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Sociological Concepts

by David H. Kessel

This is a brief introduction to the type of critical sociological approach I use. I cover this material in detail in Introductory Sociology courses...and is the approach I utilize in all courses I teach. Thus, it is a necessary preamble for anyone who has NOT taken Introductory Sociology with me.

Of course, my approach...developed over years of teaching Introductory Sociology...isn't the only one "out there," Mine has a basic/general critical emphasis as well as some very basic and standard sociological ideas...ones found in most introductory courses (although, in mine, sometimes with a critical reinterpretation of them). Mine also includes some ideas not found in more "mainstream" courses.

So, in order for a student to fully or better understand what I'm saying...and why, this overview is important. Another way of putting it is that it represents a "defining of terms" prior to using that everyone is on the "same page" to speak.

The following Menu links to a series of "outlines" for each of the various sociological concepts I explain in all my courses. Also, each outline is the basis for and is linked to a short essay about the on each outline title to go to that essay.

Ignorance..........Social Act/Relation/Situation
Presupposing........................Levels of Reality
Radical.........................Definition of Situation
Motifs of Sociology.........Epistemology/Logic


The premise of all learning and growth of awareness
NOT equal abandoning your thinking, beliefs, values, and feelings
RATHER: holding these "off to the side"
-----allowing new/different ideas to enter…thru inquiry
When Course is over…"release brackets"…allow synthesis to happen

IF NOT DO THIS…constant "attack and defend" and "abandon and replace"


Does NOT equal "negative"
-----i.e. to find fault/judge severely/denial/rejection

IS equal to careful analysis
-----attempt at objective understanding so as to determine both merits and faults and more
-----studying the nature of something
-----determining its essential features and the relation between them

ROOT: to separate and decide


NOT equal assume (as in taking for granted in advance)
-----Means to call forth an antecendent/prior condition(s)
-----To ASK: how do we make sense of a thing, condition, or state of affairs
-----To ASK: what are the grounds which create or give rise to whatever we are observing, studying, or questioning

Processually Understood…its HISTORY…its development


NOT equal extreme

NOT equal type of person/group (i.e. deviant or disruptive)

NOT equal to "content" of ideas, NOT a "substance"
-----(drastic, uncompromising, fanatical)

IS a method or approach of "knowing" anything -----the ROOT or ORIGIN of something -----Fundamental/Core/Stem

MEANS: to go to the root
-----can be done fully or partially

i.e. The critical presupposing about surface realities


Our "windows" to the world/reality


But can and does involve these ideas…just are not synonymous to a "paradigm"

-----Windows in a building/room
-----Each window is a limited or parital view of what's "outside"
-----windows are bounded/framed openings…none encompass the whole of what's out there
-----windows are different sizes…affording different amount (though still partial) of "view"

Paradigms are like windows…MENTAL WINDOWS to the world/reality
-----sets of assumptions (often taken for granted daily)
-----conceptual schemes
-----a "consensus" about reality (i.e. numerical/consensual truth)

Paradigms define for us:
-----1. what is "real" (and NOT real)
-----2. what questions to ask about that reality (and NOT to ask)
-----3. HOW to ask the questions (and how NOT)
-----4. Rules to follow in interpreting the answers

Paradigms have great UTILITY (usefulness)
-----1. provide a ground for communication ( not have to start over every time)
-----2. make the world SEEM continuous, stable, and somewhat predictable

-----1. BY DEFINITION…they are partial views (can't get around this characteristic)
-----2. Especially when we forget or never know that…

"purple cows" then walk around with impunity…anything "different" from what our paradigm reveals

We believe in these paradigms
-----our experiences shape our perceptions and our "believing"

We are taught them by others…individuals and society
-----aren't usually aware of them
-----our daily assumptions/models aren't articulated…therefore, they dominate our "views"

