Jake Gordon

What is distinctive about a sociological approach to understanding contemporary British society? (illustrate using two substantitive areas)


Contemporary British society is a wide ranging subject encompassing numerous paths for exploration and debate. Sociolgists keenly study this society using a predominately sociological approach - quite different to the approach that a psychologist or an economist, for example, might wish to use. But a sociological approach requires a complex definition, and perhaps the best way to tackle the subject is to define it in relation to what separates it from competing approaches. Sociolgy has strong ties with psychology, and hence it is wise to examine what distinguishs a psychological approach from the sociological. An biological/scientific approach will also be discussed as it is of specific relevant to the former of the two chosen substantitive areas: deviance (mental illness and crime). Eonomic and historical approaches are also of interest in the second chosen area: work.

Before one can begin to tackle individual areas of study, it is first necessary to have a good understanding of what might possibly be distinctive about one approach in comparison to another, and what relevance this has. Much of this discussion has links with that between sociolgy being either an art or a science. Whilst scientists approach their subject with quantitive techniques following a rigid objective scientific method, artists tend to adopt a more qualitative and subjective approach. A 'sociological imagination' can also be accounted for - "The classic social analyst has avoided any rigid set of procedures; he has sought to develop and to use in his work the sociological imagination" (Mills, 1959: 120). Whilst criticisms and merits of these two competing methods are numerous, they will not be discussed within as they only distract from the goal. Equally, at no point does this author intend to dwell upon implications that a sociological approach is somehow better than any other approach.

Psychological approaches are interesting in that they are both more scientific than a sociological approach, whilst less so than a biological one. In general the prevailing difference between a sociological and psychological approach is in what one examines first. A psychological approach first examines the individual's psyche and works outward to consider their environment, whilst a sociological approach would first examine the environment (including culture, race, sex etc.) to determine the proper grouping, then work inwards to discover the individual's psychological makeup.

Approaches differ partly in their subject matter and key terms. Sociology's core subject matter is society and associated 'social problems' - a problematic term due to its excessive usage. Equally, there are many matters which on the surface may not be considered to have a sociological bearing yet clearly have ties with social problems: war, for example.

Social problems, however, do not necessitate a sociological approach. In order to distinguish between one approach and another. "... our concern is with those features of sociology that might justifiably claim to constitute a distinctive approach to the study of social problems. The case can rest on such specifically sociological concepts as those of the social relation and social structure" (Timms, 1967: 3). So for Timms it would seem that a sociological approach is simply one which takes account of social relationships and structures.

To discussion of the close links between sociological and psychological approaches, Chinoy and Hewitt (1936: 98) see the subject matter of sociological study ("society, culture, social relationships and social norms, shared beliefs and common values, social structure and patterned behaviour") as being distinct from individuals who are affected and influenced by it. They write that it is only individuals that "live, behave, respond, adapt, adjust". Because of this, "[c]ulture and society become tangible only in the minds and actions of individuals". Importantly they conclude that whilst resulting approaches will be quite distinctive, it is important for both sociologists and psychologists not to neglect the alternative approach, for fear of losing sight of the problem as a whole.

The ideas put forward thus far will now be expanded upon in their context within the areas of deviance and work. By using these two quite distinct areas of study it is hoped that the ideas put forward will be of use to a wider variety of sociological study.

Area 1: Deviance - Mental Illness and Criminality

To establish what is distinctive about a sociological approach to deviance, several key questions will be explored:

  • What is deviance?
  • Why is deviancy studied?
  • What causes and 'cures' the deviance?

Both mental illness and criminality can be considered deviancies. That is to say that those experiencing either are not conforming to the 'norms' and expectations of society. "For many people, the word deviance is used only in relation to moral, religious, or political norms... The sociological concept of deviance, however, takes a broader point of view and recognizes that there can be deviation from social norms of all kinds" (Fulcher & Scott, 1999: 153). This statement makes a distinction between deviancy in lay terms and that in sociological terms.

For scientists, at its simplest level deviancy like everything else must be studied because it cannot yet fully be explained. Science is the pursuit of knowledge, and for a scientist an objective explanation should be possible for everything. Some people commit crime - why? Some people are schizophrenic - why? Equally, psychologists must study deviance as it deals with (abnormal) behaviour. Sociologists study deviance because it is part of society and would appear to be affected by the characteristics of that society.

