person speaking loudly during a church service would probably be considered deviant, whereas a person speaking loudly at a party would not. Society generally regards taking the life of another person to be a deviant act, but during wartime, killing another person is not considered deviant.
  • Age: A five-year-old can cry in a supermarket without being considered deviant, but an older child or an adult cannot.
  • Social Status: A famous actor can skip to the front of a long line of people waiting to get into a popular club, but a nonfamous person would be considered deviant for trying to do the same.
  • Individual Societies: In the United States, customers in department stores do not try to negotiate prices or barter for goods. In some other countries, people understand that one should haggle over the price of an item; not to do so is considered deviant.

Cultural Norms And Deviance

In Japan, there are strict norms involving the exchange of business cards. One person presents his or her business card with the writing facing the recipient, who looks at it for a moment and asks a question about some of the information on the card. The question may be irrelevant, but it tells the giver that the recipient has read the card and acknowledges the person and his or her company. A Japanese executive who receives a business card and does not take the time to look at it and ask a question would be considered deviant.

Deviant Traits

A person does not need to act in a deviant manner in order to be considered deviant. Sometimes people are considered deviant because of a trait or a characteristic they possess. Sociologist Erving Goffman used the term Stigma to identify deviant characteristics. These include violations of the norms of physical ability or appearance. For example, people who are confined to wheelchairs or who have IQs over 140 are deviant because they do not represent the usual behaviors or characteristics of most people.

Social Control

Punishing people for deviant behavior reminds people what is expected of them and what will happen if they do not conform to society’s norms. Every society has methods of Social Control, or means of encouraging conformity to norms (see Chapter 1). These methods of social control include positive sanctions and negative sanctions. APositive Sanction is a socially constructed expression of approval. A Negative Sanctionis a socially constructed expression of disapproval.

Positive Sanctions

Society uses positive sanctions to reward people for following norms. Positive sanctions can be formal, such as an award or a raise. They can also be informal and include words, gestures, or facial expressions.

Example: The smile that a mother gives her child when he says “thank you” is a positive sanction.

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

Sociologists use a variety of theoretical perspectives to make sense of the world. These perspectives or theories provide a framework for understanding observations on topics such as deviance. The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective of sociology views society as a product of everyday social interactions of individuals. Symbolic interactionists also study how people use symbols to create meaning. In studying deviance, these theorists look at how people in everyday situations define deviance, which differs between cultures and settings.

Theory of Differential Association

Sociologist Edwin Sutherland studied deviance from the symbolic interactionist perspective. The basic tenet of his Theory Of Differential Association is that deviance is a learned behavior—people learn it from the different groups with which they associate. His theory counters arguments that deviant behavior is biological or due to personality. According to Sutherland, people commit deviant acts because they associate with individuals who act in a deviant manner.

He further explained exactly what one learns from people who commit deviance. He said that the future deviant learns values different from those of the dominant culture, as well as techniques for committing deviance.

Example: In a gang environment, current gang members resocialize new members to norms that oppose those of the dominant culture. From the gang, these new members learn that stealing, carrying a gun, and using drugs are acceptable behaviors, whereas they were not before. In the meantime, the norms they learned at home are no longer acceptable within the gang environment, and they must reject those norms and values to accept the new ones. Current gang members also teach new members how to commit specific deviant acts, such as hotwiring a car or breaking into a home.

Part of Sutherland’s theory is that if people learn deviance from others, the people with whom we associate are of utmost importance. The closer the relationship, the more likely someone is to be influenced. Parents who worry that their children are socializing with an undesirable crowd have a justified concern.

Example: If an adolescent changes schools and his new peer group smokes marijuana, the new student is more likely to smoke marijuana. On the other hand, if a student moves to a new school where no one smokes marijuana, he is less likely to take up the habit.

Deviant Subcultures

When individuals share a particular form of deviance, they often form a Deviant Subculture, a way of living that differs from the dominant culture and is based on that shared deviance. Within the deviant subculture, individuals adopt new norms and values and sometimes feel alienated from the larger society. They end up relying more on the group to which they feel they most belong. When an individual becomes a member of a deviant subculture, the members of his immediate group often become his primary source of social interaction. The deviant feels comfortable among others who have also been rejected from the dominant society.

Example: People released from prison often find that the dominant society does not welcome them back with open arms, and they often drift toward other ex-convicts to attain a sense of belonging and purpose, thereby forming a subculture. This deviant subculture helps to explain why rates of recidivism, or repeated offenses by convicted criminals, are so high. The ex-convict subculture sanctions and encourages further acts of deviance.

Control Theory

Sociologist Walter Reckless developed the control theory to explain how some people resist the pressure to become deviants. According to Control Theory, people have two control systems that work against their desire to deviate. Each person has a set of inner controls and outer controls.

  • Inner Controls are internalized thought processes such as a sense of morality, conscience, or religious beliefs. People may also refrain from doing acts of deviance because they fear punishment or couldn’t live with the guilt that would come from acting outside of society’s norms. Inner controls represent a sort of internalized morality.
  • Outer Controls consist of the people in our lives who encourage us not to stray. They could be family members, police officers, clergy, or teachers. Whoever they are, they influence us to conform to society’s expectations. A person who is tempted to engage in a deviant act can resist the temptation by imagining how others would react to his or her behavior.

Travis Hirschi and Control Theory

Sociologist Travis Hirschi elaborated on the control theory. He identified four elements that would render an individual more or less likely to commit deviance: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

  • Attachment: People who feel a strong attachment to other people, such as family or close friends, are less likely to be deviant. If people have weak relationships, they feel less need to conform to the other person’s or group’s norms. They are more likely to commit a deviant act.
  • Commitment: Individuals who have a sincere commitment to legitimate goals are more likely to conform to society’s norms. Those goals could be a legitimate job, higher education, financial stability, or a long-term relationship. When people have little confidence in the future, they are more likely to engage in deviance.
  • Involvement: The more involved people are with legitimate activities, the less likely they are to deviate from appropriate behavior. A person with a job, a family, and membership in several clubs or organizations is less likely to commit deviance. Not only does he not have time to waste in potentially harmful activities, but he has a lot to lose if he does.
  • Belief: An individual who shares the same values as the dominant society, such as respect for authority, the importance of hard work, or the primacy of the family, is less likely to commit deviance. Individuals whose personal belief systems differ from those of the dominant society are more likely to commit deviance. A person raised to believe that it is acceptable to cheat, lie, and steal will probably not integrate into mainstream society as well as someone whose beliefs conform to the values of the larger society.

Labeling Theory

A key aspect of the symbolic interactionist perspective of deviance is labeling theory. First proposed by sociologist Howard Becker in the 1960s, Labeling Theory posits that deviance is that which is so labeled. No status or behavior is inherently deviant until other people have judged it and labeled it deviant.

Example: Some parents absolutely prohibit physical punishment of children, such as spanking, while other parents regularly use physical punishment to enforce household rules. Are parents who spank their children deviant? The answer depends on what is considered acceptable behavior within that given household, or within the greater society in which the family lives. Though spanking is inherently neither right nor wrong, it is subject to the often harsh judgment of others. 

Primary and Secondary Deviance

Sociologist Edwin Lemert differentiated between primary deviance and secondary deviance. The difference between primary deviance and secondary deviance is in the reactions other people have to the original act of deviance.

Primary Deviance is a deviant act that provokes little reaction and has limited effect on a person’s self-esteem. The deviant does not change his or her behavior as a result of this act.

Example: An adolescent who smokes cigarettes with other adolescents is not at risk of being labeled a deviant among her peers, since they all smoke. Even though adolescents who smoke cigarettes are considered deviant by the larger American society, that teenager’s actions go relatively unnoticed, unpunished, and therefore unchanged. The primary deviance is of little consequence.

Secondary Deviance includes repeated deviant behavior that is brought on by other people’s negative reactions to the original act of primary deviance.

Example: The same adolescent moves to a new school where his peers never smoke and where smoking is considered a deviant behavior. The students call him names and exclude him from all of their social activities. Because of their reactions to his smoking, he feels like an outcast and begins to smoke more, perhaps engaging in other deviant activities, such as alcohol or drugs.

According to Lemert, the reactions to the adolescent’s primary deviance provoked a form of secondary deviance. Because his alleged friends reacted so negatively to his behavior, he began to engage in more of the deviant behavior. This repeated deviance results in the adolescent having a deviant identity. He now has a “reputation,” and no one looks at him in quite the same way as before.

Chambliss and the Saints and Roughnecks

In the 1970s, sociologist William Chambliss studied two groups of high school boys to find out how strongly labels affected them. The eight boys in the group Chambliss called the Saints came from middle-class families. Society expected them to do well in life. The six boys in the other group, the Roughnecks, came from lower-class families in poorer neighborhoods. The community generally expected them to fail. Both groups engaged in deviant behavior—skipping school, fighting, and vandalizing property—but suffered different consequences. The teachers, the police, and the community excused the Saints’ behavior because they believed the Saints were good boys overall. The same people saw the Roughnecks as bad and prosecuted them for their behavior more often.

Years later, all but one of the Saints had gone to college and subsequently into professional careers. Two Roughnecks went to college on athletic scholarships, graduated, and became coaches. Two never graduated from high school, and the other two ended up in prison.

Chambliss discovered that the boys’ social class had much to do with the public’s perception of them and the ways the public perceived their acts of deviance. He also hypothesized that a deviant label can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Roughnecks had heard for so long that they were never going to amount to much that they behaved in accordance with the negative expectations others had of them.

Structural Functional Theory

Another framework sociologists use to understand the world is the Structural Functional Theory. Its central idea is that society is a complex unit, made up of interrelated parts. Sociologists who apply this theory study social structure and social function. French sociologist Émile Durkheim based his work on this theory. 

Functions of Deviance

Durkheim argued that deviance is a normal and necessary part of any society because it contributes to the social order. He identified four specific functions that deviance fulfills:

  1. Affirmation Of Cultural Norms And Values: Seeing a person punished for a deviant act reinforces what a society sees as acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Sentencing a thief to prison affirms our culturally held value that stealing is wrong. Just as some people believe that the concept of God could not exist without the concept of the devil, deviance helps us affirm and define our own norms.
  2. Clarification Of Right And Wrong: Responses to deviant behavior help individuals distinguish between right and wrong. When a student cheats on a test and receives a failing grade for the course, the rest of the class learns that cheating is wrong and will not be tolerated.
  3. Unification Of Others In Society: Responses to deviance can bring people closer together. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, people across the United States, and even the world, were united in their shock and grief. There was a surge in patriotic feeling and a sense of social unity among the citizens of the United States.
  4. Promoting Social Change: Deviance can also encourage the dominant society to consider alternative norms and values. Rosa Parks’s act of deviance in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.

Strain Theory of Deviance

Sometimes people find that when they attempt to attain culturally approved goals, their paths are blocked. Not everyone has access to Institutionalized Means, or legitimate ways of achieving success. Strain Theory, developed by sociologist Robert Merton, posits that when people are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutional means, they experience strain or frustration that can lead to deviance. He said that they also experience Anomie, or feelings of being disconnected from society, which can occur when people do not have access to the institutionalized means to achieve their goals.

Example: In a class of graduating high school seniors, 90 percent of the students have been accepted at various colleges. Five percent do not want to go to college, and the remaining five percent want to go to college but cannot, for any one of a number of reasons. All of the students want to succeed financially, and attending college is generally accepted as the first step toward that goal. The five percent who want to attend college but can’t probably feel frustrated. They had the same goals as everyone else but were blocked from the usual means of achieving them. They may act out in a deviant manner.

Institutionalized Means to Success

In the 1960s, sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin theorized that the most difficult task facing industrialized societies is finding and training people to take over the most intellectually demanding jobs from the previous generation. To progress, society needs a literate, highly trained work force. Society’s job is to motivate its citizens to excel in the workplace, and the best way to do that is to foment discontent with the status quo. Cloward and Ohlin argued that if people were dissatisfied with what they had, what they earned, or where they lived, they would be motivated to work harder to improve their circumstances.

In order to compete in the world marketplace, a society must offer institutionalized means of succeeding. For example, societies that value higher education as a way to advance in the workplace must make educational opportunity available to everyone.

