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Sociological Conceptual Tools Room

*****An Invitation from TSS*****

Conceptual Tools

TSS Directory

Conceptual Tools

Sociological Concepts
by David H. Kessel

Berger's Mechanisms of Social Control

Critical Corollary to The Looking Glass David H. Kessel

by Alexander Liazos

Is Sociology Common Sense?
by Alexander Liazos

Common Sense Sayings

Common Sense Sayings Matching Quiz
Class class or written

Confessions of Marx

Conflict and Equilibrium: Mega-Sociological Theories

Definition of the Situation

Deviance, Typology of

Deviance, Relativity of

Deviance, Summary of

Fiscal Crisis of the State
A blank "working" outline of O'Connor's main thesis...intended for students for note taking during lecture

Gender Allocation in 224 Societies

General Issues in Science & Research Methods

Health as a Ivan Illich



Iron Law of Oligarchy

Labeling Theory

Labor and Alienated Labor in Capitalist Society
An outline of Marx's concept of David H. Kessel

Levels of Analysis Table

Levels of Analysis/Reality

Levels of Reality Models

Manifest and Latent Functions

Notes on Manifest and Latent Functions

Marx Biographical Sketch

Marx's Humanist Radicalism

Marxist Class Structure

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Methods Chart

Mills' Structural Model of Society



Political Economy: Various Definitions

Sectors of the Economy

Social Darwinism


Sociological Paradigms

Sociological Theoretical Perspectives

The Logical Song
Critical and Sociological lyrics from Supertramp (1979)

Three Moments of Dialectical Process of Society

Types of Societies

Twenty Statements Test (TST) and Guidelines

Weber on Bureaucracy

What is a Paradigm Shift?

What is Social Action? Max Weber

Definition of the Situation"

Articulated by W. I. Thomas...this is what has come to be called the "Thomas Theorem." It is one of the simpliest but yet most profound social psychological concepts yet. It is..."If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." The implications of this are far-reaching. It represents an immense power we have, individually and collectively. In essence, it really doesn't matter if something is "true" or not...if we define as such...and then live as if it were...then it "becomes true." Ask any black man...or woman...who has been defined to be a certain way by others and then treated as if it were true about them.

For a short excerpt of Thomas' original writing about it go here


The most instructive explanation of institutions I have found is by Peter L. Berger in Invitation to Sociology. I believe this because he enables us to understand how they come about, how they are maintained, and how they change. This is in contrast to a static approach which treats them as "merely existing." His inherent historical/processual portrayal fosters a critical understanding about change. His explanation also links institutions to our human nature by contrasting them with "instincts" (essentially substituting for them). Further, he connects institutions with "roles" and then the ultimate subjective activity...defining situations and reacting on the basis of those meanings/definitions.

On p. 87 he says..."Institutions provide procedures through which human conduct is patterned, compelled to go, in grooves deemed desirable by society. And this trick is performed by making these grooves appear to the individual as the only possible ones." In other words, institutions (meeting the various needs of humans such as health, mating, education, meaning, food/shelter, etc.) relate to individuals as regulatory agencies which channel human actions and thinking. Further, when we are not made aware that institutions are patterns of behavior over time and constructed by previous humans, they take on a kind of inevitability which as Berger says, seem like our own "inner" voices...they provide a kind of "institutional imperative" which we more often than not blindly follow.

Thus, in the absence of this awareness institutions involve a large degree of deception...what is in fact voluntary and historical seems like it is necessary and given. Believing this is what Berger calls bad faith.

Berger goes on to explain that institutions (especially the ones we follow in bad faith) give us our scripts, answers, and solutions...they shield us from quandry. They devalue other options...even barring other options or alternatives from our consciousness. They provide formulas for living...thus creating an ignorance. For instance, the desire for love becomes the desire for marriage, the desire for meaning becomes the desire to believe, the desire for education becomes the desire for a good job, and so forth. In short, institutions channel us to behave according to type...making us role-players that our current societal arrangements need to maintain itself.

The implications of Berger's portrayal of institutions are fundamental. Their "root" is the defining process of people deciding that a certain need or even want should be fulfilled in a certain way or pattern. Their surface-reality fits nicely with a structural portrayal of society as "what ought to be." Their essential reality is that they imprison us and at the same time, show us the way out of those controlling prisons.