We will die for them…defending them

Social Act/Relation/Situation

Micro level concept by Weber…the core unit of all interaction between people

taking someone/something into account in some way

orienting ourselves, our actions/behaviors to things and others

Relatedness to others (in some way) is what makes us human…social beings
--------i.e. our "need for relatedness" --------can be fulfilled in very opposite ways --------Arms hugging us….or….bullet in our head --------BOTH fulfill the same need (for taking or being taken into account)


Macro level concept from Durkheim (although never used the term itself)
-----essential to establish the "turf" of Sociology
-----Durkheim called this "Social Facts"…all groups (dyad to society)

Two definitions of Synergism mixed together:
-----Dictionary definition (with Sociological defintion in parentheses):

Joint action (relation) of agents (parts)…which when taken together (seen as a whole) increase (create/result in) each other's effectiveness (something entirely new in and of itself)...and which seems to exist on its own (takes on a life of its own).

-----NOT an "additive" process
-----RATHER: a creative (algebraic) process
-----Understanding only the parts does not equal to understanding the whole that the parts create
-----Can't reduce the whole to merely the parts

-----a "wall"
-----parts = bricks, sand, water, cement…plus, labor power
-----"wall-ness" is more than just the parts…and more than piling them on top of each other
-----parts must be put in RELATION TO ONE ANOTHER
-----out of this "relation of parts" comes a wall…constituted by the parts but not merely the SUM of them


NOT equal to sympathy/pity (i.e. feeling sorry for someone)

RATHER: UNDERSTANDING something/someone on its/their own terms
-----within its own context
-----in conditions in which it makes sense

PRIOR TO…condoning (agreeing) OR condemning (disagreeing)
-----NOT through the "filter" of one's own values…which skews "understanding" every time


Generally taken…in a commonsense way…to mean "easy to see or understand"/plain/evident
-----seems to need no further questioning

HOWEVER: also means "being in the way"
-----that which hides/conceals/distorts something else
----------i.e. surface realities which need to be "looked beyond"

1ST WISDOM OF SOCIOLOGY: "things are not what they seem" (Peter L. Berger)

THUS: what "seems" to be "obvious" is only the 1st step in examining/analyzing


Usually equated with "stupid" or "dumb" in common usage

HOWEVER: root of the word is IGNORE
-----i.e. not pay attention to
-----i.e. not aware of

NOT the same as stupid or dumb…i.e. lack of abilities of some sort

Sources of Ignorance
-----simply not knowing
-----not being made aware of by others
-----lack of desire to know about (pretend not there or not real)
-----Paradigm boundaries prevent from knowing

Opposite of is NOT "intelligence"

RATHER: opposite of is "awareness"


NOT merely an "ism" of some sort (although DOES involve belief in a Meaning System)

NOT merely being "subjective" (although DOES involve "bias")

RATHER: shared beliefs which help individuals interpret events
-----which provide rationale for particular forms of actions
-----ideas which rationalize, justify, sanctify vested interests of particular people
-----systematic distortions of social reality

Ideas which are usually INVERSIONS of what's really going on or what things are really like
-----makes things "seem" like they are what we say they are
-----contains a "kernel of truth" which gets exaggerated as the "whole of the truth"

NOT the same as lying, deception, or propaganda

RATHER: an ideological thinker actually believes it…is largely unreflective about it
-----will usually appear very sincere and confident about what they say

Ideology is not merely the belief systems themselves
-----are also about the way belief systems are constructed and maintained

YET: once ideological beliefs are "unmasked" as partial inverted truths…
-----Maintaining them as true makes one a liar, deceiver, and propagandist

Definition of the Situation (Thomas Theorem)

Micro level concept with implications for Meso and Macro levels…William I. Thomas

Definition of the Situation
-----a stage of examination & deliberation (i.e. assessment) PRIOR TO acts of behavior (including thinking)
-----sometimes lengthy…most often a fleeting "millisecond"
-----a scoping out of things…

Thomas Theorem: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences"
-----very powerful ability…especially getting others to recognize the "definition" and act that way
-----thus, doesn't matter if some is or isn't "true"…we DEFINE it a certain way and it "becomes" true

OFTEN reflected in struggles for power
-----WHO gets to define the situation?
-----Who can ENFORCE their definition most successfully?