Illegitimate Opportunity Structures

Cloward and Ohlin further elaborated on Merton’s strain theory. Deviant behavior—crime in particular—was not just a response to limited institutionalized means of success. Rather, crime also resulted from increased access to Illegitimate Opportunity Structures, or various illegal means to achieve success. These structures, such as crime, are often more available to poor people living in urban slums. In the inner city, a poor person can become involved in prostitution, robbery, drug dealing, or loan sharking to make money. While these activities are clearly illegal, they often provide opportunities to make large amounts of money, as well as gain status among one’s peers.

Reactions to Cultural Goals and Institutionalized Means

Merton theorized about how members of a society respond to cultural goals and institutionalized means. He found that people adapt their goals in response to the means that society provides to achieve them. He identified five types of reactions:

  1. Conformists: Most people are conformists. They accept the goals their society sets for them, as well as the institution-alized means of achieving them. Most people want to achieve that vague status called a “good life” and accept that an education and hard work are the best ways to get there.
  2. Innovators: These people accept society’s goals but reject the usual ways of achieving them. Members of organized crime, who have money but achieve their wealth via deviant means, could be considered innovators.
  3. Ritualists: A ritualist rejects cultural goals but still accepts the institutionalized means of achieving them. If a person who has held the same job for years has no desire for more money, responsibility, power, or status, he or she is a ritualist. This person engages in the same rituals every day but has given up hope that the efforts will yield the desired results.
  4. Retreatists: Retreatists reject cultural goals as well as the institutionalized means of achieving them. They are not interested in making money or advancing in a particular career, and they tend not to care about hard work or about getting an education.
  5. Rebels: Rebels not only reject culturally approved goals and the means of achieving them, but they replace them with their own goals. Revolutionaries are rebels in that they reject the status quo. If a revolutionary rejects capitalism or democracy, for example, he or she may attempt to replace it with his or her own form of government.

Conflict Perspective

A third important sociological framework is the conflict theory. Unlike the structural functional theory, which views society as a peaceful unit, Conflict Theory interprets society as a struggle for power between groups engaging in conflict for limited resources. Karl Marx is the founder of conflict theory. Conflict theorists like Marx posit that there are two general categories of people in industrialized societies: the capitalist class and the working class.

The Capitalist Class, or elite, consists of those in positions of wealth and power who own the means of production or control access to the means of production. TheWorking Class consists of relatively powerless individuals who sell their labor to the capitalist class. It is advantageous to the elite to keep the working class in a relatively disadvantaged position so that they can maintain the status quo and their own privileged positions.

Conflict Theory and Crime

Conflict theorists believe that the broad division of people into these two categories is inherently unequal. They cite the criminal justice system to support their claim. The capitalist class passes laws designed to benefit themselves. These same laws are detrimental to the working class. Both groups commit acts of deviance, but the system the capitalists created defines deviance differently for each group. The criminal justice system judges and punishes each group differently.

In addition, the elite can often afford expensive lawyers and are sometimes on a first-name basis with the individuals in charge of making and enforcing laws. Members of the working class generally do not have these advantages.

White-Collar Crimes

Conflict theorists also look at the types of crimes committed by members of the two classes. The working class is more likely to commit so-called street crime, such as robbery, assault, or murder. Members of the elite are less likely to commit acts of violence but more likely to engage in White-Collar Crime, or nonviolent crime committed by the capitalist class during the course of their occupations.

Example: White-collar criminal acts include embezzlement, insider stock trading, price fixing, and breaking regulatory laws.

Conflict Perspective

White-collar criminals are difficult to catch and prosecute for two main reasons:

  • White-collar crime is difficult to identify. It leaves little physical evidence and no easily identifiable victim. In order to detect white-collar crime, authorities must have knowledge of high finance to discover that embezzlement, for example, has taken place.
  • White-collar criminals are sometimes able to use their power and influence to avoid prosecution. Because of their social and economic clout, white-collar criminals rarely face criminal prosecution. When prosecuted, they are much less likely than members of the working class to receive a prison sentence. They are more likely to pay a fine as punishment for their crime.

White-Collar Crime: Not Dangerous?

Generally, white-collar crimes are not harmful or dangerous to the general public. But there are exceptions. In 2001, consumer advocates accused the Ford Motor Corporation of equipping some of their vehicles with faulty tires, made by Bridgestone/Firestone. Ford had already recalled the tires from vehicles sold in other countries but made no such recall on tires on those sold in the United States. Over 200 people died and more than 800 were injured in automobile accidents allegedly caused by the defective tires.

Deviance and Power

Conflict theorist Alexander Liazos points out that the people we commonly label as deviant are also relatively powerless. According to Liazos, a homeless person living in the street is more likely to be labeled deviant than an executive who embezzles funds from the company he or she runs.

Because the people in positions of power make the laws of any given society, they create laws to benefit themselves. According to the conflict view of deviance, when rich and powerful people are accused of wrongdoing, they have the means to hire lawyers, accountants, and other people who can help them avoid being labeled as deviant. Lastly, members of a society generally believe that laws are inherently fair, which can draw attention away from the possibility that these laws might be unfairly applied or that a law itself might not be good or just.


White-collar crime is just one type of crime. Crime, or the violation of a written law, is a specific kind of deviance. What constitutes a crime varies from society to society.

In our society, sociologists have identified three general categories of crime:

  1. Crimes Against The Person: These are crimes in which an act of violence is either threatened or perpetrated against a person. A mugging is an example of a crime against the person.
  2. Crimes Against Property: These are crimes that involve the theft of property or certain forms of damage against the property of another. Arson is an example of a property crime.
  3. Victimless Crimes: These are crimes in which laws are violated, but there is no identifiable victim. Prostitution is often classified as a victimless crime.

Profile of a Criminal

Sociologists studying crime and deviance study statistics on who commits crime. Identifying a criminal profile can help sociologists understand the causes of crime and other deviance. Sociologists use the categories of age, gender, social class, and race and ethnicity to create this profile.


Young people, roughly between the mid-teens and early twenties, commit almost 40 percent of all crimes. The likeliness to commit crime, particularly violent crime, decreases as one ages.


Men are arrested for crimes far more often than women. Men are arrested for approximately 70 percent of all property crimes and 80 percent of all violent crimes. Several theories, including the following, attempt to explain this situation:

  • In all known societies, men are allowed more behavioral freedom than women are. More freedom means more opportunity to engage in deviant acts.
  • Traditionally, police have been less willing to define a woman as a criminal, and the court system has been less likely to convict a woman and sentence her to jail or prison.

The gap between the number of arrests for men and the number of arrests for women is narrowing, however. This could be due to greater gender equality or, as some believe, to the rising number of women who commit crimes.

Social Class

Street crime, particularly violent crime, is more prevalent in poor, inner-city neighborhoods than in affluent communities. Violent crime in inner-city neighborhoods tends to be committed by the same group of seasoned criminals. Their victims are most often the law-abiding inhabitants of those neighborhoods. White-collar crime tends to occur in more affluent communities.

Race and Ethnicity

African Americans represent approximately 12 percent of the population in the United States and comprise 30 percent of property-crime arrests and 38 percent of violent-crime arrests. White people represent 66 percent of the arrests for property crimes and 60 percent of the arrests for violent crimes.

Identity and reality


There is no single, true universal reality. What is “real” differs from person to person, based on one’s own ideas, circumstances, and knowledge. For example, a boy with a strict, stern father may not be happy when the father comes home. He may even try to avoid his father as much as possible. A boy with a more lenient and supportive father will be happy to see him and will eagerly seek his company. The reality of “father” for each of the boys, based on their social interactions, is quite different.

Each individual in a society has his or her own perceptions of reality, and that perception has a lot to do with social status. For example, in cultures where women have few legal rights and are not allowed to work outside the home, a wife may think she has a “good husband” simply because he does not beat her and allows her some freedom in pursuing her own interests. A wife working outside the home in an industrialized society may think she has a “bad husband” because he does not do enough housework. The way we create our own identities depends on how we create reality.

social Construction of Reality

People perceive reality differently, and when they decide how they are going to view a person or a situation, they act accordingly. Since we all perceive reality differently, our reactions differ. Our definition of a situation as good or bad, to be embraced or avoided, dictates our response to it.


Ethnomethodology, as founded by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, is a theory that looks at how we make sense of everyday situations. Though we may view a situation differently from those around us, our backgrounds provide us with some basic assumptions about everyday life. Ethnomethodology studies what those background assumptions are, how we arrive at them, and how they influence our perceptions of reality. In order to understand these assumptions, students of ethnomethodology are often taught to violate or challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions we have about everyday life.

Example: In the United States, one background assumption is that emergency personnel, such as police officers, wear identifiable uniforms when on duty. An officer at an accident scene who is wearing everyday clothes might find that crowds won’t obey someone who claims to be a police officer but is without a uniform. The officer might have difficulty keeping onlookers at bay or redirecting traffic away from the scene. When the background assumption is not fulfilled, members of the public will not respond as respectfully as they would if the officer were in uniform, and the officer will have a hard time performing required duties.

Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the concept of Dramaturgy, the idea that life is like a never-ending play in which people are actors. Goffman believed that when we are born, we are thrust onto a stage called everyday life, and that our socialization consists of learning how to play our assigned roles from other people. We enact our roles in the company of others, who are in turn enacting their roles in interaction with us. He believed that whatever we do, we are playing out some role on the stage of life.
Goffman distinguished between front stages and back stages. During our everyday life, we spend most of our lives on the front stage, where we get to deliver our lines and perform. A wedding is a front stage. A classroom lectern is a front stage. A dinner table can be a front stage. Almost any place where we act in front of others is a front stage. Sometimes we are allowed to retreat to the back stages of life. In these private areas, we don’t have to act. We can be our real selves. We can also practice and prepare for our return to the front stage.
Impression Management
Goffman coined the term Impression Management to refer to our desire to manipulate others’ impressions of us on the front stage. According to Goffman, we use various mechanisms, called Sign Vehicles, to present ourselves to others. The most commonly employed sign vehicles are the following:
Social setting
Manner of interacting
Social Setting

The social setting is the physical place where interaction occurs. It could be a doctor’s examination room, a hallway, someone’s home, or a professor’s office. How we arrange our spaces, and what we put in them, conveys a lot of information about us. A person who lives in a huge home with security guards, attack dogs, and motion detectors conveys the message that he or she is very important, wealthy, and powerful, and probably that uninvited visitors should stay away. On the other hand, the owner of a house with no fence, lots of lights, and a welcome mat would seem much more inviting but perhaps not as rich or powerful.
How we decorate our settings, or what Props we use, also gives clues to how we want people to think of us. A businesswoman with a photo of her family on her desk communicates that things outside of work are important in her life. When a professor displays her degrees and certificates on the wall of her office, she communicates that she wants to be viewed as a credible authority in her chosen field. When people decorate offices, hang pictures in clinics, or display artwork in their homes, they are using props to convey information about how they want others to see them.
Our appearance also speaks volumes about us. People’s first impressions are based almost exclusively on appearance.