Levels of Analysis/Reality

I owe much of my understanding of levels of reality/analysis to George Ritzer, a contemporary sociologist at the University of Maryland. Building upon the substantial work of well as the tradition in sociology about levels, Ritzer presents levels as a very useful and reciprocal concept which as he says, helps us obtain a "differentiated view" of the social world instead of its seemingly monolithic nature from a structural perspective. A levels approach helps us break down this monolithic appearance by linking the three major levels together in a dialectical or reciprocal relationship...resulting in the "whole" of society, itself.

These three levels are...the Micro, the Meso, and the Macro. These names are, of course, very familiar to a variety of disciplines...especially economics. Likewise, of course, they mean and refer to particular realities in Sociology. Each, while on the one hand, are fairly separate. Each, on the other hand, blend into one another. I will provide the substance for each...the categories belonging to each.

However, before detailing each level, a few general and organizing observations need to made. First, although after what has been just said about a Levels approach, it just as surely needs to be said that "levels" really don't exist as a lived-experience. In other words, as individuals we don't live on these levels, we live life as a "whole"...all at once and at the same moment. We are, in effect, all the levels at the same time. We are micro beings, meso fellow-beings, and macro-creators all at the same time. We don't have micro parts, meso parts, and macro parts...we live life as a unity...starting with our biological existence in space and time. In other words, a Levels of Reality approach is an epistemological approach...that is, levels are "knowing devices" that help us tap into that differentiated reality mentioned above. AS such devices, they aren't "true"...but rather, are either more or less useful in understanding social life.

Second, although as Ritzer points out...and is evident in the work of sociologists, concentration on the phenomena of each level is possible...quite likely, in fact. Some people focus on varying aspects of each level. However, the Ritzer when these preferred concentrations result in conclusions which don't take into account the phenomena of the other levels...when the levels are considered separate and distinct without recognition of their dialectical relations. A holistic study of society must ask the questions which link the levels one with another...elsewise, a partial view will result. Concentration on a preferred level is fine...but exclusion of the other levels from one's analysis and conclusions isn't so fine.

Third, this leads to the question of just where does the Macro level come from? It's the level that seems most apart from the lives of individual human beings...and its the one which seems most unchangeable. As Durkheim said, it seems external to, prior to, and coercive on individuals. He was certainly correct as it relates to each of us being born into a given existing society. However, Durkheim's observation was one-sided and really had to be given his time and the tone of academia then. He was carving out a niche or a turf for the new discipline of sociology and thus, couldn't allow the slightest entry of psychologistic determinism "in" if he was to establish the viability of the new disciplline. Yet, today, a Levels of Reality approach must inherently contain this reciprocal or dialectical relation between the levels. Thus, the concept of emergence is absolutely essential. So, as a FIRST PREMISE...analytically-speaking, the Macro must emerge from the Micro. Emergence, though, is not a deterministic phenomena or process. Rather, emergence is the result of what people creating and recreating society. If this first premise is not correct, then we're left with assuming that the Macro just "is"...or simply is "there" or is "eternal" or is "unchanging" or was "created" from the "outside. Another option, one which reductionist psychologists like, is that the Micro is all there is...just us "egos" to speak. I and others find these alternative explanations a bit wanting...emergence of the Macro from the Micro through the Meso (with continual and complicated feedback loops within) is the fait accompli of a Levels of Reality approach.

Now, what do each of these levels consist of? There are many portrayals of the different levels of analysis...the one I use is, I think, a very good one (but its not the only one...choose your own if you'd like). Mine goes like this:


-----Individuals (attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, self, etc.)

-----Interactions (communications, taking each other into account)

-----Organizations (patterns of interaction, roles, institutions beginning)


-----Organizations (our daily lives)

-----Institutions (patterned solutions)

-----Community (upclose scenes of living)


-----Community (our immediate locations)

-----Society (sharing our language, etc)

-----Culture (our shared total way of life)

-----Civilization (as defined by rulers)

-----Global (slow but sure-forming today)

These are the large-scale structures of institutional webs

For a more detailed portrayal of this typology, go

It should be evident that these levels blend into one another. They are separate in word only...again, we live them all as a whole.

Ritzer's Levels of Reality (LOR) Models

Commonsense Sayings

The following list of "commonsense sayings" is from Eitzen/Baca Zinn's In Conflict & Order. They represent a small but powerful set of examples of the types of commonsense sayings that people use as "absolute" guides to live by. They are presented as absolute and thus, as a substitute for real thinking and analysis of situations. The fact is that all of them are accurate at some times, some places, about some things, etc.. They are relative, not absolute. Sociological thinking/analysis is about studying these realities...determining the correlates and conditions in which they hold and do not hold. So, which of these statements do you use instead of assessing things?

