Sociology Dictionary

The ability of people to change the institutions in which they live. In both pre-modern and modern sensibility, human agency is absent, minimal or viewed as madness and deviancy. In many pre-modern cultures, there are Gods who know and control every act of every living thing, hence very little agency is possible. In modern science, 'laws' are said to regulate all human behaviour; sexual, economic, criminal, or political. In postmodern science, human agency has much more room. In Chaos theory, there are moments when agency is possible and times when it is very difficult to change things. Democracy presumes people have both the wit and the ability to change 'social laws' to some other pattern. Radical scholarship tries to enhance that capacity. | Back |

The domination of humans by their own products; material, political, and ideological. The separation of humans from their humanity; the interference with the production of authentic culture; the fragmentation of social bonds and community. Any process which reduces people to their animal nature. Liberal definitions of alienation have to do with feelings; socialist definitions have more to do with relations and positions in a social order. In Marx, a variety of terms are used to capture the flavour and variety implicit in the process of alienation: "Trennung" (divorce or separation), "Spaltung" (division or cleavage), "Absonderung" (separation or withdrawal), "Verderben" (spoiled, corrupt), "sich selbst verlieren" (lost to oneself), "auf sich zuruckziehen" (withdrawn into oneself), "ausserlich machen" (externalized), "alle Gattungsbande zerreissen" (ties with others disintegrated), "die Menschenwelt in eine Welt atomisticher Individuen auflosen" (humanity dissolved into fragmented individuals). Taken together these constructs constitute and create the meaning of the term "alienation" for Marx. | Back |

Normlessness (lit. without order. a=without; nomy=order). A term used by Durkheim to indicate "the collapse of the normative order." The term implies that conformity to norms is natural and normal; that resistance is pathological. Then too, embedded in the concept is the idea that norms are above and beyond the individuals who are said to organize their behaviour in terms of the normative structure. | Back |


French; bureau = writing desk and, later, drawer. It has come to mean any work requiring the keeping of files; later a form of social organization in which order, rationality and hierarchy are key elements. In more general terms, a way of organizing social life such that an elite can control the behaviour of a large mass of people by means of a staff (or cadre). Marked by formal and uniform application of rules, bureaucracies are supposed to be "rational" instruments (see Weber) by which goals determined by an elite may be achieved. Bureaucratic organization typifies modern industrial corporations, military organizations and a managed society. See McDonaldization. | Back |


A system which separates workers from any property rights in the means by which they produce culture by their labour. The system transforms the social means of subsistence into capital on the one hand and the immediate producers into wage labourers on the other hand. Capitalism is usually defined as the private ownership of the means of production but Marxist definitions emphasize the exploitation of labour by capital: by claiming all (or most) of the means to produce culture as private property, a small class of owners pre-empts material culture to their own comfort while denying the vast majority the means to subsistence as well as the means to produce ideological culture when they are not working. | Back |


Class is one of the main systems of domination which affect patterns of health, housing, self esteem, religion, education, recreation and politics. It is based upon one's relationship to the means of production and distribution. For Marxists, a class consists of people who have the same role in the process of production. The two basic classes under capitalism are the capitalist (or ruling) class called the Bourgeoisie - those who own and control all productive processes - and the working class called the Proletariat, who because they lack that control have to sell their labour for wages. Bankers, major corporate stockholders, top managers and absentee landlords belong to the capitalist class. Factory and construction workers, police, secretaries, hospital workers, teachers, and many others belong to the working class. There are also other classes, such as the middle class of self-employed people (farmers, shopkeepers, poets, lawyers, doctors, etc.). | Back |


The antisocial activity of corporations to increase profit or reduce costs: adulteration of food, distribution of unsafe products, bribery, avoiding taxes, subverting the political process, and so on. There is far more corporate crime involving larger amounts of money than petty unorganized crime (burglary, robbery, extortion, embezzlement, and such). With a few notable exceptions, corporate crime is seldom policed, reported or punished. | Back |


A postmodern method of analysis; its goal is to undo all permanent, objective, determinative 'constructions' of scientists. Deconstruction tears a text apart, shows its unexamined assumptions, reveals its contradictions and its refusal to deal with contradictory materials. Typically a deconstructive critique endeavours to point out the classist, racist, sexist, ageist, and other oppressive dimensions of speech. Deconstructionists "unpack" the layered dimensions of speech in order to appreciate the politics and special interests behind words, particularly when that intent invalidates, de-legitimizes, or otherwise, de-values specific individuals or a class of citizens. | Back |


