Archive for the ‘Sociology’ tag

Initial Thoughts – Problem and Disciplines   1 comment

Posted at 11:36 am in Sociology

I am very interested in the issues of identity within the Semantic Web and Linked Data. Moving from a web of documents to a web of data with URIs (unique resource identifiers) for every referenced object/thing/person, aims to create new links between related content. However what happens when you want to refer to a person or thing which isn’t already referenced? This new object will be assigned a URI and others will then be able to link to it. However, who will manage this data and ensure it is correct? This issue is especially significant when referring to an individual. If someone has no intention of creating an online presence or doesn’t have access to the World Wide Web, what impact will this URI about them have on their life? They might not even be aware that a whole series of connected data about them is being collated on the web for everyone else to access. I am going to look at this area from the point of view of philosophy and either sociology or anthropology.

I have started my research by looking into the recognised strands of each of these disciplines.

Philosophy contains a number of interesting areas which could be applied to this problem. Philosophy of language could look at how the use of language could affect the formation of an online network and linked data, ( The political angle of philosophy would be interested in government, law and social justice, ( But possibly the most interesting angle would be to look at the philosophy of the mind, specifically the mind body problem ( This train of thought would look at the idea of mind and body being separate and a philosopher could argue that each should have their own URI?

Secondly I want to look at the idea of URIs and identity in relation to cultures and at the societal impact that online identity could have. Sociology could include the social organisation or social change (

Similarly to Philosophy, Anthropology could include the study of language, and how this could impact the online community. Linguistic Anthropology looks at the cultural impact on nonverbal communication ( Cultural Anthropology:

“All of the completely isolated societies of the past have long since been drawn into the global economy and heavily influenced by the dominant cultures of the large nations.  As a consequence, it is likely that 3/4 of the languages in the world today will become extinct as spoken languages by the end of the 21st century.  Many other cultural traditions will be lost as well.  Cultural and linguistic anthropologists have worked diligently to study and understand this diversity that is being lost.” (

This field might look more negatively upon the web, as a tool which is potentially destroying the traditions and cultural diversity, which makes the world so varied.

This is a very brief introduction to the problem and fields which I wish to investigate.

Written by Anna Weston on October 11th, 2013

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Social Media   no comments

Posted at 12:32 pm in Politics,Psychology,Sociology

This week I took a step back from the disciplines I have been studying and approached some literature on social media. My intention was not to become a social media expert but instead to approach the topic from the perspective of both sociology and politics. I read from one more technical textbook which examined both the structural nature and impact of networks within society; The Network Society by van Dijk, and one more narratively structured book centring on the beginnings, development and impact of the social media giant Facebook; The Facebook Effect by Kirkpatrick. Though both disciplines have a lot to say about each of the books I felt that certain topics and certain disciplines lent themselves well to providing comment on particular issues.

Structure and Sociology

The network society starts as a technically focused book and develops into an interesting sociological account of the impact of networks on everything from economics to social policy. With particular relation to the topics of social networking are the discussions of culture and psychology.
The book outlines a variety of perspectives on the cultural impact of networks and social media. This raises a common theme from the sociological literature with regards to technological v.s. social determinism i.e. whether peoples ‘use’ or technologies ‘structure’ and ‘purpose’ (if we take it to have explicit purpose) drives network development.
Equally, further points can be made with regard to the nature of modernity and social media; each country and even culture modernising at different rates and in different ways. It is not necessarily clear from the text how these interactions of different varieties of social media and/or what we might call the interaction of more ‘developed’ systems/networks have within the context of society. There is plenty of opportunity for interdisciplinarity here with both the social and political nature of Marxism offering some critiques within this context; in particular Weberian Neo-Marxism and it’s perspectivism.

Narrative and Politics

The Facebook effect documents the history of the site and it’s now famous owners. It would be impossible not to draw similarities between the formative processes which the site underwent and politics at large. Whether it be the questionable tactics used to obtain user informations paralleled with government spying for the “greater good” or the internal struggles between the site owners paralleled with every internal political dispute ever; the story of Facebook is undoubtedly one rife with politics. As is the case within the political discipline, Kirkpatrick does a fantastic job of historically recounting these ‘political’ struggles and disagreements even without explicit intention (though perhaps a little editorialised).
But, the book highlights an important feature of social networks and of politics often ignored on both accounts: politics (and Facebook) is not just about the relationship between those at the top and those at the bottom but with every individual at each level and everyone else. This of course provides substantial room for the discussion of the sociological factors that govern such complex interpersonal relationships.

Having reached this point in my reading I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of the basics of each discipline along with the topic I have chosen. My intention for the coming week is to return to my notes first and plan some aspects of my accounts of each discipline. When this process is complete the areas I find to be lacking in depth shall be the ones that are the subject of my further reading to come.

