Collaboration 2 : Sociology 101   no comments

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This week I’ve been focussing on the Sociology side of my investigations, primarily with the aid of Giddens’ “Sociology” (6th Edition). ¬†I’ll confess that the very idea of sitting down and reading a text book is a bit novel, but armed with some post-its and good intentions, I seem to be getting somewhere!

So far, I’ve been introduced to coffee as the ultimate sociological artefact and three theoretical approaches to Sociology; ¬†Functionalism, The Conflict Approach and Symbolic Interactionism. ¬†I’ll try and explain my understanding of the three below, so that I might be corrected my someone who knows more about it.

Functionalism treats society as a set of parts that work together and interact. ¬†One piece of society can be understood by looking at how it interacts with the other pieces, ¬†the “function” that it performs. ¬†Functionalism approaches sociology from the point of view that these different parts share some common goals or values, a “moral consensus”. ¬†The functions performed by a “piece” of society (the book uses a Hopi rain dance as an example) can be broken into two subsets: 1) Manifest functions, or the function that is known or intended (to make it rain) and 2) Latent functions, or the functions that actually result in practice but which the participants are unaware (social cohesion).

The Conflict Approach sees society as a collection of distinct groups, but unlike functionalism it rejects the importance of a moral consensus and instead embraces the divisions in society.   Examples of divisions might include inequality, political power imbalance or membership of a particular religion.  Conflict arises when the interests (or at least the self-perceived interests) of two or more groups do not align.

Symbolic Interactionism (SI) focuses on the symbolic interactions between individuals. ¬†A symbol could be a gesture, word, phrase, picture – Basically anything that has some semantics attached to it. ¬†SI looks at the way in which meaning is conveyed by these symbols, via the shared semantics that are attributed to them by groups of people. ¬†SI takes the view that social structures are the result of symbolic interactions – These interactions could be deliberately manipulated by one or more of the participants to create structures that work in their favour (the book uses the example of airline cabin crew being trained to smile – A deliberate symbolic gesture designed to convey certain semantics “I am happy to serve you drinks and peanuts”, with which the person smiling may not necessarily agree – “I don’t really enjoy serving you drinks and peanuts”. ¬†In this case, the interaction helps to reinforce the steward-customer structure).

Despite the apparent differences between these perspectives, they are all based on an underlying positivist methodology that bases understanding on empirical evidence, observation, experimentation and comparison – Just the natural sciences study natural phenomena. ¬†All three also go beyond just describing their observations and tackle the “why” question, by developing theories and models.

One thing that did strike me during my research is that, like web science, sociology operates within the same highly-coupled system that it is attempting to study.  Unlike the natural sciences, where it is often possible to isolate the object of study from external influence, doing so is not practical in sociology, and given the complex interconnectedness of society, observing or experimenting on one part could cause changes elsewhere or even feed back into the object of study itself.  That is not to say that the natural sciences are free from such problems (indeed, physics deals with observational interference on an elementary level) but such difficulties do seem to be particularly relevant to sociology and web science.

Next week I’ll move into the Biology/Ecology direction, but hopefully carry on with the sociology angle, too.

Written by Richard Gomer on November 7th, 2010

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