Discovering Sociology Discussion 2

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Discovering Sociology
Topic Folder Discovering Sociology 7 unread of 7 messages View Full Description Choose one of the following questions:1. Social life can be interpreted from one of the three major theoretical frameworks or perspectives. Describe the major points of each framework/perspective and discuss which perspective you think provides a more accurate or complete view of the social world and why.2.  What does it mean to have a “sociological imagination?”  How does this relate to what Mills refers to as private troubles and public issues?  Share an example of an issue that might be considered by sociologists to be both a private trouble as well as a public issue. [Hint: How do media and/or culture link private troubles and public issues, OR make private troubles become public issues? Look to chapter 3 for support]The Week 1 Forum meets the following course objectives: Apply a sociological perspective to the social world Analyze contemporary social issues using the sociological imagination and use sociological theories and concepts to analyze everyday life. Describe culture and socialization.  Instructions for all Forums: Each week, learners will post one initial post per week.  This post must demonstrate comprehension of the course materials, the ability to apply that knowledge in the real world.  Learners will engage with the instructor and peers throughout the learning week.  To motivate engaged discussion, posts are expected to be on time with regular interaction throughout the week.  All posts should demonstrate college level writing skills. To promote vibrant discussion as we would in a face to face classroom, formatted citations and references are not required.  Quotes should not be used at all, or used sparingly.  If you quote a source quotation marks should be used and an APA formatted citation and reference provided.   Points Exemplary (100%)  Accomplished (85%)  Developing (75%) Beginning (65%) Not Participating (0%) Comprehension of course materials 4Initial post demonstrates rich comprehension of course materials.  Detailed use of terminology or examples learned in class.  If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates clear comprehension of course materials.  Use of terminology or examples learned in class. If post includes opinion, it is supported with evaluated evidence. Initial post demonstrates some comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class may be incorrect or incomplete.  Post may include some opinion without evaluated evidence. Initial post does not demonstrate comprehension of course materials.  Specific terminology or examples learned in class are not included.  Post is opinion based without evaluated evidence. No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s comprehension. Real world application of knowledge 2Initial post demonstrates that the learner can creatively and uniquely apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post demonstrates that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class to a  personal or professional experience from their life or to a current event. Initial post does not clearly demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. Unclear link between the concepts and examples learned in class to personal or professional experience or to a current event.Initial post does not demonstrate that the learner can apply the concepts and examples learned in class. No link to a personal or professional experience or to a current event is made in the post.No posting, post is off topic, post does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of application. Post may be plagiarized, or use a high percentage of quotes that prevent demonstration of student’s ability to apply comprehension.Active Forum Engagement and Presence 3Learner posts 4+ different days in the learning week. Replies to at least one response from a classmate or instructor on the learner’s initial post to demonstrate the learner is reading and considering classmate responses to their ideas.  Posts two or more 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 2+ of the following:offering advice or strategyposing a question,providing an alternative point-of-view,acknowledging similar experiencessharing a resourceLearner posts 3 different days in the learning week. Posts two 100+ word responses to initial posts of classmates.  Posts motivate group discussion and contribute to the learning community by doing  2+ of the following: offering advice or strategyposing a question,providing an alternative point-of-view,acknowledging similar experiencessharing a resourceLearner posts 2 different days in the learning week.  Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post motivates group discussion and contributes to the learning community by doing 1 of the following: offering advice or strategyposing a question,providing an alternative point-of-view,acknowledging similar experiencessharing a resourceLearner posts 1 day in the learning week.  Posts one 100+ word response to initial post of classmate.  Post does not clearly motivate group discussion or clearly contribute to the learning community. Responses do not:offering advice or strategyposing a question,providing an alternative point-of-view,acknowledging similar experiencessharing a resourceLearner posts 1 day in the learning week, or posts are not made during the learning week and therefore do not contribute to or enrich the weekly conversation. No peer responses are made.  One or more peer responses of low quality (“good job, I agree”) may be made.Writing skills 1Post is 250+ words.  All posts reflect widely accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is also polite and respectful of different points of view.Post is 250+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters, cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue is polite and respectful of different points of view.Post is 175+ words.  The majority of posts reflect widely-accepted academic writing protocols like using capital letters (“I am” not “i am”), cohesive sentences, and no texting language. Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view.Post is 150+ words.  The majority of the forum communication ignores widely-accepted academic writing protocols like capital letters, cohesive sentences, and texting; Dialogue may not be respectful of different points of view.No posting, post is off topic and does not meet minimum criteria for demonstrating beginning level of comprehension.


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Discovering Sociology

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).


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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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Max Weber made significant contributions to the understanding of how capitalism developed in Western countries and its relationship to religious beliefs. His work on formal rationality and bureaucracy continues to influence sociologists’ study of modern society. 

Unlike Comte and Durkheim, Marx thought social change would be revolutionary, not evolutionary, and would be the product of oppressed workers rising up against a capitalist system that exploits the many to benefit the few.

MAX WEBER  Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, left a substantial academic legacy. Among his contributions are an analysis of how Protestantism fostered the rise of capitalism in Europe (Weber, 1904–1905/2002) and insights into the emergence of modern bureaucracy (Weber, 1919/1946). Weber, like other founders of sociology, took up various political causes, condemning injustice wherever he found it. Although pessimistic about capitalism, he did not believe, as did Marx, that some alternative utopian form of society would arise. Nor did he see sociologists enjoying privileged insights into the social world that would qualify them to wisely counsel rulers and industrialists, as Comte (and, to some extent, Durkheim) had envisioned.

Weber believed that an adequate explanation of the social world begins with the individual and takes into account the meaning of what people say and do. While he argued that research should be scientific and value-free, Weber also believed that to explain what people do, we must use a method he termed Verstehen, the German word for interpretive understanding. This methodology, rarely used by sociologists today, sought to explain social relationships by having the sociologist/observer imagine how the subjects being studied might have perceived and interpreted the situation. Studying social life, Weber felt, is not like studying plants or chemical reactions, because human beings act on the basis of meanings and motives.

Weber’s theories of social and economic organization have also been highly influential (Weber, 1921/2012). Weber argued that the modern Western world showed an ever-increasing reliance on logic, efficiency, rules, and reason. According to him, modern societies are characterized by the development and growing influence of formal rationality, a context in which people’s pursuit of goals is increasingly shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures. One of Weber’s most widely known illustrations of formal rationality comes from his study of bureaucracies, formal organizations characterized by written rules, hierarchical authority, and paid staff, intended to promote organizational efficiency. Bureaucracies, for Weber, epitomized formally rational systems: On one hand, they offer clear, knowable rules and regulations for the efficient pursuit of particular ends, like obtaining a passport or getting financial aid for higher education. On the other hand, he feared, the bureaucratization of modern society would also progressively strip people of their humanity and creativity and result in an iron cage of rationalized structures with irrational consequences.

Weber’s ideas about bureaucracy were remarkably prescient in their characterization of our bureaucratic (and formally rationalized) modern world. Today we are also confronted regularly with both the incredible efficiency and the baffling irrationality of modern bureaucratic structures. Within moments of entering into an efficiently concluded contract with a wireless phone service provider, we can become consumers of a cornucopia of technological opportunities, with the ability to chat on the phone or receive text messages from virtually anywhere, post photographs or videos online, and pass the time playing downloaded games. Should we later be confused by a bill and need to speak to a company representative, however, we may be shuttled through endless repetitions of an automated response system that never seems to offer us the option of speaking with another human being. Today, Weber’s presciently predicted irrationality of rationality is alive and well.

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W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, wrote 20 books and more than 100 scholarly articles on race and race relations. Today many of his works are classics in the study of African American lives and race relations in the United States. 


Sociology was born in Europe, but it took firm root in U.S. soil, where it was heavily influenced by turn-of-the-century industrialization and urbanization, as well as by racial strife and discrimination. Strikes by organized labor, corruption in government, an explosion of European immigration, racial segregation, and the growth of city slums all helped mold early sociological thought in the United States. By the late 1800s, a number of universities in the United States were offering sociology courses. The first faculties of sociology were established at the University of Kansas (1889), the University of Chicago (1892), and Atlanta University (1897).

ROBERT EZRA PARK  The sociology department at the University of Chicago, which gave us what is often known as the “Chicago School” of sociology, dominated the new discipline in the United States at the start of the 20th century. Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park (1864–1944) pioneered the study of urban sociology and race relations. Once a muckraking journalist, Park was an equally colorful academic, reportedly coming to class in disheveled clothes and with shaving soap still in his ears. But his students were devoted to him, and his work was widely recognized. His 1921 textbook An Introduction to the Science of Sociology, coauthored with his Chicago colleague Ernest Burgess, helped shape the discipline. The Chicago School studied a broad spectrum of social phenomena, from hoboes and flophouses (inexpensive dormitory-style housing) to movie houses, dance halls, and slums, and from youth gangs and mobs to residents of Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast.

Park was a champion of racial integration, having once served as personal secretary to the African American educator Booker T. Washington. Yet racial discrimination was evident in the treatment of Black sociologists, including W. E. B. Du Bois, a contemporary of many of the sociologists working in the Chicago School.

W. E. B. DU BOIS  A prominent Black sociologist and civil rights leader at the African American Atlanta University, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) developed ideas that were considered too radical to find broad acceptance in the sociological community. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregated “separate but equal” facilities for Blacks and Whites were constitutional and when lynching of Black Americans had reached an all-time high, Du Bois condemned the deep-seated racism of White society. Today, his writings on race relations and the lives of U.S. Blacks are classics in the field.

Du Bois sought to show that racism was widespread in U.S. society. He was also critical of Blacks who had “made it” and then turned their backs on those who had not. One of his most enduring ideas is that in U.S. society, African Americans are never able to escape a fundamental awareness of race. They experience a double consciousness, as he called it—an awareness of themselves both as Americans and as Blacks, never free of racial stigma. He wrote, “The Negro is sort of a seventh son… gifted with second-sight… this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois, 1903/2008, p. 12). Today as in Du Bois’s time, physical traits such as skin color may shape people’s perceptions and interactions in significant and complex ways.


After World War II, sociology began to apply sophisticated quantitative models to the study of social processes. There was also a growing interest in the grand theories of the European founders. At Columbia University, Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) undertook wide-ranging studies that helped further establish sociology as a scientific discipline. Merton is best known for his theory of deviance (Merton, 1938), his work on the sociology of science (Merton, 1996), and his iteration of the distinction between manifest and latent functions (Merton, 1968). He emphasized the development of theories in what he called the “middle range”—midway between the grand theories of Weber, Marx, and Durkheim and quantitative studies of specific social problems.

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The “sociological imagination” involves viewing seemingly personal issues through a sociological lens. C. Wright Mills is best known for coining this catchy and popular term. 

Another Columbia University sociologist, C. Wright Mills (1916–1962), renewed interest in Max Weber by translating many of his works into English and applying his ideas to the contemporary United States. But Mills, who also drew on Marx, identified himself as a “plain Marxist.” His concept of the sociological imagination can be traced in part to Marx’s famous statement that “man makes history, but not under circumstances of his own choosing,” meaning that while we are agents of free will, the social context has a profound impact on the obstacles or opportunities in our lives.

Mills synthesized Weberian and Marxian traditions, applying sociological thinking to the most pressing problems of the day, particularly inequality. He advocated an activist sociology with a sense of social responsibility. Like many sociologists, he was willing to turn a critical eye on “common knowledge,” including the belief that the United States is a democracy that represents the interests of all the people. In a provocative study, he examined the workings of the “power elite,” a small group of wealthy businessmen, military leaders, and politicians who Mills believed ran the country largely in their own interests (Mills, 1956/2000a).


Why did so few women social scientists find a place among sociology’s founders? After all, the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions elevated such lofty ideals as freedom, liberty, and equality. Yet long after these historical events, women and minorities were still excluded from public life in Europe and North America. Democracy—which gives people the right to participate in their governance—was firmly established as a principle for nearly a century and a half in the United States before women achieved the right to vote in 1920. In France, it took even longer—until 1945.

Sociology as a discipline emerged during the first modern flourishing of feminism in the 19th century. Yet women and people of non-European heritage were systematically excluded from influential positions in the European universities where sociology and other modern social sciences originated. When women did pursue lives as scholars, the men who dominated the social sciences largely ignored their writings. Feminist scholar Julie Daubié won a prize from the Lyon Academy for her essay “Poor Women in the Nineteenth Century,” yet France’s public education minister denied her a diploma on the grounds that he would be “forever holding up his ministry to ridicule” (Kandal, 1988, pp. 57–58). Between 1840 and 1960, almost no women held senior academic positions in the sociology departments of any European or U.S. universities, with the exception of exclusively women’s colleges.

A number of woman scholars managed to overcome the obstacles to make significant contributions to sociological inquiry. For example, in 1792 the British scholar Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that scientific progress could not occur unless women were allowed to become men’s equals by means of universal education. In France in 1843, Flora Tristan called for equal rights for women workers, “the last remaining slaves in France.” Also in France, Aline Valette published Socialism and Sexualism in 1893, nearly three-quarters of a century before the term sexism found its way into spoken English (Kandal, 1988).

One of sociology’s most prominent early figures, Jane Addams (1860–1935), never won a full-time position at the University of Chicago in spite of the school’s “progressive” leanings. The University of Chicago even denied her an honorary degree—though she wrote 11 books and hundreds of articles and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her dedication to social reform.