Written by Kieran Rones on November 3rd, 2012

Tagged with , , , ,

Slowed Progress But Marxism   no comments

Posted at 12:16 pm in Politics,Sociology

This week’s reading was somewhat disappointing. I had intended to get through more content however I found that much of what I was reading required a much deeper level of analysis to understand. For this reason, rather than exploring social networks or globalisation; I have focused more heavily on sociology and in particular one of the most famous thinkers to have influence the field: Karl Marx.

Both for Politics and for Sociology, Marx is held in very high regard. Despite how authors feel about the validity of Marx’s views; it is quite clear that most, if not all, commenter’s extend a degree of respect for the man regarding him as a thought leader both in his own time and beyond. Whilst I would have preferred a broader week of reading, the fact that Marx and Marxist theory exists so prominently both in sociology and politics I did not begrudge the topic the extra time I afforded it. I consulted two texts in particular.

Marx, Marginalism and Modern Society

This book offered a good introduction to Marx as a whole, in terms of both his contribution to politics and sociology. The thrust of the argument presented in this text is that Marx’s key contribution was his critique of the political economy. The author presents the case that whilst this was recognised to varying extents in politics and economics; sociological perspectives took longer to entwine themselves with Marxist viewpoints.

On reason for the eventually large scale adoption of Marxist theory within sociology is suggested to pertain to Marx’s views on materialism, in particular; Historical Materialism. The perspective argued that whilst history might have previously separated notions of personhood from thingness, history rather required a deeper account of interactions. For example, dissecting the “things” called institutions into the individual “people” they were made of. This view offers significant importance for sociology allowing far deeper consideration of the people that were previously amorphous entities. Many comparisons can be drawn between these notions and social networking. Not least because of the changing relationships such sites have had with their user bases over time but also at the level of individual users with the structural changes from simple lists of activity to Facebook’s features like “Timeline”. These most certainly can be argued to personalise “events” allowing them to become related much more closely to the individual they are associated with.

Classical Sociology

This book provided a good logical point of development for explaining the development of Marxist sociological theory. In particular it dealt with the ways in which Marxist theory has been modified or adjusted in what has been argued is a necessary process of modernisation.

This notion of modernisation does not reflect technological or social advancement explicitly but rather the sociological ideas about “modernity”. As before, this is essentially the view that different cultures/societies have modernised differently leading to “multiple modernities”. The author highlights that sociologists like Anthony Giddens have argued that modernity changes the social structure and as such requires a post-modern sociology. The means that only theories that account for such changes, only post-modern theories, are sometimes argued to be the only theories relevant to assessments of the modern world. This text’s author however, believes that Marxism exploits a loophole in this argument by way of the additional work done by one Max Weber.

The author argues that Max Weber’s  neo-marxism, in particular the addition of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, is the key to incorporating Marxist theory into discussions of “modern” society. Perspectivism is the theory that the acquisition of knowledge is inevitably limited by the perspective from which it is viewed. This is infact a common view within  sociology and has significant relevance to the nature of accounts of social networks. Does a persons experience of myspace or facebook vary if they are a “user”, a “business”, a “celebrity”, a “moderator”, a “site owner” and so on. When considered alongside political perspectives this is of course still deeply relevant. The nature of both a person’s position/perspective, the role that position/perspective implies and the power (or lack of power) that it entails all contribute the nature of the interactions they will experience.

For my reading this coming week it is my intention to focus on texts relating to social media. In particular The Network Society.


Written by Kieran Rones on October 27th, 2012

Tagged with , , , ,

My Week Of Very Short Introductions   no comments

Posted at 10:55 am in Politics,Sociology

In the previous week I listed several books on politics I was considering as reading for introductory texts. Having looked into each of these; I found they were either very dense in their content or too specific in their details to give a broad enough introduction. Having re-examined recommended pre-reading and undergraduate introductory texts I came across the Routledge “Very Short Introductions” books and the recommendation of one university of the “Very Short Introduction to Politics”.

My initial reading of this text has prompted my decision to change my topic of discussion from “cryptography” to “citizenry on social media”. Having decided on Politics as my topic area over Politics Science; this offers the ability to make a variety of historical comparisons and contrast the developments of states and their relationships with their citizens against the development of social media sites and their relationships with users.

The book gave a relatively detailed account of the varieties of social organisation that have been implemented throughout history ranging from ancient despotism and feudalism to modern dictatorships and democracies. There are clear distinctions to be drawn between different components of these organisations and the emergence of social media. However, it is interesting how the development of end-user agreements and the rights that they hold/with-hold have mirrored some aspect of the development of many political histories.