A theory of neo-colonial imperialism which first gained currency in Latin America in the late 1960s. The theory asserts that trade and foreign direct investment distorts local economics and benefits the multinational corporations and imperialist countries. A country becomes dependent upon the U.S., Germany, England, or Japan by selling cash crops or natural resources and dependent upon the same countries for food and luxury goods. The developed capitalist countries set the terms which benefit multinational corporations and banks and, ironically, give "aid" to repair some of the distortions caused by dependency. A leading exponent of dependency theory was André Gunder Frank who argued that the capitalist world system was responsible for 'the development of underdevelopment'. | Back |


Nonconformity with existing/traditional social norms. This nonconformity is often said to be pathological when it challenges power and privilege; yet it is said to be indicative of innovation or creativity when it is approved by the gate-keepers of morality. A loaded term, deviancy is a negative asset when the environment is stable but can be a positive asset to a society when the environment is irreversibly changing. | Back |


When different people do different things in the production process, there is a division of labour. Think of the construction of a house; one person can do everything or can hire different people to do the carpentry, plumbing, wiring, masonry or painting. A society constitutes itself as a human society by the creation of culture. Any division of labour which eliminates or restricts people in the production of material, ideological, and political culture as a complex unity subverts the human condition. For example, capitalism assigns manual labour to the worker, the production of ideological culture to the manager and the production of political culture is controlled by an elite. In advanced capitalism, there is also a geographical division of labour. In the electronics industry, the "brain" inhabits the 'silicon valleys' of the United States, Europe and Japan, while the "hands" are in Taiwan, Haiti, El Salvador, South, Korea, Indonesia and other countries of the Third World. Durkheim held that the division of labour promotes solidarity and is a source of human freedom; Marx held that it destroys solidarity and constrains individual freedom. | Back |


(1857-1951) Durkheim made many contributions to the study of society, suicide, the division of labour, solidarity and religion. Raised in a time of troubles in France, Durkheim spent much of his genius justifying order and commitment to order. He said that the god concept was a false reification [collective representation] of the power of groups to shape the behaviour of members; of religion as a solution to the problem of solidarity [how to hold people together when they have conflicting interests]; that suicide increases when society falls apart [anomie] and that there were other ways to get solidarity rather than by religion. He spoke of mechanical solidarity (based on religion) and organic solidarity as different ways to bind people together. Organic solidarity was supposed to emerge out of a complex and functionally interdependent division of labour. The socialist response to Durkheim is to question the ways in which the labour process is to be organized; the degree to which order takes precedence over social justice and alternative ways to get solidarity. | Back |

A thesis that all the political questions of a good society have been worked out and all that remains is to set up the technical means by which to handle social problems. This view (a)tends to freeze society in one historical moment and (b)preempts all future history while (c)eliminating human beings from the production of political culture. The thesis was put forth by a liberal theorist, Daniel Bell. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, many in the West believe that history has ended, that all that is left to do is to extend capitalism and liberal democracy to other parts of the world and the system is complete - a view first propounded by Francis Fukuyama. | Back |

A period in 18th century Europe characterized by a faith in the ability of science to 'enlighten' human beings by discovery of all the Laws of Nature and society. It used a slogan from I. Kant, 'Dare to Know,' and inspired the works of John Locke, Racine, Moliére, Bach and Rembrandt. It remains the centre point of modern science knowledge process pushing aside both pre-modern and post-modern knowledge processes [see which]. Hegel and many others assumed that precise knowledge about nature and society was possible; that rational, linear methodology was essential to the discovery of such laws and that such rationality would be found in the state guided by scientists. The god concept was reduced to that of a creative and indifferent watch-maker who used very precise tools to build the cosmos but no longer interfered in it. | Back |


A person's discernible ethnic background. Not necessarily the same as nationality. There have been some 3 to 4 thousand discernible cultural/ethnic life worlds. Today the political question is how to honour such diversity without the hierarchy or exploitation so often seen. A second political question is whether ethnicity is biologically or culturally determined. Most sociologists hold that one's ethnic background is a cultural rather than a biological fact. | Back |

