Midterm part 2

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the Sociological Imagination Although the scale of sociological studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills( 1916-1962) called the sociological imagination, sometimes also referred to as the "sociological lens" or "sociological perspective." In a sense, this was Mills' way of addressing the dilemmas of the macro/micro divide in sociology. Mills defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others' lives in relation to history and social structure (1959/2000). It is the capacity to see an individual's private troubles in the context of the broader social processes that structure them. This enables the sociologist to examine what Mills called "personal troubles of milieu" as "public issues of social structure," and vice versa. Mills reasoned that private troubles like being overweight, being unemployed, having marital difficulties, or feeling purposeless or depressed can be purely personal in nature. It is possible for them to be addressed and understood in terms of personal, psychological, or moral attributes—either one's own or those of the people in one's immediate milieu. In an individualistic society like our own, this is in fact the most likely way that people will regard the issues they confront: "I have an addictive personality;" "I can't get a break in the job market;" "My husband is unsupportive," etc. However, if private troubles are widely shared with others, they indicate that there is a common social problem that has its source in the way social life is structured. At this level, the issues are not adequately understood as simply private troubles. They are best addressed as public issues that require a collective response to resolve. Obesity, for example, has been increasingly recognized as a growing problem for both children and adults in North America. According to recent statistics from the CDC, for instance, around 73 percent of adults in the US are classified as overweight and just under 43 percent are considered obese. Obesity is therefore not simply a private concern related to the medical issues, dietary practices, or exercise habits of specific individuals. It is a widely shared social issue that puts people at risk for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also creates significant social costs for the medical system. Michael Pollan argues that obesity is in part a product of the increasingly sedentary and stressful lifestyle of modern, capitalist society. More importantly, however, it is a product of the industrialization of the food chain, which since the 1970s has produced increasingly cheap and abundant food with significantly more calories due to processing. Additives like corn syrup, which are much cheaper and therefore more profitable to produce than natural sugars, led to the trend of super-sized fast foods and soft drinks in the 1980s. As Pollan argues, trying to find a processed food in the supermarket without a cheap, calorie-rich, corn-based additive is a challenge. The sociological imagination in this example is the capacity to see the private troubles and attitudes associated with being overweight as an issue of how the industrialization of the food chain has altered the human/environment relationship—in particular, with respect to the types of food we eat and the way we eat them. By looking at individuals and societies and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behaviour, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and preconceived ideas influence their conclusions. Like Mills, all sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are
shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behaviour of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures. When general patterns persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction, they are referred to as social structures. As we noted above, understanding the relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems. Partly this is because of the reified way these two terms are used in everyday speech. Reification refers to the way in which abstract concepts, complex processes, or mutable social relationships come to be thought of as "things." A prime example of reification is when people say that "society" caused an individual to do something, or to turn out in a particular way. In writing essays, first-year sociology students sometimes refer to "society" as a cause of social behaviour or as an entity with independent agency. On the other hand, the "individual" is a being that seems solid, tangible, and independent of anything going on outside of the skin sack that contains its essence. This conventional distinction between society and the individual is a product of reification, as both society and the individual appear as independent objects. A concept of "the individual" and a concept of "society" have been given the status of real, substantial, independent objects. As we will see in the chapters to come, society and the individual are neither objects, nor are they independent of one another. One problem for sociologists is that these concepts of the individual and society, and the relationship between them, are thought of in terms established by a very common moral framework in modern democratic societies—namely, that of individual responsibility and individual choice. The individual is morally responsible for their behaviours and decisions. Often in this framework, any suggestion that an individual's behaviour needs to be understood in terms of that person's social context is dismissed as "letting the individual off" for taking personal responsibility for their actions. Talking about society is akin to being morally soft or lenient. Sociology, as a social science, remains neutral on these types of moral questions. For sociologists, the conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex than the moral framework suggests and needs to be examined through evidence-based, rather than morality- based, research. The sociological problem is to be able to see the individual as a thoroughly social being and, yet, as a being who has agency and free choice. Individuals are beings who do take on individual responsibilities in their everyday social roles, and risk social consequences when they fail to live up to them. However, the manner in which individuals take on responsibilities, and sometimes the compulsion to do so, are socially defined. The sociological problem is to be able to see society as: a dimension of experience characterized by regular and predictable patterns of behaviour that exist independently of any specific individual's desires or self-understanding. At the same time, a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals. A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias (1887-1990) used the metaphor of dancing to highlight the importance of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of individuals and the society that shapes that behaviour. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a
choreographer's head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are also no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias, 1978). Functionalism functionalism (or structural-functionalist perspective): A theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society. Macro-level sociology Macro-level sociology focuses on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions that extend beyond the immediate milieu of individual interactions: the dynamics of institutions, class structures, gender relations, or whole populations. The example above of the influence of migration on changing patterns of language usage is a macro-level phenomenon because it refers to structures or processes of social interaction that occur outside or beyond the intimate circle of individual social acquaintances. These include the economic, political, and other circumstances that lead to migration; the relative isolation or integration of different communities within a population; and so on. Other examples of macro-level research include examining why women are less likely than men to reach positions of institutional power in society, or why fundamentalist Christian religious movements play a more prominent role in American politics than they do in Canadian politics. In each case, the site of the analysis shifts away from the nuances and detail of micro-level interpersonal life to the broader, macro-level systematic patterns that structure social change and social cohesion in society. Verstehen Prominent sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote on many topics related to sociology including political change in Russia, the condition of German farm workers, and the history of world religions. He was also a prominent public figure, playing an important role in the German peace delegation in Versailles and in drafting the ill-fated German (Weimar) constitution following the defeat of Germany in World War I. Weber also made a major contribution to the methodology of sociological research. Weber believed that it was difficult if not impossible to apply natural science methods to accurately predict the behaviour of groups as positivist sociology hoped to do. He argued that the influence of culture on human behaviour had to be taken into account. As a pioneer of 'interpretive sociology', Weber realized that was distinct about human behaviour was that it is essentially meaningful. Human behaviour could not be understood independently of the meanings that individuals attributed to it. To deal with this problem, Weber introduced the concept of 'Verstehen', a German word that means to understand from a subject's point of view. In seeking Verstehen, outside observers of a social world — an entire culture or a small setting — attempt to understand it empathetically from an insider's point of view. In his essay "The Methodological Foundations of Sociology," Weber
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