Not wishing to miss out on a greater level of factual content I also completed readings of “Very Short Introductions” to “Democracy” and “Communism” and intend to look briefly at “Socialism”, “Human Rights” and “The United Nations” to bolster my contextual knowledge. I have also looked into the further reading of undergraduate texts on globalisation with a view to contrasting the interaction and relationships of states with the interactions between and relationships of users with different social media sites.

This week I have also completed notes on the topics of:

Jean Baudrillard
Marxist Sociology
Emile Durkheim
The Chicago School of Sociology   
Critical Theory and

I will be looking to do some study on the nature of social media this coming week along with developing my knowledge of “modernity” in sociology with a particular focus on the nature of Post-Modernism.

Written by Kieran Rones on October 20th, 2012

Tagged with , ,

My Introduction To Sociology   no comments

Posted at 8:57 am in Sociology

I have chosen the topic of cryptography on the web and the disciplines of sociology and politics/political science (still undecided).

I decided the best way to start the process of research was to avoid looking at my topic in much depth and focus on grounding my knowledge in the two disciplines I’ve chosen. My reasoning was that this would better allow me to think about the cryptography within the context of my disciplines rather than read cryptography first and then need to refresh my understanding within new contexts of my chosen disciplines.

Whilst I am still undecided as to whether I will choose political science (a more theoretical approach to the nature of politics) or simply politics (closer to political history) but I am certain of my decision to examine the discipline of sociology. Having previously been heavily cognition/neurology oriented within psychology and less socially minded I felt this was a perfect opportunity for self development and so the choice of sociology was a ‘no-brainer’. Whilst psychology might be often associated with sociology, being that they are both social sciences, my particular psychological background means sociology is by all means a good distance outside my comfort zone.

I searched initially for “undergraduate sociology reading list[s]” and located an undergraduate reading list from City University London, University of Warwick and Brunel University London all of which touted Ken Plummer’s Sociology: The Basics as providing a sturdy foundation for undergraduate students. As such, this has been my first textbook on the topic of sociology.

The book establishes a basic description of sociology as a lens through which to view, examine and interpret the world. It is noted that “social” in sociology can have two similar but distinct interpretations. The first interpretations is “social” meaning the social ‘entity’ or ‘agent’. The second interpretation recognises “society” as a cumulative entity comprised of multiple agents. To make an analogy; this is the difference between describing the ways in which individual birds in a flock are influenced by their surroundings and describing the seemingly single entity that all the birds, moving together, appear to form.

In this way sociology offers two key opportunities. The first is to discuss issues such as the nature of culture, religion, ethics and any facet of social life in an both an abstract and society wide sense. The second is to allow for observations to be made of the ways these abstract concepts may influence the social world of the individual agents. In this way the discipline of sociology appears to be inherently interdisciplinary in and of itself; drawing on everything from medicine to theology in order to adequately represent the complex nature of social interactions.

I have encountered several topics of interest that I will research further:

Modernity: the discussion of the sociology of “modern” societies. In particular the idea of “multiple modernities”: as societies have advanced together technologically many have diverged in their modernisations forming new cultural and societal differences. The ways in which these differences interact with differing modernisation is the subject of this specific approach.

Discourse/Discourse analysis: The approach of analysing communication. This can be done from a variety of perspective to achieve ends. These ends include making theories about the interactions of humans or to further contextualise cultural expression within a wider societal context.

I am looking into what politically oriented undergraduate text would offer the strongest foundation and have identified several potential candidates using a similar approach of consulting University undergraduate pre-/reading lists:




Written by Kieran Rones on October 15th, 2012

Tagged with , ,

Economics of Ontologies   no comments

Posted at 12:18 am in Economics,Psychology,Sociology

Frontispiece of a paper from Wolff called, 'Ontologica.'Am trying to focus back in on my original assertion about what I was going to study. This was whether there are differences between subjects and their degree of separation from the www, and their primary ontologies. Although I was going to use economics and psychology or perhaps sociology and their attendant ontologies to create a spotlight with which to examine this question, this would still involve looking at the ontologies of a range of other subjects.

I was going to use economics as a focus, as I think it perhaps represents something that might be wrong with how we talk about knowledge in general and reasons for studying, working together, collaborating – ultimately: trust.

A lot of work that we do is tied into research programs that are underwritten by governments as being part of some economic promise. For example, the last Labour government’s education policy was predicated partly on the premise (stemming from research in the 1950s that re-emerged in the 1970s (need to find and cite)) that countries with a more highly educated population tend to do better economically. Thus following Tomlinson’s recommendations, the Diploma system was introduced, only partially, which in fact had the consequence of introducing a system that did the opposite of what he had intended.