Addams is best known as the founder of Hull House, a settlement house for the poor, sick, and aged that became a center for political activists and social reformers. Less well known is the fact that under Addams’s guidance, the residents of Hull House engaged in important research on social problems in Chicago. Hull House Maps and Papers, published in 1895, pioneered the study of Chicago neighborhoods, helping to shape the research direction of the Chicago School of sociology. Following Addams’s lead, Chicago sociologists mapped the city’s neighborhoods, studied their residents, and helped create the field of community studies.


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Underappreciated during her time, Jane Addams was a prominent scholar and early contributor to sociology. She is also known for her political activism and commitment to social reform. 

As sociologists like Harriet Martineau, Jane Addams, Julie Daubié, and others experienced, early female sociologists were not accorded the same status as their male counterparts. Only recently have many of their writings been “rediscovered” and their contributions acknowledged in sociology.


Often, multiple sociologists look at the same events, phenomena, or institutions and draw different conclusions. How can this be? One reason is that they may approach their analyses from different theoretical perspectives. In this section, we explore the key theoretical paradigms in sociology and look at how they are used as tools for the analysis of society.

Sociological theories are logical, rigorous frameworks for the interpretation of social life that make particular assumptions and ask particular questions about the social world. The word theory is rooted in the Greek word theoria, which means “a viewing.” An apt metaphor for a theory is a pair of glasses. You can view a social phenomenon such as socioeconomic inequality or poverty, deviance, or consumer culture, or an institution like capitalism or the family, using different theories as lenses.

As you will see in the next section, in the discipline of sociology there are several major categories of theories that seek to examine and explain social phenomena and institutions. Imagine the various sociological theories as different pairs of glasses, each with colored lenses that change the way you see an image: You may look at the same institution or phenomenon as you put on each pair, but it will appear different depending on the glasses you are wearing. Keep in mind that sociological theories are not “truths” about the social world. They are logical, rigorous analytical tools that we can use to inquire about, interpret, and make educated predictions about the world around us. From the vantage point of any sociological theory, some aspects of a phenomenon or an institution are illuminated while others are obscured. In the end, theories are more or less useful depending on how well empirical data—that is, knowledge gathered by researchers through scientific methods—support their analytical conclusions. Below, we outline the basic theoretical perspectives that we will be using in this text.

The three dominant theoretical perspectives in sociology are structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. We outline their basic characteristics below and will revisit them again throughout the book. Symbolic interactionism shares with the functionalist and social conflict paradigms an interest in interpreting and understanding social life. However, the first two are macro-level paradigms, concerned with large-scale patterns and institutions. Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level paradigm—that is, it is concerned with small-group social relations and interactions.

Structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism form the basic foundation of contemporary sociological theorizing (Table 1.1). Throughout this book we will introduce variations on these theories, as well as new and evolving theoretical ideas in sociology.


Structural functionalism (or functionalism—the term we use in this book) seeks to explain social organization and change in terms of the roles performed by different social structures, phenomena, and institutions. Functionalism characterizes society as made up of many interdependent parts—an analogy often cited is the human body. Each part serves a different function, but all parts work together to ensure the equilibrium and health of the entity as a whole. Society too is composed of a spectrum of different parts with a variety of different functions, such as the government, the family, religious and educational institutions, and the media. According to the theory, together these parts contribute to the smooth functioning and equilibrium of society.


TABLE 1.1   The Three Principal Sociological Paradigms

The key question posed by the functionalist perspective is, “What function does a particular institution, phenomenon, or social group serve for the maintenance of society?” That is, what contribution does a given institution, phenomenon, or social group make to the equilibrium, stability, and functioning of the whole? Note the underlying assumption of functionalism: Any existing institution or phenomenon does serve a function; if it served no function, it would evolve out of existence. Consequently, the central task of the functionalist sociologist is to discover what function an institution or a phenomenon—for instance, the traditional family, capitalism, social stratification, or deviance—serves in the maintenance of the social order.

Émile Durkheim is credited with developing the early foundations of functionalism. Among other ideas, Durkheim observed that all known societies have some degree of deviant behavior, such as crime. The notion that deviance is functional for societies may seem counterintuitive: Ordinarily, we do not think of deviance as beneficial or necessary to society. Durkheim, however, reasoned that since deviance is universal, it must serve a social function—if it did not serve a function, it would cease to exist. Durkheim concluded that one function of deviance—specifically, of society’s labeling of some acts as deviant—is to remind members of society what is “normal” or “moral”; when a society punishes deviant behavior, it reaffirms people’s beliefs in what is right and good.

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) expanded functionalist analysis by looking at whole social systems such as government, the economy, and the family and how they contribute to the functioning of the whole social system (Parsons, 1964/2007, 1967). For example, he wrote that traditional sex roles for men and women contribute to stability on both the micro familial level and the macro societal level. Parsons argued that traditional socialization produces instrumental or rational and work-oriented males, and expressive or sensitive, nurturing, and emotional females. Instrumental males, he reasoned, are well suited for the competitive world of work, while their expressive female counterparts are appropriately prepared to care for the family. According to Parsons, these roles are complementary and positively functional, leading men and women to inhabit different spheres of the social world. Complementary rather than competing roles contribute to solidarity in a marriage by reducing competition between husband and wife. Critics have rejected this idea as a justification of inequality.

As this example suggests, functionalism is conservative in that it tends to accept rather than question the status quo; it holds that any given institution or phenomenon exists because it is functional for society, rather than asking whether it might benefit one group to the detriment of others, as critics say Parsons’s position on gender roles does. One of functionalism’s long-standing weaknesses is a failure to recognize inequalities in the distribution of power and resources and how those affect social relationships.

Robert Merton attempted to refine the functionalist paradigm by demonstrating that not all social structures work to maintain or strengthen the social organism, as Durkheim and other early functionalists seemed to suggest. According to Merton, a social institution or phenomenon can have both positive functions and problematic dysfunctions. Merton broadened the functionalist idea by suggesting that manifest functions are the obvious and intended functions of a given phenomenon or institution. Latent functions, by contrast, are functions that are not recognized or expected. A manifest function of war, for instance, is usually to vanquish an enemy, perhaps to defend a territory or to claim it. Latent functions of war—those that are not the overt purpose but may still have powerful effects—may include increased patriotism in countries engaged in the war, a rise in the profits of companies manufacturing military equipment or contracting workers to the military, and changes in national budgetary priorities.


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The manifest function of a vehicle is to transport a person efficiently from point A to point B. One latent function is to say something about the status of the driver. 


In contrast to functionalism, the social conflict paradigm (which we refer to in this book as conflict theory) seeks to explain social organization and change in terms of the conflict built into social relationships. Conflict theory is rooted in the ideas about class and power put forth by Karl Marx. While Durkheim’s structural functionalist lens asked how different parts of society contribute to stability, Marx asked about the roots of conflict. Conflict theorists pose the questions “Who benefits from the way social institutions and relationships are structured?” and “Who loses?” The social conflict paradigm focuses on what divides people rather than on what unites them. It presumes that group interests (such as social class interests) drive relationships, and that various groups in society (for instance, social classes or genders or ethnic or racial groups) will act in their own interests. Conflict theory thus assumes not that interests are shared but rather that they may be irreconcilable and, importantly, that only some groups have the power and resources to realize their interests. Because of this, conflict is—sooner or later—inevitable.

From Marx’s perspective, the bourgeoisie benefits directly from the capitalist social order. If, as Marx suggests, the capitalist class has an interest in maximizing productivity and profit and minimizing costs (like the cost of labor in the form of workers’ wages), and the working class has an interest in earning more and working less, then the interests of the two classes are difficult to reconcile. The more powerful group in society generally has the upper hand in furthering its interests.

After Marx, the body of conflict theory expanded tremendously. In the 20th century and today, theorists have extended the reach of the perspective to consider, for instance, how control of culture and the rise of technology (rather than just control of the means of production) underpins class domination (Adorno, 1975; Horkheimer, 1947), as well as how the expanded middle class can be accommodated in a Marxist perspective (Wright, 1998). Some of feminist theory’s key ideas also reflect a conflict-oriented perspective, though the focus shifts from social class to gender power and conflict (Connell, 2005), as well as ways in which race is implicated in relations of power (Collins, 1990).




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Why are children of poor parents more likely to be poor as adults? This is a question of fundamental interest to sociologists. 

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite and the widespread struggle of millions to make do with scant resources are critical issues on both the domestic and global levels. One common explanation of the wealth disparity in the United States is that it results from individual differences in talent and ambition. While such factors play a role, the fact that more than 15% of the population lives below the poverty line, including disproportionate numbers of Blacks, Latinos, and women (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2012), should lead our sociological imaginations to recognize that social and economic forces also underlie inequality.

Discrimination can place entire groups of people at an economic disadvantage. Women as a group continue to earn less than men as a group—as do Blacks and Latinos relative to White Americans. Importantly as well, educational opportunity is not equally distributed, because in most U.S. states schools are still funded primarily by local property taxes; consequently, high-value areas have more funds than low-value areas to spend on teachers, textbooks, and technology. Without a strong educational foundation that prepares them for a competitive economy, already poor children are likely to remain poor as adults.

Economic changes have also spurred the growth of inequality. Automation and the movement abroad of factory work have significantly reduced employment opportunities for less educated workers. Service jobs, including restaurant and retail work, have expanded as the manufacturing sector has contracted, but these positions are far less likely to pay a living wage or give workers a lift into the middle class. Education is thus more critical than ever, but poor children are the least likely to get the solid skills they need to succeed.


 In his inaugural address of 2013, President Obama stated that one of his goals in his second term as president was to see that a young girl born into poverty would know that she had every opportunity to realize her hopes. How are such opportunities created and expanded? What do you think?

Recall Durkheim’s functionalist analysis of crime and deviance. According to this perspective, society defines crime to reaffirm people’s beliefs about what is right and dissuade them from deviating. A conflict theorist might argue that dominant groups in society define the behaviors labeled criminal or deviant because they have the power to do so. For example, street crimes such as mugging someone to get his wallet and carjacking are clearly defined and punished as criminal behavior. They are also amply represented in reality television programs, movies, and other cultural products as images of criminal deviance. On the other hand, corporate or white-collar crime, which may cause the loss of money or even of lives, is less likely to be clearly defined, represented, and punished as criminal. From a conflict perspective, white-collar crime is more likely to be committed by members of the upper class (for instance, business or political leaders or financiers) and is less likely to be punished harshly than street crime, which is associated with the lower-income classes, though white-collar crime may have even greater economic and health consequences. A social conflict theorist would draw our attention to the fact that the decision makers who pass our laws are mostly members of the upper class and govern in the interests of capitalism and their own socioeconomic peers.


A key weakness of the social conflict paradigm is that it overlooks the forces of stability, equilibrium, and consensus in society. The assumption that groups have conflicting, even irreconcilable, interests and that those interests are realized by those with power at the expense of those with less power fails to account for forces of cohesion and stability in societies.


Symbolic interactionism argues that both the individual self and society as a whole are the products of social interactions based on language and other symbols. The term symbolic interactionism was coined by U.S. sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) in 1937, but the approach originated in the lectures of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), a University of Chicago philosopher allied with the Chicago School of sociology. The symbolic interactionist paradigm argues that people acquire their sense of who they are only through interaction with others. They do this by means of symbols, representations of things that are not immediately present to our senses. Symbols include such things as words, gestures, emoticons, and tattoos, among others.

Recall our earlier discussions of the theoretical interpretations of deviance and crime. A symbolic interactionist might focus on the ways in which people label one another as deviant (a symbolic act that uses language), the factors that make such a label stick, and the meanings underlying such a label. If you are accused of committing a crime you did not commit, how will the label of “criminal” affect the way others see you? How will it affect the way you see yourself, and will you begin to act differently as a result? Can being labeled “deviant” be a self-fulfilling prophecy? For the symbolic interactionist, sociological inquiry is the study of how people interact and how they create and interpret symbols in the social world.

While symbolic interactionist perspectives draw our attention to important micro-level processes in society, they may miss the larger structural context of those processes, such as discovering who has the power to make laws defining what or who is deviant. For this reason, many sociologists seek to utilize both macro- and micro-level perspectives when analyzing social phenomena such as deviance.

The three paradigms described above lead to diverse images of society, research questions, and conclusions about the patterns and nature of social life. Each “pair of glasses” can provide a different perspective on the social world. Throughout this text, the three major theoretical paradigms—and some new ones we will encounter in later chapters—will help us understand key issues and themes of sociology.


We began this chapter with a list of why questions with which sociologists are concerned—and about which any one of us might be curious. Behind these questions, we find several major themes, which are also some of the main themes in this book. Three important themes for sociology—and for us—are (1) power and inequality and the ways in which the unequal distribution of social, economic, and political power and resources shapes opportunities, obstacles, and relationships; (2) the societal changes occurring as a result of globalization and the rising social diversity of modern societies; and (3) the powerful impact of technological change on modern lives, institutions, and states.


As we consider broad social topics such as gender, race, social class, and sexual orientation and their effects on social relationships and resources, we will be asking who has power—the ability to mobilize resources and achieve goals despite the resistance of others—and who does not. We will also ask about variables that influence the uneven distribution of power, and how some groups use power to create advantages for themselves (and disadvantages for others) and how disadvantaged groups mobilize to challenge the powerful.

Power is often distributed unequally and can be used by those who possess it to marginalize other social groups. Inequality refers to differences in wealth, power, opportunity, and other valued resources. The existence of inequality not only raises moral and ethical questions about fairness; it can tear at the very fabric of societies, fostering social alienation and instability. It may also have negative effects on local and national economies. Notably, economic inequality is increasing both within and between many countries around the globe, a fact that makes understanding the roots and consequences of this phenomenon—that is, asking the why questions—ever more important.