The belief that the values, practices, and general social set-up of one's own native culture are superior to all others. Such a view tends to justify exploitation by more militant societies. | Back |


Literally, folk methods: the study of the folk methods used to construct social reality. Just as grammar deals with the rules with which language is used to create meaning, ethnomethodology attempts to clarify the rules of social interaction is used to create meaning by interacting people. After Garfinkel. This body of work stands in contrast to those who hold that the regularities found in human behaviour arise from genes, instincts, physiology or purely psychological processes. | Back |


A social form in which several important human services/needs are met; intimacy, discipline, affection, and the reproduction of labour power. In a family system of reproducing labour power, one generation provides a new generation with all the food, shelter, clothing, health care, socialization and recreation required to turn them into decent human beings. There are other ways to reproduce labour. Those costs could be charged off to the firms which benefit from the production of labour power but that would severely limit profits. There have been some 3000 to 4000 different family forms in human history; the patriarchal nuclear family is but one. | Back |


A game in which the object is to move a ball into the space protected by a male solidarity. Football began as a contest between hostile villagers in which the head of a fallen enemy was kicked back and forth between the villages or opposing armies. The Romans brought the game to England some 2000 years ago. By the 16th Century, the English had adapted it as a forum in which competing classes and regions inflicted physical damage on one another in controlled situations. A proper match placed goal posts a mile or more apart. Shrove Tuesday was a day in which most villages and parishes had one great game before Lent; countrymen against city dwellers; merchants against gentlemen, guilds against guilds and workers against workers in nearby towns. King Charles forbade the game since it injured too many prospective soldiers.

A freudian analysis would focus upon the centre circle as the symbolic mother; the ball as a phallic symbol and the opposing goal line as the
hymen of a forbidden female.
Feminists would note that it reproduces machismo and teaches young men to compete and to dominate other young men. | Back |


A form of labour process with an extreme sub-division of labour, close control of the work process by supervisors and the pace of work determined by the speed of the assembly line. Named after the Ford automobile factory system, itself modelled after the meat packing plants in Chicago. In return for regimented conditions of work, Fordism delivered relatively high wages and economies of scale to reduce the costs of mass produced goods for general consumption. | Back |


(1926-1984) French psychologist who stopped working within the existing systems of social control and began to criticize them. He made the point that knowledge is an important form of power which can be used for or against people. Foucault went on to criticize psychiatry in his book on Madness and Civilization, Medicine in The Birth of the Clinic, and the criminal justice system in his book, Discipline and Punish. These all concerned the use of language/power against those confined/treated by such institutions. He studied the 'games of truth' in his last work and argued that truth-telling was a political virtue. | Back |


Gender refers to the psycho-social division of labour in a society; not to the biological and physiological differences between men and women. Gendering varies dramatically across cultures; biology and physiology vary but little. One uses the words 'male/female' to refer to biology; one use the words 'men/women' to refer to the product of social gendering work. Most societies socialize to two and only two genders but some societies provide for three or more. Physiology differences permits the specification of a great many genders. Gendering patterns begin early to develop some skills, beliefs and attitudes in young males and females. By age three, most young people begin to embody a gender division of labour in household, play, school and friendships. In such societies, boys and girls form separate groups before puberty and begin to embody traditional patriarchal role relationships soon after puberty. In more egalitarian societies, childhood is much less differentiated by gender while adult relationships are much less stratified. | Back |


The introduction into countries other than Japan of industrial relations systems and methods of production generally considered to be typical of Japanese-owned companies. Supporters claim that Japanese management techniques make for greater productivity and less conflictual industrial relations. Critics say that such methods intensify work; in effect, 'working smarter' also means working harder for the same pay; and that it reduces workers' control over how they do their jobs. Japanese companies themselves use different methods in different countries. For example, a Japanese company may have a company union in Japan, a tame union chosen in a "beauty contest" in Britain, and a non-union plant in the United States. Japanese companies outside Japan also omit some of the more desirable features of employment by a large corporation in Japan, most notably 'lifetime employment'. Key concepts associated with Japanization are 'lean production', 'quality circles' (QC), 'team working', and 'total quality management' (TQM). | Back |


(1818-1883) Marx was a humanist, moreover a socialist humanist and marxism is socialist humanism if nothing else. Marx' humanism was tied to a critique of the forms of domination by which humans were alienated from their human potential. In the present epoch, capitalism and the class system are the major obstacles to human dignity, fellowship, and mutual aid. The class struggle is the means to overcome alienation while communism is the social form in which one's full humanity is possible. Marx was born of a German-Jewish family converted to Christianity. As a student at Bonn, Germany he came under the influence of Hegel but came to reject idealist philosophy in preference to historical materialism. He related the problems in a society to the means of production and urged armed revolution by the proletariat in order to regain control over the means of production of culture without which human life (Species being) is impossible. Marx took a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Jena and went right to work in the sociology of law to explain why one set of laws replace another [to serve elite interests]. In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In 1849, Marx went to England as a refugee from political oppression. Marx and his family lived in poverty while Marx spent years of research on Capital, the first volume published in 1847. Marx helped organize, agitate, and analyze for social revolution. His sympathy lay with the oppressed; his animosity was directed at the oppressive social form. Marx came to the conclusion that genuine human emancipation requires a radical transformation of capitalist (civil) society such that a human labour is possible wherein people create themselves and each other as social entities. Marx held that this kind of human labour is possible only in a communist society since other forms of society: capitalism and feudalism, alienate people in the ordinary operation of society. Marxian theory rests upon the work of many predecessors, collaborators, and critics. There is much left to do to perfect both the theory and practice of human emancipation. One should not sanctify Marx nor ignore him. The marxian response to Marx is to transcend the limitations of his analysis and retain what is worthy of human emancipation as one base upon which to build. Marx died in 1883. | Back |


George Ritzer coined the term to refer to the effort to control all aspects of the production and distribution of goods via a highly organized set of rules. It embodies the bureaucracy which Weber called an 'iron cage.' All employees must wear the clothing specified, use the words rehearsed, work the hours set and make the hamburgers exactly the same way in Moscow, London, Peoria and Hong Kong. This routinization of the labour process tends to destroy both variety and human agency. McDonaldization of Society. | Back |



A term which refers to that epistemological and historical break from the Enlightenment world of modernity in which truth claims about a retrievable, reducible, knowable, certifiable world were rejected. The postmodern historical period reflects a disenchantment with the limitations of the modernist agenda. Postmodernity marks the
birth of a new aesthetics; one devoid of absolutistic, positivistic, essentialistic notions of justice, peace, community, society, culture and
such. The postmodern historical period is much more attuned to the incommensurable complexity of life in a social order and being
human; that is, the non-linear dimensions of existence, e.g., its ironies, absurdities, inconsistencies, contradictions. | Back |


The sum of all of the social identifies presented by an individual and validated by others in specific and differing social occasions. Self and society are thus twin-born. One has no 'self' until one is socialized to a particular social identity: until one presents that identity, and until some other person defined as significant honours and responds to that presentation. Thus, the concept of the mother without the child or the professor without the student are nonsense notions. This definition disagrees with the Anglo-Saxon concept of self as a thing having its own, independent nature such that there is a 'true' self to be discovered and used to mediate one's own behaviour. | Back |


Sociology: Latin: socius = friend, comrade + Greek, ology = study of. A term created by Comte to refer to the science which studies relationships between people [not people per se]. Sociologists investigate how people become social actors and how forms of social reality are constructed. The usefulness of sociology is not yet settled. Some who practice it view it to be a liberating, exciting venture appropriate to all persons who purport to be educated. Some see it as does E.E. Cummings more as "the naughty thumb of science prodding the beauty of sweet spontaneous life." Marx called it a 'bourgeois pseudo-science.' As a matter of fact sociology is scarcely two hundred years old; one should wait a few more centuries before such vast claims for or against it are made with so much certainty. The rule is that any science gets its meaning from the larger society in which it is found. Sociology can be used as a technology of oppression as easily as a critical, emancipatory science. | Back |


A process by which some people in a society are channelled into an inferior (or superior) social positions; usually class, race and gender inequality. Such inferiority affects one's capacity to create culture and to enter into social relationships, thus diminishing the human potential of those at the bottom and at the top. Stratification is not to be conflated with Differentiation. Usually a stratification system requires those defined as inferior to produce items of material culture while the upper strata claim a monopoly over the production of political and ideological culture. Stratification systems also funnel wealth and power to the top of a hierarchy. Some may say stratification is necessary (functional), others say that it is a structure of domination and only necessary if one group is to be exploited by another. Some say stratification is natural since some animal societies are stratified. However, human biology may well be qualitatively different from those animals used as example; baboons, hyenas, cattle, chickens and such. Marx emphasized class stratification while Weber added the strata of power and social honour as very important separate stratification systems. Trotsky and C. Wright Mills viewed the stratification to be comprised of elites and masses. Mills identified three dominant elites: big business, big government and big military. Others add several more: big unions, major universities, several popular ministers as well as some sports stars and movie stars. There is now a global stratification in which some seven nations regulate the political economy of the world. | Back |


Suicide: Self murder. Durkheim, with keen insight, explained suicide in terms of the degree to which a person is integrated into social life; at the low end of social integration, there is anomic suicide, in which people destroy themselves because social bonds dissolve and life becomes meaningless to them. Then when people are tightly integrated and there is a threat to the social group, people may sacrifice themselves in order to protect the group. Elderly Eskimo men and women sometimes walk away to die quietly when food is short; pilots sometimes dive their plane into a target in order to protect their own military. Then there is there is the effort to die with dignity and/or to end pain. Dr. Kevorkian in Michigan has been helping people who are beyond medical help commit suicide. In England, there is the Hemlock Society which offers instruction to people on how to end their lives quickly and quietly. The later is often called 'mercy killing'. | Back |


Those states which are neither part of the advanced capitalist 'first world' nor socialist 'second world'. When the term first came into common usage in the 1950s the Third World was identified as comprising those countries of Asia, African and Latin America that had large rural populations and had an economy predominantly based on agriculture. They also shared low per capita incomes and, in most cases, a recent history of colonialism. Today the term appears to be much less useful and relevant, with the demise of the 'second world' and increasing economic differentiation between the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, particularly with the rise of the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs). Nevertheless, the term Third World may still serve a useful purpose in identifying a large group of countries in the South that share economic dependency and peripherality. These countries have in common the fact that they are socially and economically disadvantaged. | Back |


A form of social organization in which one's behaviour is prescribed in minute detail; in which one is treated en bloc rather than as an individual; in which one and only one social identity is permitted; and one in which one is socialized (or resocialized) to do difficult or dangerous work apart from material rewards. Some total institutions are mere holding tanks for the refuse of a poorly designed society: prisons, asylums, orphanages and such. | Back |


Those persons in a racist, sexist or class society which are not needed or wanted in the production of political and ideological culture. Often they are confined to the production of material wealth [to be used by the privileged] but, in advanced monopoly capitalism, the underclass is entirely surplus to the production needs of industry and commerce. For them, birth control, abortion, abstinence and other population limiting practices are encouraged. In racist societies, genocide is used; in some sexist societies, female infanticide is practised in order to remove those defined as surplus. | Back |


(1864-1920) Weber contributed much to progressive sociology; his critique/analysis of bureaucracy, his concern with forms of stratification other than class, his work on power and authority all help one understand the larger structures which defeat democracy and human agency. He is best noted for his work on the sociology of religion in which he made the connection between the Protestant ethic of hard work, frugality, and stewardship of wealth [on behalf of God] with the Spirit of Capitalism. In methodology, he is known for his use of 'ideal types' as keys to understanding a society or an age--and for verstehen as a pathway to knowledge; verstehen contrasts to empirical analysis and inference. Along with Marx and Durkheim, Weber is a most productive and insightful social theorist. | Back |


Zimbardo set up a very important social psychological experiment at Stanford in which he took 24 bright, mature, emotionally stable men and by flipping a coin, designated some as 'prisoners' and some as 'guards.' The 'prisoners' were picked up at their homes by a police officer, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, blindfolded and taken to 'prison.' The 'guards' were told they could make their own rules. The experiment lasted two weeks. Some prisoners became depressed, confused, hysterical and had to be released after a few days; the guards, otherwise nice guys, became cruel and heartless. Zimbardo had to end the experiment early; the sociology of it all become too, too real. You too could become a swaggering guard or a cowering inmate! | Back |

Agency, human:
Corporate Crime:
Dependency Theory:
Division of labour:
Durkheim, Emile
End of Ideology:
Enlightenment, The
Foucault, Michel:
Marx, Karl:
Self, social:
Third World:
Total institution:
Weber, Max
Zimbardo, Philip:
| Top | Index |