This however, being loosely accepted: that the more highly educated a population is, the more wealthy their country, it would seem to follow that it makes sense to make use of emerging technologies to help to educate this population. There is a body of research on this – how technology can be ubiquitous; it can get to the places that teachers can’t, and can help to make learning something that is always ‘on’.

There are actually so many problems with these assertions that it would take a whole other blog post, or perhaps even, essay, or perhaps even, thesis to go into them – but I’m happy to accept that 1) learning is basically a Good Thing and that 2) technology can help to mediate it. I might perhaps then reluctantly accept that it’s possible that if you have a lot of learning, you might end up creating more wealth for your country, however some of the data for this is possibly correlative rather than strongly causal.

But to get back to my original question, it is whether there might be said to be an economics of ontologies? Could we find out whether there are some subjects that lend themselves, via their objects of knowledge to be shared and studied on the web? And that therefore are more accessible and therefore might end up generating more money?

It seems at first glance, that physics might be one of these subjects. Physics research can be large scale and tend to be carried out by large communities who share resources.  Is there something about the nature of physics that makes people more likely to collaborate? Are they perhaps true seekers after knowledge who are less motivated by economics / reward than say, chemists? (Apologies to all you pioneering, truth-seeking chemists out there.) Would this then mean that by the very nature of a subject, if it attracts more people who care more about discovery, or truth, then they may well as a result, collaborate more, and could easily use technology in order to do this, but they care less about creating wealth, so that all web-based subjects that can easily or practically use the web to be studied are never going to be worth funding by governments who only care about short-term goals?

This seems on the face of it, rather facile, but it does intersect with another debate about why there still seem to be less girls studying physics, and in general, science subjects. (This debate appears worldwide, but I shall for now confine myself to the UK.) There was recently some speculation about whether the Big Bang Theory was attracting more people to the subject, but this generated some scathing responses from researchers who had determined that take up of physics was in fact governed by early influences.

Written by me1g11 on November 23rd, 2011

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Identity (Post 5 – More Anthropological Views)   no comments

Posted at 2:31 pm in Sociology

This post will hopefully conclude the final underlying principles and theories of Anthropology, as described in Small Places, Large Issues.  These latest concepts have centred on social systems and social structures, with the two being distinguished as:

  • Social Systems: Sets of relationships between actors;
  • Social Structures: The totality of standardised relationships in a society.

This definition of social systems relates to social networks – the relationships from a particular person, and the scale of these networks has to be considered in contemporary Anthropology as the Internet has meant that non-localised networks are of increasing importance compared to the traditionally studied small-scale societies. Rather than simply focusing on online research to study these networks, however, anthropology stresses an importance of collecting other forms of data: specifically on relationships between online activities, and other, offline, social activities. By doing this, it has been shown that the Internet/Web can surprisingly enhance people’s national and even religious identity, with the example of Trinidadians whose offline and online activities form a single entity – their identity does not seem to be being altered by the Web.

Grid and Group Classification of Societies - from "Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology" Second Edition, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, page 82.

Grid and Group Classification of Societies - from "Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology" Second Edition, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, page 82.

The above image displays a classification system for societies that focuses on social control. The “Group” axis classifies societies according to their social cohesion, and “Grid” on the shared knowledge in a society. A strong grid, strong group society is explained as a strictly conformist society where an individual’s identity is constructed through the public system of rights and duties. The measures on this grid can help to explain how the identity of individuals in certain societies is shaped through the social control exerted by the social system itself. A typical industrial society could fall in the weak group, weak grid sector (although they can be spread out over the graph), where members are “individualistic and anonymous, and thus others exert little social control over ego” (page 83). A counter argument is that the influence of the state on a society means that they should fall into “Strong group”, so the variation in opinions here is vast and the classifications all seem uncertain and unreliable. It appears to have more value when classifying one particular society, rather than a group such as “industrial society” which is far too vague.

There are differing schools of thought that cover the link between society and individual actors:

  • Individualist thought, associated with Max Weber where anthropologists try to find out what makes people do what they do
  • Collectivist thought, associated with Marx and Durkhein where anthropologists are more concerned with how society works.

Theories that focus on the actor emerged to critique structural-functionalist models in the 1950s. In these models, the individual was mainly looked over, with focus instead on social institutions. This was criticised, as it was not clear how a society could have needs and aims, and because society can only exist because of interaction – this implies that social norms must be seen as a result of interaction, and not the cause. The author summarises by stating that while structural functionalism seeks to explain cultural variation, it only succeeds in describing interrelationships.