Clothing: The clothing we wear tells others whether we are rich or poor, whether we take care of ourselves, whether we have a job, and whether we take it seriously. Props such as a wedding band, a doctor’s stethoscope, or a briefcase tell others even more about us.
Physical Stature: American society is obsessed with thinness, especially for women, and people often equate thinness with attractiveness. People commonly make assumptions about a person’s personality and character based solely on his or her weight. The tendency to assume that a physically attractive person also possesses other good qualities is called the Halo Effect. For example, thin and attractive people are assumed to be smarter, funnier, and more self-controlled, honest, and efficient than their less thin and attractive peers. Conversely, we tend to think that heavier people lack self-discipline and are more disorganized than their thinner counterparts.
Race: Anthropologically speaking, there are only three races: white, black, and Asian. Humans feel the need to assign every individual to one of the three races and then draw conclusions about their musical preferences, tastes in food, and home life based on that classification.
Stereotypes: Many of the assumptions we make about people based on physical characteristics are actually stereotypes. A Stereotype is an assumption we make about a person or group that is usually based on incomplete or inaccurate information. An individual or two may indeed fit a stereotype, but the danger is assuming that all people who share a particular characteristic are inherently the same.
Manner of Interacting
According to Goffman, our manner of interacting is also a sign vehicle. Our Manner Of Interacting consists of the attitudes we convey in an attempt to get others to form certain impressions about us. One of the most common ways to convey attitudes is through nonverbal communication, the ways we have of communicating that do not use spoken words. These consist of gestures, facial expressions, and body language.
Gestures: In our society, we often shake hands when we meet someone for the first time. The offer to shake hands signals that we want to meet the other individual, so when one person extends his or her right hand and the other person does not do likewise, the second person is insulting the first. Messages in gestures can be more subtle, as well. A person whose handshake is firm conveys confidence, but an individual with an intentionally crushing handshake is, in effect, claiming strength and domination over the other person.
Facial Expressions: Facial expressions also convey information. Humans can convey a surprising amount of information in a look or an expression: a smile, frown, grimace, raised eyebrows, and narrowed eyes all convey distinctly different messages.
Body Language: Our body language can also convey a wealth of meaning. Body language consists of the ways in which we use our bodies consciously and unconsciously to communicate. Most people are familiar with the body language that accompanies traditional mating rituals in our society. Sometimes body language gives clearer indications of a person’s thoughts or feelings than words do. For example, if a person claims not to be upset by a recent romantic breakup but his or her movements and facial expressions lack their usual animation and energy, the individual’s body language is contradicting his or her stated emotions.
Personal Space
The way we command space is also a function of how we choose to present ourselves.Personal Space refers to the area immediately around the body that a person can claim as his or her own. Like so many aspects of culture, the amount of personal space an individual claims differs from culture to culture. In general, residents of the West stand at least three or four feet away from the people they are speaking to. In parts of the Middle East, people tend to stand only about two feet away when conversing.
In general, the more intimate we are with a person, the closer we allow him or her to stand to us.
1–2 feet: Close friends, lovers, and family members
2–4 feet: Acquaintances and coworkers
4–12 feet: Formal acquaintances, such as a potential employer during a job interview

When someone stands closer than the culture deems appropriate, discomfort results because that person has invaded the accepted personal space. Powerful and prestigious people can command more personal space and in general are also more likely to invade others’ personal space.

Social Status

The ways we choose to present ourselves to other people also give clues as to ourSocial Status, which is the position we occupy in a particular setting. In a doctor’s office, the doctor occupies one status, the nurse another, and the receptionist still another. Some statuses carry more prestige and power than others. In our society, the status of doctor is more prestigious than the status of nurse, and the status of nurse is more prestigious than that of receptionist.

Statuses also exist in the home, including the positions of mother, father, oldest child, youngest child, and grandparent. Most of us occupy a number of different statuses in our lives. The collection of all of our different statuses from every setting is called our Status Set.

Status Symbols

Sometimes we wear Status Symbols, or signs or symbols of a respective status. Professors wear academic regalia to identify their status within the collegiate setting. Successful businesspeople may drive luxurious cars or wear expensive clothing or jewelry to indicate a high financial status within the community. A wedding ring is also an example of a status symbol in our culture, as it communicates the message that the wearer is married.

Not all status symbols are positive. In some states, an individual who has been convicted of driving a car while intoxicated must put a bumper sticker saying “DUI” (Driving Under the Influence) or “Convicted DUI” on their car. The bumper sticker indicates a status that is generally looked down on in our society.

Status Inconsistency

We tend to have more than one status at any given point in our lives, and most of the time there is consistency among our various statuses. Status inconsistency results when a person occupies one or more statuses that do not ordinarily coincide in the same person. A seventy-five-year-old grandmother who is a college freshman and a cab driver who is a classically trained Shakespearean actor both exhibit status inconsistency.

Master Status

Master Status overrides all other statuses and becomes the one by which we are first known to others. For many people, their occupation is their master status, since it conveys so much about their income, education, skills, and interests. People who differ from the rest of society in some way may have a different master status. For many people who are homosexual, their sexual orientation becomes their master status, and others think of it when they hear those people’s names. Their statuses as professionals, athletes, family members, and community leaders are secondary to their status as homosexuals.

Social Status

Master Statuses In Global Cultures

In cultures where women are not afforded as many opportunities as men, their gender is their master status. In much of the United States, it could be argued that a minority person’s race or ethnicity is a master status. Other master statuses could be celebrity, wealth, or having a physical disfigurement. Regardless of all of the other statuses a person may hold, the status that is immediately apparent to others makes the biggest impression and affects others’ perceptions of that individual.


Some of the traits we possess are actually stigmas. According to Goffman, a Stigma is a trait or characteristic we possess that causes us to lose prestige in the eyes of others. A disfigured face might be a stigma, as someone whose face is severely disfigured is likely to have lost prestige among his or her peers and coworkers. Many would also consider homosexuality to be a stigmatizing characteristic. Because of widespread homophobia, many people would think less of a person they knew to be homosexual.

Goffman believed that a stigma that is permanent, severe, or both can cause an individual to have a Spoiled Identity, and others will always cast them in a negative light.

Example: Convicted felons have a spoiled identity. Not only is their status as felons their master status, but it is a stigma so negative that it is likely that society will always think of them as convicted felons. Being a convicted felon is so stigmatizing that individuals will always be thought of as criminals even if they’ve served time and have been rehabilitated.

Degradation Ceremonies

If an individual’s identity is spoiled beyond redemption, sometimes the groups to which he or she belongs must decide how to handle his or her new identity. One way to deal with individuals whose identities have been spoiled is through a degradation ceremony. According to Harold Garfinkel, a Degradation Ceremony is a ritual designed to expel a person from a group and to strip this person of his or her identity as a group member.

Social group and social organisation


Though individuality is positive and natural, we all need other people in our lives, and we form alliances with others every day. One of the most basic ways to arrange human beings is into groups. Large or small, groups serve many functions. They give an individual a sense of identity, as well as meet individual needs such as the need for emotional intimacy. In some groups, we have close personal ties to the other members. Other groups are so large and impersonal that we might never get to meet the other members. Some groups work to accomplish a task, and others meet just because the members feel a personal connection to one another.

As societies modernize, the sizes and purposes of groups change. In nonindustrialized societies, few groups exist, but in large, industrialized societies, residents commonly claim membership in a wide variety of groups. Because many types of society are so different from one another, it only makes sense that groups can differ widely in importance, purpose, and prevalence depending on the society in which they exist.

Groups, Aggregates, and Categories

Sociological study relies on the ability to classify the people being studied in order to arrive at correct conclusions. Classifications include groups, aggregates, and categories.


Group consists of two or more people who are distinct in the following three ways:

  • Interact over time.
  • Have a sense of identity or belonging.
  • Have norms that nonmembers don’t have.

Example: A class of students is a group. Classes by definition consist of more than two people, meet at least a few times a week for an entire semester, and identify themselves on the basis of what classes they are taking. Students in a class must follow that professor’s class and test schedule, as well as rules for behavior and contribution in class.

Many different types of groups exist in industrialized societies, including school classes, social clubs, sports teams, neighborhood associations, religious communities, and volunteer organizations. Within any group, it is not uncommon for a few people to have an especially close relationship and form a Clique, which is an internal cluster or faction within a group.


The word group is sometimes confused with the word aggregate. An Aggregate is a collection of people who happen to be at the same place at the same time but who have no other connection to one another.

Example: The people gathered in a restaurant on a particular evening are an example of an aggregate, not a group. Those people probably do not know one another, and they’ll likely never again be in the same place at the same time.


Category is a collection of people who share a particular characteristic. They do not necessarily interact with one another and have nothing else in common.

Example: Categories of people might include people who have green eyes, people who were born in Nevada, and women who have given birth to twins.

Group Classifications

Humans have a natural tendency to form groups, and a single person can be a part of several groups at a time.

Primary Groups and Secondary Groups

A person can belong to several groups at once, but not all of those groups will be of the same importance or have the same effect or role in his or her life.

Primary Group offers a great deal of intimacy. Members of a primary group meet the following criteria:

  • Meet frequently on a face-to-face basis.
  • Have a sense of identity or belonging that lasts a long time.
  • Share little task orientation.
  • Have emotional intimacy.

Secondary group is more formal and less personal. Members of a secondary group meet the following criteria:

  • Do not meet frequently, or they meet only for short periods of time.
  • Share a sense of identity or belonging only until the group ends.
  • Are task-oriented.
  • Feel little emotional intimacy.

Example: A family is an example of a primary group, and an after-school job in a fast-food restaurant is an example of a secondary group.


Family (Primary Group)

After-School Job (Secondary Group)

Frequency Of Meeting

Every day for years or decades

Several hours a week, probably less or none if the person finds a different job

Duration Of Sense Of Identity

A lifetime, despite changes in comp-osition (moving out, divorce, remarriage, or death)

Usually disappears when not at place of work

Task Orientation

None. A person belongs to family simply by virtue of existence.

A person is there to accomplish a specific task and do his or her job.

Emotional Intimacy

Strong. Family members see each other at their best and worst and are privy to one another’s feelings.

It is inappropriate to show strong emotion or to discuss personal problems. Relation-ships are generally impersonal and work-related.

Group Classifications

In-Groups and Out-Groups

An In-Group is a group to which we belong and to which we feel loyalty. An Out-Groupis a group to which we do not belong and to which we feel no loyalty.

We judge people to be members of our group based on factors including religion, race, nationality, job category, and level of education. When we meet a person for the first time, we often size them up to see if they are “one of us.” One person’s perception of another to be a member of the same group can foment feelings of loyalty or shared identity. Individuals who meet by chance and happen to share something in common, such as their hometown or alma mater, often feel an immediate kinship.

Muslims As An Out-Group In The United States

The perception that someone is a member of an out-group can lead to competition, discrimination, and even hatred. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many people viewed followers of Islam as members of the out-group and developed an “us-and-them” attitude that vilified Muslims. The in-group became Americans who were not Muslim, and the out-group became members of the Muslim faith, regardless of nationality.

Labels and Out-Groups

Sometimes we perceive a person to be a member of an out-group and interpret his or her behaviors very differently from our own. Men may think of another man who strives to succeed professionally as being “ambitious,” but they might label a woman who exhibits the same behaviors as being “pushy.” The members of a particular religious background might consider themselves “secure” in their beliefs but call members of another religion “self-righteous” for demonstrating similar levels of certainty in their respective religions.

Identifying a group as an out-group can serve several functions. By pointing out a group that we are not part of, we increase our commitment to the groups of which we are members. If we claim that a particular out-group espouses beliefs that we disavow, we confirm our ideological compatibility with the groups to which we belong. By claiming that an out-group is bad, we are implying that, in comparison, our group is good.

Reference Groups

The group to which we compare ourselves for purposes of self-evaluation is called aReference Group.

Example: Susan graduates from college and lands a job as a marketing assistant in a large corporation. To find out whether the proposed salary is fair, she can compare the offer against those of the other members of her graduating class or against the salaries of marketing assistants at similar corporations nationwide. Her reference groups would be her graduating class and all marketing assistants, respectively.

Self-evaluation is largely a social phenomenon, in that we look for others with whom to compare ourselves. In our society, people compare themselves to others in similar age groups and with similar educational levels to determine how successful they are materially. If a person who rents an apartment sees that others of the same age and education own their own homes, his or her self-evaluation will be negative. On the other hand, if a person owns a home and a vacation home while his or her peers own only one home, his or her self-evaluation will be positive.

Specific Groups as Reference Groups

Primary or secondary groups can serve as a reference group.

  • If we feel stymied in our career progress, we look to our best friends to see how they are doing and then evaluate ourselves in comparison to them.
  • If we think that we should be paid more, we can look to other members of our company and see how much they are making.

A general category can also serve as a reference group. If a person worries about approaching thirty without being married, he or she can look at a general cross-section of thirty-year-olds to see whether the majority of them are married and adjust the self-assessment accordingly.

People often use celebrities as reference groups. If a woman wants to know whether she’s slim enough and uses a supermodel as a reference, the answer will probably be no. If she compares herself to a more full-figured woman, the answer might be yes. A young man who aspires to a career in sports will compare his career progress to that of his favorite player and judge himself by how closely his career mirrors that of his idol.

Social Integration

Social Integration is the degree to which an individual feels connected to the other people in his or her group or community.

Durkheim’s Study of Suicide

The term social integration first came into use in the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Durkheim wanted to understand why some people were more likely than others to take their own lives.

Durkheim’s term for a lack of social integration was Anomie. He concluded that three characteristics put some people at a higher risk of suicide than others, and that anomie was partly to blame:

  • Gender (Male): In most societies, men have more freedom and are more independent than women. While this might sound like a good thing, it can lead some men to feel that they have few significant relationships with other people and that it would be an admission of weakness to seek advice or comfort from others. This can lead to feelings of being cut off from a group or community.
  • Religion (Protestant): Durkheim felt that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics or Jews because the religious practices of the latter two religions emphasize the development of closer ties among their members. People who do not develop close ties with others are more likely to commit suicide.
  • Marital Status (Single): Durkheim used the idea of social integration to explain the higher suicide rate among unmarried people. He concluded that people who were not married had fewer connections to other people and were less likely to feel part of the larger community.

Durkheim’s connection of social integration to the suicide rate is still relevant today. People who attempt suicide are much more likely to say they feel lonely and isolated from others and claim to have few significant relationships, confirming what Durkheim hypothesized over one hundred years ago.

Group Dynamics

The term Group Dynamics implies that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by the groups to which we belong and that, in turn, we influence how the group as a whole thinks and behaves.

Example: Children’s behavior is influenced by the behavior of other children. Clothing styles, speech patterns, and mannerisms spread quickly among groups of children. When a few children in a classroom begin using a particular expression, soon all the kids in the class will be using the same expression.

Social Integration

This example illustrates two ways in which group dynamics work. First, one or two children adopt a mannerism and it spreads to the group. After the majority of the group has adopted it, it is very likely that other individual children will adopt it. Groups influence individuals, and individuals influence groups.

Adults are also influenced by the behavior of others. When adults voluntarily join a new group, they usually want to fit in and show others that they are worthy of membership. New members of a group are even more likely to be influenced by group dynamics because they don’t want to seem obstinate or contrary. It usually takes a while before the new member is able to influence the thoughts and behavior of the group.

Group Size and Member Interaction

Georg Simmel was one of the first sociologists to look at how the size of a group affects interactions among its members. Simmel believed that in a Dyad, a group of two people, interactions were intense and very personal. He also believed that a dyad was the least stable category of groups. A marriage is an example of a dyad. Simmel further said that a Triad, a group of three people, was much more stable because conflicts between two of its members could be mediated by the third person. In general, Simmel believed that larger groups were more stable than smaller groups, but that in smaller groups the interactions between members were more intense and more intimate.

In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment that illustrated how strongly group membership can influence behavior. He found that one-third of the subjects he tested were influenced by the group’s consensus, even though the group was obviously incorrect.

Social Pressure

To analyze the power of groups, Asch solicited students for a study of visual perception. Before the experiment began, he told all but one of the group of eight that the real purpose was to pressure the remaining person into going along with the group’s decision. He showed the group two cards—one with one line, another with three lines of varying heights. The students were supposed to identify the line on the second card that was the same length as the line on the first card. The correct choice was easy to identify. Most students made the appropriate choice until Asch’s accomplices began answering incorrectly. One third of all participants conformed to the group and answered incorrectly.

Groups Within Society

Each society is made up of smaller groups and associations that are built on social class, personal interest, or common goals.

The Power Elite

Sociologist C. Wright Mills used the term Power Elite to refer to his theory that the United States is actually run by a small group representing the most wealthy, powerful, and influential people in business, government, and the military. According to Mills, their decisions dictate the policies of this country more than those of the voting public. Mills also pointed out that the influence of the power elite overlaps into many different areas. For example, a wealthy businessman may make large contributions to a particular political candidate.

Voluntary Associations

Voluntary Association is a group that people choose to join, in which members are united by the pursuit of a common goal. Some voluntary associations operate on the local level, such as the parent-teacher organization at a particular school. Membership in any given PTA is voluntary, and the members unite to achieve the goal of encouraging communication between parents and teachers in the hope of benefiting local education.

Some voluntary associations operate on a statewide level, such as a campaign to reelect a particular state politician. Others function on a nationwide basis, such as the Girl Scouts or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Still others are international.

Voluntary associations can be temporary or permanent.

  • In a temporary voluntary association, the group disbands once the common goal is achieved.

Example: A voluntary association forms to protest a particular piece of legislation. The association dissolves once the law is repealed.

Groups Within Society

  • In a permanent voluntary association, the group exists as long as individuals are interested in belonging to it.

Example: Many individuals who join Alcoholics Anonymous remain active members for the rest of their lives.

Formal Organizations

Formal Organization is a secondary group organized to achieve specific goals. Formal organizations tend to be larger and more impersonal than voluntary associations. There are many formal organizations in industrialized countries, but few exist in nonindustrialized societies.

Example: A corporation is usually a formal organization. Corporations tend to be large and are characterized by secondary relations among their employees. The goal of most corporations is very specific: to increase profits.


As identified by the sociologist Max Weber, a Bureaucracy is a type of formal organization in which a rational approach is used to handle large tasks. Weber believed that as societies modernize, they become more rational, resulting in the creation of bureaucracies. As they industrialize, they grow larger, which means that the tasks to be accomplished become more numerous and complex.

Weber was convinced that bureaucracies would gain increasing power over modern life. Before long, almost every aspect of society would be governed by bureaucratic rules and regulations. Weber called this process the Rationalization Of Society.

The Bureaucracy Of Communication

Before industrialization, communication was accomplished simply and most often in person or via messenger. Today, we must be able to communicate with members of our own society as well as those in other societies. One of the most popular communications media is the telephone. The amount of information transmitted over telephone lines through faxes, modems, and telephones is enormous, and the company entrusted to provide this service, the phone company, has become a classic example of a bureaucracy.

Groups Within Society

Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

According to Weber, a bureaucracy has several characteristics that distinguish it from other formal organizations.

  1. A Bureaucracy Is Characterized By A Division Of Labor. In a bureaucracy, people specialize in the performance of one type of work. Using the phone company as an example, there are people who handle customers’ bills, others who provide directory information, and others who climb the poles and repair the wires. The people who repair the wires do not handle customers’ bills and vice versa.
  2. In A Bureaucracy, There Are Written Rules For How Jobs Are To Be Performed. All jobs in a certain category must be performed exactly the same way, regardless of who is doing the work. All of the people who perform a specific job receive similar training, and the same standards for job performance are applied equally to everyone.
  3. Jobs Are Arranged In A Hierarchy. If the workplace were a pyramid, the top levels would represent upper management and the bottom levels would represent the rank-and-file workers. The top spot is usually occupied by a single person, while the bottom levels are occupied by an increasing number of jobs. Each level assigns tasks to the level below it, and each level reports to the level above it.
  4. Official Communication Is Written Down To Minimize Confusion And To Facilitate The Organization And Maintenance Of Records. Keeping written or electronic records documents the performance of individuals, departments, and the corporation as a whole. Communication is also written because it is more reliable and not susceptible to an individual’s memory lapses or inaccurate interpretation of information.
  5. Employees Have An Impersonal Relationship With The Organization. The most important factors of a bureaucracy are the office and the job, not the individual doing the job. Each employee’s loyalty should be to the organization, and not to the individual to whom they report.

Ideal Type

Weber’s original concept of a bureaucracy represented an ideal type. An Ideal Type is a description of how an organization should ideally be run and is often very different from how it operates in reality. In Weber’s view, if everyone did exactly as they were supposed to and no one deviated from their assigned tasks in any way, the bureaucracy would operate perfectly, and all goals would be accomplished. But in a complex bureaucracy, what exists on paper may bear little resemblance to reality.

Bureaucratic Goals

All bureaucracies have officially stated goals, which are sometimes called missions or objectives. One of the most common goals of all bureaucracies—usually unstated—is simply self-perpetuation. No bureaucratic organization wants to face extinction. When a bureaucracy’s stated goals are met or prove to be unrealizable, the organization must come up with new goals in order to continue to exist. This is called goal displacement(sometimes called goal replacement). Goal Displacement occurs when an organization displaces one goal with another in order to continue to exist.

Example: The National Foundation for the March of Dimes was organized in the 1930s with the specific goal of eradicating polio. Approximately twenty years later, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for the crippling disease, and the March of Dimes was faced with the bittersweet reality of having to admit that its mission had been accomplished. Rather than face extinction, however, the nonprofit organization displaced their original goal with a new one: the eradication of birth defects. Birth defects, in all their myriad forms, will probably never be totally eliminated, so the National Foundation for the March of Dimes will continue to exist for many years to come.


Bureaucracies and other formal organizations are often large and impersonal. Newcomers may be daunted when other members are unfamiliar, and the sheer size and complexity of the company can be disconcerting. In a vast organization, successful navigation requires the formation of networks. A Network is a series of social ties that can be important sources of information, contacts, and assistance for its members.

Example: Mary joins a large corporation as an accountant. At first, she feels like an outsider because she seems to have little in common with anybody, and she is one of only two female accountants in the company. She introduces herself to that accountant and they start having lunch together once a week. Soon, other female executives join in, and the size of the group increases. Eventually, female executives from other companies join the group, and an effective network emerges. They talk about changes in accounting law, workplace problems, and job opportunities. As time goes on, new members might be added to the network, and existing members might drop out. However, the network will continue to exist as long as there is a need for the information, contacts, and assistance it can provide.

Problems with Bureaucracies

Though bureaucracies can be efficient, many problems can hinder them.

On paper, bureaucracies appear to be the most rational approach to accomplishing stated goals, but human beings are not always rational.

  • In formulating the ideal type bureaucracy, Weber did not allow for the inevitable formation of primary relationships, which are antithetical to the stated goals of a bureaucracy because loyalty shifts from the organization to the individual. Primary relationships tend to develop in bureaucracies because people feel a sense ofAlienation, or feelings that they are being treated as objects rather than people.

Sometimes the rules and regulations in a bureaucracy grow rigid to the point of inefficiency.

  • If a person with a Ph.D. applies for a job as a college professor and is told to present his or her high school diploma as part of the required paperwork, the bureaucracy’s regulations are too rigid and may hurt that bureaucracy’s chances of hiring a quality employee.

In some bureaucracies, so much literal and figurative distance exists between the highest and the lowest ranks that the bureaucracy is rendered ineffective.

  • In many corporations, those making the decisions have never actually done the work of the people their decisions affect, so their directives are either insufficient to solve the problems at hand or are ignored altogether. In an ideal bureaucracy, all directives are carried out exactly as they are issued. To do otherwise contributes to inefficiency.

Iron Law of Oligarchy

Sociologist Robert Michels theorized that bureaucracies tend to be run by a small group of people at the top, who he believed acted primarily out of self-interest, and who carefully controlled outsiders’ access to power and resources. He called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The term Oligarchy means the rule of many by the few.

Michels believed that top bureaucrats had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which benefited them most of all. He said that positions of power, as well as access to resources such as money, were passed among the members of the group, thereby excluding outsiders. When a U.S. president takes office, he usually awards top cabinet posts to people he knows or to those who have been loyal to him in the past. Though policies such as term limits and checks and balances are supposed to prevent an oligarchy from developing at the highest levels of government, a close examination of a sitting president’s cabinet lends partial credence to Michels’s theory. If oligarchies go too far, however, they run the risk of provoking a backlash among the very people they are trying to govern.


Origins of Social Stratification

In early societies, people shared a common social standing. As societies evolved and became more complex, they began to elevate some members. Today, Stratification, a system by which society ranks its members in a hierarchy, is the norm throughout the world. All societies stratify their members. A Stratified society is one in which there is an unequal distribution of society’s rewards and in which people are arranged hierarchically into layers according to how much of society’s rewards they possess. To understand stratification, we must first understand its origins.

Hunting and Gathering Societies

Hunting and gathering societies had little stratification. Men hunted for meat while women gathered edible plants, and the general welfare of the society depended on all its members sharing what it had. The society as a whole undertook the rearing and socialization of children and shared food and other acquisitions more or less equally. Therefore, no group emerged as better off than the others.

Horticultural, Pastoral, and Agricultural Societies

The emergence of horticultural and pastoral societies led to social inequality. For the first time, groups had reliable sources of food: horticultural societies cultivated plants, while pastoral societies domesticated and bred animals. Societies grew larger, and not all members needed to be involved in the production of food. Pastoral societies began to produce more food than was needed for mere survival, which meant that people could choose to do things other than hunt for or grow food.

Division of Labor and Job Specialization

Division of labor in agricultural societies led to job specialization and stratification. People began to value certain jobs more highly than others. The further someone was from actual agriculture work, the more highly he or she was respected. Manual laborers became the least respected members of society, while those engaged in “high culture,” such as art or music, became the most respected.

As basic survival needs were met, people began trading goods and services they could not provide for themselves and began accumulating possessions. Some accumulated more than others and gained prestige in society as a result. For some people, accumulating possessions became their primary goal. These individuals passed on what they had to future generations, concentrating wealth into the hands of a few groups.

Industrialized Societies

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s, when the steam engine came into use as a means of running other machines. The rise of industrialization led to increased social stratification. Factory owners hired workers who had migrated from rural areas in search of jobs and a better life. The owners exploited the workers to become wealthy, making them work long hours in unsafe conditions for very low wages. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widened.

The Improvement of Working Conditions

By the middle of the 1900s, workers had begun to secure rights for themselves, and the workplace became safer. Wages rose, and workers had something they had never had before: buying power. They could purchase homes, automobiles, and a vast array of consumer goods. Though their financial success was nothing compared to that of their bosses, the gap between the two was narrowing, and the middle class grew stronger.

At the same time, new forms of inequality took hold. The increasing sophistication and efficiency of factory machines led to the need for a different kind of worker—one who could not only operate certain kinds of equipment but could also read and write. The classification of the skilled worker was born. A Skilled Worker is literate and has experience and expertise in specific areas of production, or on specific kinds of machines. In contrast, many unskilled workers could neither read nor write English and had no specific training or expertise. The division arose between skilled and unskilled workers, with the former receiving higher wages and, as some would say, greater job security.

Postindustrial Societies

The rise of postindustrial societies, in which technology supports an information-based economy, has created further social stratification. Fewer people work in factories, while more work in service industries. Education has become a more significant determinant of social position. The Information Revolution has also increased global stratification. Even though new technology allows for a more global economy, it also separates more clearly those nations who have access to the new technology from those who don’t.

Historical Stratification Systems

All societies are stratified, but the criteria used to categorize people vary widely. Social stratification has taken many forms throughout history, including slavery, the estate system, indentured servitude, the caste system, and the class system.


Slavery is a system of stratification in which one person owns another, as he or she would own property, and exploits the slave’s labor for economic gain. Slaves are one of the lowest categories in any stratification system, as they possess virtually no power or wealth of their own.

Slavery’s Global History

Many Americans view slavery as a phenomenon that began with the colonization of the New World and ended with the Civil War, but slavery has existed for a very long time. Slavery appears in the Old Testament of the Bible, as well as in the Qur’an. It was common practice in ancient Greece and Rome .

The Causes of Slavery

A common assumption about slavery is that it is generally based on racism. Though racism was the primary cause of slavery in the United States, it was not the main reason that people in other areas were enslaved. Reasons for slavery include debt, crime, war, and beliefs of inherent superiority.

  • Debt: Individuals who could not pay their way out of debt sometimes had to literally sell themselves. If a slave’s debt was not paid off before his or her death, the debt was often passed down to his or her children, enslaving several generations of the same family.
  • Crime: Families against whom a crime had been committed might enslave members of the perpetrator’s family as compensation.
  • Prisoners Of War: Slaves were often taken during wartime, or when a new territory was being invaded. When Rome was colonizing much of the known world approximately 2,000 years ago, it routinely took slaves from the lands it conquered.
  • Beliefs Of Inherent Superiority: Some people believe that they have a right to enslave those who they believe are inherently inferior to them.

The Estate System

An ancient stratification system that no longer exists today was the Estate System, a three-tiered system composed of the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. During the Middle Ages, much of Europe was organized under this system.


Members of the Nobility had great inherited wealth and did little or no discernible work. They occupied themselves in what we would term leisure pursuits, such as hunting or riding. Others cultivated interests in cultural pursuits, such as art and music.

To ensure that their inherited wealth passed smoothly from one generation to the next without being dispersed to members of the extended family, the nobility of the Middle Ages practiced the law of primogeniture. The word Primogeniture comes from Latin and means “first born.” The nobility’s law of primogeniture stipulated that only a first-born son could inherit his father’s wealth. Members of this stratum developed an ideology to justify their privileged positions, the Divine Right Of Kings, which posited that the authority of the king comes directly from God. The king delegated authority to the nobles. Because the king and the nobles were God’s representatives, they had to be obeyed.


The eldest son was guaranteed a healthy income upon the death of his father, but other sons had to find their own means of income. Few, if any, were trained for work, so many became members of the Roman Catholic Clergy, a body of religious officials. The clergy was very powerful in European society in the Middle Ages, and membership offered long-term job security and a comfortable living. The higher up the ladder a priest went, the more power he had over the masses.


The third tier of the estate system consisted of the masses of people known as theCommoners. They spent their lives engaged in hard physical labor, with virtually no chance of moving up in society.

Modern Stratification Systems

In today’s world, three main systems of stratification remain: slavery, a Caste System, and a Class System.


Slavery still exists today. As many as 400 million people live under conditions that qualify as slavery, despite laws prohibiting it. In Mauritania, the Sudan, Ghana, and Benin, slavery exists much as it did 800 years ago. In other parts of the world, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, debt slavery is common. Sex slavery, the forcing of girls into prostitution, is prevalent in Asia.

Caste System

Caste System is a social system based on Ascribed Statuses, which are traits or characteristics that people possess as a result of their birth. Ascribed statuses can include race, gender, nationality, body type, and age. A caste system ranks people rigidly. No matter what a person does, he or she cannot change castes.

People often try to compensate for ascribed statuses by changing their nationality, lying about their age, or undergoing plastic surgery to alter their body type. In some societies, this strategy works; in others, it does not.

Example: Religion is an ascribed status in some societies. Americans may convert to other religions, but in other countries, people may not change out of the particular religion into which they were born.

India’s Caste System

The Indian government officially outlawed the caste system in 1949, but vestiges of it remain today. The system originated with the Hindu religion, which subscribes to the concept of Reincarnation, the belief that while the physical body dies, the soul of a person is immortal and goes on to be reborn into another body. People who are good in their current life will come back to improved circumstances in the next life, but if they are evil, they will be punished in the next one. Therefore, those who are poor or ill are suffering punishment for having done something wrong in a past life. One should not interfere in the life of another person because that individual’s circumstances are the result of what he or she has done in a previous incarnation.

Modern Stratification Systems

Some might view reincarnation as religious tradition. Others might view it as Ideology, a set of values that people devise to rationalize a particular social custom. In the case of the caste system, the custom being rationalized is inequality. If an individual is poor, for example, blaming his or her circumstances on what he or she did in a past life absolves others in the society of the responsibility for providing any assistance. Ideology also attempts to explain why some are in positions of wealth and power. Hindu tradition would say that the wealthy and powerful are being rewarded for what they did in a past life, and therefore they deserve every privilege they have.

The Five Castes

The Indian caste system has existed for about 3,000 years. There were four original castes, and one caste so low that it was not even considered to be part of the caste system:

  1. The Brahman caste usually consisted of priests or scholars and enjoyed a great deal of prestige and wealth.
  2. The Kshatriya caste, or warrior caste, was composed of those who distinguished themselves in military service.
  3. The Vaishva caste comprised two sets of people—business-people and skilled craftspeople.
  4. The Shudra caste consisted of those who made their living doing manual labor.
  5. The Harijan, Dalit, or Untouchable caste was thought to comprise only inferior people who were so repulsive that an individual who accidentally touched one would have to engage in extensive ritual ablutions to rid himself or herself of the contamination.

There is no social movement in a caste system. An individual born into the Harijan caste cannot change his or her fate. Nor can someone be demoted to a lower caste; the caste into which a person is born is the caste he or she will have for life.

Castes and Work

Caste dictates the type of work an individual is allowed to do. Members of the Shudra caste, for example, are relegated to performing hard physical work regardless of their skill, intelligence, or ambition. Those born into the Brahman caste must attend university or become a member of the clergy, even though they may show no interest or aptitude toward that end.

Castes and Marriage

In a true caste system, societies practice Endogamy, or marriage within one’s own group or caste, with marriage between castes strictly forbidden. Traditionally, love is not used as a basis for marriage in a caste system. Rather, parents arrange marriages, sometimes when the future bride and groom are still children. The Indian concept of marriage is that while love is wonderful, it is neither a necessary nor desirable condition of marriage. If the couple is considered compatible in terms of major demographic variables, then the marriage is considered appropriate. Caste is one of the important variables, along with religion and educational level.

Modern India’s caste system has many more than the original five castes. Because the distinctions between these numerous castes have blurred over time, some people marry outside their caste. In general, however, caste is still considered an important determinant of whom one will marry. When people do marry outside of their caste, they are likely to marry someone whose caste is only a few levels away from their own.

Modern Stratification Systems

Castes and Socializing

One’s caste also determines social contact. Friendships, and relationships in general, are rare among members of different castes. They neither live nor work near each other and rarely have any contact with one another.

South Africa’s Apartheid System

The apartheid system of South Africa is another example of a caste system. The termApartheid refers to the total separation of the races. White Europeans colonized South Africa starting in the seventeenth century, and the area remained part of the British Empire until its independence in 1961. The policy of apartheid, introduced in 1948, relegated black people to a caste far below that of whites. Black people could not vote, receive an education, or mix with whites in any way. The work of Nelson Mandela and others who fought for black equality have made apartheid illegal in South Africa, but, like the caste system in India, some prejudice and discrimination remain.

Class System

In a class system, an individual’s place in the social system is based on Achieved Statuses, which are statuses that we either earn or choose and that are not subject to where or to whom we were born. Those born within a class system can choose their educational level, careers, and spouses. Social Mobility, or movement up or down the social hierarchy, is a major characteristic of the class system.

The American Dream

The value referred to as the American Dream is indicative of the American social class system. The American Dream reflects what we see as the kind of equality of opportunity that can exist only in a class system. Americans believe that all people, regardless of the conditions into which they were born, have an equal chance to achieve success.

Part of the American Dream is the belief that every child can grow up to be president of the United States. Former president Bill Clinton, for example, came from a relatively poor background and grew up in a small town in Arkansas. His father died before he was born, and he was raised by his mother and abusive stepfather. Clinton rose above his humble beginnings to attend prestigious universities, receive a Rhodes Scholarship, and enjoy a successful career in politics that began with his election as governor of Arkansas.

Theories of Stratification

For centuries, sociologists have analyzed social stratification, its root causes, and its effects on society. Theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber disagreed about the nature of class, in particular. Other sociologists applied traditional frameworks to stratification.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx based his conflict theory on the idea that modern society has only two classes of people: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production: the factories, businesses, and equipment needed to produce wealth. The Proletariat are the workers.

According to Marx, the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies exploit workers. The owners pay them enough to afford food and a place to live, and the workers, who do not realize they are being exploited, have a false consciousness, or a mistaken sense, that they are well off. They think they can count on their capitalist bosses to do what was best for them.

Marx foresaw a workers’ revolution. As the rich grew richer, Marx hypothesized that workers would develop a true class consciousness, or a sense of shared identity based on their common experience of exploitation by the bourgeoisie. The workers would unite and rise up in a global revolution. Once the dust settled after the revolution, the workers would then own the means of production, and the world would become communist. No one stratum would control the access to wealth. Everything would be owned equally by everyone.

Marx’s vision did not come true. As societies modernized and grew larger, the working classes became more educated, acquiring specific job skills and achieving the kind of financial well-being that Marx never thought possible. Instead of increased exploitation, they came under the protection of unions and labor laws. Skilled factory workers and tradespeople eventually began to earn salaries that were similar to, or in some instances greater than, their middle-class counterparts.

Max Weber

Max Weber took issue with Marx’s seemingly simplistic view of stratification. Weber argued that owning property, such as factories or equipment, is only part of what determines a person’s social class. Social class for Weber included power and prestige, in addition to property or wealth. People who run corporations without owning them still benefit from increased production and greater profits.

Prestige and Property

Weber argued that property can bring prestige, since people tend to hold rich people in high regard. Prestige can also come from other sources, such as athletic or intellectual ability. In those instances, prestige can lead to property, if people are willing to pay for access to prestige. For Weber, wealth and prestige are intertwined.

Power and Wealth

Weber believed that social class is also a result of power, which is merely the ability of an individual to get his or her way, despite opposition. Wealthy people tend to be more powerful than poor people, and power can come from an individual’s prestige.

Example: Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed prestige as a bodybuilder and as an actor, and he was also enormously wealthy. When he was elected governor of California in 2004, he became powerful as well.

Sociologists still consider social class to be a grouping of people with similar levels of wealth, prestige, and power.

Davis and Moore: The Functionalist Perspective

Sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore believed that stratification serves an important function in society. In any society, a number of tasks must be accomplished. Some tasks, such as cleaning streets or serving coffee in a restaurant, are relatively simple. Other tasks, such as performing brain surgery or designing skyscrapers, are complicated and require more intelligence and training than the simple tasks. Those who perform the difficult tasks are therefore entitled to more power, prestige, and money. Davis and Moore believed that an unequal distribution of society’s rewards is necessary to encourage people to take on the more complicated and important work that required many years of training. They believed that the rewards attached to a particular job reflect its importance to society.

Melvin Tumin

Sociologist Melvin Tumin took issue with Davis and Moore’s theory. He disagreed with their assumption that the relative importance of a particular job can always be measured by how much money or prestige is given to the people who performed those jobs. That assumption made identifying important jobs difficult. Were the jobs inherently imp

Global Stratification

Not only is each society stratified, but in a global perspective, societies are stratified in relation to one another. Sociologists employ three broad categories to denote global stratification: most industrialized nations, industrializing nations, and least industrialized nations. In each category, countries differ on a variety of factors, but they also have differing amounts of the three basic components of the American stratification system: wealth (as defined by land and money), power, and prestige.

The countries that could be considered the Most Industrialized include the United States, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, France, and the other industrialized countries of Western Europe, all of which are capitalistic. Industrializing Nations include most of the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Least Industrialized Nations account for about half of the land on Earth and include almost 70 percent of the world’s people. These countries are primarily agricultural and tend to be characterized by extreme poverty. The majority of the residents of the least industrialized nations do not own the land they farm, and many lack running water, indoor plumbing, and access to medical care. Their life expectancy is low when compared to residents of richer countries, and their rates of illness are higher.

Theories of Global Stratification

Several theories purport to explain how the world became so highly stratified.


Colonialism exists when a powerful country invades a weaker country in order to exploit its resources, thereby making it a colony. Those countries that were among the first to industrialize, such as Great Britain, were able to make colonies out of a number of foreign countries. At one time, the British Empire included India, Australia, South Africa, and countries in the Caribbean, among others. France likewise colonized many countries in Africa, which is why in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Mali French is spoken in addition to the countries’ indigenous languages.

World System Theory

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System Theory posited that as societies industrialized, capitalism became the dominant economic system, leading to the globalization of capitalism. The Globalization Of Capitalism refers to the adoption of capitalism by countries around the world. Wallerstein said that as capitalism spread, countries around the world became closely interconnected. For example, seemingly remote events that occur on the other side of the world can have a profound impact on daily life in the United States. If a terrorist attack on a Middle Eastern oil pipeline interrupts production, American drivers wind up paying more for fuel because the cost of oil has risen.


Sociologist Michael Harrington used the term Neocolonialism to describe the tendency of the most industrialized nations to exploit less-developed countries politically and economically. Powerful countries sell goods to less-developed countries, allowing them to run up enormous debts that take years to pay off. In so doing, the most developed nations gain a political and economic advantage over the countries that owe them money.

Multinational Corporations

Sometimes, Multinational Corporations, large corporations that do business in a number of different countries, can exploit weak or poor countries by scouring the globe for inexpensive labor and cheap raw materials. These corporations often pay a fraction of what they would pay for the same goods and employees in their home countries. Though they do contribute to the economies of other countries, the real beneficiaries of their profits are their home countries. Multinational corporations help to keep the global stratification system in place.

Society and culture

What Is a Society?

According to sociologists, a Society is a group of people with common territory, interaction, and culture. Social Groups consist of two or more people who interact and identify with one another.

  • Territory: Most countries have formal boundaries and territory that the world recognizes as theirs. However, a society’s boundaries don’t have to be geopolitical borders, such as the one between the United States and Canada. Instead, members of a society, as well as nonmembers, must recognize particular land as belonging to that society.Example: The society of the Yanomamo has fluid but definable land boundaries. Located in a South American rain forest, Yanamamo territory extends along the border of Brazil and Venezuela. While outsiders would have a hard time determining where Yanomamo land begins and ends, the Yanomamo and their neighbors have no trouble discerning which land is theirs and which is not.
  • Interaction: Members of a society must come in contact with one another. If a group of people within a country has no regular contact with another group, those groups cannot be considered part of the same society. Geographic distance and language barriers can separate societies within a country.Example: Although Islam was practiced in both parts of the country, the residents of East Pakistan spoke Bengali, while the residents of West Pakistan spoke Urdu. Geographic distance, language differences, and other factors proved insurmountable. In 1971, the nation split into two countries, with West Pakistan assuming the name Pakistan and East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. Within each newly formed society, people had a common culture, history, and language, and distance was no longer a factor.
  • Culture: People of the same society share aspects of their culture, such as language or beliefs. Culture refers to the language, values, beliefs, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life. It is a defining element of society.Example: Some features of American culture are the English language, a democratic system of government, cuisine (such as hamburgers and corn on the cob), and a belief in individualism and freedom.


The United States is a society composed of many groups of people, some of whom originally belonged to other societies. Sociologists consider the United States aPluralistic Society, meaning it is built of many groups. As societies modernize, they attract people from countries where there may be economic hardship, political unrest, or religious persecution. Since the industrialized countries of the West were the first to modernize, these countries tend to be more pluralistic than countries in other parts of the world.

Many people came to the United States between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Fleeing poverty and religious persecution, these immigrants arrived in waves from Europe and Asia and helped create the pluralism that makes the United States unique.

Pluralism In The Neighborhood

Both cities and regions reflect pluralism in the United States. Most major American cities have areas in which people from particular backgrounds are concentrated, such as Little Italy in New York, Chinatown in San Francisco, and Little Havana in Miami. Regionally, people of Mexican descent tend to live in those states that border Mexico. Individuals of Cuban descent are concentrated in Florida. Spanish-speaking people from other Caribbean islands, such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, are more likely to live in the Northeast.


Some practices that are common in other societies will inevitably offend or contradict the values and beliefs of the new society. Groups seeking to become part of a pluralistic society often have to give up many of their original traditions in order to fit in—a process known as Assimilation.

Example: When people arrive in the United States from other countries, they most likely speak a foreign language. As they live here, they generally learn at least some English, and many become fluent. Their children are most likely bilingual, speaking English as well as the language of their parents. By the third generation, the language originally spoken by their grandparents is often lost.

In pluralistic societies, groups do not have to give up all of their former beliefs and practices. Many groups within a pluralistic society retain their ethnic traditions.

Example: Although Chinese immigrants started arriving in the United States 150 years ago, Chinese-American communities still follow some traditions, such as celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Melting Pot?

The United States is commonly referred to as a Melting Pot, a society in which people from different societies blend together into a single mass. Some sociologists prefer the term “multicultural,” pointing out that even if a group has been in this country for many generations, they probably still retain some of their original heritage. The term “Multiculturalism” recognizes the original heritages of millions of Americans, noting that Americans who are originally from other societies do not necessarily have to lose their individual markers by melting into the mainstream.


In a truly pluralistic society, no one group is officially considered more influential than another. In keeping with this belief, the United States does not, for example, put a legal quota on how many Italian Americans can vote in national elections, how many African Americans may run for public office, or how many Vietnamese Americans can live on a certain street. However, powerful informal mechanisms, such as prejudice and discrimination, work to keep many groups out of the political process or out of certain neighborhoods.

Types of Societies

The society we live in did not spring up overnight; human societies have evolved slowly over many millennia. However, throughout history, technological developments have sometimes brought about dramatic change that has propelled human society into its next age.

Hunting and Gathering Societies

Hunting And Gathering Societies survive by hunting game and gathering edible plants. Until about 12,000 years ago, all societies were hunting and gathering societies.

There are five basic characteristics of hunting and gathering societies: 

  1. The primary institution is the family, which decides how food is to be shared and how children are to be socialized, and which provides for the protection of its members.
  2. They tend to be small, with fewer than fifty members.
  3. They tend to be nomadic, moving to new areas when the current food supply in a given area has been exhausted.
  4. Members display a high level of interdependence.
  5. Labor division is based on sex: men hunt, and women gather.

The First Social Revolution—the domestication of plants and animals—led to the birth of the horticultural and pastoral societies.

Twilight Of The Hunter-Gatherers

Hunting and gathering societies are slowly disappearing, as the encroachment of civilization destroys the land they depend on. The Pygmies in Africa are one of the few remaining such societies.

Horticultural Societies

In a Horticultural Society, hand tools are used to tend crops. The first horticultural societies sprang up about 10,000–12,000 years ago in the most fertile areas of the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. The tools they used were simple: sticks or hoe-like instruments used to punch holes in the ground so that crops could be planted. With the advent of horticultural machinery, people no longer had to depend on the gathering of edible plants—they could now grow their own food. They no longer had to leave an area when the food supply was exhausted, as they could stay in one place until the soil was depleted.

Pastoral Societies

Pastoral Society relies on the domestication and breeding of animals for foodSome geographic regions, such as the desert regions of North Africa, cannot support crops, so these societies learned how to domesticate and breed animals. The members of a pastoral society must move only when the grazing land ceases to be usable. Many pastoral societies still exist in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.

Job Specialization

As techniques for raising crops and domesticating and breeding animals improved, societies began to produce more food than they needed. Societies also became larger and more permanently rooted to one location. For the first time in human history, not everyone was engaged in the gathering or production of food. As a result, job specialization emerged. While some people farmed or raised animals, others produced crafts, became involved in trade, or provided such goods as farming tools or clothing.

Agricultural Societies

The invention of the plow during the horticultural and pastoral societies is considered the Second Social Revolution, and it led to the establishment of agricultural societies approximately five thousand to six thousand years ago. Members of an Agricultural or Agrariansociety tend crops with an animal harnessed to a plow. The use of animals to pull a plow eventually led to the creation of cities and formed the basic structure of most modern societies.

  • Animals are used to pull plows.
  • Larger areas of land can then be cultivated.
  • As the soil is aerated during plowing, it yields more crops for longer periods of time.
  • Productivity increases, and as long as there is plenty of food, people do not have to move.
  • Towns form, and then cities.
  • As crop yields are high, it is no longer necessary for every member of the society to engage in some form of farming, so some people begin developing other skills. Job specialization increases.
  • Fewer people are directly involved with the production of food, and the economy becomes more complex.

Around this same time, the wheel was invented, along with writing, numbers, and what we would today call the arts. However, the invention of the steam engine—The Third Social Revolution—was what took humans from agricultural to industrial society.

Roots Of Gender Inequality

As people moved toward domesticating animals and using them to do work, males tended to dominate more of the workforce, since physical strength was necessary to control animals. By the time societies became agricultural, males all but dominated the production of food. Since then, more prestige has been accorded to traditionally male jobs than to traditionally female jobs, and hence, to males more than to females.

Industrial Societies

An Industrial Society uses advanced sources of energy, rather than humans and animals, to run large machinery. Industrialization began in the mid-1700s, when the steam engine was first used in Great Britain as a means of running other machines. By the twentieth century, industrialized societies had changed dramatically:

  • People and goods traversed much longer distances because of innovations in transportation, such as the train and the steamship.
  • Rural areas lost population because more and more people were engaged in factory work and had to move to the cities.
  • Fewer people were needed in agriculture, and societies became Urbanized, which means that the majority of the population lived within commuting distance of a major city.
  • Suburbs grew up around cities to provide city-dwellers with alternative places to live.

The twentieth century also saw the invention of the automobile and the harnessing of electricity, leading to faster and easier transportation, better food storage, mass communication, and much more. Occupational specialization became even more pronounced, and a person’s vocation became more of an identifier than his or her family ties, as was common in nonindustrial societies.

Gemeinschaft And Gesellschaft

Sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies divided societies into two large categories: Gemeinschaftsocieties and Gesellschaft societies. Gemeinschaft societies consist primarily of villages in which everyone knows everyone else. Relationships are lifelong and based on kinship. AGesellschaft society is modernized. People have little in common with one another, and relationships are short term and based on self-interest, with little concern for the well-being of others.

Postindustrial Societies

The Industrial Revolution transformed Western societies in many unexpected ways. All the machines and inventions for producing and transporting goods reduced the need for human labor so much that the economy transformed again, from an industrial to a postindustrial economy.

Postindustrial Society, the type of society that has developed over the past few decades, features an economy based on services and technology, not production. There are three major characteristics of a postindustrial economy:

  1. Focus On Ideas: Tangible goods no longer drive the economy.
  2. Need For Higher Education: Factory work does not require advanced training, and the new focus on information and technology means that people must pursue greater education.
  3. Shift In Workplace From Cities To Homes: New communications technology allows work to be performed from a variety of locations.

Mass Society

As industrialized societies grow and develop, they become increasingly different from their less industrialized counterparts. As they become larger, they evolve into large, impersonal mass societies. In a Mass Society, individual achievement is valued over kinship ties, and people often feel isolated from one another. Personal incomes are generally high, and there is great diversity among people


Every society has expectations about how its members should and should not behave. ANorm is a guideline or an expectation for behavior. Each society makes up its own rules for behavior and decides when those rules have been violated and what to do about it. Norms change constantly.

How Norms Differ

Norms differ widely among societies, and they can even differ from group to group within the same society.

  • Different Settings: Wherever we go, expectations are placed on our behavior. Even within the same society, these norms change from setting to setting.

Example: The way we are expected to behave in church differs from the way we are expected to behave at a party, which also differs from the way we should behave in a classroom.

  • Different Countries: Norms are place-specific, and what is considered appropriate in one country may be considered highly inappropriate in another.

Example: In some African countries, it’s acceptable for people in movie theaters to yell frequently and make loud comments about the film. In the United States, people are expected to sit quietly during a movie, and shouting would be unacceptable.

  • Different Time Periods: Appropriate and inappropriate behavior often changes dramatically from one generation to the next. Norms can and do shift over time.

Example: In the United States in the 1950s, a woman almost never asked a man out on a date, nor did she pay for the date. While some traditional norms for dating prevail, most women today feel comfortable asking men out on dates and paying for some or even all of the expenses.

Norm Categories

Sociologists have separated norms into four categories: folkways, mores, laws, and taboos.


Folkway is a norm for everyday behavior that people follow for the sake of convenience or tradition. People practice folkways simply because they have done things that way for a long time. Violating a folkway does not usually have serious consequences.

Example: Holding the door open for a person right behind you is a folkway.


More (pronounced MORE-ay) is a norm based on morality, or definitions of right and wrong. Since mores have moral significance, people feel strongly about them, and violating a more usually results in disapproval.

Example: Parents who believe in the more that only married people should live together will disapprove of their son living with his girlfriend. They may consider their son’s action a violation of the moral guidelines for behavior.


Law is a norm that is written down and enforced by an official agency. Violating a law results in a specific punishment.

Example: It is illegal in most countries to drive a car while drunk, and a person violating this law may get cited for driving under the influence (DUI), which may bring a fine, loss of driver’s license, or even jail time.

Status and Roles

Most people associate status with the prestige of a person’s lifestyle, education, or vocation. According to sociologists, Status describes the position a person occupies in a particular setting. We all occupy several statuses and play the roles that may be associated with them. A Role is the set of norms, values, behaviors, and personality characteristics attached to a status. An individual may occupy the statuses of student, employee, and club president and play one or more roles with each one.

Example: Status as student

Role 1: Classroom: Attending class, taking notes, and communicating with the professor

Role 2: Fellow student: Participating in study groups, sharing ideas, quizzing other students

Status as employee

Role 1: Warehouse: Unloading boxes, labeling products, restocking shelves

Role 2: Customer service: Answering questions, solving problems, researching information

Status as club president

Role 1: Administrative: Running club meetings, delegating tasks to club members

Role 2: Public: Distributing flyers, answering questions, planning community volunteer activities

At any given time, the individual described above can also occupy the statuses of athlete, date, confidant, or a number of others, depending on the setting. With each change of status, the individual plays a different role or roles.

Society’s Definition Of “Roles”

Societies decide what is considered appropriate role behavior for different statuses. For example, every society has the “mother” status. However, some societies consider it inappropriate for a mother to assume the role of authority in the family. Other societies ascribe lots of power to the status of mother. In some societies, students are expected to be completely obedient to teachers. In American society, the student role involves asking the teacher questions and even challenging the teacher’s statements.

Role Conflict

Role Conflict results from the competing demands of two or more roles that vie for our time and energy. The more statuses we have, and the more roles we take on, the more likely we are to experience role conflict.

A member of a nonindustrialized society generally has just a few statuses, such as spouse, parent, and villager. A typical middle-class American woman, meanwhile, probably has many statuses, and therefore many roles. She may be a mother, wife, neighbor, member of the PTA, employee, boss, town council president, and part-time student. Because people in modernized societies have so many roles, they are more likely than people in nonindustrialized societies to experience role conflict.

Example: A working father is expected at work on time but is late because one of his children is sick. His roles as father and employee are then in conflict. A role for his father status dictates that he care for his sick child, while a role for his employee status demands that he arrive at work on time.


Culture is everything made, learned, or shared by the members of a society, including values, beliefs, behaviors, and material objects.

Culture is learned, and it varies tremendously from society to society. We begin learning our culture from the moment we’re born, as the people who raise us encourage certain behaviors and teach their version of right and wrong. Although cultures vary dramatically, they all consist of two parts: Material Culture and Nonmaterial Culture.

Material Culture

Material Culture consists of the concrete, visible parts of a culture, such as food, clothing, cars, weapons, and buildings. Aspects of material culture differ from society to society. Here are a few features of modern material culture in the United States:

  • Soy lattes
  • CD burners
  • Running shoes
  • iPods
  • Lifestyle magazines
  • Organic vegetables
  • Sport utility vehicles

Example: One common form of material culture is jewelry that indicates a person’s status as married. In American culture, people wear a metal band on the ring finger of the left hand to show that they are married. In smaller, nonindustrialized societies, everyone knows everyone else, so no such sign is needed. In certain parts of India, women wear a necklace to indicate that they are married. In Northern Europe, married people wear wedding bands on the right hand.

Nonmaterial Culture

Nonmaterial Culture consists of the intangible aspects of a culture, such as values and beliefs. Nonmaterial culture consists of concepts and ideas that shape who we are and make us different from members of other societies.

  • Value is a culturally approved concept about what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable. Values are a culture’s principles about how things should be and differ greatly from society to society.

Example: In the United States today, many women value thinness as a standard of beauty. In Ghana, however, most people would consider American fashion models sickly and undesirable. In that culture and others, robustness is valued over skinniness as a marker of beauty.

Cult Of The Car

Automobile ownership clearly illustrates the American value of material acquisition. Americans love cars, and society is constructed to accommodate them. We have a system of interstate roadways, convenient gas stations, and many car dealerships. Businesses consider where patrons will park, and architects design homes with spaces for one or more cars. A society that values the environment more than the material acquisition might refuse to build roadways because of the damage they might do to the local wildlife.

  • Beliefs are specific ideas that people feel to be true. Values support beliefs.

Example: Americans believe in freedom of speech, and they believe they should be able to say whatever they want without fear of reprisal from the government. Many Americans value freedom as the right of all people and believe that people should be left to pursue their lives the way they want with minimal interference from the government.


Primary Socialization

Socialization is the process whereby we learn to become competent members of a group. Primary Socialization is the learning we experience from the people who raise us. In order for children to grow and thrive, caregivers must satisfy their physical needs, including food, clothing, and shelter. Caregivers must also teach children what they need to know in order to function as members of a society, including norms, values, and language. If children do not receive adequate primary socialization, they tend not to fare well as adults.

Developmental Stages

Researchers have different theories about how children learn about themselves and their roles in society. Some of these theories contradict each other, and each is criticized for different reasons, but each still plays an important role in sociological thought.

Freud’s Theory of Personality Development

Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that basic biological instincts combine with societal factors to shape personalities. Freud posited that the mind consists of three parts that must interact properly for a person to function well in society. If any one of the three parts becomes dominant, personal and social problems may result. The three parts are the id, the superego, and the ego.

  1. Id: According to Freud, the id develops first. A newborn’s mind consists only of the id, which is responsible for the satisfaction of physical desires. The id represents a human being’s most primitive desires, and a person ruled only by the id would do everything strictly for his or her own pleasure, breaking societal norms in the process and risking punishment.
  2. Superego: As children move from infancy into childhood, their minds develop a superego, or conscience, which encourages conformity to societal norms and values. Someone with a hyperactive superego would be confined within a too-rigid system of rules, which would inhibit his or her ability to live normally.
  3. Ego: A healthy mind also consists of the ego, or the part of the mind that resolves the conflicts between the id and the superego. Normally, the ego balances the desires of the id and superego, but when it fails, a person may have difficulty making decisions, which can lead to behavioral problems.

Mead’s Theory of Social Behaviorism

Sociologist George Herbert Mead believed that people develop self-images through interactions with other people. He argued that the Self, which is the part of a person’s personality consisting of self-awareness and self-image, is a product of social experience. He outlined four ideas about how the self develops:

  1. The Self Develops Solely Through Social Experience. Mead rejected Freud’s notion that personality is determined partly by biological drives.
  2. Social Experience Consists Of The Exchange Of Symbols. Mead emphasized the particularly human use of language and other symbols to convey meaning.
  3. Knowing Others’ Intentions Requires Imagining The Situation From Their Perspectives. Mead believed that social experience depends on our seeing ourselves as others do, or, as he coined it, “taking the role of the other.”
  4. Understanding The Role Of The Other Results In Self-Awareness. Mead posited that there is an active “I” self and an objective “me” self. The “I” self is active and initiates action. The “me” self continues, interrupts, or changes action depending on how others respond.

Mead believed that the key to self-development is understanding the role of the other. He also outlined steps in the process of development from birth to adulthood:

Cooley’s Theory of the Looking-Glass Self

Like Mead, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley believed that we form our self-images through interaction with other people. He was particularly interested in how significant others shape us as individuals. A Significant Other is someone whose opinions matter to us and who is in a position to influence our thinking, especially about ourselves. A significant other can be anyone, such as a parent, sibling, spouse, or best friend.

Primary Socialization

Cooley’s theory of socialization involves his notion of the looking-glass self. TheLooking-Glass Self refers to a self-image that is based on how we think others see us. He posited a three-step process in developing this self:Step 1

We imagine that a significant other perceives us in a certain way.Step 2

We imagine that he or she makes a judgment about us based on that perception.Step 3

We form a self-image based on how we think our significant other sees us.

Take This Term And Run With It

In American society, we use the term significant other to mean a romantic partner, but sociologists use the term differently (see page 44), and their usage was the original usage. The term significant other is just one example of a sociological term that has been appropriated by the public.


Primary Socialization

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget began to investigate how children think when he was giving them intelligence tests. According to Piaget, the way children think changes as they mature physically and interact with the world around them. Piaget identified four periods of development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.Stage 1: Sensorimotor Period

(birth to roughly age two): During this stage, children learn by using their senses and moving around. The main achievement of this stage is Object Permanence, which is the ability to recognize that an object can exist even when it’s no longer perceived or in one’s sight.

Example: If a three-month-old baby sees a ball, she’ll probably be fascinated by it. But if someone hides the ball, the baby won’t show any interest in looking for it. For a very young child, out of sight is literally out of mind. When the baby is older and has acquired object permanence, she will start to look for things that are hidden because she will know that things can exist even when they can’t be seen.

Stage 2: Preoperational Period

(age two to seven): During this period, children keep getting better at symbolic thought, but they can’t yet reason. According to Piaget, children aren’t capable of conservation during this stage. Conservation is the ability to recognize that measurable physical features of objects, such as length, area, and volume, can be the same even when objects appear different.

Example: Suppose a researcher gives a three-year-old girl two full bottles of juice. The girl will agree that they both contain the same amount of juice. But if the researcher pours the contents of one bottle into a short, fat tumbler, the girl will then say that the bottle has more. She doesn’t realize that the same volume of juice is conserved in the tumbler.

Stage 3: Concrete Operational Period

(age seven to eleven): During this period, children start to become capable of performing mental operations or working problems and ideas through in their minds. However, they can perform operations only on tangible objects and real events.

Example: If a mother tells her four-year-old, “Your Aunt Margaret is my sister,” he may say, “No, she’s not a sister, she’s an aunt!” An eight-year-old is capable of grasping that Margaret can be both sister and aunt, as well as a daughter, wife, and mother.

Stage 4: Formal Operational Period

(age eleven through adulthood): During this period, children become capable of applying mental operations to abstract concepts. They can imagine and reason about hypothetical situations. From this point on, they start to think in abstract, systematic, and logical ways.

Example: A teenager is motivated to organize a donation drive at his school for flood victims in Bangladesh because he is capable of imagining the plight of the Bangladeshis and empathizing with them. He is also capable of setting up the structures necessary to solicit and collect donations.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development



1. Sensorimotor

birth–2 years

2. Preoperational

2–7 years

3. Concrete Operational

7–11 years

4. Formal Operational

11 through adulthood

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in Moral Reasoning, or why people think the way they do about what’s right and wrong. Influenced by Piaget, who believed that the way people think about morality depends on where they are in terms of cognitive development, Kohlberg proposed that people pass through three levels of moral development:

  1. The Preconventional Level: Children ascribe great importance to the authority of adults.
  2. The Conventional Level: Children want to follow rules in order to get approval.
  3. The Postconventional Level: People are more flexible and think in terms of what’s personally important to them. Only a small proportion of people reach this last stage of moral reasoning.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that Kohlberg’s theory was inaccurate because he studied only boys. Gilligan posits that girls look beyond the rules of morality to find the caring thing to do, even if that action breaks a preexisting rule. Girls and women are also less likely to judge an individual’s actions as wrong because they see the complexities in relationships better than men do.

Criticisms Of Development Theories

Each of the theories of development has flaws. Freud’s theories have always been controversial and are criticized today because they seem very male-centered. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is useful, but not all people reach the formal operational stage. Likewise, not all people reach Kohlberg’s postconventional level of moral reasoning.

Agents of Socialization

People, groups, and experiences that influence our behavior and self-image are Agents Of Socialization. Common agents of socialization for children include family, school, peer groups, and the mass media.


The family is the agent of socialization with the most impact. From infancy through the teen years, most children rely almost solely on their parents or primary caregivers for basic necessities, nurturing, and guidance. The family determines a child’s race, language, religion, class, and political affiliation, all of which contribute heavily to the child’s self-concept.


Schools introduce children to new knowledge, order, bureaucracy, and students from family backgrounds different from their own. The school experience also often pressures children to conform to gender roles.

Peer Groups

Peer Group is a social group in which members are usually the same age and have interests and social position in common. By becoming part of a peer group, children begin to break away from their parents’ authority and learn to make friends and decisions on their own. Peer groups have a large impact on a child’s socialization. Pressure from peers to engage in behavior forbidden by parents, such as skipping school or drinking alcohol, can be difficult to resist.

Mass Media

The Mass Media are methods of communication that direct messages and entertainment at a wide audience. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the internet, and movies are all forms of mass media. Numerous sociological studies attest to the profound influence of mass media on children. Racial and sexual stereotypes, violent and sexually explicit images, and unrealistic or even unhealthy beauty standards that appear in the mass media shape the way children think about themselves and their world.

Conflicting Agents Of Socialization

Different agents of socialization often teach children conflicting lessons. For example, in the family, children usually learn to respect their elders. Among their friends, however, children may learn that respecting adults makes them unpopular.

Isolated Children

Children raised in isolation, cut off from all but the most necessary human contact, do not acquire basic social skills, such as language and the ability to interact with other humans. Two of the most famous cases are Anna and Isabelle, both of whom were isolated from other human beings but had enough of their physical needs met to survive.

The Case of Anna

Anna was born in Pennsylvania to an unwed mother. The mother’s father was so enraged at Anna’s illegitimacy that the mother kept Anna in a storage room and fed her barely enough to stay alive. She never left the storage room or had anything but minimal contact with another human for five years. When authorities found her in 1938, she was physically wasted and unable to smile or speak. After intensive therapy, Anna did make some progress. She eventually learned to use some words and feed herself.

The Case of Isabelle

Isabelle was discovered in Ohio in the 1930s at the age of six. She had lived her entire life in a dark attic with her deaf-mute mother, after her grandfather decided he couldn’t bear the embarrassment of having a daughter with an illegitimate child. He had banished both of them to the attic, where they lived in darkness and isolation. When Isabelle was discovered, she couldn’t speak. After about two years of intensive work with language specialists, Isabelle acquired a vocabulary of about 2,000 words and went on to have a relatively normal life.

Isolated Monkeys

In the 1960s, psychologists Henry And Margaret Harlow subjected rhesus monkeys to various conditions of social isolation. The behavior of rhesus monkeys is strikingly similar to the behavior of human beings in many ways. The Harlows found that monkeys placed in complete isolation for more than six months were unable to function normally once returned to the group. These monkeys were nervous and anxious. Their findings mirrored findings about isolated children such as Anna.

Institutionalized Children

Children raised in institutions such as orphanages often have difficulty establishing and maintaining close bonds with other people. Such children often have their physical needs met, but little else. They are fed, diapered, and kept warm but are deprived of significant contact with nurturing adults. They are not played with, cuddled, or spoken to. Such children tend to score lower on intelligence tests than children who were not only raised but also nurtured, and their interactions with other people reflect the fact that their emotional needs were not met.


The primary socialization received in childhood is just one part of the lifelong socialization process. Adults go through a process of Resocialization, which is the learning of new norms and values that occurs when they join a new group or when life circumstances change dramatically. Learning new norms and values enables people to adapt, though newly learned things may contradict what was previously learned.

Though senility and certain diseases associated with old age can impair a person’s ability to learn and adapt to new situations, many adults experience change throughout life. A new job, the loss of friends or a spouse, children leaving home, and retirement are all milestones that require resocialization.

Most instances of resocialization are mild modifications, such as adapting to a new work environment. Extreme forms of the process can include joining the military, going to prison, or otherwise separating from mainstream society.

The Social Construction Of Life Stages

Sociologists generally divide a person’s life into five stages: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and dying. These stages are socially constructed, which means that different societies apply different definitions and assumptions to each stage. For example, in the United States, childhood is a relatively carefree time during which young people expect to have time to play and to receive care from adults. In other societies, income generated by the work children do is very important to the family, and childhood, like other life stages, is a time of work and struggle.

The Workplace

The workplace is an agent of socialization—in this case, resocialization. A new job brings with it new norms and values, including the following:


  • What papers to fill out
  • What equipment to use
  • What tasks to complete and when to complete them
  • When to arrive at work
  • When to take a break
  • When to leave

The employing organization also has its own values. The socialization process involves learning how strictly the company enforces work-related norms, such as whether it’s acceptable for people of different job levels to fraternize outside of working hours, or whether a very late arrival will incur some kind of punishment. During resocialization, people learn how to modify behavior to fit the new situation.

Total Institutions

Most Americans are socialized to think for themselves and make their own decisions about daily tasks. That changes when they are resocialized by what sociologist Erving Goffman labeled a total institution. A Total Institution is an organization or setting that has the following characteristics:

  • Residents are not free to leave.
  • All actions are determined and monitored by authority figures.
  • Contact with outsiders is carefully controlled.
  • The environment is highly standardized.
  • Rules dictate when, where, and how members do things.
  • Individuality is discouraged.

Examples of total institutions include prisons, mental hospitals, and the military. In these total institutions, part of the resocialization process includes the loss of some decision-making freedom. The military decides what its soldiers wear, how they spend their time, and when and what they eat. To be promoted to a higher rank, they must demonstrate that they have been resocialized and have successfully adapted to the military’s norms and values.

The Drama Of Life

Goffman also developed the concept of Dramaturgythe idea that life is like a never-ending play in which people are actors. Goffman believed that when we are born, we are thrust onto a stage called everyday life, and that our socialization consists of learning how to play our assigned roles from other people. We enact our roles in the company of others, who are in turn enacting their roles in interaction with us. He believed that whatever we do, we are playing out a role on the stage of life.

Anticipatory Socialization

Anticipatory Socialization occurs when we start learning new norms and values in anticipation of a role we’ll occupy in the future. Making necessary adjustments in advance makes the actual transition into the new role easier. Also, by adopting some of the norms and values of a future role, we can evaluate whether that role will be right for us when the time comes to assume it.

Example: A police officer who is about to begin working the night shift adjusts his sleeping habits several weeks before his start date. He goes to bed an hour later each evening, anticipating his new schedule of staying awake all night and sleeping during the day. Likewise, some couples live together before getting married to see whether they feel comfortable in that future role. They test the role of spouse before committing to it legally.

Gender Socialization

Society expects different attitudes and behaviors from boys and girls. Gender Socialization is the tendency for boys and girls to be socialized differently. Boys are raised to conform to the male gender role, and girls are raised to conform to the female gender or role. A Gender Role is a set of behaviors, attitudes, and personality characteristics expected and encouraged of a person based on his or her sex.

Influence of Biology

Experts disagree on whether differences between males and females result from innate, biological differences or from differences in the ways that boys and girls are socialized. In other words, experts disagree on whether differences between men and women are due to nature, nurture, or some combination of both.

Example: There are some significant differences between female and male brains. The language center in the male brain is usually in the dominant (usually left) hemisphere, whereas females use both hemispheres of the brain to process language. This may explain why females seem to have stronger communication skills and relish interpersonal communication more than males and why, on average, girls learn to speak and read earlier than boys.

Influence of Family

Every culture has different guidelines about what is appropriate for males and females, and family members may socialize babies in gendered ways without consciously following that path. For example, in American society, the color pink is associated with girls and the color blue with boys. Even as tiny babies, boys and girls are dressed differently, according to what is considered “appropriate” for their respective sexes. Even parents who strive to achieve a less “gendered” parenting style unconsciously reinforce gender roles.

Example: The toys and games parents select for children are often unconsciously intended to socialize them into the appropriate gender roles. Girls receive dolls in an attempt to socialize them into future roles as mothers. Since women are expected to be more nurturing than men, giving a girl a doll teaches her to care for it and fosters the value of caring for others. When boys receive dolls, they are likely to be action figures designed to bring out the alleged aggressive tendencies in boys.

Influence in Education

As children enter the educational system, traditional expectations for boys and girls continue. In the past, much research focused on how teachers were shortchanging girls in the classroom. Teachers would focus on boys, calling on them more and challenging them. Because boys were believed to be more analytical, teachers assumed they would excel in math and science. Teachers encouraged them to go into careers that require a lot of math and science, such as computer science or engineering.

Research from the late 1990s, however, indicates that the current educational climate is failing boys. Boys are falling behind girls in school. The dropout rate for boys is rising. More boys are being diagnosed as learning disabled. The number of boys applying to college has declined. Some sociologists argue that current teaching methods favor girls’ learning styles. Girls mature more quickly than boys and are able to focus and concentrate in class more easily.

Example: Studies show that boys are more physically active than girls. This difference is greater when children are in elementary school. Boys may be less able to sit still during a lesson. They are often sent out of class as disruptive, which puts them behind in the schoolwork and can reinforce their problems in the classroom.

What’s So Funny About Male Nurses?

Meet the Parents (2000), a movie starring Ben Stiller, got laughs nationwide for presenting a main character who was a male nurse. The fact that a male pursuing a career in nursing still seems laughable shows how ingrained some gender roles still are.

Influence on Career Choice

If cultural expectations dictate that girls are more compassionate and nurturing than boys, then parents, teachers, and counselors will steer them toward fields that require patience and concern for other people, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching. Though a girl who expresses a desire to become a nuclear engineer would probably no longer be explicitly discouraged, a boy with a similar goal would probably encounter more encouragement.

Example: Women working in traditionally male occupations often hit a glass ceiling, an invisible barrier that keeps women from reaching executive positions. Men who work in traditionally female occupations, such as nursing, social work, or elementary school teaching, are often viewed as more qualified than women. These men often benefit from a glass escalator; they are paid more and promoted more quickly than their female counterparts.