Birds of a feather flock together

Opposites attract

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Out of sight, out of mind

Look before you leap

He who hesitates is lost

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

To know her is to love her

Women are unpredictable

Isn't that just like a woman?

You can't teach an old dog new tricks

It's never to late to learn

Above all to thine own self be true

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

Variety is the spice of life

Never change horses in midstream

Two heads are better than one

If you want something done right, do it yourself

You can't tell a book by its cover

The clothes make the man

Many hands make light work

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Better safe than sorry

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Haste makes waste

Strike while the iron is hot

Work for the night is coming

Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die

There's no place like home

The grass is always greener on the other side

General Issues in Science & Research Methods

Issues about Science

What IS science?

What is the nature of know(ledge)(ing)?



-------Kuhn's Revolutions

Falsification and Verification

---Do we ever "prove" anything?

Correlation vs/and Causality

---What is the difference?


---Dangers of...

-------The Ant Complex

-------Spider's Complex

-------Drunkard's Search

Issues of Method


Ethical Issues

----Zimbardo's Comments on Stanford Prison Experiment

Informed Consent

Observer Effect/Reactivity


Generalizability and Sampling


Reliability and Validity


Berger's Mechanisms of Social Control

Social Controls = "various means used by a society to bring its recalcitrant members back into line" (p. 68 Invitation to Sociology

Methods of social control will vary with:

1. the social situation

2. the purpose and character of the group


---physical force

---threat of violence

------"restraining influence of the generally known availability of the means of violence"


---both the fear of being fired and the fear of not being hired



---Ridicule and Gossip


---Fraud (fraudulent claims)


---some are legal sanctions, most are informally enforced

---"adjustment-oriented groups" can define some people as "sick"


---Formal Controls



------being in trade unions

------formal rules and regulations of employers

---Informal Controls

------from colleagues and co-workers

---Both: "Codes of Conduct"


---carries "far more serious psychological weight"

---Home as the "sphere of the intimate"

------our major source of "self-definition"

---Likely to maintain as much harmony as possible so our sense of ourselves is maintained

Research ethics

And what about research institutions? Zimbardo still has mixed emotions about the ethics of his experiment. His experiment has been criticized by some social scientists, as was the obedience experiment of his high school classmate Stanley Milgram, for its treatment of human research subjects. In Milgram's 1965 experiment, the subjects were led to believe that they were delivering ever more powerful electric shocks to a stranger, on the orders of a white-coated researcher. Most were distressed by the situation, but two-thirds delivered the highest level of shock labeled "danger - severe shock." Like some of Zimbardo's guard subjects, some of Milgram's were anguished afterward by the revelation of their dark potential. When asked about the ethics of such research for a 1976 magazine profile, Zimbardo said that "the ethical point is legitimate insofar as who are you, as an experimenter, to give a person that kind of information about oneself. But my feeling is that that's the most valuable kind of information that you can have and that certainly a society needs it." He told Stanford Report that he believes the pendulum now has swung too far toward protecting research subjects at the expense of new knowledge that could help society. "Our study went though the human subjects committee then because they didn't know in advance, nor did we, that anything would happen. . . . Now [review committees] assume everybody is so fragile, that if you propose to tell a research subject he failed a test, it will damage his self-esteem forever. So most research now is paper and pencil tests. We ask people things like 'Imagine you were a guard, how would you behave?' " He would prefer, Zimbardo said, that human subjects review committees at universities "allow some controversial things to be done but in a highly monitored way. Videotapes should be checked every day, and there should be the option of an independent overseer blowing the whistle at any time." He told the Toronto symposium audience last summer that the prison experiment was both ethical and unethical. It was ethical, he said, because "it followed the guidelines of the Stanford human subjects ethics committee that approved it. There was no deception; all subjects were told in advance that if prisoners, many of their usual rights would be suspended and they would have only minimally adequate diet and health care during the study," which was planned to last two weeks. It was also ethical for him to continue, he said, in that more than 50 people came to look at the study in progress and did not register any objections before Maslach registered hers. Among those who did not intervene were parents and friends of the students who came to see them on the prison's visiting nights, a Catholic priest, a public defender, and "professional psychologists, graduate students and staff of the psychology department who watched on-line videos of part of the study unfold or took part in parole board hearings or spoke to [the study subjects] and looked at them." But it was unethical, he said, "because people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time." "And yes, although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough."