sociological journey

A goal of this book is to take you on a sociological journey. But let’s begin with a basic question: What is sociology? First of all, sociology is a discipline of and for curious minds! Sociologists are deeply committed to answering the question, “Why?” Why are some people desperately poor and others fabulously wealthy? Why does racial segregation in housing and public education exist, and why does it persist half a century after civil rights laws were enacted? What accounts for the declining marriage rate among the working class and the poor in the United States? How can we explain the fact that low-income people are more likely to be overweight or obese than their middle-class counterparts? Why is the proportion of women entering and completing college rising while the proportion of men has fallen? Why, in spite of this, do men as a group still earn higher incomes than women as a group do? And how is it that social media are being simultaneously praised as instruments of transformational activism and criticized as causes of social alienation and civic disengagement? Take a moment now to think about some why questions you have about society and social life: As you look around you, hear the news, and interact with other people, what strikes you as fascinating—but perhaps difficult to understand? What are you curious about?

Sociology is an academic discipline that takes a scientific approach to answering the kinds of questions our curious minds imagine. When we say that sociology is scientific, we mean that it is a way of learning about the world that combines logically constructed theory and systematic observation. The goal of sociological study and research is to base answers to questions like those above on a careful examination of the roots of social phenomena such as poverty, segregation, and the wage gap. Sociologists do this with research methods—surveys, interviews, observations, and archival research, among others—which yield data that can be tested, challenged, and revised. In this text, you will see how sociology is done—and you will learn how to do sociology yourself.


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Unemployment is not equally distributed among U.S. demographic groups; those without a high school diploma or college degree have been hit hard by the loss of well-paying jobs in manufacturing since the late1970s. The cost of not getting an education increasingly includes not just higher rates of unemployment but also diminished earning power.

Concisely stated, sociology is the scientific study of human social relationships, groups, and societies. Unlike natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology, sociology is one of several social sciences engaged in the scientific study of human beings and the social worlds they consciously create and inhabit. The purpose of sociology is to understand and generate new knowledge about human behavior, social relations, and social institutions on a larger scale. The sociologist adheres to the principle of social embeddedness: the idea that economic, political, and other forms of human behavior are fundamentally shaped by social relations. Thus, sociologists pursue studies on a wide range of issues occurring within, between, and among families, communities, states, nations, and the world. Other social sciences, some of which you may be studying, include anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology.

Sociology is a field in which students have the opportunity to build a broad spectrum of important skills, ranging from gathering and analyzing information to identifying and solving problems to effective written and oral communication. Throughout this book, we draw your attention to important skills you can gain through the study of sociology and the kinds of skills employers in different occupational fields are seeking in potential employees. Sociology opens the door to both greater understanding of the social world and a range of career and graduate study possibilities.

Doing sociology requires that you build a foundation on which the knowledge you gain will rest. Some of the key foundations of sociology are the sociological imagination and critical thinking. We turn to these below.


As we go about our daily routines, we may forget that large-scale economic, political, and cultural forces shape even the most personal aspects of our lives. When parents divorce, for example, we tend to focus on individual explanations: A father was devoted more to his work than to his family; a mother may have felt trapped in an unhappy marriage but stuck with it for the sake of young children. Yet while personal issues are inevitable parts of a breakup, they can’t tell the whole story. When so many U.S. marriages end in divorce, forces larger than incompatible personalities or marital discord are at play. But what are those greater social forces, exactly?

As sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959/2000b) suggested half a century ago, uncovering the relationship between what he called personal troubles and public issues calls for a sociological imagination. The sociological imagination is the ability to grasp the relationship between individual lives and the larger social forces that shape them—that is, to see where biography and history intersect.

