Sociology: A Global Introduction
Authors: John J Macionis & Ken Plummer
Chapter 1: The Sociological Imagination What is Sociology?
Sociology: the systematic, sceptical and critical study of the social.
Sociological point of view: a form of consciousness, a way of thinking, a critical way of seeing
‘Think the social’: challenging the obvious, questioning the world as it is taken for granted, and
de-familiarising the familiar.
The term sociology was coined by Comte (1830), linking the Latin socius (originally a people,
tribe or city allied to Rome, but later a society, companionship) and Greek logos (reason or
knowledge, study of). Seeing the General in the Particular
Peter Berger (Invitation to Sociology): characterised the sociological perspective as a way of
seeing the general in the particular. Sociologists can identify general patterns of social life by
looking at concrete examples specific examples of social life. Sociologists recognise that society
acts differently on various categories of people. The architecture of social life: the layers of reality
● Cosmic: the widest presence in the universe/cosmos. This is a vast level of reality
and we do not often look at it - but it is important to be aware of it as the infinitely
complex presence behind the way we think about our humanity constructed social
● World and globe: the interconnectedness of the social and cultural across the
world: the global flows and movements of economies, political systems, people,
media messages, the internet, etc.
● Social and cultural: communities, societies, institutions and nation-states that
have an existence independently of us, and that have definite structures and
symbolic meanings over and above us.
● Interactional: the experience of the world in the immediate face-to-face presence
and awareness of others: self, inter-subjectivity, and encounters with family,
friends, groups and strangers in specific places.
● Individual: the inner world: the psychic world of human subjectivity and the inner
biological workings of genetics, hormones, brain structure and the like.
Seeing the Strange in the Familiar
Zygmunt Bauman (Sociological Thinking): ‘de-familiarise the familiar’. Observing
sociologically requires giving up the familiar idea that human behaviour is simply a matter of
what people decide to do and accepting initially the strange notion that society guides our
thoughts and deeds. Sociology sets out to show the patterns and processes by which society
shapes what we do. Individuality in Social Context: the Strange Case of Suicide
Most intriguing demonstration of how social forces affect human behaviour can be found in the
study of suicide. No act seems more individualistic - more driven by ‘personal choice’ - than the
decision to take one’s own life.
Emile Durkheim (1858 -1917): examined suicide records in and around his native France. The
statistics of his time ( and ‘statistics’ was a newly emerging field of study at the time) clearly
showed that some categories of people were more likely than others to take their own lives. It
was the time of the Great Transformation when the old order was breaking down and when
industrialisation and market capitalism had led to a breakdown of the old integration. In the
male-dominated societies studied by Durkheim, men certainly had more autonomy than women,
resulting in lower social integration, which contributed to a higher male suicide rate. Likewise,
individualistic Protestants were more prone to suicide than Catholics and Jews, whose rituals
fostered stronger social ties. The wealthy clearly had more freedom of action than the poor but,
at the cost of a higher suicide rate. Single people, with weaker social ties than married people,
are also at greater risk of suicide. Durkheim deduced that these differences corresponded to
people’s degree of social integration: how they bonded, connected and tied into society.
Working from this Durkheim developed a social classification (or typology) of different kinds of
Anomic suicide: too little integration - common at times of massive social change and
social breakdown. Anomic suicide reflects an individual’s moral confusion and lack of
social direction, which is related to dramatic social and economic upheaval. People do
not know where they fit in within their societies. Durkheim explains that this is a state of
moral disorder where people do not know the limits on their desires and are constantly in
a state of disappointment. This can occur when they go through extreme changes in
wealth. Previous expectations from life are brushed aside and new expectations are
needed before they can judge their new situation in relation to the new limits.
Altruistic suicide: too much integration. Altruistic suicide is characterized by a sense of
being overwhelmed by a group’s goals and beliefs. Individual needs are seen as less
important than the society’s needs as a whole. As individual interest would not be
considered important, Durkheim stated that in an altruistic society there would be little
reason for people to commit suicide. He described one exception: when the individual is
expected to kill her/himself on behalf of society E.g. suicide bombers and military
Durkheim also saw levels of regulation as another key to understanding suicide.
Egoistic suicide: too little regulation. Reflects a prolonged sense of not belonging, of not
being integrated in a community. This absence can give rise to meaninglessness, apathy,
melancholy, and depression. Individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups
(and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little
social support or guidance, and were therefore more likely to commit suicide. E.g.
Fatalistic suicide: too much regulation. E.g. prisoners might prefer to die than live in a
prison with constant abuse and excessive regulation.
Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet (2008): have examined world changes and concluded that,
although suicide is shaped by social factors, these have changed somewhat since the time that
Durkheim was studying. Suicide has, for example, declined amongst the wealthy and grown
amongst the poor. The Chinese Exception
Whereas male suicides in the Industrial West outnumber female suicides by roughly three or four
to one, in China women’s suicides outnumber men’s. Likewise, whereas in the West suicide is
linked to city life, in China it is three times higher in the countryside. Methods and Research: What Sociologists Do
Researchers: they document the nature of the social times we live in.
Theorists: they aim to foster deeper understanding of what is going on, and provide a
way for sociological knowledge to become cumulative. Sociologists develop wider ideas
and help facilitate theoretical and analytical thinking about society.
Critics (change agent): they question and interrogate the taken-for-granted society, and
connect it to other possible worlds to help us understand the world in order for us to
Educators and teachers (modern: media disseminator and web coordinator of social
knowledge): provide governments, world organisations and non-governmental
organisations with information that helps in planning future pathways for society, and
nowadays they also work in media of all kinds (from journalism to websites), helping
society to find its way around social knowledge.
Artists: generating ideas that inform and enhance human creativity.