Finally, it is described how Bourdieu examined the relationship between reflexivity or self-consciousness, action and society, resulting in a theory of “culturally conditioned agency”. “Habitus” is the term used by Bourdieu to describe “embodied culture” which enforces limitations on thought when choosing an action, and ensures that “the socially constructed world appears as natural” (page 91). This raises the question of how much of what we do and who we are is just down to habits, conventions and norms imposed on us by the society we are born in to?

As the subject matter of the book is now beginning to move away from the core anthropological theories and on to more specialised areas I will start to focus my reading on specific chapters relating to Identity to build up my knowledge of this area, before moving onto some introductory psychology texts.

Written by Chris P on December 1st, 2010

Tagged with , , , ,

Identity (Post 3 – Statuses and Roles, and an Anthropological view on the Self)   no comments

Posted at 8:38 pm in Uncategorized

This week I have continued reading Small Places, Large Issues by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. After covering the introductory sections as last week, I wondered whether to skip forward to the chapters later in the book that the index points to for ‘Identity’, or to continue linearly from the beginning. After quickly skimming through the upcoming chapter, it seemed there was a lot of relevant material, so I continued on as before.

Titled “The Social Person” I had a feeling that this chapter could contain a lot of material that could be linked to Identity. Indeed one of the first issues covered is that of the different dimensions of human existence. These are divided into four categories in the following way:

Culture:            Cultural Universals            Cultural Variation

Nature:            Genetic Universals            Genetic Differences

The bottom two sections cover biological features in humans, which do not feature much in anthropologic research. However, the top sections are important and fundamental to anthropology, as there is much variation between humans that cannot be accounted for through genetic variation.

The next big point made is regarding language, and how although it is sometimes assumed that language is uniform across a whole group, it can be found that there is as much linguistic variation within the group.

The book then goes on to describe statuses and roles that account for the rights and duties that an individual may hold in relation to others, and which can vary depending on the situation. The example used to explain this is that of a bus driver, the driver’s status is ‘Bus Driver’, whereas his role is defined by what one does as a bus driver. The work of Goffman (1978 [1959]) is referenced in order to explain how one may switch between roles using “impression management” to appear a specific way in a certain situation. It is then stated that Goffman’s main idea is that social conventions define everything an individual does as a “social creature”. Everything one does follows culturally or socially defined rules.

One area that I read about last week, and didn’t include in my post is the distinction between a view from the inside of a culture, and the view from the outside. Two terms are used for this: emic and etic. Emic describes life as a member of a particular society experiences it, whereas the etic level is the analytical description of a researcher after observing a society. Taking this into account, Goffman’s role theory is an etic explanation as it as an abstraction of the processes of social life.

I was interested to read the next section, which moved on to talking about the Self. A distinction is made between the public and private self, with the “I” being the private self as seen from the inside, which isn’t easily assessed by anthropologists. This is something which I am certain will be covered when I begin to tackle Psychology, and will be an important area to compare and contrast the two disciplines. I am glad I decided to continue reading linearly, as with no reference to this section under Identity in the index I may well have missed it, although the concepts of the Self seem central to the issue of Identity. Maybe I am mistaken, and this will be cleared up once I read the main Identity section.

The biggest idea I took away from this section on the Self is the work of Brian Morris (1994) who distinguished three areas of personhood. Firstly, a person may be identified as a conscious and social human being, and is something which seems to be universal. Secondly, a person may be categorised as a cultural category, which the author explains may be more or less inclusive than the first point – some societies will exclude strangers for example from full personhood, but in others it may be that “non-human” entities may be included. Finally, there is the “I as opposed to others” component, which, depending on the culture, is interpreted differently.

Having advanced further into the realms of anthropology, I then decided to take another anthropology book, this time Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective by Roger M. Keesing and Andrew J. Strathern, and skim through the opening few chapters. My reason for this was to ensure that I had covered the same basic points relating to anthropology. Familiar topics such as the difficulty in defining culture, ethnocentrism, ethnography and social roles all appeared, giving me a fairly good boost of confidence that makes me think I’m heading in the right direction with anthropology.

Written by Chris P on November 12th, 2010

Tagged with , , , ,

Language, Semantics and Pragmatics   1 comment

Posted at 8:19 pm in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Thomas, L & Wareing, S (1999): Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

In my last blog post I outlined some of the basic principles of linguistics. This week I will be going into more detail regarding this discipline and attempting to highlight areas of relevance to my topic, Organisation. As I mentioned in both last weeks blog and my initial statement of my intent to study linguistics, I am interested in finding out how language shapes social organisation and forms bonds, both within and between different communities and cultures. This blog post will look at the how language exists and is structured, and then how it can be used on basic levels to encourage and enforce social interaction.

Understanding Language.