In a country like the United States, where individualism is part of the national heritage, people tend to believe that each person creates his or her life’s path and to largely disregard the social context in which this happens. When we cannot get a job, fail to earn enough to support a family, or experience marital separation, for example, we tend to see it as a personal trouble. We do not necessarily see it as a public issue. The sociological imagination, however, invites us to make the connection and to step away from the vantage point of a single life experience to see how powerful social forces—for instance, changes in social norms, ethnic or sex discrimination, large shifts in the economy, or the beginning or end of a military conflict—shape the obstacles and opportunities that contribute to the unfolding of our own life’s story. Among Mills’s (1959/2000b) most often cited examples is the following:

Mill’s Sociological Imagination CLICK TO SHOW
What is Sociology? CLICK TO SHOW





Marriage is one of the most private and personal forms of a relationship between two people. How can marriage—and divorce—be viewed through a sociological lens?

In the United States, the probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce within 5 years is 22%; after 10 years, it rises to 36%. Over the longer term, the rate of marital dissolution is closer to 50% (Goodwin, Mosher, & Chandra, 2010). Just half a century ago, most marriages were “’til death do us part.” What accounts for the change?

The sociological imagination shows us that marriage and divorce, seemingly the most private of matters, are as much public issues as personal ones. Consider the fact that when wages for working people lagged from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, growing numbers of women went to work to help their families make ends meet. Many middle-class women also went to college and pursued careers as a means of personal fulfillment. In fact, today more women than men finish undergraduate degrees. As a result of trends like these, women today enjoy a higher measure of economic independence than ever before. The combination of educational attainment and satisfying careers reinforces women’s independence, making it easier for those who are in unhappy marriages to leave them. Greater social acceptance of divorce has also removed much of the stigma once associated with failed marriages.

Social trends like those described have made it more likely that an unhappy couple will divorce rather than stay in a failing marriage. Thus, this private trouble is in many respects strongly influenced by public issues such as women’s rising economic independence and the dynamism of cultural norms related to marriage and divorce.


What other “private troubles” could sociologists identify as “public issues”?



When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals. (p. 9)

To apply the idea to contemporary economic conditions, we might look at recent college graduates. If many of the young people who graduated from college in the middle years of the 2000s found the jobs they wanted, they may have accounted for their success by citing personal effort or solid academic qualifications. These are, of course, very important, but the sociological imagination suggests that there are also larger social forces at work—a booming economy in this period contributed to a low rate of unemployment among the college educated. Consider, for instance, that while unemployment among young male college graduates was just under 7% in 2007 (just before an economic crisis hit in the United States), by 2010 it had peaked at more than 12%. For young female college graduates, it grew from less than 5% in 2007 to a peak of more than 9% in 2011. In 2013, it took a downward turn for both groups before rising slightly in 2014 (Figure 1.1). If your friends or relatives who graduated into the labor market during the economic crisis or even the first years following that period encountered difficulties securing solid first jobs, this suggests that personal effort and qualifications are only part of the explanation for the success of one graduating class and the frustration of another.

Sociological Imagination CLICK TO SHOW


AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

C. Wright Mills highlighted the use of the sociological imagination in studying social issues. When 16% of urban residents are poor by the government’s official measure, we cannot assume the sole cause is personal failings but must ask how large-scale social and economic forces are implicated in widespread socioeconomic disadvantage experienced in many communities.

Understanding this relationship is particularly critical for people in the United States, who often regard individuals as fully responsible for their own successes and failures. For instance, it is easy to fault the poor for their poverty, assuming they only need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We may neglect the powerful role of social forces like racial or ethnic discrimination, the outsourcing or automation of manufacturing jobs that used to employ those with less education, or the poor state of education in many economically distressed rural and urban areas. The sociological imagination implores us to seek the intersection between private troubles, such as a family’s poverty, and public issues, such as lack of access to good schooling or jobs, to develop a more informed and comprehensive understanding of the social world and social issues.

