Big Dudes In Sociology

The big dudes in Sociology are Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead.

These thinkers contributed greatly to Sociology as a science and to the theoretical perspectives we use to understand social interaction. This brief overview of their contributions is one I always provide in class lecture. I hope you find it helpful!

Karl Marx: Marx was a German philosopher most famous for his work with Friedrich Engles on Communism as a social system. Ultimately Marx envisioned all society types as characterized by competition and conflict over scare resources, where the few (haves) exploited and dominated the many (have nots). In Marx’s historical analyses of various society types, he always found this truth. Thus, Marx is the father of the Conflict Perspective in Sociology. When we employ the Conflict Perspective, we are looking at society from the top down, using a Macro approach. As we observe social interaction, we start by asking ‘who benefits from this situation as it exists?’. The Conflict perspective directs us to focus on conflict and competition and how these processes lead to change (social dynamics).

Max Weber: Weber was also a German philosopher and is most famous for his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this famous work, Weber asserted his idea that the values of Protestantism promoted and gave rise to the development of Capitalism as an economic system. Weber was also deeply concerned with the process of rationalization and the immense changes in human social organization resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism. Weber focused on aspects of rationalization and modernity. Along with his essay on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber created the Ideal Type Bureaucracy and examined the rational-legal allocation of authority in modern society, which he feared would lead to disenchantment. With Marx and Durkheim, Weber is considered a founding father of Sociology.

Emile Durkheim: Durkheim was a French sociologist/philosopher best known for his role in developing Sociology as a legitimate discipline in the study of society and social interaction. Durkheim was very concerned about the changes occurring due to the Industrial Revolution and rationalization of society; leaving behind the old ways of relying on custom and tradition and moving instead to the most practical and efficient methods of production. Durkheim was a strong proponent of Structural Functionalism, a theoretical perspective which examines society from the top down macro view. The Functionalist perspective, used in both Sociology and Anthropology, envisions Society as a an organism or body, made up of interrelated parts which function to maintain the whole in a state of balance or homeostasis. As such, Durkheim focused on how social order (statics) is created and maintained. Like Auguste Comte, Durkheim applied quantitative methods to the examination of social interaction and organization. Durkheim also coined the term “social facts”, the values, cultural norms, and social structures which transcend the individual and are capable of exercising social control ( please comment on which of the three theoretical perspectives used in Sociology: Conflict, Structural Functional,  and Symbolic Interaction makes the most sense to you and why.

George Herbert Mead: Much of Mead’s work focused on the development of the self and the objectivity of the world within the social realm; he was certain that the mind could only exist in relation to other minds and shared meanings. He is the father of Symbolic Interactionism, the theoretical perspective that uses a Micro level of analysis to understand social interaction. Mead noted that humans are unique in their capacity to take and use symbols in communication. Symbolic interaction implies a level of understanding based on shared meanings and sophisticated communication using symbols (language). Mead believed that we develop our sense of self through symbolic interaction with others: taking the role of the other. Initially, we take the role of one other person at a time; as we mature, we are able to see ourselves as a member of our group (society), which Mead called taking the role of the generalized other. Mead’s central insight for Sociology is understanding the context within which individuals understand their place in society and how this understanding or perspective influences personal behavior/action. As such, the Interactionist perspective directs us to examine the ways in which individuals perceive their society and interactions and how this influences their actions.

Please comment on which of the three theoretical perspectives used in Sociology: Conflict, Structural Functional,  and Symbolic Interaction makes the most sense to you and why.

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