Noam Chomsky argued that anyone who has learnt a language must have, at some point in their development, internalised a set of rules regarding the proper use of that language. In some ways, language can be thought of as a game, with rules and players, as well as being turn based. Linguists see language as having a functional role in human life; some examples of these functions are;

  • Obtaining information. Eg: “What colour is the sky?” “The sky is blue.”
  • Creating action. Eg: “Come with me!”
  • Enforcing social bonds. Eg: “Well done!”

Of course language is extremely flexible, and these functions often interact when we are communicating. For example, the conversation:

“Can you go outside and tell me what colour the sky is?”

“Yes…the sky is blue”

“Thank you”

shows language being used to first create action, then to supply information and finally to supply social kudos to the actor. Similarly, the sentence;

“Come with me if you want to live!”

is an example of information being supplied to influence an action. Such common multiplicity in language shows how useful it is in quickly dealing with many different situations which we find ourselves in daily. While many animals have ways of communicating information and action through sound (in fact, the sentence “come with me if you want to live” is one of the most commonly communicated messages in the animal kingdom, next to “we should have sex”), only humans have the capacity to construct complex meaning and abstraction in language. To elaborate, animals communicate what is immediately relevant, such as immediate observations and feelings;

“I am hungry, where is the food?”

“The food is in this tree”

whereas humans can communicate past and future experiences with a descriptive element;

“The banana I ate this morning was delicious!”

“I want a banana too!”

“Well you’ll have to go to the banana tree, climb it, and get one for yourself”

Imagining a solution to a problem is only useful to a society if it can be quickly and effectively communicated to members, and in this respect humans are extremely advantaged thanks to language.

Language construction and semantics.

Language, in its most basic format, is made up of phonemes, which are the smallest sounds which distinguish two words. For example p and b in the English language are phonemes, as they distinguish words such as pit and bit. Phonemes expand to create groups of consonants and vowels, which make up words. Words are then characterised with semantics. Semantics is extremely important in understanding language, as words are far from universally recognisable. Identical words can have far from identical meanings, and humans have evolved to carry out internal logical inference to assess the semantics of a word or sentence. For example, someone who heard the word “duck” while standing on a golf course may logically infer that they need to carry out an immediate action, and someone who heard the same word spoken by a child standing next to a lake might logically infer that the child is referring to the species of bird. Semantics, then, allows us to understand the language we hear and make decisions regarding its usefulness.

Of course, sometimes these decisions are wrong, no matter how logical the thought processes are, and language semantics can become very complicated very quickly. Many words in languages share common semantic components, for example “bull” and “man” both refer to adult male mammals, but we cannot use the terms interchangeably, except as similes. Humans get around this problem of this component overlap in language by working from established prototypes. When one thinks of a bird, one does not tend to think of a penguin, but of a robin, which is closer to the prototypical bird. However, because language is constantly evolving, prototypes can be endemic to certain social groups and certain social settings. If you overhear the word “bird” used by a group of men of a certain age in the local pub, you would be forgiven for assuming that these men are referring to a particular woman, and are not members of your local RSPB branch. This kind of word fuzziness makes logical inference so important when communicating, but shows that it can, on occasion, be incorrect. When humans are unfamiliar with words they hear in a language that they recognise, they can usually solve this problem by asking for clarification; “Excuse me, when you say bird, what do you mean?” and then storing this information as a new internal subset rule of language, something like:

IF SPEAKER= Simon, ENVIRONMENT= Pub, WORD=’Bird’ THEN INFER word= ‘woman’.

And in this way language semantics can constantly evolve and adapt as an individual moves through various social groups and environments.


Continuing this discussion of the unpredictable nature of language, we can discuss pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of unpredictable language use, and its creation is commonly attributed to philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988), who identified efficient communication between humans in four maxims of conversation;

  • Quantity: giving the right amount of information when talking.
  • Quality: Being truthful when talking if the truth is known.
  • Relevance: Relevant answers to questions or relevant statements to contexts.
  • Manner: Clear and ordered structuring of communication.

Grice observed that these principles for cooperative communication exist in all languages and are so a core part of communicating,  for example when talking to a baby or animal which cannot respond, people will still communicate as if they were expecting a response, and follow one or more of the maxims. However, Grice also observed that the above maxims are often broken, and more commonly by certain social groups within a society. A politician, if we are being pessimistic, may be more inclined to mislead or respond irrelevantly to a question than a scientist. Pragmatic linguists note that when faced with random, useless or simply untrue information in language, humans will often try and draw reasonable conclusions and seek to understand the meaning of what was said, rather than simply rejecting the statement as a failed response. Our minds reason that only matters of extreme importance could cause someone to break the maxims of conversation, for example;

“Did you enjoy your day at school dear? Your maths teacher says that you have been LOOK OUT FOR THAT TIGER!”