It is useful, when we talk about the sociological imagination, to bring in the concepts of agency and structure. Sociologists often talk about social actions—individual and group behavior—in these terms. Agency can be understood as the ability of individuals and groups to exercise free will and to make social changes on a small or large scale. Structure is a complex term but may be defined as patterned social arrangements that have effects on agency—structure may enable or constrain social action. For example, sociologists talk about the class structure, which is composed of social groups who hold varying amounts of resources such as money, political voice, and social status. They also identify normative structures—for instance, they might analyze patterns of social norms regarding “appropriate” gender behaviors in different cultural contexts.

Sociologists take a strong interest in the relationship between structure and agency. Consider that, on one hand, we all have the ability to make choices—so we have free will and we can opt for one path over another. On the other hand, the structures that surround us impose obstacles on us or afford us opportunities: We can make choices, but they may be enabled or constrained by structure. For instance, in the early 1900s, we would surely have found bright young women in the U.S. middle class who wanted to study to be doctors or lawyers. The social norms of the time, however, suggested that young women of this status were better off marrying and starting families. There were also legal constraints to women’s entry into higher education and the paid labor force. So while the women in our example might have individually argued and pushed to go to college and have professional careers, the dreams of this group were constrained by powerful normative and legal structures that identified women’s place as being in the home.


FIGURE 1.1 Unemployment Rates Among Young College Graduates in the United States, 1989–2014

SOURCE: Shierholz, Heidi, Natalie Sabadish, and Hilary Wething. (2012). “The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim.” Briefing paper 340. Figure G. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Reprinted with permission.


Consider the relationship between the class structure and individual agency as another way of thinking about social mobility in U.S. society. If, for instance, a young man today whose parents are well educated and whose family is economically prosperous wishes to go to college and become a doctor, his position in the class structure (or the position of his family) is enabling—that is, it makes it likely that he will be able to make this choice and to realize it. If, however, a young man from a poor family with no college background dreams of being an engineer and wants to study in college, his position in the class structure is likely to be constraining: Not only does his family have insufficient economic means to pay for college, but he may also be studying in an underfunded or underperforming high school that cannot provide the advanced courses he needs to prepare for college. His lack of college role models may also be a factor. This does not mean that inevitably the first young man will go to college and the second will not; it does, however, suggest that probabilities favor the first college aspirant over the second.

Put succinctly, in order to understand why some students go to college and others do not, sociologists would say that we cannot rely on individual choice or will (agency) alone—structures, whether subtly or quite obviously, exercise an influence on social behavior and outcomes. At the same time, we should not see structures as telling the whole story of social behavior, because history shows the power of human agency in making change even in the face of obstacles. Agency itself can transform structures (for example, think about the ways women’s historical activism has helped to transform limiting gender norms for women today). Sociologists weight both agency and structure and continue to seek to understand how the two interact and connect in affecting social behavior. For the most part, sociologists understand the relationship as reciprocal—that is, it goes in both directions, as structure affects agency and agency, in turn, can change the dimensions of a structure (Figure 1.2).


FIGURE 1.2 Structure and Agency


Applying the sociological perspective requires more than an ability to use the sociological imagination. It also demands critical thinking, the ability to evaluate claims about truth by using reason and evidence. In everyday life, we frequently accept things as “true” because they are familiar, feel right, or are consistent with our beliefs. Critical thinking takes a different approach—recognizing poor arguments, rejecting statements not supported by evidence, and questioning our assumptions. One of the founders of modern sociology, Max Weber, captured the spirit of critical thinking in two words when he said that a key task of sociological inquiry is to openly acknowledge “inconvenient facts.”

Critical thinking requires us to be open-minded, but it does not mean that we must accept all arguments as equally valid. Those supported by logic and backed by evidence are clearly preferable to those that are not. For instance, we may passionately agree with Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement “that government is best that governs least.” However, as sociologists we must also ask, “What evidence backs up the claim that less government is better under all circumstances?”

To think critically, it is useful to follow six simple rules (adapted from Wade & Tavris, 1997):

1.  Be willing to ask any question, no matter how difficult. The belief in small government is a cherished U.S. ideal. But sociologists who study the role of government in modern society must be willing to ask whether there are circumstances under which more—not less—government is better. Government’s role in areas such as homeland security, education, and health care has grown in the past several years—what are the positive and negative aspects of this growth?

2.  Think logically and be clear. Logic and clarity require us to define concepts in a way that allows us to study them. “Big government” is a vague concept that must be made more precise and measurable before it provides for useful research. Are we speaking of federal, state, or local government, or all of these? Is “big” measured by the cost of government services, the number of agencies or offices within the government, the number of people working for it, or something else? What did Jefferson mean by “best,” and what would that “best” government look like? Who would have the power to define this notion in any case?

Sociological Imagination Critique CLICK TO SHOW


REUTERS/Charles Platia

Major metropolitan areas like New York City, Paris, and London are heavily monitored by security cameras, especially since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Defining the appropriate balance between privacy and increased security is a contemporary challenge for governments and societies.

3.  Back up your arguments with evidence. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is a formidable person to quote, but quoting him does not prove that smaller government is better in the 21st century. To find evidence, we need to seek out studies of contemporary societies to see whether there is a relationship between a population’s well-being and the size of government or the breadth of services it provides. Because studies may offer contradictory evidence, we also need to be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments on different sides of the issue.

4.  Think about the assumptions and biases—including your own—that underlie all studies. You may insist that government has a key role to play in modern society. On the other hand, you may believe with equal passion that big government is one root of the problems in the United States. Critical thinking, however, requires that we recognize our beliefs and biases. Otherwise we might unconsciously seek out only evidence that supports our argument, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Passion has a role to play in research: It can motivate us to devote long hours to studying an issue. But passion should not play a role when we are weighing evidence and drawing conclusions.

5.  Avoid anecdotal evidence. It is tempting to draw a general conclusion from a single experience or anecdote, but that experience may illustrate the exception rather than the rule. For example, you may know someone who just yesterday received a letter mailed 2 years ago, but that is not evidence that the U.S. Postal Service is inefficient or does not fulfill its mandates. To determine whether this government agency is working well, you would have to study its entire mail delivery system and its record of work over time.

6.  Be willing to admit when you are wrong or uncertain about your results. Sometimes we expect to find support for an argument only to find that things are not so clear. For example, consider the position of a sociologist who advocates small government and learns that Japan and Singapore initially became economic powerhouses because their governments played leading roles in promoting growth of a sociologist who champions an expanded role for government but learns from the downturn of the 1990s in the Asian economies that some things can be better achieved by private enterprise. The answers we get are sometimes contradictory, and we learn from recognizing the error of our assumptions and beliefs as well.

Critical thinking also means becoming “critical consumers” of the information—news, blogs, surveys, texts, magazines, and scientific studies—that surrounds us. To be a good sociologist, it is important to look beyond the commonsense understanding of social life and develop a critical perspective. Being critical consumers of information entails paying attention to the sources of information we encounter and asking questions about how data were gathered.


Humans have been asking questions about the nature of social life as long as people have lived in societies. Aristotle and Plato wrote extensively about social relationships more than 2,000 years ago. Ibn Khaldun, an Arab scholar writing in the 14th century, advanced a number of sociological concepts we recognize today, including ideas about social conflict and cohesion. Yet modern sociological concepts and research methods did not emerge until the 19th century, after the Industrial Revolution, and then largely in those European nations undergoing dramatic societal changes like industrialization and urbanization.


We can trace sociology’s roots to four interrelated historical developments that gave birth to the modern world: the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, industrialization, and urbanization. Since these developments initially occurred in Europe, it is not surprising that sociological perspectives and ideas evolved there during the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, sociology had taken root in North America as well; somewhat later, it gained a foothold in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Sociology throughout the world initially bore the stamp of its European and North American origins, though recent decades have brought a greater diversity of perspectives to the discipline.

Sociology in Everyday Life CLICK TO SHOW



The harnessing of waterpower and the development of the steam engine helped give rise to the industrial era and to factories, immortalized by writers such as Charles Dickens, in which men, women, and even children toiled for hours in wretched working conditions. Poet William Blake called these workplaces the “dark satanic mills.”

THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION  The rise of modern natural and physical sciences, beginning in Europe in the 16th century, offered scholars a more advanced understanding of the physical world. The success of natural science contributed to the belief that science could also be fruitfully applied to human affairs, thereby enabling people to improve society or even perfect it. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) coined the term sociology to characterize what he believed would be a new “social physics”—that is, the scientific study of society.

THE ENLIGHTENMENT  Inspired in part by the success of the physical sciences, French philosophers in the 18th century such as Voltaire (1694–1778), Montesquieu (1689–1755), Diderot (1719–1784), and Rousseau (1712–1778) promised that humankind could attain lofty heights by applying scientific understanding to human affairs. Enlightenment ideals such as equality, liberty, and fundamental human rights found a home in the emerging social sciences, particularly sociology. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), considered by many to be the first modern sociologist, argued that sociological understanding would create a more egalitarian, peaceful society, in which individuals would be free to realize their full potential. Many of sociology’s founders shared the hope that a fairer and more just society would be achieved through the scientific understanding of society.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION  The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid- to late 18th century and soon spread to other countries, dramatically changed European societies. Traditional agricultural economies and the small-scale production of handicrafts in the home gave way to more efficient, profit-driven manufacturing based in factories. For instance, in 1801 in the English city of Leeds, there were about 20 factories manufacturing a variety of goods. By 1838, Leeds was home to 106 woolen mills alone, employing 10,000 people.

Small towns, including Leeds, were transformed into bustling cities, showcasing extremes of wealth and poverty as well as opportunity and struggle. In the face of rapid social change and growing inequality, sociologists sought to gain a social scientific perspective on what was happening and how it had come about. For example, German theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx (1818–1883), who had an important impact on later sociological theorizing about modern societies and economies, predicted that industrialization would make life increasingly intolerable for the masses. He believed that private property ownership by the wealthy allowed for the exploitation of working people and that its elimination, and revolution, would bring about a utopia of equality and genuine freedom for all.

URBANIZATION: THE POPULATION SHIFT TOWARD CITIES  Industrialization fostered the growth of cities, as people streamed from rural fields to urban factories in search of work. By the end of the 19th century, more than 20 million people lived in English cities. The population of London alone exceeded 7 million by 1910.

Early industrial cities were often fetid places, characterized by pollution and dirt, crime, and crowded housing tenements. In Europe, early sociologists lamented the passing of communal village life and its replacement by a savage and alienating urban existence. Durkheim, for example, worried about the potential breakdown of stabilizing beliefs and values in modern urban society. He argued that whereas traditional communities were held together by shared culture and norms, or accepted social behaviors and beliefs, modern industrial communities were threatened by anomie, or a state of normlessness that occurs when people lose sight of the shared rules and values that give order and meaning to their lives. In a state of anomie, individuals often feel confused and anxious because they do not know how to interact with each other and their environment. Durkheim raised the question of what would hold societies and communities together as they shifted from homogeneity and shared cultures and values to heterogeneous masses of diverse occupations, cultures, and norms.


Despite its largely European origins, early sociology sought to develop universal understandings that would apply to other peoples, times, and places. The discipline’s principal acknowledged founders—Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber—left their marks on sociology in different ways.


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As a founding figure in the social sciences, Auguste Comte is associated with positivism, or the belief that the study of society must be anchored in facts and the scientific method.

AUGUSTE COMTE  Auguste Comte (1798–1857), a French social theorist, is credited with founding modern sociology, naming it, and establishing it as the scientific study of social relationships. The twin pillars of Comte’s sociology were the study of social statics, the way society is held together, and the analysis of social dynamics, the laws that govern social change. Comte believed social science could be used effectively to manage the social change resulting from modern industrial society, but always with a strong respect for traditions and history.

Comte proclaimed that his new science of society was positivist. This meant that it was to be based on facts alone, which should be determined scientifically and allowed to speak for themselves. Comte argued that this purely factual approach was the proper method for sociology. He argued that all sciences—and all societies—go through three stages. The first stage is a theological one, in which key ways of understanding the world are framed in terms of superstition, imagination, and religion. The second stage is a metaphysical one, characterized by abstract speculation but framed by the basic belief that society is the product of natural rather than supernatural forces. The third and last stage is one in which knowledge is based on scientific reasoning “from the facts.” Comte saw himself as leading sociology toward its final positivist stage.

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Interestingly, Harriet Martineau translated into English the work of Auguste Comte, who dismissed women’s intellect, saying, “Biological philosophy teaches us that . . . radical differences, physical and moral, distinguish the sexes . . . biological analysis presents the female sex . . . as constitutionally in a state of perpetual infancy, in comparison with the other” (Kandal, 1988, p. 75).

Comte left a lasting mark on modern sociology. The scientific study of social life continues to be the goal of sociological research. His belief that social institutions have a strong impact on individual behavior—that is, that our actions are the products of personal choices and the surrounding social context—remains at the heart of sociology.

HARRIET MARTINEAU  Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was an English sociologist who, despite deafness and other physical challenges, became a prominent social and historical writer. Her greatest handicap was being a woman in male-dominated intellectual circles that failed to value female voices. Today she is frequently recognized as the first major woman sociologist.

Deeply influenced by Comte’s work, Martineau translated his six-volume treatise on politics into English. Her editing helped make Comte’s esoteric prose accessible to the English-speaking world, ensuring his standing as a leading figure in sociology. Martineau was also a distinguished scholar in her own right. She wrote dozens of books, more than a thousand newspaper columns, and 25 novels, including a three-volume study, Society in America (1837), based on observations of the United States that she made during a tour of the country.


Martineau, like Comte, sought to identify basic laws that govern society. She derived three of her four “laws” from other theorists. The fourth law, however, was her own and reflected her progressive (today we might say feminist) principles: For a society to evolve, it must ensure social justice for women and other oppressed groups. In her study of U.S. society, Martineau treated slavery and women’s experience of dependence in marriage as indicators of the limits of the moral development of the United States. In her view, the United States was unable to achieve its full social potential while it was morally stunted by persistent injustices like slavery and women’s inequality. The question of whether the provision of social justice is critical to societal development remains a relevant and compelling one today.

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Émile Durkheim pioneered some of sociology’s early research on such topics as social solidarity and suicide. His work continues to inform sociological study and understanding of social bonds and the consequences of their unraveling.

ÉMILE DURKHEIM  Auguste Comte founded and named the discipline of sociology, but French scholar Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) set the field on its present course. Durkheim established the early subject matter of sociology, laid out rules for conducting research, and developed an important theory of social change.

For Durkheim, sociology’s subject matter was social facts, qualities of groups that are external to individual members yet constrain their thinking and behavior. Durkheim argued that such social facts as religious beliefs and social duties are external—that is, they are part of the social context and are larger than our individual lives. They also have the power to shape our behavior. You may feel compelled to act in certain ways in different contexts—in the classroom, on a date, at a religious ceremony—even if you are not always aware of such social pressures.

Durkheim also argued that only social facts can explain other social facts. For example, there is no scientific evidence that men have an innate knack for business compared with women—but in 2012, women headed just 18 of the Fortune 500 companies. A Durkheimian approach would highlight women’s experience in society—where historically they have been socialized into more domestic values or restricted to certain noncommercial professions—and the fact that the social networks that foster mobility in the corporate world today are still primarily male to help explain why men dominate the upper ranks of the business world.

Durkheim’s principal concern was explaining the impact of modern society on social solidarity, the bonds that unite the members of a social group. In his view, in traditional society these bonds are based on similarity—people speak the same language, share the same customs and beliefs, and do similar work tasks. He called this mechanical solidarity. In modern industrial society, however, bonds based on similarity break down. Everyone has a different job to perform in the industrial division of labor, and modern societies are more likely to be socially diverse. However, workers in different occupational positions are dependent on one another for things like safety, education, and the provision of food and other goods essential to survival. The people filling these positions may not be alike in culture, beliefs, or language, but their dependence on one another contributes to social cohesion. Borrowing from biology, Durkheim called this organic solidarity, suggesting that modern society functions as an interdependent organic whole, like a human body.

Yet organic solidarity, Durkheim argued, is not as strong as mechanical solidarity. People no longer necessarily share the same norms and values. The consequence, according to Durkheim, is anomie. In this weakened condition, the social order disintegrates and pathological behavior increases (Durkheim, 1922/1973a).


© Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Karl Marx was a scholar and critic of early capitalism. His work has been thoroughly studied and critiqued around the world.

Consider whether the United States, a modern and diverse society, is held together primarily by organic solidarity, or whether the hallmark of mechanical solidarity, a collective conscience—the common beliefs and values that bind a society together—is in evidence. Do public demonstrations of patriotism on nationally significant anniversaries such as September 11 and July 4 indicate mechanical solidarity built on a collective sense of shared values, norms, and practices? Or do the deeply divisive politics of recent years suggest social bonds based more fully on practical interdependence?

KARL MARX  The extensive writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883) influenced the development of economics and political science as well as sociology. They also shaped world politics and inspired communist revolutions in Russia (later the Soviet Union), China, and Cuba, among others.

Marx’s central idea was deceptively simple: Virtually all societies throughout history have been divided into economic classes, with one class prospering at the expense of others. All human history, Marx believed, should be understood as the product of class conflict, competition between social classes over the distribution of wealth, power, and other valued resources in society (Marx & Engels, 1848/1998).

In the period of early industrialization in which he lived, Marx condemned capitalism’s exploitation of working people, the proletariat, by the ownership class, the bourgeoisie. As we will see in later chapters, Marx’s views on conflict and inequality are still influential in contemporary sociological thinking, even among sociologists who do not share his views on society.

Marx focused his attention on the emerging capitalist industrial society (Marx, 1867/1992a, 1885/1992b, 1894/1992c). Unlike his contemporaries in sociology, however, Marx saw capitalism as a transitional stage to a final period in human history in which economic classes and the unequal distribution of rewards and opportunities linked to class inequality would disappear and be replaced by a utopia of equality.

Although many of Marx’s predictions have not proven to be correct, his critical analysis of the dynamics of capitalism proved insightful. Among other things, Marx argued that capitalism would lead to accelerating technological change, the replacement of workers by machines, and the growth of monopoly capitalism.

Marx also presciently predicted that ownership of the means of production, the sites and technology that produce the goods (and sometimes services) we need and use, would come to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As a result, he believed, a growing wave of people would be thrust down into the proletariat, which owns only its own labor power. In modern society, large corporations have progressively swallowed up or pushed out smaller businesses; where small lumberyards and pharmacies used to serve many communities, corporate giants such as Home Depot, CVS, and Best Buy have moved in, putting locally owned establishments out of business.

In many U.S. towns, small business owners have joined forces to protest the construction of “big box” stores like Walmart (now the largest private employer in the United States), arguing that these enormous establishments, while they offer cheap goods, wreak havoc on local retailers and bring only the meager economic benefit of masses of entry-level, low-wage jobs. From a Marxist perspective, we might say that the local retailers, in resisting the incursion of the capitalist behemoth Walmart, are fighting their own “proletarianization.” Even physicians, many of whom used to own their own means of production in the form of private medical practices, have increasingly been driven by economic necessity into working for large health maintenance organizations (HMOs), where they are salaried employees.


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