Globalization is the process by which people all over the planet become increasingly interconnected economically, politically, culturally, and environmentally. Globalization is not new. It began nearly 200,000 years ago when humans first spread from their African cradle into Europe and Asia. For thousands of years, humans have traveled, traded goods, and exchanged ideas over much of the globe, using seaways or land routes such as the famed Silk Road, a stretch of land that links China and Europe. But the rate of globalization took a giant leap forward with the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the growth of global trade. It made another dramatic jump with the advent of the information age, drawing together individuals, cultures, and countries into a common global web of information exchange. In this book, we consider the variable manifestations, functions, and consequences of globalization in areas like the economy, culture, and the environment.

Growing contacts between people and cultures have made us increasingly aware of social diversity as a feature of modern societies. Social diversity is the social and cultural mixture of different groups in society and the societal recognition of difference as significant. The spread of culture through the globalization of media and the rise of migration has created a world in which virtually no place is isolated. As a result, many nations today, including the United States, are characterized by a high degree of social diversity.

Social diversity brings a unique set of sociological challenges. People everywhere have a tendency toward ethnocentrism, a worldview whereby they judge other cultures by the standards of their own culture and regard their own way of life as “normal” and better than others. From a sociological perspective, no group can be said to be more human than any other. Yet history abounds with examples of people lashing out at others whose religions, languages, customs, races, or sexual orientations differed from their own.


Technology is the practical application of knowledge to transform natural resources for human use. The first human technology was probably the use of rocks and other blunt instruments as weapons, enabling humans to hunt large animals for food. Agriculture—planting crops such as rice or corn in hopes of reaping a yearly harvest—represents another technological advance, one superior to simple foraging in the wild for nuts and berries. The use of modern machinery, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution, represents still another technological leap, multiplying the productivity of human efforts.

Today we are in the midst of another revolutionary period of technological change: the information revolution. Thanks to the microchip, the Internet, and mobile technology, an increasing number of people around the world now have instant access to a mass of information that was unimaginable just 10 or 20 years ago. The information revolution is creating postindustrial economies based far more heavily on the production of knowledge than on the production of goods, as well as new ways of communicating that have the potential to draw people around the world together—or tear them apart.


A sociological perspective highlights the many ways that we both influence and are powerfully influenced by the social world around us: Society shapes us, and we, in turn, shape society. A sociological perspective also helps us to see the social world through a variety of different lenses (recall the glasses metaphor we used when talking about theory): Sociologists might explain class differences and why they persist, for instance, in many different ways. Each one may illuminate particular aspects of the phenomenon, enabling us to assemble a fuller, more rigorous perspective on social life. In this sense, “the” sociological perspective is really a collection of sociological perspectives we can use as analytical tools.

Why are the issues and questions posed by sociology incredibly compelling for all of us to understand? One reason is that, as we will see throughout this book, many of the social issues sociologists study—marriage, fertility, poverty, unemployment, consumption, discrimination, and many others—are related to one another in ways we may not immediately see. The sociological perspective helps us to make connections between diverse social phenomena. When we understand these connections, we are better able to address social problems and to make (or vote for) policy choices that benefit society.

For example, a phenomenon like the decline of marriage among the working class, which we mentioned at the start of the chapter, is related to growing globalization, declining employment in the manufacturing sector, and the persistently high rate of poverty among single mothers. Consider these social phenomena as pieces of a puzzle. One of the defining characteristics of economic globalization is the movement of manufacturing industries away from the United States to lower-wage countries. As a result, jobs in U.S. manufacturing, an economic sector dominated by men, have been declining since the 1970s. The decreasing number of less educated men able to earn a good enough wage to support a family in turn is related to a decline in marriage among the working class. While marriage rates fall, however, many women still desire to have families, so the proportion of nonmarital births rises. Single mothers with children are among the demographic groups in the United States most likely to be poor, and their poverty rate has remained relatively high even in periods of economic prosperity.




AP Photo/Richard Vogel

The expensive sneakers that many Americans enjoy wearing in and outside the gym are often made by poorly compensated female labor abroad. Do labor conditions matter to U.S. consumers? Should they matter? 

Try a simple experiment. Walk through your dorm room, apartment, or house and make a list of the places of manufacture of some of the products you find. Be sure to examine electronic equipment such as your television, laptop, or smartphone. Go through your closets and drawers, checking the labels on your clothing and footwear. What about your bicycle or your car? If you are a good detective, you will find that people who live outside the United States made many of the necessities of your everyday life. Even your U.S.-manufactured car is likely to have parts that have passed through the hands of workers abroad.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, fully 90% of footwear sold in the United States is manufactured elsewhere (Manning, 2009). So much of our apparel is made abroad that some student groups have campaigned to ensure that the college apparel marketed by their schools is not made in sweatshops. United Students Against Sweatshops ( now has chapters across the United States.

While global production based on the use of low-wage labor around the world has reduced the prices of many things we consume, it has also contributed to declining wages and lost jobs for manufacturing workers in the United States, as well as the employment of millions of people around the world in factories that are poorly regulated and operate largely outside the view of the consumers who buy their products. On one hand, these new industrial workers potentially benefit from expanded job opportunities. On the other hand, the world’s workers, many of whom are women, are vulnerable to exploitation and their wages are often very low, their hours long, and their work sites unpleasant or even hazardous. The conditions under which some workers toil today recall the 19th-century English factories that inspired Karl Marx to advance his powerful critique of capitalism’s darker side.


 Many questions remain for sociological investigation: Who benefits and who loses as a result of the explosive growth in global production? Will globalization bring a better world to all or to only a select few? What is our role as consumers in the global chain of production, and how do our consumption choices affect industries and economies at home and abroad?

While the relationships between sociological factors are complex and sometimes indirect, when sociology helps us fit them together, we gain a better picture of the issues confronting all of us—as well as U.S. society and the larger world. Let’s begin our journey.





Today’s digital age has given us Internet access virtually everywhere, whether we are 35,000 feet in the sky, traveling on a bus, or waiting for class to begin. 

The Internet, which has revolutionized the way the world shares information, is barely four decades old. The first Internet message was sent from the University of California, Los Angeles, to Stanford University in 1969 on a small, experimental Department of Defense network. The initial effort experienced a glitch—the system reportedly crashed as the letter G of the word LOGIN was typed! Not until the mid-1980s was Internet technology sufficiently developed to make it possible for anyone with a computer to plug into the network. Since it was initially difficult to send anything more than simple text-based messages, the early Internet was used mainly by a handful of researchers and scholars.

Part-time University of Illinois programmer Marc Andreessen developed the easy-to-use World Wide Web, with its graphical interface and ability to send sound and images, in 1992. Andreessen called his new program Mosaic and gave it away free on the Internet. Within a year and a half, the number of Internet users had tripled to 20 million, and Mosaic had morphed into the Netscape browser. In 1998, Netscape spun off Mozilla, a company that today maintains the Firefox browser. In the summer of 2000, there were 93 million Internet hosts worldwide. By the summer of 2012 there were 908 million and counting, along with about 200 million active websites. In 2014 it was projected that 44% of households worldwide would have Internet access by the end of that year, and there would be almost 3 billion Internet users. The rate of growth shows no signs of slowing (International Telecommunication Union, 2011, 2014; Internet Systems Consortium, 2012; Netcraft, 2012).

A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project estimated that 90% of U.S. adults own some type of portable electronic device (Gahran, 2012). As you pass through a public space such as an airport or a mall or ride on public transportation in a metropolitan area, you see people engaging in a multitude of behaviors and activities facilitated by the growth of high-tech gadgetry. Social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and Tumblr allow individuals across the globe to post videos and other media to share within the Internet community of millions.


 Will such widely accessible and vastly powerful technology enable people to play a greater role in shaping their own destinies? Will digital technology be emancipating, or will it come to threaten our privacy and security in ways we cannot yet grasp?




A short feature will appear near the end of each chapter of Discover Sociology that links your study of sociology to potential careers. It is intended to help you answer the question “What can I do with a sociology degree?” An important goal of these features is to highlight the core knowledge and professional skills that you will develop through your education as a sociology major. This set of competencies and skills, which range from critical thinking and writing skills to aptitude in qualitative and quantitative research to the understanding of diversity and conflict dynamics, prepares you for the workforce, as well as for graduate and professional school. Many of the chapters ahead will highlight information about the occupational fields, job titles, and work activities that can be linked to the knowledge and skills you will learn as a sociology major. The Skills and Careers essays (Chapters 5–11 and 14–17) will describe professional skills, discuss their development through the study of sociology, and link them with specific occupational fields and jobs in which employers seek employees who have the skills discussed.

A second goal of the feature is to help you more fully identify and articulate your current and developing job-related skills, interests, and values, as well as to show you how to begin to explore careers, how to perform an effective internship or job search, and how to create a personal career action plan (see the career development wheel). These Career Development features are intended to benefit both sociology majors and students majoring in other disciplines—career planning is important no matter your chosen field. The first chapter essays (Chapters 2–4) discuss the basics of career development. Two later chapters (Chapters 12 and 13) offer discussions of how graduate or professional school may fit into your career development plans. We hope that you find these features useful!


 What are your potential career interests? Did you come to college with a specific interest, or have you developed new interests during your studies?

 Have you spoken with anyone—family members, career counselors, professors, practitioners, or others—about your career interests? With whom might you speak to learn more about your field of interest?

Anne V. Scammon, Managing Director, Curricular and Strategic Initiatives, Center for Career Services at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, contributed to the skills and careers feature (“What Can I Do with a Sociology Degree?”) in this text and accompanying online supplements. With Anne Scammon’s support, key skills developed through the study of sociology were identified and linked to specific job titles and occupations. She also developed information related to career self-assessment, exploration, obtaining experience, job search strategies, and graduate school options for students.



•    Sociology is the scientific study of human social relationships, groups, and societies. Its central task is to ask what the dimensions of the social world are, how they influence our behavior, and how we in turn shape and change them.

•    Sociology adheres to the principle of social embeddedness, the idea that economic, political, and other forms of human behavior are fundamentally shaped by social relationships. Sociologists seek to study through scientific means the social worlds that human beings consciously create.

•    The sociological imagination is the ability to grasp the relationship between our individual lives and the larger social forces that help to shape them. It helps us see the connections between our private lives and public issues.

•    Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate claims about truth by using reason and evidence. Often we accept things as true because they are familiar, seem to mesh with our own experiences, and sound right. Critical thinking instead asks us to recognize poor arguments, reject statements not supported by evidence, and even question our own assumptions.

•    Sociology’s roots can be traced to the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, industrialization and the birth of modern capitalism, and the urbanization of populations. Sociology emerged in part as a tool to enable people to understand dramatic changes taking place in modern societies.

•    Sociology generally traces its classical roots to Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Early work in sociology reflected the concerns of the men who founded the discipline.

•    In the United States, scholars at the University of Chicago focused on reforming social problems stemming from industrialization and urbanization. Women and people of color worked on the margins of the discipline because of persistent discrimination.

•    Sociologists base their study of the social world on different theoretical perspectives that shape theory and guide research, often resulting in different conclusions. The major sociological paradigms are structural functionalism, the social conflict paradigm, and symbolic interactionism.

•    Major themes in sociology include the distribution of power and growing inequality, globalization and its accompanying social changes, the growth of social diversity, and the way advances in technology have changed communication, commerce, and communities.

•    The early founders of sociology believed that scientific knowledge could lead to shared social progress. Some modern sociologists question whether such shared scientific understanding is indeed possible.


scientific, 4

sociology, 5

social embeddedness, 5

sociological imagination, 5

agency, 7

structure, 7

critical thinking, 8

norms, 10

anomie, 10

social statics, 11

social dynamics, 11

positivist, 11

social facts, 12

social solidarity, 12

collective conscience, 13

class conflict, 13

proletariat, 13

bourgeoisie, 13

means of production, 13


formal rationality, 14

bureaucracies, 14

double consciousness, 15

sociological theories, 17

macro-level paradigms, 17

micro-level paradigm, 17

structural functionalism, 17

manifest functions, 18

latent functions, 19

social conflict paradigm, 19

symbolic interactionism, 21

symbols, 21

power, 21

inequality, 21

globalization, 22

social diversity, 22

ethnocentrism, 22

technology, 22



1.   Think about Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination and its ambition to draw together what Mills called private troubles and public issues. Think of a private trouble that sociologists might classify as also being a public issue. Share your example with your classmates.

2.   What is critical thinking? What does it mean to be a critical thinker in our approach to understanding society and social issues or problems?

3.   In the chapter, we asked why there were so few “founding mothers” in sociology. What factors explain the dearth of women’s voices? What about the lack of minority voices? What effects do you think these factors may have had on the development of the discipline?

4.   What is theory? What is its function in the discipline of sociology?

5.   Recall the three key theoretical paradigms discussed in this chapter—structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Discuss the ways these diverse “glasses” analyze deviance, its labeling, and its punishment in society. Try applying a similar analysis to another social phenomenon, such as class inequality or traditional gender roles.

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In October 2013, more than 16 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of season 4 of the television program The Walking Dead. The program follows a small band of human survivors trying to evade flesh-eating zombies who have taken over. The main character, Rick, and his compatriots fight for survival against the fearsome “walkers,” who relentlessly hunt human and beast. The undead have not only overrun the planet on this TV show, however; they also appear to have made some headway in taking over U.S. popular culture in recent years. Along with following the adventures of The Walking Dead, consumers of horror can read zombie books (such as World War Z, which was also made into a movie, and The Zombie Survival Guide), play zombie video games (for instance, Resident Evil and House of the Dead), and watch zombie films (like the popular I Am Legend and 28 Days Later). In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even used the public interest in zombies to launch a disaster preparedness campaign, offering the U.S. public tips for surviving an onslaught of the undead. According to Dr. Ali Khan, the architect of the campaign “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack” (

Why have zombies become a cultural phenomenon in the 21st-century United States? Some writers suggest that films, television, and other cultural forms are a mirror of social anxieties: As sociologist Robert Wuthnow (1989) has written, “If cultural products do not articulate closely enough with their social settings, they are likely to be regarded… as irrelevant, unrealistic, artificial, and overly abstract” (p. 3). In the post–World War II period of the 1940s and 1950s, Americans were dogged by fears of technology run amok (particularly nuclear fears after the first use of an atomic weapon) and the threat of communist infiltration or invasion (Booker, 2001). Popular science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) captured paranoia about alien beings who possessed powerful weapons and could arrive at any moment to destroy society and the state. The fear of communism and the concern about proliferation of destructive technology were embodied in otherworldly creatures who could enter a community undetected and crush resistance with deadly force.


Today, some writers suggest that the cultural proliferation of zombies is a window into contemporary fears. Kyle W. Bishop (2010) argues that the rise of zombie popularity after traumatic societal events like the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, the disease fears generated by deadly outbreaks of viruses like SARS, and even Hurricane Katrina is not a coincidence. Rather, zombie stories resonate with a public that is anxious about the threat of societal calamity, whether natural or human-made. Zombies evoke, Bishop (2009) suggests, a fear response, though the object of fear is not necessarily the zombie itself: “Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema… [these films have] all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded by more traditional horror films” (p. 18).

In a recent entertainment publication article on The Walking Dead, the highest-rated cable program on television, a journalist observes: “There’s a fascinating question critics should be answering: What is it about a show that is so relentlessly bleak that allows it to still resonate at such unexpected scale? What does it say about America?… it’s the polar opposite of the escapist fare that typically serves as popular entertainment, a dystopian nightmare if there ever was one” (Wallenstein, 2014). If critics don’t have an answer, then sociologists might: Cultural products are more than just entertainment—they are a mirror of society. Popular culture in the form of films or television may capture our utopian dreams, but it is also a net that catches and reflects pervasive societal fears and anxieties. 

The ramifications of a vast material culture on the lives of ordinary Americans. CLICK TO SHOW

In this chapter, we will consider the multitude of functions of both culture and media, which constitute a key vehicle of culture, and we will seek to understand how culture both constructs and reflects society in the United States and around the globe. We begin our discussion with an examination of the basic concept of culture, taking a look at material and nonmaterial culture as well as ideal and real culture in the United States. We then explore contemporary issues of language and its social functions in a changing world. The chapter also addresses issues of culture and media, asking how media messages may reflect and affect behaviors and attitudes. We then turn to the topic of culture and class and the sociological question of whether culture and taste are linked to class identity and social reproduction. Finally, we examine the evolving relationship between global and local cultures, in particular the influence of U.S. mass media on the world.


What is culture? The word culture might evoke images of song, dance, and literature—the beat of Latin salsa, Polish folk dances performed by girls with red ribbons braided into their hair, or the latest in a popular series of fantasy novels. It might remind you of a dish from the Old Country made by a beloved grandmother, or a spicy Indian meal you ate with friends from New Delhi.

Culture, from a sociological perspective, is composed of the beliefs, norms, behaviors, and products common to the members of a particular group. Culture is integral to our social experience of the world. It offers diversion and entertainment, but it also helps form our identities and gives meaning to the artifacts and experiences of our lives. Culture shapes and permeates material objects like folk costumes, rituals like nuptial and burial ceremonies, and language as expressed in conversation, poetry, stories, and music. As social beings we make culture, but culture also makes us, in ways that are both apparent and subtle.


Every culture has both material and nonmaterial aspects. We can broadly define material culture as the physical objects created, embraced, or consumed by society that help shape people’s lives. Material culture includes television programs, computer games, software, and other artifacts of human creation. It also emerges from the physical environment inhabited by the community. For example, in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, including Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, amber—a substance created when the resin of fallen seaside pines is hardened and smoothed by decades or centuries in the salty waters—is an important part of local cultures. It is valued both for its decorative properties in jewelry and for its therapeutic properties; it is said to relieve pain. Amber has become a part of the material culture in these countries rather than elsewhere because it is a product of the physical environment in which these communities dwell.


New York Daily News Archive/Contributor/Getty Images

Many people find flag burning offensive because the flag, an object of material culture, is a symbol of the country and its ideals. The Supreme Court, however, has held in a series of cases that symbolic expression is protected by the First Amendment, which explicitly protects free speech. 

Material culture also includes the types of shelters that characterize a community. For instance, in seaside communities, homes are often built on stilts to protect against flooding. The materials used to construct homes have historically been those available in the immediate environment—wood, thatch, or mud, for instance—although the global trade in timber, marble and granite, and other components of modern housing has transformed the relationship between place and shelter in many countries.

Nonmaterial culture is composed of the abstract creations of human cultures, including ideas about behavior and living. Nonmaterial culture encompasses aspects of the social experience, such as behavioral norms, values, language, family forms, and institutions. It also reflects the natural environment in which a culture has evolved.

While material culture is concrete and nonmaterial culture is abstract, the two are intertwined: Nonmaterial culture may attach particular meanings to the objects of material culture. For example, people will go to great lengths to protect an object of material culture such as a national flag, not because of what it is—imprinted cloth—but because of the nonmaterial culture it represents, including ideals about freedom and patriotic pride. In order to grasp the full extent of nonmaterial culture, you must first understand three of the sociological concepts that shape it: beliefs, norms, and values (Table 3.1).

BELIEFS  We broadly define beliefs as particular ideas that people accept as true. We can believe based on faith, superstition, science, tradition, or experience. To paraphrase the words of sociologists W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas (1928), beliefs may be understood as real when they are real in their consequences. They need not be objectively true. For example, during the witch hunts in early colonial America, rituals of accusation, persecution, and execution could be sustained in communities such as Salem, Massachusetts, because there was a shared belief in the existence of witches and diabolical power. From 1692 through 1693, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft; of these, 20 were executed, 19 by hanging and 1 by being pressed to death between heavy stones. Beliefs, like other aspects of culture, are dynamic rather than static: When belief in the existence of witchcraft waned, so did the witch hunts. In 1711, a bill was passed that restored “the rights and good names” of those who had been accused, and in 1957, the state of Massachusetts issued a formal apology for the events of the past (Blumberg, 2007).

NORMS  In any culture, there exists a set of ideas about what is right, just, and good, as well as what is wrong and unjust. Norms, as we noted in Chapter 1, are accepted social behaviors and beliefs, or the common rules of a culture that govern the behavior of people belonging to that culture.

Sociologist Robert Nisbet (1970) writes, “The moral order of society is a kind of tissue of ‘oughts’: negative ones which forbid certain actions and positive ones which [require certain] actions” (p. 226). We can think of norms as representing a set of “oughts” and “ought nots” that guide behavioral choices such as where to stand relative to others in an elevator, how long to hold someone’s gaze in conversation, how to conduct the rites of passage that mark different stages of life, and how to resolve disagreements or conflicts. Some norms are enshrined in legal statutes; others are inscribed in our psyches and consciences. Weddings bring together elements of both.

TABLE 3.1   Values, Norms, Folkways, Mores, Taboos, Laws, and Beliefs


© GL Archive/Alamy

One folkway of the traditional U.S. wedding dates to the reign of Queen Victoria (1819–1901). In her 1840 wedding to the handsome Prince Albert, the “plain” Victoria wore a beautiful white gown. By the end of her life, the tradition was firmly in place, and the white gown had acquired new symbolism, representing purity and virginity (Ingraham, 1999).

The wedding ceremony is a central ritual of adult life with powerful social, legal, and cultural implications. It is also significant economically: The term wedding industrial complex (Ingraham, 1999) has been used to describe a massive industry that in 2011, for instance, generated more than $53 billion in revenues. This comes as little surprise when we consider that in 2011, the estimated average amount spent on a wedding was just over $25,000 (Wedding Report, 2012). The wedding as a key cultural image and icon is cultivated in families, religions, and the media. Wedding images are used to sell products ranging from cosmetics to furniture, and weddings constitute an important theme in popular movies, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Wedding Crashers (2005), Bridesmaids (2011), and The Big Wedding (2013). Popular television series such as The Office and Sex and the City have used weddings as narratives for highly anticipated season finales. Today, the reality program Say Yes to the Dress enthralls viewers with the drama of choosing a wedding gown and Four Weddings pits four brides against one another to pull off the “perfect wedding,” while Bridezillas follows the adventures of brides behaving badly. Clearly, the wedding ritual is a powerful artifact of our culture. In light of this, a sociologist might ask, “What are the cultural components of the ritual of entering matrimony, the wedding ceremony?”

Sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906/1959) distinguished among several different kinds of norms, each of which can be applied to weddings. Folkways are fairly weak norms that are passed down from the past, the violation of which is generally not considered serious within a particular culture. A folkway that has become part of many U.S. wedding rituals is the “giving away” of the bride: The father of the bride symbolically gives his daughter to the groom, signaling a change in the woman’s identity from daughter to wife. Some couples today reject this ritual as patriarchal because it recalls earlier historical periods when a woman was treated as chattel given—literally—to her new husband by her previous keeper, her father.

Some modern couples are choosing to walk down the aisle together to signal an equality of roles and positions. While the sight of a couple going to the altar together might raise a few eyebrows among more traditional guests, this violation of the “normal” way of doing things does not constitute a serious cultural transgression and, because culture is dynamic, may in time become a folkway itself.

Mores (pronounced MOR-ays) are strongly held norms, the violation of which seriously offends the standards of acceptable conduct of most people within a particular culture. In a typical American wedding, the person conducting the ceremony plays an important role in directing the events, and the parties enacting the ritual are expected to respond in conventional ways. For instance, when the officiant asks the guests whether anyone objects to the union, the convention is for no one to object. When an objector surfaces (more often in television programs and films than in real life), the response of the guests is shock and dismay: The ritual has been disrupted and the scene violated.

Taboos are powerful mores, the violation of which is considered serious and even unthinkable within a particular culture. The label of taboo is commonly reserved for behavior that is extremely offensive: Incest, for example, is a nearly universal taboo. There may not be any taboos associated with the wedding ritual itself in the United States, but there are some relating to marital relationships. For instance, while in some U.S. states it is not illegal to marry a first cousin, in most modern communities doing so violates a basic taboo against intermarriage in families.

Laws are codified norms or rules of behavior. Laws formalize and institutionalize society’s norms. There are laws that govern marriage in general: For instance, in some U.S. states, marriage is legally open only to heterosexual adults who are not already married to other people. As of March 2014, 17 states (Hawaii, Washington, California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) and the District of Columbia were permitting same-sex marriage, 10 states recognized some type of civil union or domestic partnership, and 33 states explicitly limited marriage to opposite-sex couples (Ahuja, Barnes, Chow, & Rivero, 2014).

Effects of an “appearance culture” on high school girls CLICK TO SHOW


© Christie’s Images/Corbis

Do you think that being alone is stigmatized in our connected and busy world? Could it be considered a violation of U.S. cultural norms? 

Marriage equality groups and their supporters continue to fight prohibitions against same-sex marriage. A poll conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center (2012a) found that 47% of U.S. adults agreed same-sex marriage should be recognized as legally valid—43% disagreed. Just 3 years earlier, in a similar poll, 39% of adults agreed while 51% disagreed. This shift in poll results suggests that norms codified in laws are dynamic, too, and are not necessarily shared by all.

VALUES  Like norms, values are components of nonmaterial culture in every society. Values are the abstract and general standards in society that define ideal principles, like those governing notions of right and wrong. Sets of values attach to the institutions of society at multiple levels. You may have heard about national or patriotic values, community values, and family values. These can all coexist harmoniously within a single society. Because we use values to legitimate and justify our behavior as members of a country or community, or as individuals, we tend to staunchly defend the values we embrace (Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961).

Is there a specific set of values we can define as “American”? According to a classic study by Robin M. Williams Jr. (1970), “American values” include personal achievement, hard work, material comfort, and individuality. U.S. adults value science and technology, efficiency and practicality, morality and humanitarianism, equality, and “the American way of life.” A joint 1998 study on American values by Harvard University, the Washington Post, and the Kaiser Family Foundation identified similar points—hard work, self-reliance, tolerance, and the embrace of equal rights—though respondents also voiced important disagreements about such issues as the ideal size of the U.S. government and the degree to which the government should promote economic equality (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998).

A 2010 study found an interesting split between those who agreed they would like to see “the federal government provide more services, even if it costs more in taxes” (49%) and those who agreed they would like to see “the federal government cost less in taxes,” even if it meant the provision of fewer services (47%). In 2010, the proportion of survey respondents in favor of more services (even with higher taxes) rose by 10 percentage points (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010b). What we value, then, varies across time and communities and may even be contradictory. Do these differences matter? Can we still speak of a unified body of “American values”? What do you think?

Structural functionalists including Talcott Parsons (1951) have proposed that values play a critical role in the social integration of a society. However, values do not play this role by themselves. They are abstract—vessels into which any generation or era pours its meanings in a process that can be both dynamic and contentious. For instance, equality is a value that has been strongly supported in the United States since the country’s founding. The pursuit of equality was a powerful force in the American Revolution, and the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal” (Wood, 1993). However, equality has been defined quite differently across various eras of U.S. history. In the first half of the country’s existence, “equality” did not include women or African Americans, who were by law excluded from its benefits. Over the course of the 20th century, equality became more equal, as the rights of all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, gender, or class status, were formally recognized as equal before the law.


© AF archive/Alamy

Ursula, a character from the Disney film The Little Mermaid, is one of many children’s story characters who combine an unattractive appearance with a flawed personality. How do we reconcile the idea that “beauty is only skin deep” with messages of popular culture? 


Beauty is only skin deep. Don’t judge a book by its cover. All that glitters is not gold. These bits of common wisdom are part of U.S. culture. We rarely recall where we first heard them; we simply know them, because they are part of the cultural framework of our lives. These three statements represent a commitment of sorts that society will value our inner qualities more than our outward appearances. They are also examples of ideal culture, the values, norms, and behaviors that people in a given society profess to embrace, even though the actions of the society may often contradict them.

Real culture consists of the values, norms, and behaviors that people in a given society actually embrace and exhibit. In the United States, for instance, empirical research shows that conventional attractiveness offers consistent advantages (Hamermesh, 2011). From childhood onward, the stories our parents, teachers, and the media tell us seem to sell the importance of beauty. Stories such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty connect beauty with morality and goodness, and unattractiveness with malice, jealousy, and other negative traits. The link between unattractive (or unconventional) appearance and unattractive behavior is unmistakable, especially in female figures. Think of other characters many American children are exposed to early in life, such as nasty Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, the dastardly Queen of Hearts of Alice in Wonderland, and the angry octopod Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

On television, another medium that disseminates important cultural stories, physical beauty and social status are powerfully linked. Overweight or average-looking characters populate shows featuring working- or lower-middle-class people, for example Family Guy, The Office, and New Girl. Programs such as Modern Family and Mike & Molly offer leading characters who are pleasant and attractive—and often overweight. In the latter, for instance, Mike is a police officer and Molly, for the first three seasons, is an elementary school teacher (she later becomes an author). They have not broken the glass ceiling of high-status jobs that remain largely reserved for their thinner prime-time peers. Characters such as those we encounter on Scandal, Mad Men, House of Cards, and Sex and the City are almost invariably svelte and stylish—and occupy higher rungs on the status hierarchy.

There is a clear cultural inconsistency, a contradiction between the goals of ideal culture and the practices of real culture, in our society’s treatment of conventional attractiveness. Do we “judge a book by its cover”? Studies suggest this is precisely what many of us do in a variety of social settings:

•    In the workplace, conventionally attractive job applicants appear to have an advantage in securing jobs (Hamermesh, 2011; Marlowe, Schneider, & Nelson, 1996; Shahani-Denning, 2003; Tews, Stafford, & Zhu, 2009). A significant earnings penalty has been associated with shortness and unattractiveness (Harper, 2000).

•    Women in one study who were an average of 65 pounds heavier than the norm of the study group earned about 7% less than their slimmer counterparts did, an effect equivalent to losing about one year of education or two years of experience. The link between obesity and a “pay penalty” has been confirmed by other studies (Harper, 2000; Lempert, 2007). Interestingly, some research has not found strong evidence that weight affects the wages of African American or Hispanic female workers (Cawley, 2001; DeBeaumont, 2009).

•    In the courtroom, some defendants who do not meet conventional standards of attractiveness are disadvantaged (DeSantis & Kayson, 1997; Gunnell & Ceci, 2010; Taylor & Butcher, 2007). Mazzella and Feingold (1994) note that defendants charged with certain crimes, such as rape and robbery, benefit from being attractive. This is consistent with the “beautiful is good” hypothesis (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972), which attributes a tendency toward leniency to the belief that attractive people have more socially desirable characteristics. Ahola, Christianson, and Hellstrom (2009) suggest that female defendants in particular are advantaged by attractive appearance.


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Mike and Molly, Roseanne, and The Honeymooners are examples of sitcoms that feature main characters who are working-class people who also happen to be overweight. The next time you’re flipping through the channels or watching a movie, take note of the relationship between socioeconomic status and appearance. 

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The Granger Collection, NYC—All rights reserved.

•    Studies of college students have found that they are likely to perceive attractive people as more intelligent than unattractive people (Chia, Allred, Grossnickle, & Lee, 1998; Poteet, 2007). This bias has also been detected in students’ evaluations of their instructors: A pair of economists recently found that the independent influence of attractiveness gives some instructors an advantage on undergraduate teaching evaluations (Hamermesh & Parker, 2005).

Another example of cultural inconsistency can be seen in our purported commitment to the ideal that “honesty is the best policy.” We find an unambiguous embrace of honesty in the stories of our childhood. Think of Pinocchio: Were you warned as a child not to lie because it might cause your nose to grow? Did you ever promise a friend that you would not reveal his or her secret with a pinky swear and the words “Cross my heart and hope to die; stick a needle in my eye”? Yet most people do lie.

Why is this so? We may lie to protect or project a certain image of ourselves. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959), a symbolic interactionist, called this misrepresentation. Goffman argued that all of us, as social actors, engage in this practice because we are concerned with “defining a situation”—whether it be a date or a job interview or a meeting with a professor or boss—in a manner favorable to ourselves. It is not uncommon for job seekers to pad their résumés, for instance, in order to leave the impression on potential employers that they are qualified or worthy. According to an overview of this issue posted on the website of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM; 2008), almost half of 3,100 hiring managers surveyed by CareerBuilder indicated that they had detected lying on a job candidate’s résumé. Common lies included misrepresentations of educational credentials, salary levels, and even criminal records. About 43% of hiring managers also said they spent less than a minute looking at a single résumé during the initial screening process, suggesting that some dishonesty probably goes unnoticed.

Studies also suggest that cheating and plagiarism are common among high school students (Table 3.2). In one study of 23,000 high school students, about half reported that they had cheated on a test in the past year. Just under a third also responded that they had used the Internet to plagiarize assigned work (Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, 2012). Interestingly, a 2009 study suggests that about half of teens age 17 and younger believe cheating is necessary for success (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2009).




REUTERS/Fred Prouser

This billboard in Hollywood, California, features excessively thin models. The models are selling clothing, but they are also sending a message to viewers about thinness and glamour. How significant is this message in U.S. culture? What are might be its consequences? 

Whether you are male or female, you may sometimes experience feelings of inadequacy as you leaf through magazines like Cosmopolitan, GQ, Vogue, and Maxim. You may get a sense that, in this media-constructed universe, your face, hair, body, and clothing do not fit the masculine or feminine ideal. You may wish that you had the “right look” or that you were thinner. You would not be alone.

One survey of college-age women found that 83% desired to lose weight. Among these, 44% of women of normal weight intentionally ate less than they wanted, and most of the women did not have healthy dieting habits (Malinauskas, Raedeke, Aeby, Smith, & Dallas, 2006). According to a Canadian study, chronic dieters’ sense of identity is often frail and reflects others’ perceptions of them (Polivy & Herman, 2007). Indeed, a recent study examining body weight perceptions among college students found that women with exaggerated body weight perceptions were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight management strategies and were more depressed than those women with accurate perceptions of their weight (Harring, Montgomery, & Hardin, 2011).

Using our sociological imagination, we can deduce that the weight concerns many people experience as personal troubles are in fact linked to public issues: Worrying about (and even obsessing over) weight is a widely shared phenomenon. Millions of women diet regularly, and some manifest extreme attention to weight in the form of eating disorders. By one estimate, fully 9 million people in the United States are afflicted with eating disorders over the courses of their lives (Hudson, Hiripi, Pope, & Kessler, 2007), most of them women. The National Institute of Mental Health (2010) has reported that “women are three times as likely to experience anorexia (0.9 percent of women vs. 0.3 percent of men) and bulimia (1.5 percent of women vs. 0.5 percent of men) during their life. They are also 75 percent more likely to have a binge eating disorder (3.5 percent of women vs. 2.0 percent of men).”

The diet industry in the United States is extremely profitable—by some estimates worth $60.9 billion a year (LaRosa, 2011). The fashion industry (among others) primarily employs models who are abnormally thin and whose images are airbrushed or digitally altered to “perfection.” Psychologist Sarah Grogan (2008) asserts that the dieting, fashion, cosmetic surgery, and advertising industries are fueled by the successful manipulation and oppression of women. That is, manufacturers and marketers create a beauty culture based on total but artificial perfection and then sell products to “help” women achieve a look that is unachievable.

As individuals, we experience the consequences of this artificially created ideal as a personal trouble—unhappiness about our appearance—but the deliberate construction and dissemination of an unattainable ideal for the purpose of generating profits is surely a public issue. Reflecting a conflict perspective, psychologist Sharlene Hesse-Biber (1997) has suggested that to understand the eating disorders and disordered eating so common among U.S. women, we ought to ask not “‘What can women do to meet the ideal?’ but ‘Who benefits from women’s excessive concern with thinness?’” (p. 32). This is the sociological imagination at work.


 How would you summarize the key factors that explain the broad gap between ideal culture, which entreats us not to judge a book by its cover, and real culture, which pushes women and men to pursue unattainable physical perfection?


TABLE 3.2   Ethical and Unethical Behavior Among High School Students in 2012 (in percentages)

SOURCE: Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics. (2012). 2012 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.

Why do you think there is such a big gap between what we say and what we do? Do you think most people are culturally inconsistent? What about you?


Much of the time, a community’s or society’s cultural norms, values, and practices are internalized to the point where they become part of the natural order. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977) describes these internalized beliefs as doxic: To a member of a given community or cultural group, common norms and practices appear as a part of the social order—just the way things are. But the social organization of our lives is not natural, though it comes to appear that way. Instead, norms, values, and practices are socially constructed. That is, they are the products of decisions and directions chosen by groups and individuals (often, a conflict theorist would argue, those with the most power). And though all human societies share certain similarities, different societies construct different norms, values, and practices and then embrace them as “just the way things are.”

Because we tend to perceive our own culture as “natural” and “normal,” it emerges as the standard by which we tend to judge everything else. This is indicative of ethnocentrism, which, as noted in Chapter 1, is a worldview whereby we judge other cultures by the standards of our own. That which deviates from our own “normal” social order can appear exotic, even shocking. Other societies’ rituals of death, for example, can look astonishingly different from those to which we are accustomed. This description of an ancient burial practice from the North Caucasus provides an illustration:

Scythian-Sarmatian burials were horrible but spectacular. A royal would be buried in a kurgan [burial mound] alongside piles of gold, weapons, horses, and, Herodotus writes, “various members of his household: one of his concubines, his butler, his cook, his groom, his steward, and his chamberlain—all of them strangled.” A year later, 50 fine horses and 50 young men would be strangled, gutted, stuffed with chaff, sewn up, then impaled and stuck around the kurgan to mount a ghoulish guard for their departed king. (Smith, 2001, pp. 33–34)

Let us interpret this historical fragment using two different cultural perspectives. From an etic perspective—that is, the perspective of the outside observer—the burial ritual looks bizarre and shockingly cruel. However, in order to understand it fully and avoid a potentially ethnocentric perspective, we need to call upon an emic perspective, the perspective of the insider, and ask, “What did people in this period believe about the royals? What did they believe about the departed and the experience of death itself? What did they believe about the utility of material riches in the afterlife and the rewards the afterlife would confer on the royals and those loyal to them?” Are there death rituals in the U.S. cultural repertoire that might appear exotic or strange to outsiders even though we see them as “normal”?

Putting aside the ethnocentric perspective allows us to embrace cultural relativism, a worldview whereby we understand the practices of another society sociologically, in terms of that society’s own norms and values and not our own. In this way we can come closer to an understanding of cultural beliefs and practices such as those that surround the end of life. Whether the body of the departed is viewed or hidden, buried or burned, feasted with or feasted for, danced around or sung about, a culturally relativist perspective allows the sociologist to conduct his or her examination of the roots of these practices most rigorously.

We may also call on cultural relativism to help us understand the rituals of another people, the Nacirema, described here by anthropologist Herbert Miner (1956):

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people….

Ideas and Customs CLICK TO SHOW


© ALEX LEE/epa/Corbis

© Nengah Januartha/Demotix/Corbis

© Bob Sacha/Corbis

In the Tibetan sky burial, the body is left on a mountaintop exposed to the elements. This once-common practice of “giving alms to the birds” represented belief in rebirth and the idea that the body is just an unneeded empty shell. In Indonesia, mass cremations take place where bodies are placed in sarcophagi of various sizes with animal representations. In New Orleans, a casket is paraded through the street. Death and burial rituals are components of culture. 

  The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in this society have several shrines in their houses….

  The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners…. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm. (pp. 503–504)

What looks strange here, and why? Did you already figure out that Nacirema is American spelled backward? Miner invites his readers to see American rituals linked to the body and health not as natural but as part of a culture. Can you think of other norms or practices in the United States that we could view from this perspective? What about the all-American game of baseball, the high school graduation ceremony, the youth language of texting, or the cultural obsession with celebrities or automobiles?



When sociologists study culture, they do not presume that in any given country—or even community—there is a single culture. They may identify a dominant culture within any group, but significant cultural identities exist in addition to, or sometimes in opposition to, the dominant one. These are subcultures, cultures that exist together with a dominant culture but differ from it in some important respects.

Some subcultures, including ethnic subcultures, may embrace most of the values and norms of the dominant culture while simultaneously choosing to preserve the values, rituals, and languages of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) cultures of origin. Members of ethnic subcultures such as Armenian Americans and Cuban Americans may follow political events in their heritage countries or prefer their children to marry within their groups. It is comfort in the subculture rather than rejection of the dominant culture that supports the vitality of many ethnic subcultures.

In a few cases, however, ethnic and other subcultures do reject the dominant culture surrounding them. The Amish choose to elevate tradition over modernity in areas such as transportation (many still use horse-drawn buggies), occupations (they rely on simple farming), and family life (women are seen as subordinate to men), and they lead a retreatist lifestyle in which their community is intentionally separated from the dominant culture.

Sociologists sometimes also use the term counterculture to designate subcultural groups whose norms, values, and practices deviate from those of the dominant culture. The hippies of the 1960s, for example, are commonly cited as a counterculture to mainstream “middle America,” though many of those who participated in hippie culture aged into fairly conventional middle-class lives.

Though there are exceptions, the vast majority of subcultures in the United States are permeated by the dominant culture, and the influence runs both ways. What, for example, is an “all-American” meal? Your answer may be a hamburger and fries. But what about other U.S. staples, such as Chinese takeout and Mexican burritos? Mainstream culture has also absorbed the influence of the United States’ multicultural heritage: Salsa music, created by Cuban and Puerto Rican American musicians in 1960s New York, is widely popular, and world music, a genre that reflects a range of influences from the African continent to Brazil, has a broad U.S. following. Some contemporary pop music, as performed by artists such as Lady Gaga, incorporates elements of British glam, U.S. hip-hop, and central European dance. The influence is apparent in sports as well: Soccer, now often the youth game of choice in U.S. suburbs, was popularized by players and fans from South America and Europe. Mixed martial arts, a combat sport popularized by the U.S. organization Ultimate Fighting Championship, incorporates elements of Greco-Roman wrestling, Japanese karate, Brazilian jujitsu, and muay Thai (from Thailand).


Well over a billion people on our planet speak a dialect of Chinese as their first language. English and Spanish are the first languages of another 300 million people each. More than 182 million people speak Hindi, the primary official language of India, as a first language. In contrast, the world’s 3,500 least widely spoken languages share just 8.25 million speakers. Aka, another language of India, has between 1,000 and 2,000 native speakers. The Mexican language of Seri has between 650 and 1,000. Euchee, a Native American language, has four fluent speakers left. According to a recent article in National Geographic, “one language dies every 14 days,” and we can expect to lose about half the 7,000 languages spoken around the world by the end of the 21st century (Rymer, 2012). What is the significance of language loss for human culture?

Symbols, like the names we assign to the objects around us, are cultural representations of social realities, or, as we put it in Chapter 1, representations of things that are not immediately present to our senses. They may take the form of letters or words, images, rituals, or actions. When we use language, we imbue these symbols with meaning. Language is a particular kind of symbolic system, composed of verbal, nonverbal, and sometimes written representations that are vehicles for conveying meaning. Language is thus a key vehicle of culture.

In the 1930s, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that our understandings and actions emerge from language—that is, the words and concepts of our own languages structure our perceptions of the social world. Language is also closely tied to cultural objects and practices. Consider that the Aka language has more than 26 words to describe beads, a rich vocabulary suited for a culture in which beads not only are decorative objects but also convey status and facilitate market transactions. In the Seri language, to inquire where someone is from you ask, “Where is your placenta buried?” This question references a historical cultural practice of burying a newborn’s afterbirth by covering it with sand, rocks, and ashes (Rymer, 2012).

As languages like Aka and Seri die out, usually replaced by dominant tongues like Spanish, English, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, we lose the opportunity to more fully understand the historical and contemporary human experience and the natural world. For instance, the fact that some small languages have no words linked to specific numbers and instead use only relative designations like “few” or “many” opens the possibility that our number system may be a product of culture rather than of innate cognition as many believe. Or consider that the Seri culture, based in the Sonoran Desert, has names for animal species that describe behaviors that natural scientists are only beginning to document (Rymer, 2012). Language is a cultural vehicle that enables communication, illuminates beliefs and practices, roots a community in its environment, and contributes to the cultural richness of our world. Each language lost represents the erasure of cultural history, knowledge, and human diversity (Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, n.d.).

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Language and Cultural Destruction CLICK TO SHOW


FIGURE 3.1 Endangered Languages Worldwide

SOURCE: Mason, Virginia W. National Geographic Stock. Reprinted with permission.


Conflict theorists focus on disintegrative forces in society, while functionalists study integrative forces. Where social conflict theorists see culture as serving the interests of the elite, functionalists argue that shared values and norms maintain social bonds both between individuals and between people and society (Parsons & Smelser, 1956). By serving as a vehicle for the dissemination of these values and norms, culture functions to keep society stable and harmonious and gives people a sense of belonging in a complex, even alienating, social world (Smelser, 1962). To illustrate, consider the issue of language use in the United States.

In part as a response to the increased use of Spanish and other languages spoken by members of the nation’s large immigrant population, an English-only movement has arisen that supports the passage of legislation to make English the only official language of the United States and its government. Proponents argue that they want to “restore the great American melting pot,” though the movement has roots in the early 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans… and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” Like today, Roosevelt’s era was characterized by high rates of immigration to the United States.

How would a functionalist analyze the English-only movement? He or she might highlight language as a vehicle of social integration and a form of social glue. Indeed, the English-only movement focuses on the function of language as an integrative mechanism. For example, the organization ProEnglish states on its website (, “We work through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English’s historic role as America’s common, unifying language, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government.” The organization points out that 31 U.S. states have legislation declaring English the official language. From this perspective, the use of different primary languages in a single country is dysfunctional to the extent that it undermines the common socialization that comes from a shared language and culture.

A substantial proportion of U.S. residents support legislation making English the official language: a 2014 Huffington Post/YouGov survey found that 70% of respondents agreed with this position (Swanson, 2014). At the same time, most homes and residents are already active users of English, even if one-fifth also use another home language. Census data suggest that about 80% of U.S. residents 5 years of age and older use only English at home. Just under 20% use a language other than English. Of this 20%, the majority of respondents (about 56%) indicate that they speak English “very well,” though there is variation by age and primary language (Shin & Kominski, 2010).


FIGURE 3.2 Percentage of U.S. Population Speaking a Language Other Than English at Home, 2010

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). “Population 5 Years and Older Who Spoke a Language Other Than English at Home by Hispanic Origin and Race: 2009.” American Community Survey Briefs.

Many people embrace cultural diversity and emphasize the value of multiculturalism, a commitment to respecting cultural differences rather than submerging them into a larger, dominant culture. Multiculturalism recognizes that the country is as likely to be enriched by its differences as it is to be divided by them. In a globalizing world, knowledge of other cultures and proficiency in languages other than English is important. In fact, a functionalist might also regard the U.S. Census data cited above as indicative of both the common language that proponents of official English see as crucial to national unity and the cultural diversity that enriches the country and allows it to incorporate a variety of languages in its national and global political, cultural, and economic dealings—which is also positively functional for the country (Figure 3.2).


From the sociological perspective, we are all cultured because we all participate in and identify with a culture or cultures. In one conventional use of the term, however, some classes of people are considered more cultured than others. We refer to people who attend the symphony, are knowledgeable about classic literature and fine wines, and possess a set of distinctive manners as cultured, and we often assume a value judgment in believing that being cultured is better than being uncultured.

We commonly distinguish between high culture and popular culture. High culture consists of music, theater, literature, and other cultural products that are held in particularly high esteem in society. It can also encompass a particular body of literature or a set of distinctive tastes. High culture is usually associated with the wealthier, more educated classes in society, but this association can shift over time. William Shakespeare’s plays were popular with the English masses when they were staged in open public theaters during his lifetime. Lobster was a meal of the poor in colonial America. This suggests that high culture’s association with educated and upper-income elites may be more a function of accessibility—the prohibitive cost of theater tickets and lobster meat today, for instance—than with “good taste” as such.

Popular culture encompasses the entertainment, culinary, and athletic tastes shared by the masses. It is more accessible than high culture because it is widely available and less costly to consume. Popular culture can include music that gets broad airplay on the radio, television shows and characters that draw masses of viewers (for example, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Dance Moms, Orange Is the New Black), blockbuster films such as the Hunger Games or X-Men series, Oprah’s Book Club, and spectator sports such as professional wrestling and baseball. Because it is an object of mass consumption, popular culture plays a key role in shaping values, attitudes, and consumption in society. It is an optimal topic of sociological study because, as we noted in our opening story about zombies, it not only shapes but is shaped by society.




JIM RICHARDSON/National Geographic Creativ

This chapter raises the problem of language loss—that is, the persistent and expanding extinction of small languages across our planet. In a few places, however, little-used languages are being revived for reasons that range from cultural to economic to political. In some instances, as in the case of Northern Ireland, language revival fits into all three categories.

The dominant language in the country of Northern Ireland has long been English, but there is a growing campaign to revive the Irish language, a tongue with little in common with English (consider the Irish word for independence: neamhspleáchas). The Irish language (also known as Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge) is a minority language in Northern Ireland. As of the country’s 2001 census, 167,487 people (10.4% of the population) had “some knowledge of Irish” (Zenker, 2010). The use of Irish in Northern Ireland had nearly died out by the middle of the 20th century, but today efforts are under way to bring the language back to education, commerce, and political life (“In the Trenches,” 2013).

Northern Ireland has a history of violent conflict with its British neighbor. Early in the 20th century, Ireland was shaken by conflict between the Irish Catholic majority and the Protestant minority, who supported British rule and feared the rule of the Catholic majority. In 1920, the British Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act, which sought to pacify the parties with the separation of Ireland into a free state of southern counties. In 1922, the larger part of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom to become the independent Irish Free State (after 1937, this became the current state of Ireland). The six northeastern counties, together known as Northern Ireland, remained within the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has since been the site of sporadic conflict between (mainly Catholic) nationalists and (mainly Protestant) unionists (Kennedy-Pipe, 1997).

The area remained largely peaceful until the late 1960s, when violence broke out in Londonderry and Belfast, foreshadowing three decades of armed conflict between British troops stationed in Northern Ireland and the rebellious Irish Republican Army (IRA), which represented primarily the interests of the Irish Catholic population. The violent conflicts over home versus British rule, which included terrorism committed by the IRA against British interests and populations, resulted in more than 3,000 deaths in this period (BBC, 2014b). A U.S.-brokered agreement helped to quell the violence in 1998, though sporadic problems remained. Nearly a decade later, in 2007, key parties to the conflict, including leaders of the Catholic and Protestant factions, took the reins of the country in a power-sharing agreement.

The interest in revival of the language dates back to the period of conflict, known locally as “the Troubles.” In the 1960s, a small number of language enthusiasts set up a tiny Irish-speaking community in a Belfast neighborhood. By the 1970s, with the conflict in progress, Irish nationalist prisoners being held by the British in Maze Prison also began learning Irish, calling out words between cells and scrawling their words on the prison walls (Feldman, 1991). The effort spread to neighborhoods where families of the prisoners resided and, according to author Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh (2013), it became part of an “anti-colonial struggle.”

Today, Irish nationalists, some of them veterans of the war against British rule, have taken up the mantle of Irish language revival, and the language is now the medium of instruction for about 5,000 schoolchildren in the country. While this is just a tiny fraction of the total school population, supporters of language revival occupy some key governmental positions in Northern Ireland, and there has been an effort to enact the Irish Language Act, which would establish new rights to the use of the language in official business, thus creating new job opportunities for fluent speakers (“In the Trenches,” 2013).


Today Northern Ireland is peaceful. The Irish language, a part of the local heritage, is being revived. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will serve to draw together two communities with a long history of conflict (the country is about evenly split between the Catholic and Protestant communities) or will deepen the divide as the nationalist Catholic population embraces Irish while the pro-British Protestants resist.


 Why does language matter to communities large and small? What does the Irish language revival movement share with movements like the official English movement in the United States, which supports a powerful and widespread language? How is it different?

Mass media are media of public communication intended to reach and influence a mass audience. The mass media constitute a vehicle that brings us culture, in particular—though certainly not exclusively—popular culture. While mass media permeate our lives today, their rise is more recent than we may realize. Theorist Jürgen Habermas (1962/1989) points out that the public sphere as a fundamental part of social life emerged only with the rise of industrial society; that is, prior to the development of printing presses and the spread of literacy, most communication was oral and local. The appearance of mass-circulation newspapers in the 1700s and the growth of literate populations spurred the growth of a public sphere in which information could be widely circulated and, as Habermas points out, public attitudes shaped. In the 20th century, mass media gained influence through the adoption of electronic means of communication ranging from the radio to television to the Internet.

Marshall McLuhan (1964) sought to understand the influence of mass media on society, suggesting that “the medium is the message”—that is, the medium itself has an influence on how the message is received and perceived. Television, for instance, is fundamentally different from print in how it communicates information. In looking at only a particular message, in other words, we may miss the power of the messenger itself and how that transforms social life. McLuhan also asserted that electronic media like television were constructing a global village in which people around the world, who did not and never would know one another, could be engaged with the same news event. For example, it was reported in the summer of 2010 that more than 3 billion people (nearly half of the world’s population) watched some part of the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa (Lipka, 2014).

From a sociological perspective, the function of the mass media can be paradoxical. On one hand, mass media are powerful and effective means for conveying information and contributing to the development of an informed citizenry: Mass-circulation newspapers, television networks like CNN and BBC, and radio news programs inform us about and help us to understand important issues. On the other hand, some sociologists argue that such media promote not active engagement in society but rather disengagement and distraction. Habermas (1962/1989), for instance, writes of the salons and coffeehouses of major European cities, where the exchange of informed opinions formed a foundation for later public political debates. However, he suggests, the potential for the development of an active public sphere has been largely quashed by the rise of media that have substituted mass entertainment for meaningful debate, elevating sound bites over sound arguments. (See the Technology and Society box for discussion of the ideas of other sociologists on this topic.) Do the mass media contribute to or diminish active engagement in the public sphere? Do they help to construct citizens, or do they create consumers? What do you think?

The mass media bring us the key forms of modern entertainment that constitute popular culture. While some researchers theorize the effects of mass media on the public sphere, others look at how these media shape attitudes and practices—sometimes in negative ways. In the section that follows, we turn our attention to another dimension of culture: the controversial relationships among culture, mass media, and the negative but pervasive phenomenon of sexual violence against women.

The Harlem Shake CLICK TO SHOW




GREG DALE/National Geographic Creative

Most conflict theorists, following the lead of Karl Marx, maintain that capitalism is a system characterized by oppression and rife with inequality. If this is so, why do working people, victimized by an economic order that enriches the upper socioeconomic classes at their expense, not rise up in protest? Sociologists Herbert Marcuse and Douglas Kellner have offered a few ideas.

Marcuse, writing in 1964, described technology in modern capitalist society as paving the road to a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” (p. 1). He believed that modern technology, employed in the service of capitalist interests, would lead to ever more effective—and even pleasant—methods of exerting external control over individuals. After all, spending the evening immersed in a reality TV program or an action film is much easier than rising up in protest or revolution. And we may not like the conditions of our work, but we are willing to work hard so we can get our hands on the newest iPhone. From this perspective, mass media (for instance, television) serve to socialize and pacify populations and are thus instruments of domination. Marcuse (1964) argued that the freedom of individuals had been “invaded and whittled down” by modern technology, and that the result was a “one-dimensional” society in which the ability to think negatively and critically about the social order was progressively crushed (p. 10).

Kellner (1990) expanded the argument that modern technology and media—and television in particular—constitute a threat to human freedom of thought and action in the realm of social change. Kellner suggested that the television industry “has the crucial ideological functions of legitimating the capitalist mode of production and delegitimating its opponents” (p. 9). That is, mainstream television appears to offer a broad spectrum of opinions, but in fact it systematically excludes opinions that seem to question the fundamental values of capitalism (for example, the right to accumulate unlimited wealth and power) or to critique not individual politicians, parties, and policies but the system within which they operate. Because television is such a pervasive force in our lives, the boundaries it draws around debates on capitalism, social change, and genuine democracy are significant.


 Karl Marx wrote that the ruling ideas of any society are those of the ruling class. Arguably, many of those ideas are conveyed through the vehicle of TV. Does television, which delivers images and messages to our homes as we watch for an average of 7 hours a day, foster passivity and make us vulnerable to manipulation? What about the Internet? How does it expand human action, creativity, and freedom? How does it limit them?


Recent statistics suggest that rape and sexual assault devastate the lives of thousands of U.S. women every year. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), in 2012 there were 346,830 rapes, attempted rapes, or sexual assaults in the United States (Truman, Langton, & Planty, 2013). Men and boys also fall prey to these crimes, but women are the most commonly victimized.

Cultural Control CLICK TO SHOW


One explanation for this number might be that sexual assaults are perpetrated by thousands of deviant individuals and are the outcomes of particular and individual circumstances. Applying the sociological imagination, however, means recognizing the magnitude of the problem and considering the idea that examination of individual cases alone is inadequate for fully understanding the phenomenon of rape and sexual assault in the United States. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills, it is clearly a personal trouble and a public issue.

Some researchers have posited the existence of a rape culture, a social culture that provides an environment conducive to rape (Boswell & Spade, 1996; Buchwald, Fletcher, & Roth, 2005; Sanday, 1990). According to some scholars, rape culture has been pervasive in the U.S. legal system. Feminist theorist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon (1989) argues that legislative and judicial processes regarding rape utilize a male viewpoint. Consider, for instance, that until the late 1970s most states did not treat spousal rape as a crime. This conclusion was based, at least in part, on the notion that a woman could not be raped by her husband because sexual consent was taken as implied in the marital contract.

Some researchers argue that the legal culture takes rape less seriously than other crimes of violence (Taslitz, 1999). Legal scholar Stephen J. Schulhofer (2000) has written that the law

punishes takings by force (robbery), by coercive threats (extortion), by stealth (larceny), by breach of trust (embezzlement), and by deception (fraud and false pretenses)…. Yet sexual autonomy, almost alone among our important personal rights, is not fully protected. The law of rape, as if it were only a law against the “robbery” of sex, remains focused almost exclusively on preventing interference by force. (pp. 100–101)

Schulhofer notes that this problem is linked to a culture that treats male sexual aggression as “natural.” Taslitz (1999) asserts that the cultural stories brought into courtrooms render proceedings around rape problematic by situating them in myths, such as the idea that a female victim was “asking for it.”

Some research in the fields of sociology and communications suggests that popular culture promotes rape culture by normalizing violence. This is not to argue that culture is a direct cause of sexual violence, but rather to suggest that popular culture renders violence part of the social scenery by making its appearance so common in films, video games, and music videos that it evolves from being shocking to being utterly ordinary (Katz & Jhally, 2000a, 2000b). How does this process occur?

Some scholars argue that popular media embrace violent masculinity, a form of masculinity that associates “being a man” with being aggressive and merciless. As well, the messages of popular culture may serve to normalize violence against women in particular. Tyler, The Creator, winner of the 2011 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, has come under fire from parents, media outlets, and fellow musicians for his violently misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. Hip-hop has long been associated with the use of misogynistic lyrics (Morgan, 1999; Pough, 2004; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2009). Many commercial films and music videos also feature rough—even very violent—treatment of women, offered as entertainment. The most gratuitous violence in films such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Killer Inside Me (2010), The Last Exorcism (2010), and Final Destination 5 (2011) is reserved for female victims. In early 2010, citizens in Japan and around the world expressed dismay and disgust when reports emerged about the popular dissemination of the video game RapeLay, in which a player stalks a young woman, her mother, and her sister on a train. In the game, the player uses the mouse to grope—and eventually rape—his victims.

Popular culture’s most predictable normalization of violence against women occurs in pornography, a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States. Fictionalized portrayals of sexual activity range from coercion of a compliant and always willing female to violent rape simulations in which consent is clearly refused.

While researchers do not propose that lyrics or images disseminated by mass media cause sexual violence directly, some suggest that popular culture’s persistent use of sex-starved, compliant, and easily victimized female characters sends messages that forced sex is no big deal, that women really want to be raped, and that some invite rape by their appearance. In a study of 400 male and female high school students, Cassidy and Hurrell (1995, cited in Workman & Freeburg, 1999) determined that respondents who heard a vignette about a rape scenario and then viewed a picture of the “victim” (in reality a model for the research) dressed in provocative clothing were more likely than those who saw her dressed in conservative clothing, or who saw no picture at all, to judge her responsible for her assailant’s behavior, and to say his behavior was justified and not really rape. More recent studies have reproduced findings that rape myths are widely used to explain and even justify sexual violence (Hammond, Berry, & Rodriguez, 2011).

A 2003 study found that victims’ attire is not a significant factor in sexual assault. Instead, rapists look for signs of passivity and submissiveness (Beiner, 2007). Why, with evidence to the contrary, do such rape myths, common but rarely true beliefs about rapists and rape victims, exist? Recent studies link regular exposure to popular print, television, film, and Internet media with acceptance of rape myths among college-age men and women (Kahlor & Morrison, 2007; Katz, 2006, cited in Lonsway et al., 2009; Reinders, 2006). Is this indicative of the existence of a rape culture? Is culture, particularly culture that includes vehicles like music and movies that give a platform to expressions of violence against women, a sociological antecedent of real sexual violence? What do you think?

The Media Violence Debate in America CLICK TO SHOW


© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a young man deemed unfit for the military is prepared instead for a top secret role as Captain America, a character who, according to the film, is “a superhero dedicated to defending American ideals.” In this film, as in many others, the hero achieves key goals with violence. 


In their studies of culture and class, sociologists consider whether the musical and artistic tastes of different socioeconomic classes vary and, if so, why. While the answer may be interesting in itself, researchers are also likely to go a step farther and examine the links among culture, power, and class inequality. Particularly when using a social conflict lens, sociologists have long sought to show how elites use culture to gain or maintain power over other groups.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has used culture to help explain the phenomenon of social class reproduction, the way in which class status is reproduced from generation to generation. Bourdieu (1984) discusses the concept of cultural capital, wealth in the form of knowledge, ideas, verbal skills, and ways of thinking and behaving. Karl Marx argued that the key to power in a capitalist system is economic capital, particularly possession of the means of production. Bourdieu extends this idea by suggesting that cultural capital can also be a source of power. Children from privileged backgrounds have access to markedly different stores of cultural capital than do children from working-class backgrounds.

Children of the upper and middle classes come into the education system—the key path to success in modern industrial societies—with a set of language and academic skills, beliefs, and models of success and failure that fit into and are validated by mainstream schools. Children from less privileged backgrounds enter with a smaller amount of validated cultural capital; their skills, knowledge base, and styles of speaking are not those that schools conventionally recognize and reward. For example, while a child from a working-class immigrant family may know how to care for her younger siblings, prepare a good meal, and translate for non-English-fluent parents, her parents (like many first-generation immigrants) may have worked multiple jobs and may not have had the skills to read to her or the time or money to expose her to enriching activities. By contrast, her middle-class peers are more likely to have grown up with parents who regularly read to them, took them to shows and museums, and quizzed them on multiplication problems. While both children come to school with knowledge and skills, the cultural capital of the middle-class child can be more readily “traded” for academic success—and eventual economic gains.

In short, schools serve as locations where the cultural capital of the better-off classes is exchanged for educational success and credentials. This difference in scholastic achievement then translates into economic capital, as high achievers assume prestigious, well-paid positions in the workplace. Those who do not have the cultural capital to trade for academic success are often tracked into jobs in society’s lower tiers. Class is reproduced as cultural capital begets academic achievement, which begets economic capital, which again begets cultural capital for the next generation.

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Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP

The worldwide success of North American pop artists such as Beyoncé (shown here) fosters imitation abroad. The threat of a homogenized global culture does not just mean the music of these artists is played everywhere—it means locally produced music often sounds nearly identical as well. 

Clearly, however, the structure of institutional opportunities, while unequal, cannot alone account for broad reproduction of social class across generations. Individuals, after all, make choices about education, occupations, and the like. They have free will—or, as sociologists put it, agency, which is understood as the capacity of individuals to make choices and to act independently. Bourdieu (1977) argues that agency must be understood in the context of structure. To this end, he introduces the concept of habitus, the internalization of objective probabilities and the expression of those probabilities as choice. Put another way, people come to want that which their own experiences and those of the people who surround them suggest they can realistically have—and they act accordingly.

Consider the following hypothetical example of habitus in action. In a poor rural community where few people go to college, fewer can afford it, and the payoff of higher education is not obvious because there are no immediate role models with such experience, Bourdieu would argue that an individual’s “choice” not to prioritize getting into college reflects both agency and structure. That is, she makes the choice not to prepare herself for college or to apply to college, but going to college would likely not have been possible for her anyway due to her economic circumstances and perhaps due to an inadequate education in an underfunded school. By contrast, the habitus of a young upper-middle-class person makes the choice of going to college almost unquestionable. Nearly everyone around her has gone or is going to college, the benefits of a college education are broadly discussed, and she is socialized from her early years to understand that college will follow high school—alternatives are rarely considered. Further, a college education is accessible—she is prepared for college work in a well-funded public school or a private school, and family income, loans, or scholarships will contribute to making higher education a reality. Bourdieu thus suggests that social class reproduction appears on its face to be grounded in individual choices and merit, but fundamental structural inequalities that underlie class reproduction often go unrecognized (or, as Bourdieu puts it, “misrecognized”), a fact that benefits the well-off.


There is a pervasive sense around the world that globalization is creating a homogenized culture—a landscape dotted in every corner of the globe with the Golden Arches and the face of Colonel Sanders beckoning the masses to consume hamburgers and fried chicken. The familiar songs of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé are broadcast on radio stations from Bangladesh to Bulgaria to Belize, while rebroadcasts of such popular U.S. soap operas as The Bold and the Beautiful provide a picture of ostensibly “average” U.S. lives on the world’s television screens.

We see the effects of globalization—and of Americanization in particular—in cultural representations like McDonald’s restaurants, U.S. pop music and videos, and bottles of Coca-Cola spreading around the world. According to press reports, even in the Taliban era in Afghanistan, a time when a deeply conservative Islamist ideology was enforced throughout society, the culture of global Hollywood seeped in through the cracks of fundamentalism’s wall. In January 2001, the Taliban rounded up dozens of barbers in the capital city of Kabul because they had been cutting men’s hair in a style known locally as the “Titanic”: “At the time, Kabul’s cooler young men wanted that Leonardo DiCaprio look, the one he sported in the movie. It was an interesting moment because under the Taliban’s moral regime, movies were illegal…. Yet thanks to enterprising video smugglers who dragged cassettes over mountain trails by mule, urban Afghans knew perfectly well who DiCaprio was and what he looked like” (Freund, 2002, p. 24).

How should a sociologist evaluate the spread of a globalized culture? Is globalization, on balance, positive or negative for countries, communities, and corporate entities? Is it just business, or does it also have political implications? The conflict and functionalist perspectives offer us different ways of seeing contemporary global culture, a culture that draws heavily, though by no means exclusively, on U.S. trends and tastes.

Race and the Culture of Excellence CLICK TO SHOW
Exporting Culture CLICK TO SHOW


Everett Collection

Did all of the actors who were part of Slumdog Millionaire, a blockbuster film, benefit from its success? The local extras—as well as some of the central characters—took away little financial gain from the film. 

A functionalist examining the development and spread of a broad global culture might begin by asking, “What is its function?” He or she could deduce that globalization spreads not only material culture in the form of food and music but also nonmaterial culture in the form of values and norms. Globalized norms and values can strengthen social solidarity and consequently serve to reduce conflict between states and societies. Therefore, globalization serves the integrative function of creating some semblance of a common culture that can foster mutual understanding and a foundation for dialogue.

Recall from Chapter 1 that functionalism assumes the social world’s many parts are interdependent. Indeed, globalization highlights both the cultural and the economic interdependence of countries and communities. The book Global Hollywood (Miller, Govil, McMurria, & Maxwell, 2002) describes what its authors call a new international division of cultural labor, a system of cultural production that crosses the globe, making the creation of culture an international rather than a national phenomenon (though profits still flow primarily into the core of the filmmaking industry in Hollywood).

The blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) offers an example of the international division of cultural labor. The film was directed by Englishman Danny Boyle and codirected by New Delhi native Loveleen Tandan from a screenplay by Boyle’s countryman Simon Beaufoy that was based on the 2005 novel Q & A by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. In 2009, the film, distributed in the United States by Warner Independent Pictures but shown internationally, received nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Indian cast of Slumdog Millionaire includes both established local actors and young Mumbai slum dwellers, some of whom were later found to have earned very little from their efforts. Boyle has argued, however, that the filmmakers worked to ensure future educational opportunities and shelter for the young actors. The film’s global appeal was huge, and it generated almost $378 million in box office returns, leading the Wall Street Journal to label it “the film world’s first globalized masterpiece” (Morgenstern, 2008).

From the social conflict perspective, we can view the globalization of culture as a force with the potential to perpetuate economic inequality—particularly because globalization is a product of the developed world. While a functionalist would highlight the creative global collaboration and productive interdependence of a film like Slumdog Millionaire, a conflict theorist would ask, “Who benefits from such a production?” While Western film companies, producers, and directors walk away with huge profits, the slum dwellers used as actors or extras garner far less sustained global interest or financial gain.

A conflict theorist might also describe how the globalization of cheap fast food can cripple small independent eateries that serve indigenous (and arguably healthier) cuisine. An influx of global corporations inhibits some local people from owning their own means of production and providing employment to others. The demise of local restaurants, cafés, and food stalls represents a loss of the cuisines and thus the unique cultures of indigenous peoples. It also forces working people to depend on large corporations for their livelihoods, depriving them of economic independence.

While functionalism and conflict theory offer different interpretations of globalization, both offer valuable insights. Globalization may bring people together through common entertainment, eating experiences, and communication technologies, and, at the same time, it may represent a threat—real or perceived—to local cultures and economies as indigenous producers are marginalized and the sounds and styles of different cultures are replaced by a single mold set by Western entertainment marketers.

Journalist Thomas Friedman has suggested that while most countries cannot resist the forces of globalization, it is not inevitably homogenizing. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, Friedman (2000) writes that “the most important filter is the ability to ‘glocalize.’ I define healthy glocalization as the ability of a culture, when it encounters other strong cultures, to absorb influences that naturally fit into and can enrich that culture, to resist those things that are truly alien and to compartmentalize those things that, while different, can nevertheless be enjoyed and celebrated as different” (p. 295). The concept of glocalization highlights the idea of cultural hybrids born of a pastiche of both local and global influences.

In The Globalization of Nothing (2007), sociologist George Ritzer proposes a view of globalization that integrates what he calls “grobalization,” the product of “the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the like and their desire… to impose themselves on various geographic areas” (p. 15). Ritzer adds that the “main interest of the entities involved in grobalization is in seeing their power, influence, and in many cases profits grow (hence the term grobalization) throughout the world” (p. 16). The concept of grobalization draws from classical sociological theorists like Karl Marx and Max Weber. For instance, where Marx theorized capitalism’s imperative of economic imperialism, Ritzer offers contemporary examples of grobalization’s economic and cultural imperialism, exporting not only brand-name products but also the values of consumerism and the practical vehicles of mass consumption, such as credit cards.


© Joachim Ladefoged/VII/Corbis

In its more than half-century of operation, McDonald’s has become one of the most recognized icons of U.S. life and culture; Ronald McDonald is said to be the most recognized figure in the world after Santa Claus. McDonald’s serves 47 million customers every day in an estimated 31,000 restaurants in 119 countries around the globe. 

How will the world’s cultures shift in the decades to come? Will they globalize or remain localized? Will they glocalize or grobalize? Clearly, the material culture of the West, particularly of the United States, is powerful: It is pushed into other parts of the world by markets and merchants, but it is also pulled in by people eager to hitch their stars to the modern Western world. Local identities and cultures continue to shape people’s views and actions, but there is little reason to believe that McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola will drop out of the global marketplace. The dominance of U.S. films, music, and other cultural products is also likely to remain a feature of the world cultural stage.


Culture is a vital component of a community’s identity—through language, objects, and practices, culture embodies a community and its environment. Culture is powerful and complex. As we have seen in this chapter, cultural products, including those disseminated by the mass media, both reflect and shape our societal hopes and fears, norms and beliefs, and rituals and practices. From flesh-eating zombies and classical music to folk dances and folkways, culture is at the core of the human experience. We are all profoundly “cultured.”

Culture can be a source of integration and harmony, as functionalists assert, or it can be a vehicle of manipulation and oppression, as conflict theorists often see it. There is compelling evidence for both perspectives, and context is critical for recognizing which perspective better captures the character of a given cultural scenario.

The study of culture is much more than just an intellectual exercise. In this chapter, you encountered several key cultural questions that are important objects of public discussion today. Do the mass media foster viewer engagement in public life, or do they distract and disengage us from the pressing problems of our times? Is violence in the media just entertainment, or does it contribute, even indirectly, to violence in relationships and society? Will the evolution of a more global culture play an integrative role between societies, or will smaller cultures resist homogenization and assert their own power, bringing about conflict rather than harmony? These are questions of profound importance in a media-saturated and multicultural world—a sociological perspective can help us to make sense of them.




Explore and Target Careers and Job Options

When you have completed an initial career identity assessment, reflect on your career options. Enlist the support of friends, family, and career professionals as you review career options. You can start by using online tools and library resources. Review general information about occupational fields and industries to identify a wide spectrum of career options. Examine specific aspects of careers and occupations, including types of employers, job skills and titles, responsibilities, entry-level educational requirements, advancement potential, work environments, salaries and benefits, and employment trends.

Use your research results to identify potential employers and link to their websites. Compare results for a variety of employers. Your career and occupational exploration and your employer research are the best ways to support and validate your career aspirations. Online career exploration and employer resources include the following:

• (CareerOneStop)

• (Vault Career Intelligence)

• (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook)

• (O*Net OnLine)

In addition to researching career trends and data, learn about career options firsthand through informational interviews. An informational interview is similar to any interview, except that you interview the individual working in your career field of interest to learn about his or her profession, career skills, education, current position, and/or employer. To request informational interviews, make contact through family members, friends, or school faculty and alumni and their networks.

Other options for exploring careers include internships, field studies, and part-time jobs. Internships offer opportunities for you to learn about career options in real-world settings, to test your career skills and interests, and to meet professionals in your field.

Make Career Decisions and Set Career Goals

Making career decisions is a key aspect of the career development process. Evaluate your alternatives and identify the advantages and disadvantages of each career. From here, you can begin to make a career choice, which will influence your career goals.

Career goals are important milestones that provide a structure enabling you to evaluate progress on your career path. Goals are not absolute, and you may update and change them as you continue to move ahead. Long-term goals are generally accomplished in 1, 5, or 10 years and incorporate your dreams and aspirations. Short-term goals (or objectives) are completed on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis and identify specific tasks associated with your career plan.


 Explore some sample employer websites to gather information. What are the career and employment options in each organization? What information is highlighted and what do you learn about the employer? What can you conclude about the industry?

 Create three goals that you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years, then add short-term goals that support the completion of the long-term goal.



•    Culture consists of the beliefs, norms, behaviors, and products common to members of a particular social group. Language is an important component of cultures. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis points to language’s role in structuring perceptions and actions. Culture is a key topic of sociological study because as human beings we have the capacity to develop it through the creation of artifacts such as songs, foods, and values. Culture also influences our social development: We are products of our cultural beliefs, behaviors, and biases.

•    Sociologists and others who study culture generally distinguish between material and nonmaterial culture. Material culture encompasses physical artifacts—the objects created, embraced, and consumed by a given society. Nonmaterial culture is generally abstract and includes culturally accepted ideas about living and behaving. The two are intertwined, because nonmaterial culture often gives particular meanings to the objects of material culture.

•    Norms are the common rules of a culture that govern people’s actions. Folkways are fairly weak norms, the violation of which is tolerable. Mores are strongly held norms; violating them is subject to social or legal sanction. Taboos are the most closely held mores; violating them is socially unthinkable. Laws codify some, though not all, of society’s norms.

•    Beliefs are particular ideas that people accept as true, though they need not be objectively true. Beliefs can be based on faith, superstition, science, tradition, or experience.

•    Values are the general, abstract standards of a society and define basic, often idealized principles. We identify national values, community values, institutional values, and individual values. Values may be sources of cohesion or of conflict.

•    Ideal culture consists of the norms and values that the people of a society profess to embrace. Real culture consists of the real values, norms, and practices of people in a society.

•    Ethnocentrism is the habit of judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own.

•    Sociologists entreat us to embrace cultural relativism, a perspective that allows us to understand the practices of other societies in terms of those societies’ norms and values rather than our own.

•    Multiple cultures may exist and thrive within any country or community. Some of these are subcultures, which exist together with the dominant culture but differ in some important respects from it.

•    High culture is an exclusive culture often limited in its accessibility and audience. High culture is widely associated with the upper class, which both defines and embraces its content. Popular culture encompasses entertainment, culinary, and athletic tastes that are broadly shared. As “mass culture,” popular culture is more fully associated with the middle and working classes.

•    Rape culture is a social culture that provides an environment conducive to rape. Some sociologists argue that we can best understand the high number of rapes and attempted rapes in the United States by considering both individual circumstances and the larger social context, which contains messages that marginalize and normalize the problem of sexual assault.

•    Global culture—some would say U.S. culture—has spread across the world in the form of Hollywood films, fast-food restaurants, and popular music heard in virtually every country.


culture, 55

material culture, 55

nonmaterial culture, 56

beliefs, 56

folkways, 57

mores, 57

taboos, 57

laws, 57

values, 58

ideal culture, 59

real culture, 59

cultural inconsistency, 59


doxic, 62

etic perspective, 62

emic perspective, 62

cultural relativism, 62

subcultures, 64

language, 64

multiculturalism, 66

high culture, 66

popular culture, 66

mass media, 68

rape culture, 70

social class reproduction, 71

cultural capital, 71

habitus, 72

global culture, 72


1.   This chapter discusses tensions between ideal and real culture in attitudes and practices linked to conventional attractiveness and honesty. Can you think of other cases where ideal and real cultures appear to collide?

2.   The chapter suggests that mass media may play a paradoxical role in society, offering both the information needed to bring about an informed citizenry and disseminating mass entertainment that distracts and disengages individuals from debates of importance. Which of these functions do you think is more powerful?

3.   What is cultural capital? What, according to Bourdieu, is its significance in society? How is it accrued and how is it linked to the reproduction of social class?

4.   The chapter presents an argument on the relationships among culture, mass media, and sexual violence with a discussion of the concept of a rape culture. Describe the argument. Do you agree or disagree with the argument? Explain your position.

5.   Sociologist George Ritzer sees within globalization two processes—“glocalization” and “grobalization.” What is the difference between the two? Which is, in your opinion, the more powerful process, and why do you believe this? Support your point with evidence.

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If you like the writer, you can hire them again. Just copy & paste their ID on the order form ("Preferred Writer's ID" field). This way, your vocabulary will be uniform, and the writer will be aware of your needs.
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You can order essay or any other work from two different writers to choose the best one or give another version to a friend. This can be done through the add-on "Same paper from another writer."
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Check out the latest reviews and opinions submitted by real customers worldwide and make an informed decision.
Political science
Great paper
Customer 452863, September 11th, 2021
Professional Writing Engl-3311
Thank you
Customer 452919, March 2nd, 2023
Awesome work!
Customer 452521, June 27th, 2020
Thank you for your teamwork. I have only used Solutions to assist me with my assignments.
Customer 452919, March 1st, 2023
Thank you for your service. I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.
Customer 452919, November 23rd, 2021
I eant to thank the enttir team. A special thanks to Simon!
Customer 452919, November 2nd, 2021
Best service hands down.
Customer 452995, January 24th, 2022
Business Studies
This is fantastic! Thank you so much for your hard work!
Customer 453131, November 16th, 2022
I want to thank the entire team. Please know that I am truly grateful for your service.
Customer 452919, November 11th, 2021
Great paper thank you so much
Customer 452667, March 19th, 2021
Thank you, I have been averaging 16/20 points for the past discussions 1-4). Unsure why, but I will know how this one goes in a few days. Thank you for your assistance.
Customer 452919, February 16th, 2023
Business Studies
The writer delivered as on time with quality work. But writteres communication could of been better and I would have been more content with choosing my own writer as per my assignment.
Customer 452679, March 24th, 2021
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