And so often people, even when they are aware that laws of conversation have been broken, will allow the speaker to continue, accepting that there must have been a reason for the interruption in normal proceedings, even if the reason is not immediately known.

Pragmatic language therefore has much to say about the power of language, and this explanation of acceptance to broken norms can show us in part why skilled orators, such as lawyers, politicians and journalists, can coerce or influence certain social groups who may or may not be aware of the misuse of language directed at them. We have all seen interviews with politicians who evade certain questions, providing irrelevant answers or random information, and while this may enrage some members of a society, other listeners will assume that there must be a socially beneficial reason for the evasion. These listeners are often of a lower social status than the speaker and have less experience with language on a lexical level (they may not understand the words or the meanings that the speaker is using). I will discuss social classes and language further in two weeks.

What I hope this blog post has shown is that language has laws at a basic level. Language is a construction of sounds, created by humans to achieve certain results. As we evolve, so does the language we use and we are constantly updating our internal rulebook through logical inference to deal with new semantics, situations and social groupings that we find ourselves in. When it comes to use, as long as the basic construction rules are obeyed, language is found to be very flexible, and can be used by those skilled in communication to achieve a variety of ends. However, the basic principles of language and communication are still within us, and it is somewhat comforting to know that, even in a modern world where it new words are constantly created and old ones reinvented, that we still have core uses and needs for language that have remained more or less unchanged since our first words. Although I have not mentioned explicitly my topic of organisation, it is implied through much of the above analysis that language and communication is at the heart of our need to be close to one another, to express emotion, share ideas and survive as a community.

Next week, I will be returning to sociology to discuss sociological theorists and the idea of organisation.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 9th, 2010

Tagged with , , ,

A bit more sociology… Starting to think about gender and sexuality   no comments

Posted at 11:54 am in Sociology

A little moment to say how I feel:

Haralambos and Holborn’s Sociology. Themes and Perspectives has been recalled back to the library. Sniff. So I am returning it today.  We’ve had some good times, but today I have to say goodbye.

So I’m starting to think, why am I doing this?  I’m reading these huge (heavy) textbooks and trying to find out what the sociologist’s think about gender and sexuality.  But what I have really been trying to concentrate on is why they think these things.  What methods have they used to come to these conclusions?  That is the most important part of this research, to try to understand how the discipline of sociology applies its methods to individuals and groups to try to understand about gender and sexuality.  It seems from this week’s readings that interviews and observation are the favourites for gender and sexuality.  There is a certain amount of scientific approach later on (80s onwards) when looking at sexuality, particularly the work of Fausto-Sterling, and this is refreshing, but it always goes back to the interview.  How far can a conversation with someone who says that they are a ‘female’, ‘transexual’, ‘male’ really help to explain what gender is I wonder? I’m going to outline, as I do every week, what I have been reading, but I really do wonder if I am going to find anything more about methodological approaches and methods of investigation for sociologists than I have already discovered in these first year undergraduate textbooks.  I think that I may need to up the level of reading a little if I am going to get anything more than a broad overview to methods, so far, it has not expanded form last week’s list of:

  • participant observation
  • quantitative research in the form of surveys, questionnaires and interviews
  • qualitative research in the form of interviews and observations
  • secondary data
  • content analysis
  • discourse analysis
  • case studies
  • life histories

I’m not saying that this isn’t a good list, in fact I think that it covers the social side of human quite well, but there are gaps, when looking at gender, in looking at the physical attributes of individuals and the effects of this on our understanding of gender.  What about the genes, and the body, and the brain?  Or is this just socio-psychology and I am never going to find the answer I want sitting amongst the sociologists?  Craig has given me a book on Social Psychology, which I have been so tempted to read all week; but I am trying to stick with pure sociology for the first few weeks… we’ll see how that goes this week.

Sexuality (and a tiny bit of gender)

There’s just enough time to give a quick review of the chapter on Sex and Gender (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008: 90-142).  The section begins with a critique of ‘malestream sociology’ based on the work of P.Abbott, C.Wallace and M. Tyler (2005).  There is a mention of the biological differences between man and woman; sexual diomorphism (Haralambos & Holborn, 2008: 92-93), where sexual diomorphism is biological fact (cf. Warton, 2005: 18) and the distinction that sex and gender are different (cf. Stoller, 1968).  The chapter discusses the rhesus monkeys from Goy and Pheonix’s experiments (1971) and the work of Archer and Lloyd (2002) on testosterone and criminal records, and goes on to outline Oakley’s criticism of the rhesus monkey experiemnts as not including the social context affecting the hormone levels (1981) and also Halpern et al. work on aggression and testosterone in teenage boys (1994) that shows there is no correlation between testosterone levels and aggression.  Archer and Lloyd say that although hormones contribute to aggressive behaviour, peer groups also affect behaviour, they say that there is an ‘interaction between biological and social processes (Archer and Lloyd, 2002).  I think that this is interesting when considering the representation of gender online as the communication between groups needs to be considered when thinking about the way that an individual is choosing to present themselves (or feels that they have to present themselves) online.

Haralambos and Holborn go on to discuss sociobiology (2008: 94-96).  This is a topic that I am going to read more into as I think that it will have a lot to say about the links between genetics and behaviour and therefore could be useful when thinking about the presentation of sexual identity online.  Barash applies Wilson’s worn on sociobiology to gender and sex (Barash, 1979; Wilson, 1975) saying that reproductive strategies produce different behaviours between males and females, resulting in different social roles.  Looking at the literature for this subject available in the University of Southampton library, sociobiologists seem to use animal behaviour to explain their theories, and it seems to me that this may not therefore wash when you move the theories across to humans.  Blier writes against sociobiology, saying that they are ethnocentric (1984), this is a really interesting point.  If studying different societies results in different behaviours of men and women being observed, does this necessarily mean that sociobiology is wrong? Or does it mean that there are other factors at play that have resulted in an exceptional situation occurring? I don’t agree with this, but I am saying it as the internet is an exceptional situation perhaps? And so the work of sociobiologists, whether true or false in its statements, becomes irrelevant when all of the social norms are being broken and the communities are abnormal?  Looking at whether communities online are abnormal or not isn’t within the scope of this little project; I wish it was as I believe that they are not abnormal and that the world online is an exact copy of the world offline.

Haralambos and Holborn go on to discuss the sexual division of labour (cf. G.P.Murdock, 1949) and also the cultural division of labour (cf. A.Oakley, 1974).  Oakley looks to disprove Murdock’s idea that biology determines the division of labour between the sexes, she does this by looking at the labour divisions of a range of societies (1974), but again, she is using the sociologist’s approach of studying the behaviours of societies and then concluding that they are representative of all of the individuals, past and present, on earth.  Oakley identifies where socialisation into gender roles occurs: manipulation of child’s self-concept; canalization of boys and girls using objects; verbal appellations for children; exposure to different activities (1974).  But, as Haralambos and Holborn point out, Oakley misses the other reasons for this behaviour; Connell points out that it is not always passive, consider the active seeking out of pleasure he says (i.e. wanting to wear high heels because they make you feel sexy)(Connell, 2002:138-141) – not sure about this one: why do you feel sexy in high heels? Because of the societal behaviours, this is not an active seeking out, this is a passive enforced behaviour, I think.

The chapter then moves onto gender attribution, in particular the work of Kessler and McKenna, ethnomethodologists who look at how people characterise the world around them, where gender is socially produced, and that there is therefore no way to tell between a woman and a man easily (Kessler & McKenna, 1978:885-7).  It seems to me that they come to some of their conclusions using interviews to think about how transsexuals remove their perceived sexuality by others from their actual physical attributes that may make an individual make an assumption about their sexuality.  This is done by: content and manner of speech; public physical appearance; information about their past life; private body and how to hide details of their body that would point to a particular sexuality (Kessler & McKenna, 1978).  This is very interesting in the online world. Where do these four processes happen when you are online?  The private body is easier to conceal, but I would argue that the manner and content of speech, the public physical appearance (assuming that it has to be chosen by the individual from a selection of possibilities, as in SecondLife) and the past life are all just as difficult to construct online as they are offline.   I think that we are just as constrained by these processes online as we are offline.

Haralambos and Holborn introduce Fausto-Sterling and the idea of transgendered people, where dualistic views of being either male of female are not appropriate (Fausto-Sterling, 2000), her work is also based in the social processes that create gender, she says that gender is ‘embodied’.  Key to this is that the development of neural processes in the brain is connected to the experiences we have, so our social factors and our body’s factors reinforcing one another so that gender is materialised within the body (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).  The section ends with Connell’s idea that biology and culture are fused together (Connell, 2002).

Next Week

Feminism is discussed in depth in the introductory textbooks that I am using for this early stage of my reading.  I am going to read through Abbott et al., 2005. An Introduction to Sociology. Feminist Perspectives, for this part of my research.   I know that I said that I would do it last week, but I have been quite surprised at how useful the undergraduate textbooks have been.  I am going to try to move onto biology also this coming week, I have the texts that I identified last week sitting on my desk staring at me.  I am loathe to start them as I think that I know already what they will contain…

Written by Nicole on November 9th, 2010

Tagged with , ,