Week 5 – Discussion 1

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Respond to 
any 2 (1 from each chapter) of the following prompts in an original discussion post by midnight, 
Day 4 of Week 5.

After you respond to 2 prompts in an original post, you are also required to provide substantive responses to at least 2 of your classmates’ posts and to remain active on at least 2 additional days during Week 5.


Chapter 12 – Sex, Sexuality, & Gender

1. How is masculinity explained in the text, and how is it different from the biological sex, “male.” Using specific examples, discuss why patriarchal masculinity is not the only form of masculinity accepted in the present. (CSLO 5, USLO 6.2)

2. How is femininity explained in the text, and how is it different from the biological sex, “female.” Using specific examples, discuss why societies perpetrate issues such as sexism, double standards, and objectification of women. (CSLO 5, USLO 6.2)

3. Pick a celebrity who does not fit the strict binary system of being a man or a woman. Then, use concepts such as gender dysphoria, homophobia, and transphobia to discuss the struggles faced by the celebrity. How did researching the famous figure enhance your own understanding of gender identities? (CSLO 5, USLO 6.5)

4. Use one of the three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict, or symbolic interactionism, to discuss the social construction of gender. Research a culture that has a unique system of gender roles and describe the system with the theoretical perspective you chose to addess the social construction of gender. (CSLO 5, USLO 6.4)


Chapter 15 – Religion

1. How does the text define religion, and what role does religion play in your life? Think of any two social institutions such as education or marriage and family which adhere to the religious principles of the majority. Hypothetically speaking, how would society be structured if those religious principles were removed. (CSLO 4, USLO 7.1)

2. Emile Durkheim believed that religion promotes social cohesion, social control, and offers meaning and purpose to human life. Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Provide at least 2 specific instances, from your experience or others’, to support your viewpoint. (CSLO 4, USLO 7.2)

3. German sociologist and political economist Max Weber (1864–1920), in his seminal work, 
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, believed religion to be a precipitator of social change. Critique his approach and argue against his view point to show that changes in religious ideals did not create capitalism. (CSLO 4, USLOs 7.2, 7.5)

4. German philosopher, journalist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818–1883) studied the social impact of religion and believed religion reflects the social stratification of society. He argued that religion maintains inequality and perpetuates the status quo. Pick a social situation or an event in the past 5 years, and using an NBC Learn video clip, support or critique Marx’s take on religion. (CSLO 5, USLO 7.5)

Weekly Discussion Guidelines

Original discussion posts:

· Answer both the questions in one single post rather than respond to each question in different posts.

· You should answer all parts of the questions you chose to answer.

· Number your answers corresponding to the prompt numbers listed above and split your answers into separate paragraphs.

· Use of concepts and theories wherever relevant is highly recommended for full grade. It will also help you in your exams and while writing your essay.

· Students must first post their answers before they can view or reply to other students’ posts.

Additional notes:

· You can use pictures, graphs, pie charts, etc. 
in your answers, but not 
for your answers.

· Always support your opinions with scholastic sources.

· When you use outside material, please use in-text citations and give references at the end of your post in APA format. Otherwise, it is termed as Plagiarism.

· Plagiarism is a critical offense according to Galen policies. Your answers should not be simple ‘copy and paste’ from an outside source. In such instances, even though you give references, they will not be considered 
your answers. The first time I spot plagiarism, you will be given a zero with a warning. The 2nd time will be a write-up. Please be careful about plagiarism.

Introduction to Sociology 3e



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Preface 1


An Introduction to Sociology 7
Introduction 7
1.1 What Is Sociology? 8
1.2 The History of Sociology 10
1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology 17
1.4 Why Study Sociology? 23
Key Terms 26
Section Summary 27
Section Quiz 27
Short Answer 29
Further Research 30
References 30


Sociological Research 35
Introduction 35
2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research 36
2.2 Research Methods 40
2.3 Ethical Concerns 53
Key Terms 56
Section Summary 57
Section Quiz 58
Short Answer 60
Further Research 61
References 61


Culture 65
Introduction 65
3.1 What Is Culture? 66
3.2 Elements of Culture 73
3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change 80
3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture 84
Key Terms 87
Section Summary 88
Section Quiz 89
Short Answer 92
Further Research 93
References 93


Society and Social Interaction 97
Introduction 97

4.1 Types of Societies 98
4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society 103
4.3 Social Constructions of Reality 109
Key Terms 114
Section Summary 114
Section Quiz 115
Short Answer 117
Further Research 117
References 118


Socialization 119
Introduction 119
5.1 Theories of Self-Development 121
5.2 Why Socialization Matters 124
5.3 Agents of Socialization 127
5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course 133
Key Terms 138
Section Summary 138
Section Quiz 139
Short Answer 141
Further Research 142
References 142


Groups and Organization 147
Introduction 147
6.1 Types of Groups 148
6.2 Group Size and Structure 153
6.3 Formal Organizations 159
Key Terms 164
Section Summary 165
Section Quiz 165
Short Answer 168
Further Research 169
References 169


Deviance, Crime, and Social Control 173
Introduction 173
7.1 Deviance and Control 174
7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime 178
7.3 Crime and the Law 186
Key Terms 193
Section Summary 194
Section Quiz 194
Short Answer 196
Further Research 197
References 197

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Media and Technology 201
Introduction 201
8.1 Technology Today 202
8.2 Media and Technology in Society 207
8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology 214
8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology 219
Key Terms 224
Section Summary 224
Section Quiz 225
Short Answer 228
Further Research 229
References 229


