Hi Mr. Harris, i'm writing a sociology paper relating to my life.  It has to have one theoretical perspective and 10 sociological concepts to back it up. (writes Wendy from the USA)


What a marvellous assignment – but what a tricky one too!! Initially, I would advise you to get hold of a good text – how about one of Ritzer’s – and choose a theoretical ‘perspective’ from one of the chapters. I have Ritzer’s ‘Sociological Theory’ (4th edn) in front of me right now – and it has marvellopus bits on ‘structural functionalism’, ‘symbolic interactionism’, ‘contemporary feminist theory’ and so on. The one on ‘ethnomethodology’ also looks good, Ritzer even has a section on (his own) autobiography as a theoretical tool.

The term ‘perspective’ is a bit confusing since sometimes individual theorists work in loose ‘schools’ – so Parson, Durkheim and Merton could all be seen as ‘functionalists’; Marx, Althusser and Gramsci as ‘marxists’; Goffman, Mead, Berger and Luckmann as ‘interactionists’ and so on. The trouvble with this is that there is always some debate about who belongs where, there are often considerable differences of emphasis inside these ‘schools’, and there are always individuals who don’t seem to fit or who don’t form ‘schools’ – I suppose Weber is the main example. So you have to proceed with caution – and maybe say all this in your introduction?

Since the topic is to be your own life, it is tempting to think immediately of work that has focused on the ‘life cycle’,and talked about things like childhood/families, schooling, occupations, secondary socialisation, marriage, parenthood and death (I don’t know how old you are, of course, so I’m not sure if your life has covered all these so far). The trick is to then deploy no less than ten ‘concepts’ in the course of this story – which is quite a task. Again there will be some dispute about what counts as a ‘concept’, I imagine – do you think it means ‘special sociological terms’? Things like ‘manifest and latent function’, or ‘mode pf production’, or ‘definition of the situation’? I assume so – but it is quite a demanding task nevertheless. Some major concepts have little concepts nested inside them – can we count the little ones as separate? What high standards you have at your college!!

This next section might not help at all, because I am describing the way I might do it. You will have to stay within the limits of your courses and their requirements. Try your professor again for some more clues. So – let’s have a go.

I was tempted to talk about marxist perspectives first, but they are not the easiest ones really. There is some work on the family as a site of oppression, and some people have tried to ‘apply’ marxism to understand youth cultures or mass media and the ideas they convey (‘ideologies’ in the marxist term). My files on Althusser [one] or Gramsci [two]on the website might give you the idea here. But the perspective is weak on saying how this might actually affect actual lives – the forces concerned are usually seen as pretty remote from the everyday experiences of actual people. Indeed, this is how ideology works – invisibly, ‘behind people’s backs’. You could tell a story of how you once naively believed in ‘ideas’ like individualism, the ‘naturalness’ of market forces, the universal benefits of ‘free enterprise’ or whatever – and now you see the (marxist) light – but that might lead you outside the assignment’s boundaries altogether? How much of a risk do you want to take?

You could also try out some of the recent stuff on postmodernity or late modernity or risk society? You could take one of the heroes (or rely on Ritzer’s textbook again),and tell us the story of your own lifestyle and how it reflects new notions of dependency and choice, risk and security, or how you became  initially ‘disembedded’ from your family and local values and now you are trying to get re-embedded in classic modernist social bonds – via consumerism, mass media ,or even the internet. The debate turns on how much the classic social bonds ( family, class, religion, community) still affect your life and lifestyle.

Let’s get on to the easier (?) stuff. Imagine you were keen to develop a functionalist perspective first. In this case, you might be advised to follow one favourite theme in that work, and start with the big major concept of socialisation (how individuals become social). You could think of the various stages of socialisation – early childhood and the family. There is some work here on the functions of the family as introducing kids to the values of the wider society. Parsons has developed some neat pattern variables (part of his major AGIL model)  to describe families as person-centered: --  ‘affective’, diffuse, particularistic, ‘ascribed’  (you’ll have to look this up – I’m relying on memory here). The family stage is important for the development of the ‘core personality’, and you might comment on your own family life, how you came to see yourself as an individual etc. Of course, some families will also be dysfunctional ones, where the emotional bonds and ties are used to produce inadequately socialised individuals – for functionalists, this is how ‘deviancy’ begins for later life.

Other stages of socialisation include schooling (where the values shift towards the impersonal, says Parsons, to give you some idea of the wider society – they become ‘affective-neutral’, specific, general, and based on ‘achieved’ characteristics). This can cause some problems of social adjustment here too. Ideally, schools run entirely rationally and functionally, selecting and encouraging people according to their merits – but all functionalists also know that the system is not perfect, and that sometimes it ‘lags’ behind the requirements of a modern industrial society. ‘Cultural lags’ of this kind include out-dated attitudes on the parts of kids, teachers and parents – things like the idea that girls should not do as well as boys, or that social class or ‘ethnicity’ get mixed up in teachers’ judgements so that certain groups underachieve. Functional considerations – how to get the most meritocratic system – have certainly affected policy too and led to changes in schooling in the UK, for example [see file].

The clash between functional intentions and dysfunctional lags can also lead to social problems – as Merton explains in his classic ‘anomie theory’. US society stresses achievement but also limits the legitimate opportunities (still) for kids from certain unfashionable social backgrounds. The result is a number of types of adjustment – conformism, rebellion, retreatism, ritualism, innovation – which affect kids’ paths into the wider society. Similar ideas are founding classic work on youth subcultures – the pattern of sporting subcultures as a compensation for low academic status, or the alternative options of ‘corner boy’ and ‘college boy’.

This gets you on to the university or college stage and ‘secondary socialisation’ – you have to learn the values and social skills of being a student. How does this happen – via group pressure again? Some of this pressure might lead you into ‘deviance’ of course – as the student subcultures did in Becker’s study ( although this is not a functionalist one), where Kansas University students worked out a kind of semi- unofficial way of maintaining their gpa by swapping essays, psyching out tutors and so on [see file]. Finally as you get ready to enter the world of work again, your values change again, in a process called ‘anticipatory socialisation’ – you become more respectable and more conservative.

Marriage and parenthood awaits, with a chance to see socialisation of infants at work from the other side. Your own extended family might undergo a ‘loss of functions’ and you become more focused on your immediate ‘nuclear’ one. You might undergo social mobility and have to adjust functionally to that. Eventually you will face adjusting to redundancy and old age – maybe the Church you attend will have a functional role here in holding you into a community (the classic function of religion).

OK – I don’t know how many concepts I have mentioned here, or whether you recognised any of them. I’ve still left you a lot to do to look people up and flesh out the bare ideas here.

Here’s another idea, while I think of it. In Berger’s and Luckmann’s famous (and old) book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’, the authors invite you to take part in a ‘thought experiment’. Imagine we are all marooned suddenly on a desert island – we would have to invent a new society. How would we do it, and what would we invent first? We would need some sort of system to divide up the food maybe, or to organise food production? Some division of labour to organise our lives? Some way to regulate sexual access to each other and deal with the raising of any kids? Some way to keep up our morale and encourage the lonely and isolated – a religious ceremony perhaps? You can use this idea to examine the ways in which you encountered social organization and how it looked ‘natural’ to you but that now you’ve done sociology you can see how it is ‘socially constructed’? You can go on to look at the systems of ideas (ideology) that maintain the ‘naturalness’ of our social organizations? This might be only one concept but it is a big one!! While I think of it too, I think it is Berger who has written a book which would be right on the money for you -- on sociology and autobiography (I can't remember the exact title -- I'll look it up sometime)

Or of course there is feminism. Feminist work often particularly stresses ‘life history’ or autobiography as a useful technique. The big concept here might be ‘patriarchy’, and the little nested ones come from examining how patriarchy is maintained. How did your family persuade you to become a (conventional?) girl, for example – the toys they chose for you, the magazines you were allowed to read, the way you were dressed and treated? The contrasts with any brothers? And what about when you went to school – did teachers treat girls differently and did the girls themselves separate themselves off from boys and do ‘social distancing’ (e.g by getting really girly during science lessons)? Tell us the story of peer pressure, dating, the pressure to conform? The effects of the media (lots of material here, some of it on my own website) – how women are represented in films or TV ads, how they are ‘looked’ at by the camera (the ‘male gaze’ as it is called), the ways in which stories (including histories) marginalise women and confine them to stereotyped roles (whore, nun, mother etc) OR maybe how this is all changing in your lifetime? There is some material in feminist work which celebrates the ways in which women these days resist those negative stereotypes and do ‘redemptive readings’ of films and TV, so as to make the women’s roles more interesting and active, despite the intentions of the producers. There is also some work on how women cope in male-dominated organizations after they leave school or college –in the so –called ‘micropolitics’ material in organizational theory especially.

As one final consideration, I do not suppose that the idea of the assignment is really to use all these concepts as if there were no problems? There will indeed be problems in ‘applying’ them, and you shouldn’t worry about this. Indeed, make a virtue of it. Real people are usually far more complex that the models you find in social theory. You might recall episodes that could have been functional or dysfunctional, for example, or which were maybe ambiguous. You might have been able yourself to resist some of the more obvious and crude peer pressures on you to be a conventional girly girl – or found inspiration in bits of peer culture that encouraged you to be ‘different’ or ‘strong’ ( strong women like Madonna or Thelma and Louise are the usual matters under discusison).

Well, as I say – lots of material, but it does require a pretty wide knowledge of sociology. I don’t know what stage you are at yourself. If you want to follow up any of these ideas, get back to me. I wish you the best of luck with it. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it – but I’m very glad I don’t have to do it myself!!

All the very best of luck with it


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