Much effort is given to exploring the cause of deviancies as with this knowledge it is hoped deviancy can be reduced. At least in the past, biologists and geneticists have seen deviancies purely in terms of individual biological and genetic characteristics. In genetics it was proposed that an extra Y chomosome has a strong influence on agressive and criminal behaviour. Psychologists look towards the individual experiencing deviancy in order to pinpoint the cause on the individual's experience and environment. Whilst sociologists by no means discount such theories, their explanation includes social factors. By finding policies dealing with those social factors at least some cases of the deviancy can be removed.

To illustrate different approaches to mental illness a personal example will be taken. My sister has been diagnosed as having manic-depression - as had my father. My father's brother had schizophreia and committed suicide. My father's sister has epilepsy, and my father's father has a generalized anxiety disorder. From this a scientist may like to test the hypothesis that there is some mental disorder gene which has propogated the family between generations. By isolating such a gene it may be possible to screen future embryos for it, reducing the likelihood of the baby developing a mental disorder later in life. To stop psychotic episodes, anti-psychotic drugs are prescribed - although these have no long-term affect or in any way 'cure' the problem. A psychologist may see the problem as having no genetic link whatsoever, but instead try to account for the 'family history' of mental disorders through events or experiences which are common throughout the family. Alternatively they may suggest a 'domino effect' where one individual's mental disorder has directly affected another's psyche so as to lead them into a similar state. Indeed the very thought of a genetic link may simply act as a placebo. Indeed, before being diagnosed as being a manic-depressive herself, my sister often mentioned of a worrying of inheriting it. To cure the problem a psychiatrist first attempts to understand the individual's problem. Then it is hoped that they can 'talk sense' into the individual to cure them.

A sociological approach to this example would not necessarily involve finding a cause and solution for the individual, but more widely to understand how it affects society as a whole and what provisions need to be made for it. Social structures and facts may be seen as being part cause of mental disorders in general (for example through creating of excessive anxiety and pressure) but scientific explanations are also accepted and worked with. To prevent mental disorders a sociologist may look towards a utopian society in which there is no need for mental strife. Reading through sociology text books makes one aware that much of the sociological study is into how different social groupings such as gender, ethnicity and class are affected. In a sociological study of shizophrenia, Stein (1957) found a strong social gradient across the classes - with the lower social classes being more vulnerable.

Timms (1967: 69) writes that "Sociologists often complain that their study of the kind of deviance called mental illness is hampered by the use of psychiatric categories which may be useful for doctors, but not for them. Some have tried to meet the need by attempting to categorise in sociological terms mental illness as a whole or particular illnesses." A sociological approach involves much such debating over almost any definition or classification. Because there is not an objective alternative to the 'scientific method', subjectivity creates diversity in approaches.

Whilst a sociological approach is different to any other approach for studying deviance, there is not necessarily conflict those approaches. Indeed, a sociological approach can be seen as complementary to alternative approaches, offering differing purpose and concern. For a sociologist there a few boundaries restricting their field of study, enabling them to explore possibilities that a geneticist of psychologist do not have the expertise or desire to engage in.

Area 2: Work

Whilst the study of deviance is predominately done by biologists, psychologists and sociologists, work (as in employment) is of more interest to economists and possibly geographers and historians, along with sociologists. Again several key questions will be explored to help isolate the differences between approaches:

  • What is work?
  • Why is work studied?
  • What parts of work is studied?

The word 'work' is often used interchangeably with 'job', 'employment' and 'occupation'. From a sociological perspective, "any activity that produces goods or services of value to oneself or others" (Rothman, 1987: 6) is work. But because work has become synonomous with paid, occupational employment the differences between the words are often neglected. As a sociologist this is of great interest as by looking at the history of work it becomes evident that the whole nature of work may be seen as a social construct. For a sociologist, work is not limited to paid employment but also encompasses voluntary, criminal and unpaid work - for example domestic labour and child care. For economists this is also of interest as it affects the economy, however a geographical approach to work has more emphasis on geographical changes in places of work.

Sociologists study work because it has great social bearing, plays a major role in contemporary and past society and includes numerous issues of burning importance to social policy makers. One of these main issues is that of inequalities by social stratification: class, gender and race/ethnicity. This issue is widely ignored by competing approaches to work. Economists study work because it runs the economy and of particular importance is the market system. Work is seen in terms of its monetary value and the economic goal is that of full employment - where there is no unemployment.

Two dimensions to work can be categorised - the technical and the social. Whilst an economist is more concerned with studying the productivity and efficiency of work in relation to the technical dimension, a sociological approach considers the importance of the social dimension - including relationships, cultures and environments. And social aspects of work are not confined to the workplace - "[F]rustrations caused by the stresses of social relationships at work can carry over into personal relationships. In one survey, 42 percent of empoyees in American firms admitted that their jobs had negative consequences for their home life (Hammonds, 1996)" (quoted in Rothman, 1987: 3). Equally the opposite is also true, that is to say that the family and home spheres influence work outside the home. Perhaps one of the most important differences between a sociological and economic approach to work is that a sociological one takes greater account for the inter-relationships between work and other spheres of personal life such as the home, family and leisure.

Much of a sociological approach to understanding work has been made possible through the work of Marx. In a somewhat critical discussion of Marx's role in the contemporary study of Marx, Grint writes that "... what Marx helped to do was stimulate the very idea of a sociological approach to work but delimit the scope to the sociology of the factory" (1998: 95). Grint urges the reader to treat Marx solely as an intemediary whose ideas we should not reject but that we need to progress beyond him.

What Marx helps sociologists realise is that the contemporary working environment is very much a historical social construct which will be replaced in coming years by a new system, even if that system is not communism which is at the heart of Marx's socialist idealism. In his conclusion, Grint makes a suggestion at "the end of work?" (1998: 323), taking account for the affects of globalisation on the global working environment. Sociologists enjoy such subjective views to future utopias whilst alternative approaches are perhaps more conservative in their outlooks.


By illustrating the distinctiveness of a sociological approach to the areas of deviance and work it is hoped that the reader can appreciate how these ideas can be extended to a sociological approach to understanding contemporary British society as a whole. It should be evident to the reader that a sociological approach is subjective and is not so restricted as to confine the academic to inhibitingly narrow fields of investigation. Whilst alternative approaches focus in greater depth on particular issues, sociologists can generally roam across the whole spectrum of possibilities with greater freedom. If disciplines such as history, geography, eocnomics, philosphy, biology and psychology can be seen as individual points around a sphere, sociology sits at the heart of that sphere, building connections with each of them.

The three 'founding fathers' of the discipline (Marx, Durkheim and Waber) helped build the foundations for the sociological approach, however in its contemporary form it has spawned beyond these figures, branching off into many new directions. Of particular interest to a sociological approach today are the social stratifications of class, gender and race/ethnicity. These have been dealt with in great depth in much sociological texts, often with an increasing dependency upon statistical evidence.

But in studying society it is vital not to become frustratingly side tracked in never-ending discussions of what exactly it is that is being studied, and how it is being studied. Whilst it may be important to those categorising a discipline in terms of its scientific or artistic content, to those studying the discipline it can only distract from the ultimate goal. That is, a full understanding of how and why societies work. Further, such discussions inevitably instigate academic brawls over which approach is the 'best', whilst such a question is largely irrelevant. Sociology should be seen as complementing other disciplines in our understanding of the whole.

[2,740 words, written in 2002]


The British Sociological Association (2002) What Do Sociologists Do?, http://www.britsoc.org.uk/about/whatdo.htm
Crystal ClearTruth alias (28/10/2001) Psychological vs. Sociolgical Approaches, usenet:talk.philosophy.humanism.
Chinoy & Hewitt (1936) Sociological Perspective, New York: Random House
Dixon, K (1973) Sociological Theory: Pretence and Possibility, London: Routledge
Fulcher & Scott (1999) Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University press
Grint, K (1998) The Sociology of Work, Cambridge: Polity
Martinelli & Smelser (1990) Economy and Society: Overviews in Economic Sociology, London: Sage
Mills, C Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Ney York: Oxford University Press
Rothman, R (1987) Working: Sociological Perspectives, New Jersey: Simon & Schuster
Timms, N (1967) A Sociological Approach to Social Problems, New York: The Humanities Press

by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved