sociology


sociology
   Sociology sets out to ‘describe, understand and explain’ (Abercrombie et al. 1986) the social world that we inhabit. Far from being a ‘new’ discipline, it has its roots in the early nineteenth century, with Auguste Comte (1798–1857) first coining the phrase in 1824. By the 1880s, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was teaching courses in sociology at the University of Bordeaux; in Germany, Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936) was writing Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1889) and Max Weber (1864–1920) was moving towards a historical sociology and a comparative analysis of capitalist societies. A serious attempt was being made by sociologists such as Weber, Durkheim, Georg Simmel (1858– 1918) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1895) to establish the parameters and concerns of sociology, as wide as social reality itself.
   European sociology owes in part its theoretical heritage to the philosophy of Hegel and the work of Karl Marx. Marxism has informed a great deal of sociological theory and debate, focusing its perspective on the form and nature of capitalist society, the relations of work and production, and the structure and nature of class and power. In turn, post-Marxist sociology, best characterized by The Frankfurt School (1923–50) and the works of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno (1903–69) Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and Georg Lukács (1885–1971) has provided a valuable critique of Marxist theory in the twentieth century. The postwar period has seen a renewed interest in the work of European philosophers, such as Nietszche, Heidegger and Foucault, sparking a debate within contemporary sociology about the future direction and nature of the discipline, whether towards a more empirical, scientific base or a continuing expansion of the theoretical/ideological tradition (see philosophy). Ultimately, the status of sociology as an independent practice in its own right has come into question. By way of contrast, in the 1950s, sociology in America was dominated by the positivism of Talcott Parsons (1902–79), a functionalist view of society which aimed at a synthesis of individual action and the larger social structures. This was essentially a conservative movement which dissolved the analysis of power and conflict that had characterized sociological theory so far, and gave rise in reaction to a resurgence of ‘conflict theory’, especially in Britain, in the 1960s and 1970s.
   During the 1960s, sociology became firmly established within British universities, but has continually come under attack for alleged political leanings (generally to the left), and a failure to separate itself from philosophy or economics and establish a unified approach. On the contrary, the nature of sociology itself denies such an approach, and holds within its boundaries contrasting and competing views and theoretical standpoints. Contemporary debates have centred on issues of ideology, class and power, race and ethnicity, and gender; beginning from a largely structuralist standpoint, with analyses of the larger social structures such as the state and systems of dominance and the public and private institutions of education and family. This is epitomized by the works of such prominent British sociologists as A.H.Halsey (b. 1923) and Anthony Giddens (b. 1938).
   The re-emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s brought a whole new area of critique to sociology (although Friedrich Engel’s The Origin of the Family (1884) had gone some way to addressing the oppressive nature of women’s position in society). The tools established for looking at and understanding the nature of power and the structures of human interaction proved valuable to early second-wave feminist attempts at creating a theoretical and historical picture of patriarchy and male dominance. The subjective, everyday experience of women came under scrutiny with such works as Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework (1974), and Subject Women (1981) exploring the nature and details of women’s lives within a theorised framework of patriarchy. There have developed three main branches of feminist sociological thought: radical feminism, more recently influenced by the arguably ‘essentialist’ French feminism of Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, which seeks to reclaim the body and name of woman and establish a woman-centred society with the radical overthrow of patriarchy; Marxist feminism, which, as the name suggests, aligns itself with Marxist and post-Marxist critiques, viewing women’s oppression as essentially based in the exploitative class nature of society and the means and relations of production; and liberal feminism, grounded in the ideas of equal opportunities and legislative reform.
   Most recently, some branches of sociology have shifted into debates around postmodernism (see postmodernist theory); indeed, some sociologists argue that sociology has been heralding the postmodern era since the works of Georg Simmel and his conceptualization of the fragmented self within the fragmented society. The decline of industrialism and the encroachment of the postindustrial society has been mapped since the 1960s (for example, D.Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, 1974). Postmodernism has attempted to formulate a poststructuralist idea (see poststructuralism) of a society no longer bound by the ‘grand ideologies’ such as Marxism or Christianity, but a populist cultural free-for-all where anything goes and no one system of thought holds sway. Sociology has responded by, on the one hand, claiming its inherently postmodernist nature, its endemic plurality of content and viewpoint, and, on the other, restating the importance of an understanding of the structures of our society that continue, increasingly, to inform and control our lives. Feminist sociologists have become particularly influenced by postmodern theories, finding renewed impetus in the seeming vastness of cultural and personal/political space it has created, bringing to the forefront of contemporary debate the issues around sexuality, the body, individual identity and the shifting perplexities of power relations.
   Sociology, therefore, continues to redress the balance of its own agenda, responding to both economic and cultural pressures, and tensions from within its ranks to questions about its nature and future. Sociology is most often criticized for being contradictory and conflictual. However, the discipline aims to remain diverse and fluid, providing a critical vehicle for the observation and understanding of the society in which we live.
   Further reading
    Abercrombie, N., Hill, S. and Turner, B. (1984) Dictionary of Sociology, London: Penguin.
    Giddens, A. (1982) Sociology: A Brief But Critical Introduction, London: Macmillan.
   SARAH CORBETT

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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