DOS's seem real and objective (i.e. apart from us)
-----difficult to change DOS's in many cases
-----are "in" the "now"
-----come from the "past"
-----become patterned…can become institutions (Meso) and structural (Macro)


Sociologically, are NOT a place or thing…although commonly used that way conventionally

RATHER…Sociologically an institution is…
-----Patterned/Structured ways (i.e. DOS's) of fulfilling/meeting NEEDS, WANTS, and DESIRES
-----i.e. health, mating, education, spirituality, food, shelter, governing, etc.

Institutions relate to individuals as REGULATORY AGENCIES
-----Channels human actions/thinking into existing practices

Function much like INSTINCTS do for other animals
-----human animals are LESS DEPENDENT on instincts (conceived as automatic responses)
----------its not a matter of yes or no about human instincts
----------Rather, the issue is the degree of dependency on (or independence from) them in humans
----------This lesser dependence is both a "blessing" and a "curse", so to speak, for humans

Peter L. Berger (in Invitation to Sociology) defines institutions:
-----"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."

Provides "Institutional Imperatives"
-----seem like our own "inner voice" telling us what "must" be…with a sense of "inevitability"
-------1. give us scripts, answers, solutions…even questions to consider
-----------shields us from quandary…even healthy quandry (when decisions should be made)
-------2. devalues other options (makes "other ways" seem lesser)
-------3. bars other options/alternatives from consciousness/awareness
-------4. provides "formulas for living"
-----------desire for love =(becomes) desire to marry
-----------desire for happiness = desire for possessions
-----------desire for education = desire for good job
-----------desire for democracy = desire to vote
-----------desire for food/shelter = desire to consume
-----------desire for meaning = desire to believe
-----------desire for celebration = desire for ritual
-------5. channel us to "behave according to type"
-----------we play "roles" (with Expectations and Obligations) that society needs
-----------we often "become" those roles (although leeway is possible)

-----Institutions involve a certain amount of DECEPTION (if we're not made aware of them and how they work)
-----Institutions create the reality of BAD FAITH (believing what is VOLUNTARY is NECESSARY)

Levels of Reality

"Levels" are found in other academic disciplines and fields (i.e. Economics, Political Science)

Breaking "reality" into levels helps see the details of an otherwise seemingly monolithic "thing"
-----i.e. Society
-----Thus, levels are either more or less USEFUL in doing this…they aren't "truth" itself
-----A "Levels of Reality" (LOR) approach is a "knowing" device that helps tap into the complexities of life

The following is a good example of a LOR approach (not the only one…but one I think is very good):


-----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)

SO…although in one sense "levels" are "real"…when looking at society as a whole

BUT…in another sense…Levels aren't real…they really don't exist
-----As Individuals, we live life as a whole…without micro, meso, or macro parts
-----As Individuals…we are the Micro/Meso/Macro ALL AT THE SAME MOMENT.

AGAIN…an LOR approach facilitates understanding a complexity otherwise untapped.

YET…must also ask how these levels RELATE TO ONE ANOTHER
-----We can and do study each level separately…that's okay…as a matter of interest or preference
-----BUT eventually we must ask about the other levels in relation to any single one

THAT IS…where do the levels come from? Where does the MACRO come from?

SO, the "first premise" (analytically) of an LOR approach is based on the concept of EMERGENCE
-----The MACRO…emerges from…the MICRO (through the MESO)
-----Otherwise, we'd have to assume the Macro simply "is there," is unchanging, is eternal, was poofed into existence
--------This may make some sense to certain "belief systems"…
--------But, sociologically it makes no sense at all
-----Following this "first premise" there is, of course, "feedback" from the Macro (thru the Meso) down to the Micro…each level is creative of the others.

