This essay will examine the significance of sociology and the importance of a good understanding of the society in which we live. This essay will also provide an understanding of what sociology is, and an insight into each perspective in relation to a particular concept and some of the social problems surrounding it. It will identify how an understanding of sociology is useful in helping social workers understand, evaluate and resolve the potential problems faced by their client groups, and will assess the importance of sociology in social work practice.

Sociology differs to psychology, in as much as psychology studies the individual and that individual’s reactions and involvement within society. Sociology concentrates its approach on a much wider level, looking at the bigger picture. Giddens (1989:18) reports that the study of sociology offers the individual an opportunity to detach oneself from preconceived ideas about social life, however it does pose specific problems, mainly because of the complex problems involved in subjecting our own behaviour to study. It is hard to be objective which you are directly involved in, and later on in the essay, it is apparent how this has influenced, and biased some perspectives.

Sociology developed as a science in the late 1700s. It was initially a way of attempting to understand the great changes happening in industry and society around that time, following a period of social and industrial revolutions throughout England and the transition from feudal England, into a more capitalist and industrialised society.

Although there are many definitions of sociology, there is no clear cut definition as to what it encompasses.

Macionis and Plummer (1997:4) say that the definition of sociology is the “systematic study of human society”, whilst “The study of human social behaviour, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society”

– is the definition taken from

We can therefore deduce that sociology is a study of looking at things from a wider angle. So, what psychologists may view as a personal tragedy to one person, when viewed from the wider angle, can provide an insight into imbalances in the equilibrium of society. For example, C Wright Mills (taken from Macionis and Plummer) wrote famously about the “Sociological Imagination”, which enables the individual to reflect upon the societal impact of what can be apparently individual events, such as divorce, and unemployment. Whilst divorce is a personal tragedy for the individual, the impact of it nationally becomes a social problem, given that Britain statistically has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. So, sociology is about learning how to look at things with more than just knowledge or common sense, it is about being able to turn situations around and examine the impact on both the individual and the surrounding society.

To do this however, one must be able to identify what society actually is. What does it encompass? How many people does it take to make a society? Even if we assume that a society is, for example, a group of people with self perpetuating rules, living within a particular framework of social relationships, we still have to question to who’s rules are they are adhering, and to what extent is the framework of social relationship to be extended?

Classical sociologists had no problems in identifying what constitutes a society, as they assumed that society was something that could be investigated or analysed in a laboratory, such as with any other science. Classical sociology was in effect the “scientific” study of society. Whilst more modernist approaches such as Cree (as quoted in Cree:1997:276), have identified that today’s society is a much more mosaic and fragmented society, and realises that “much as we all have more than one identity, so we live and move in many different, and at times competing, societies”.

To enable them to study this, sociologists have identified many different perspectives on different sociological concepts.

A concept is an issue that is directly related to sociology or society, and as such includes issues such as the family, crime and deviance, the community, class, status, poverty, race and youth. All these concepts have a direct impact on society and so sociologists are interested in studying them. Each concept is often intrinsically linked to the remaining ones.

If we take as a simplistic example, a young black boy who has been caught stealing, he is from an impoverished background and is being brought up by his single parent mother. In this single example, a sociologist could choose to look at this case study from any or all of the above concepts. The family unit has broken down, leading the youth to commit acts of crime and deviance, possibly because the family’s standard of living has deteriorated, leading to a lowering in class and status, which in turn could have led to prejudice and isolation from the surrounding community.

A perspective however, is the actual viewpoint and theory which surrounds the explanation used to evaluate and identify society and social problems. For example, classical perspectives include Marxism, Interactionism, and Functionalism.

In the very simplest of definitions a Marxist perspective would examine a concept with its relativity to social class, and class conflict. Interactionists would be examining the meanings and interpretations of the study matter, and would focus on the individual. A Functionalist perspective, however, would examine the purpose and needs of the social structure surrounding the concept, and would be looking at the social system and sub systems.

These classical perspectives originated mainly from Western, heterosexual, middle class men, and highlight one of the many problems sociologists face, and that is distancing oneself from the matter which is being studied. The viewpoints of the classical sociologists appear to be from white, heterosexual men, FOR white, heterosexual men. These early classical attempts to study a society which is in itself a constantly changing and nebulous mass, has meant that new sociologists have had to emerge, bringing with them new, broader perspectives, and these are called contemporary sociologists.

Contemporary sociologists include views of society from perspectives such as Feminism, Anti Racism, Disablism, and the Gay Rights lobby, and the perspectives from which they write are fairly self explanatory, but Feminism will be discussed in more detail further on.

When examining one concept in detail, such as the family, and viewing it from each different perspective, we are provided with an insight on not only the historical background of the viewpoint from which it was written (eg – Marxism and Feminism were established in very different historical episodes), but it also enables us to lay this across different aspects of working practice in social work.

