Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book


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The focus is on understanding or interpreting human activity in terms of the meanings that humans attribute to it.

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Sociology… is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. This emphasis on the meaningfulness of social action is taken up later by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism. The interpretive perspective is concerned with developing a knowledge of social interaction as a meaning-oriented practice.

It promotes the goal of greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society. Symbolic interactionism provides a theoretical perspective that helps scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society.


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This perspective is centred on the notion that communication—or the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is how people make sense of their social worlds. As pointed out by Herman and Reynolds , this viewpoint sees people as active in shaping their world, rather than as entities who are acted upon by society Herman and Reynolds This approach looks at society and people from a micro-level perspective. George Herbert Mead — is considered one of the founders of symbolic interactionism. In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same manner as natural events.

Nor do people directly react to each other as forces acting upon forces or as stimuli provoking automatic responses. Interaction is symbolic in the sense that it occurs through the mediation, exchange, and interpretation of symbols. Social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions. Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals.

Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions.

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For example, while a structural functionalist studying a political protest might focus on the function protest plays in realigning the priorities of the political system, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in seeing the ways in which individuals in the protesting group interact, or how the signs and symbols protesters use enable a common definition of the situation—e. The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman — to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis.

There is always the possibility that individuals will make a gaff that prevents them from successfully maintaining face. Moreover, because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history Goffman Symbolic interactionism has also been important in bringing to light the experiences and worlds of individuals who are typically excluded from official accounts of the world.


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The significance of labelling theory is to show that individuals are not born deviant or criminal, but become criminal through an institutionalized symbolic interaction with authorities. As Becker says:. Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live. Research done from this perspective is often scrutinized because of the difficulty of remaining objective.

Others criticize the extremely narrow focus on symbolic interaction. Proponents, of course, consider this one of its greatest strengths. One of the problems of sociology that focuses on micro-level interactions is that it is difficult to generalize from very specific situations, involving very few individuals, to make social scientific claims about the nature of society as a whole.

The danger is that, while the rich texture of face-to-face social life can be examined in detail, the results will remain purely descriptive without any explanatory or analytical strength. In a similar fashion, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or relations of power that structure or condition face-to-face symbolic interactions.

The perspective on social life as an unstructured and unconstrained domain of agency and subjective meanings has difficulty accounting for the ways that social life does become structured and constrained. Sociologists around the world are looking closely for signs of what would be an unprecedented event: the emergence of a global culture. In the past, empires such as those that existed in China, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America linked people from many different countries, but those people rarely became part of a common culture.

They lived too far from each other, spoke different languages, practised different religions, and traded few goods. Today, increases in communication, travel, and trade have made the world a much smaller place. More and more people are able to communicate with each other instantly—wherever they are located—by telephone, video, and text. They share movies, television shows, music, games, and information over the internet. Students can study with teachers and pupils from the other side of the globe. Governments find it harder to hide conditions inside their countries from the rest of the world.

Sociologists are researching many different aspects of this potential global culture. Some are exploring the dynamics involved in the social interactions of global online communities, such as when members feel a closer kinship to other group members than to people residing in their own country. Other sociologists are studying the impact this growing international culture has on smaller, less-powerful local cultures.

Yet other researchers are exploring how international markets and the outsourcing of labour impact social inequalities. The critical perspective in sociology has its origins in social activism, social justice movements, revolutionary struggles, and radical critique. The key elements of this analysis are the emphases on power relations and the understanding of society as historical—subject to change, struggle, contradiction, instability, social movement and radical transformation. Rather than objectivity and value neutrality, the tradition of critical sociology promotes practices of liberation and social change in order to achieve universal social justice.

While conflict is certainly central to the critical analyses of power and domination, the focus of critical sociology is on developing types of knowledge and political action that enable emancipation from power relations i.

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Historical materialism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, queer studies, and poststructuralism are all examples of the critical perspective in sociology. One of the outcomes of a systematic analysis such as these is that it generates questions about the relationship between our everyday life and issues concerning social justice and environmental sustainability. What does the word critical mean in this context?

As we noted in the discussion of Marx above, historical materialism concentrates on the study of how our everyday lives are structured by the connection between relations of power and economic processes. The basis of this approach begins with the macro-level question of how specific relations of power and specific economic formations have developed historically.

These form the context in which the institutions, practices, beliefs, and social rules norms of everyday life are situated. Hunter-gatherer, agrarian, feudal, and capitalist modes of production have been the economic basis for very different types of society throughout world history. It is not as if this relationship is always clear to the people living in these different periods of history, however.

Often the mechanisms and structures of social life are obscure. This transition was nevertheless the context for the decisions individuals and families made to emigrate from Scotland and attempt to found the Red River Colony. It might also not have been clear to them that they were participating in the development of colonial power relationships between the indigenous people of North America and the Europeans that persist up until today. Through contact with the Scots and the French fur traders, the Cree and Anishinabe were gradually drawn out of their own indigenous modes of production and into the developing global capitalist economy as fur trappers and provisioners for the early European settlements.

It was a process that eventually led to the loss of control over their lands, the destruction of their way of life, the devastating spread of European diseases, the imposition of the Indian Act, the establishment of the residential school system, institutional and everyday racism, and an enduring legacy of intractable social problems. In a similar way, historical materialism analyzes the constraints that define the way individuals review their options and make their decisions in present-day society.

From the types of career to pursue to the number of children to have, the decisions and practices of everyday life must be understood in terms of the 20th century shift to corporate ownership and the 21st century context of globalization in which corporate decisions about investments are made. The historical materialist approach emphasizes three components Naiman The first is that everything in society is related—it is not possible to study social processes in isolation. The second is that everything in society is dynamic i.

It is not possible to study social processes as if they existed outside of history. The third is that the tensions that form around relationships of power and inequality in society are the key drivers of social change. It is not possible to study social processes as if they were independent of the historical formations of power that both structure them and destabilize them. Another major school of critical sociology is feminism. From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men.

Introduction to Sociology

How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed? As Harriet Martineau put it in Society in America :.

All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position. It must necessarily follow that the noblest of them will, sooner or later, put forth a moral power which shall prostrate cant [hypocracy], and burst asunder the bonds silken to some but cold iron to others of feudal prejudice and usages. In the meantime is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of this limitation?

Feminist sociology focuses on analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men. Inequality between the genders is a phenomenon that goes back at least 4, years Lerner Although the forms and ways in which it has been practised differ between cultures and change significantly through history, its persistence has led to the formulation of the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories.

Key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability i. These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions e.

Feminism is a distinct type of critical sociology. There are considerable differences between types of feminism, however; for example, the differences often attributed to the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of feminism from the s to the s, and the third wave of feminism from the s onward.

Despite the variations between different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:. She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the s ands that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes.

These themes were nevertheless difficult to articulate in sociological terms let alone in the language of politics or law. Part of the issue was sociology itself. Smith argued that the abstract concepts of sociology, at least in the way that it was taught at the time, only contributed to the problem. Whereas critical sociologists often criticize positivist and interpretive sociology for their conservative biases, the reverse is also true. However, at a deeper level the criticism is often aimed at the radical nature of critical analyses. Critical sociology is also criticized from the point of view of interpretive sociology for overstating the power of dominant groups to manipulate subordinate groups.

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For example, media representations of women are said to promote unobtainable standards of beauty or to reduce women to objects of male desire. This type of critique suggests that individuals are controlled by media images rather than recognizing their independent ability to reject media influences or to interpret media images for themselves. In a similar way, critical sociology is criticized for implying that people are purely the products of macro-level historical forces rather than individuals with a capacity for individual and collective agency. The consumption of food is a commonplace, daily occurrence, yet it can also be associated with important moments in our lives.

Eating can be an individual or a group action, and eating habits and customs are influenced by our cultures. Any of these factors might become a topic of sociological study. Food production is a primary example of how human systems adapt to environmental systems. In many respects the concerns of environmentalists and others with respect to the destructive relationship between industrial agriculture and the ecosystem are the results of a dysfunctional system of adaptation. The concept of sustainable agriculture points to the changes needed to return the interface between humans and the natural environment to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

A sociologist viewing food consumption through a symbolic interactionist lens would be more interested in micro-level topics, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, or the role it plays in the social interaction of a family dinner.

Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book
Social Action in Europe: Sustainable Social Development and Economic Challenges: Conference Book

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