Motifs of Sociological Consciousness


"We would contend, then, that there is a debunking motif inherent in sociological consciousness. The sociologist will be driven time and again, by the very logic of his discipline, to debunk the social systems he is studying." (p. 38)

...a "looking beyond"

...a "seeing through"

...the "art of mistrust"...of appearance/the surface/form

...It's PREMISE: Nothing is as it seems to be ("The 1st Wisdom of Sociology") "unmasking tendency"

...there are levels and meanings of reality not given in "form," "appearance," "behavior," "beliefs," "interpretation," or "self-conception"


"In looking at this American development we can detect another motif of sociology, closely related to that of debunking but not identical with it--its fascination with the unrespectable view of society." (p. 43)

...awareness of worlds/realities other than those of middle & upper class respectable "standards" and "propiety"

...based on division of culture into "respectable" (normal) and "unrespectable" (deviant) sectors by ruling elite
----------Ignoring OR devaluing anything
----------which deviates from the standards

...LANGUAGE: is often the clearest sign of the sectors
----------Supression of certain language
----------in certain situations
----------Not mentioning undesirable things

...a "puncturing" of the facades of so-called "respectability"
----------Seeing the totality/wholeness of
----------social reality
----------A clearer view of society than with
----------"googles" of respectability
----------Exposing ANY taken-for-granted
----------belief or position


"...we would look once more on this phenomenon of relativization that we have already touched upon a few times. We would now say explicitly that sociology is so much in tune with the temper of the modern era precisely because it represents the consciousness of a world in which values have been so radically relativized." (p. 48)

...realization that an individual's or a group's views/values/ways are NOT absolutes...are NOT "truth/normality" itself

...gaining perspective (distance) on own ways
----------By examining the process of their
----------By gaining insight into the ways of
----------other groups/cultures

...ideas change when their situations or conditions change

...realize that societies provide MEANING SYSTEMS which provide a "total interpretation of reality" to believe in
----------Our own lives are RELATIVE TO that
----------meaning system


"To these we would, finally, add a fourth one, much less far-reaching in its implications but useful in rounding out our picture--the cosmopolitan motif." (p. 52)

...the broadest, most general of the motifs...the FOUNDATION of the other motifs openness to other ways of thinking and acting...without prejudice...WITH empathy

...transcending one's own physical location and one's attachment to it
----------Recognize the "accident of birth"
----------and "narrowness of nationalism" feel at home wherever their are others who think

...a broad, open and emancipated view on human life realize that..."nothing human is alien to me"



Although there are varying definitions of this term, I will define it on two levels...a "formal" definition and then a "working" definition.

The Formal essence, a dictionary definition...would be:

The investigation of the...

1. origin,

2. nature,

3. methods...and

4. limits

of human knowing and knowledge.

As such epistemology is that branch of philosophy with investigates the conditions for knowing/creating knowledge.

The Working own working

The study of HOW we KNOW what we SAY we KNOW

As such I am interested primarily in #3 of the Formal definition...the methods (HOW) by which we come to know anything. Actually, I feel the other three areas are within the methods of knowing and would necessarily be touched upon by focusing on the methods.

Having defined epistemology this way, this leads to a consideration of:


In the broadest sense of the term, there is only one "method" by which knowing takes place...a LOGIC SYSTEM.

So without refering to any particular logic system...nor any particular kind of "knowing"...I will again utilize "formal" and "working" defintions:

The Formal definition would be:

a SYSTEM of principles of reasoning utilized for inferring correctly and reliably in the process of knowing

As such this refers to an organized way of knowing that is applied to the raw phenomena of life

The Working definition would be:

the method/mechanism/tools used to...

1. conceptualize,

2. name,

3. label,

4. describe...and

5. explain

reality (physical, mental, and social)

As such a logic system is a set of tools with which we "order" reality. These tools are not innate within us...but rather, are taught to us.