Therefore in order to operate in the social work profession efficiently, one needs to be able to look at the bigger picture, and put aside our own values and opinions of the family – i.e. all the differing family types etc, as it is hard to be objective about something with which you have direct experience of. We have all had experience of family, and so our expectations of the family life of our client groups will ultimately be influenced by this, much in the same way as sociologists will be influenced by the society in which they are part of,

To identify the family from differing perspectives, one must first reach an agreed definition as to what the family is in sociological terms, broadly speaking because if there is no agreed definitive answer as to what the family consists of, then each perspective may be constructing theories about what could fundamentally be very different social groups.

As a society we have stereo-typical ideas and ideologies of what a family “should” consist of and these are perpetuated through the media and advertising with images of the ideal family (i.e. husband, wife, 2 children, dog), and through humour, with television programmes such as 2.4 Children, My Family etc.

Macionis and Plummer (1997:438) suggest that the family “has been seen as a social institution that unites individuals into co-operative groups that oversee the bearing and raising of children.” Cree however, (2000:26) defines the family as a group of people bound together by blood and marriage ties, but not necessarily located in one geographical place.

When providing a definition, it has to adequately address the changing nature of family life in Britain throughout the last century. For example, using statistics from Giddens (1989: 181) over 20 per cent of dependent children now live in lone parent households. In addition to the rise in lone parent households, there have also been a significant increase in the emergence of differing family compositions..

It is easy to see that family structure and composition has changed greatly over the last century, and this could be due to the way that society adapts to accommodate social problems, for example, an increased number of lone parents, gay couples and sexual relationships outside of marriage etc. These were social problems during the 1900’s and earlier, and were immoral, which in the local communities at that time, could have been punishable by law, but today’s society has started to adapt and accept these changes, making something which was originally perceived as deviant into a social “norm”, and this will lead eventually into this behaviour becoming part of the social mores of our society. It is therefore safe to say, that in order for society to be maintained it has to accept the changing threats to values and adapt around the social problems it encounters.

Using statistics from Giddens (1989:176) we can see that the number of couples with dependent children has dropped significantly from 38% in 1961 to only 23% in 1998, whilst this signifies a decline in the amount of young married couples having children, it also highlights the fact that our society is also now increasing in age. This shows that the current population is likely to be comprised of adults without dependent children. In addition to this, the number of lone parents has risen dramatically from 2% in 1961 to 7% in 1998. Using figures from Macionis and Plummer (1997:447) which state that, “the numbers in adoption have sharply fallen. 6,000 in England in Wales in 1994, compared with 21,000 in 1971”, we can see how society has accommodated the issue of unmarried mothers. The number of one person households has also risen from 11% in 1961 to 28% in 1998, and this is probably due to the rise in divorcees having to find alternative accommodation following the breakdown of a marriage.

So, whilst we have identified what a family is, and an example of the social problems surrounding it, it is useful now to look at how each perspective views the family and its purpose and usefulness in society.

Looking at the functionalist perspective, who provide the most positive view of family life, it is essential to understand that functionalists view the family as the “basic social unit and the core institution of society” (Jorgensen et al:1997:72)

The functionalists see one of the integral familial contributions as social integration. They view the family’s main function as teaching the family members how to belong within the group (ie: society) around them. This function of the family stems from the fact that functionalists believe the family exists as the primary institution in any society, for the initial socialisation of children. In this respect any institution charged with this responsibility will play a large part in producing and maintaining cultural norms and values.

In addition to the socialisation function, they also believe the family plays a part in stabilising society. They believe the family reinforces values such as emotional and sexual stability, economic co-dependence etc. These regulations are an integral part of the society in which we live, and include moral boundaries, for example, such as incest. This is a purely human concept, and we are the only species which impose regulations on sexual interaction between family members. Our own society forbids the act of sexual relations between family members, but limits it to close relatives, such as those included in our extended family. In some societies however, it is permissible for siblings to marry. There are biological reasons why incest is not advised, however, the primary concerns are societal. Macionis and Plummer (1997) suggest that the reasons for this taboo are to minimise sexual competition within the family, it also forces people to marry outside of the family encouraging wider alliances to form, and it also protects kinship from falling into chaos. They suggest that as kinship defines people’s rights and obligations towards each other, forbidding reproduction between close relatives protects the family.

Another relevant example of the functionalist perspective is in the “institution” of marriage. For example, when an individual chooses to marry, they do so within the predetermined constraints of their individual society. In Britain for example, marriage partners are chosen at will, and marriage is based on personal choice and love. But in other societies, such as the Hindu religion, the couple have often not met before the marriage, which will have been arranged by the two families involved and is considered to be a “suitable union”.

So in this respect, the family is itself an institution in charge of maintaining the social equilibrium.

Talcott Parsons called these two features of the family Primary socialization and Personality stabilization. As quoted in Giddens (2000:175) “Parsons regarded the nuclear family as the unit best equipped to handle the demands of industrial society. In the “conventional family” one adult can work outside the home, while the second adult cares for the home and children.”

This has meant that Parsons’ view of the family is now seen as outdated, and critics have implied that the functionalist perspective reinforces the division of labour between men and women. Giddens (2000) however said this apparently sexist view could be explained primarily given the historical context in which Parsons was writing. He was writing immediately following the Second World War, which saw an immediate return of women to their traditional roles in the household, and men returning to their roles as sole breadwinners. However, I would dispute this, as upon reflection of Parson’s quote, he doesn’t actually specify gender, in his quote, he just reflects that one adult can work outside the home, therefore whilst he is outdated in his view that there are two parents, it could be perceived as forward thinking for being non gender specific..

The Functionalist perspective also negates the influence of other social institutions such as schools, the government etc and their important roles in the socialisation of children.

This perspective does not account for the breakdown of the traditional model of the family, and the fact that more children are now being raised outside of this. There is no real mention either of the incidents of abuse and violence, of which there is strong evidence to suggest that the family is in fact a very dysfunctional place in which to raise children, and this could be due to the fact that the sociologists writing on this perspective at the time were white, middle class me and not looking outside of the society they are a part of.

Moving on to the contemporary perspectives, the Feminists bring this to the forefront in their approaches to the family. The feminists believe that unequal power relationships exist within families. Not least importantly then, are the issues of domestic violence, marital rape, incest and sexual abuse. The feminist perspective does not perceive the family as a haven for love and support, but that issues such as incest and domestic violence provide a further opportunity for men to dominate and oppress women.

Feminism became influential in the 1970s and 1980’s and has continued to grow in strength and followers to this day. Before feminism, sociologists have been criticised for the male bias in their studies of society as a whole. From a feminist’s sociological viewpoint, women had previously always been viewed as appendages to men. Feminism has been concerned with the analysis of male/female relationships in terms of the relative significance of sex, class and patriarchy – ie; Male headed dominance

There are several different views within the feminist perspective, with as Lena Dominelli writes “a plurality of views, – liberal, radical, socialist, anti-racist and post-modernist – which can be held by both black and white feminists; for example, white radical feminism, black socialist feminism” (1997:97)

Neil Thompson (1993:53) writes that whilst there is no such thing as uniformed and consistent feminism, there are common themes and points of argument, they “all share a focus on the critique of patriarchy and the need to establish a fairer society in which women are no longer marginalised, alienated and pushed into secondary roles”. It also does not account for the fact that when women come out of the home, and enter the employment arena they are still being discriminated against, with low pay, maternity issues etc, which is perpetuating social problems.

Marxist feminism portrays the woman’s role in the family environment to that of the Proletariat, or exploited class, and the man’s role as that of the Bourgeoisie or exploiter. Seen from the Marxist feminist viewpoint, the woman is the loser in the inequal marriage partnership.

Marxist feminists believe that marriage is perpetuating the capitalist industry by prostituting the domestic services of the woman in return for financial security. What this means essentially is that by staying at home and looking after the children in an unpaid capacity, the woman is not only helping the man to work in the capitalist industry, but providing heirs to perpetuate the class division further. Thus, patriarchy is not simply a matter of biological difference, but is directly related to the economic base and the emphasis on comparing the woman’s role in the family to the exploitation of the capitalist class over the working class. According to Thompson(1993:56) this is one of the main weaknesses in the theory, as it does not explain how there is still continuation of male dominance in the non-capitalist societies

Liberal feminism has been evident since the early eighteenth century, and its main objective was to make it illegal to discriminate against, or use unequal treatment for women, and it was largely based on notions of free choice, empowering women to take control of their own lives. Liberal feminism is primarily concerned with issues of overt discrimination against women in all areas of social life, in particular, work education and the portrayal of women in the media, as well as arguing for legal protection and social rights. It argues that women are not inferior to men and should be allowed to compete equally in all aspects of life, especially education and work. It has been successful so far in using its main weapon (the legal system) in outlawing discriminatory behaviour towards women, and in establishing legislation to protect female workers in the UK and USA, such as equal pay etc. The main criticism of this perspective is that the women involved in the writing were middle class women, therefore the changes implemented were benefiting middle class women.

I understand that sociology can assist the social work practitioner in assessing situations from the wider picture and drawing on relevant perspectives in their own merit to help the client group involved in reaching a suitable resolution.

I therefore believe that an understanding of sociology can help social workers to develop a mind set which will provide the foundations for the commencement of good practice skills. I think that society modifies itself to accommodate social problems and that sociology itself has adapted to identify these, therefore, as sociology helps us to identify what the social problems are, it can help social workers to help the society in which they work.