Social Stratification in the United States 235
Introduction 235
9.1 What Is Social Stratification? 236
9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States 242
9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality 249
9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification 251
Key Terms 255
Section Summary 255
Section Quiz 256
Short Answer 258
Further Research 259
References 260


Global Inequality 263
Introduction 263
10.1 Global Stratification and Classification 264
10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty 271
10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification 278
Key Terms 280
Section Summary 280
Section Quiz 281
Short Answer 283
Further Research 284
References 284


Race and Ethnicity 289
Introduction 289
11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups 290
11.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity 294
11.3 Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism 296
11.4 Intergroup Relationships 301
11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States 305
Key Terms 319
Section Summary 319

Section Quiz 320
Short Answer 323
Further Research 323
References 324


Gender, Sex, and Sexuality 329
Introduction 329
12.1 Sex, Gender, Identity, and Expression 330
12.2 Gender and Gender Inequality 341
12.3 Sexuality 351
Key Terms 356
Section Summary 356
Section Quiz 357
Short Answer 359
Further Research 360
References 360


Aging and the Elderly 367
Introduction 367
13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society 368
13.2 The Process of Aging 377
13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly 385
13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging 390
Key Terms 397
Section Summary 398
Section Quiz 398
Short Answer 401
Further Research 402
References 402


Relationships, Marriage, and Family 409
Introduction 409
14.1 What Is Marriage? What Is a Family? 410
14.2 Variations in Family Life 416
14.3 Challenges Families Face 422
Key Terms 430
Section Summary 430
Section Quiz 431
Short Answer 433
Further Research 433
References 434


Religion 441
Introduction 441
15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion 442
15.2 World Religions 448
15.3 Religion in the United States 455

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Key Terms 460
Section Summary 460
Section Quiz 461
Short Answer 463
Further Research 463
References 464


Education 467
Introduction 467
16.1 Education around the World 469
16.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Education 475
16.3 Issues in Education 482
Key Terms 487
Section Summary 487
Section Quiz 488
Short Answer 490
Further Research 490
References 491


Government and Politics 495
Introduction 495
17.1 Power and Authority 496
17.2 Forms of Government 501
17.3 Politics in the United States 507
17.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Government and Power 509
Key Terms 513
Section Summary 513
Section Quiz 514
Short Answer 517
Further Research 518
References 518


Work and the Economy 521
Introduction to Work and the Economy 521
18.1 Economic Systems 523
18.2 Globalization and the Economy 537
18.3 Work in the United States 540
Key Terms 550
Section Summary 550
Section Quiz 551
Short Answer 553
Further Research 554
References 554


Health and Medicine 559
Introduction 559
19.1 The Social Construction of Health 560

19.2 Global Health 563
19.3 Health in the United States 565
19.4 Comparative Health and Medicine 571
19.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Health and Medicine 575
Key Terms 578
Section Summary 578
Section Quiz 579
Short Answer 582
Further Research 583
References 583


Population, Urbanization, and the Environment 589
Introduction 589
20.1 Demography and Population 591
20.2 Urbanization 599
20.3 The Environment and Society 604
Key Terms 614
Section Summary 615
Section Quiz 615
Short Answer 618
Further Research 618
References 619


Social Movements and Social Change 625
Introduction to Social Movements and Social Change 625
21.1 Collective Behavior 627
21.2 Social Movements 631
21.3 Social Change 638
Key Terms 643
Section Summary 644
Section Quiz 644
Short Answer 646
References 647

Answer Key 651
Index 653

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About Introduction to Sociology 3e

Introduction to Sociology 3e aligns to the topics and objectives of many introductory sociology courses. It is
arranged in a manner that provides foundational sociological theories and contexts, then progresses through
various aspects of human and societal interactions. The new edition is focused on driving meaningful and
memorable learning experiences related to critical thinking about society and culture. Students are challenged

Preface 1

to look at events and situations in new ways, and, as often as possible, consider the reasons people behave and
gather in the ways they do. The text includes comprehensive coverage of core concepts, discussions and data
relevant to a diverse audience, and features that draw learners into the discipline in powerful and personal
ways. Overall, Introduction to Sociology 3e aims to center the course and discipline as crucial elements for
understanding relationships, society, and civic engagement; we seek to lay the foundation for students to apply
what they learn throughout their lives and careers.

Changes to the Third Edition

The guiding principle of the revision was to build from the concept that students are not simply observers of
the world, but are participants in it. Many discussions of new or ongoing changes have been improved in tone
and content, based on reviewer feedback, to better reflect student experiences. Of course, much of the
information in the text will be new to students, but the concepts, examples, and data are written in a way that
will encourage students to apply their own experiences and to better consider those outside of their own.

The purpose of these changes, however, is not only to make the book more informative and effective, but more
so to create additional opportunities for instructors to launch relevant and interesting discussions. In concert
with the changes in the text, the accompanying lecture materials have been thoroughly revised and enhanced
to include material beyond what is in the book, in order for instructors–at their discretion–to deepen these

A number of chapter introductions have been revised with substantial vignettes or narratives relating to the
chapter content. Examples include the experience of a teenager in sub-Saharan Africa (chapter 4), a
comparison of the emergence of the Tea Party and the MeToo movements (chapter 6), a more nuanced and
historically accurate view of the issue of marijuana criminalization and legalization (chapter 7), and a
discussion of voter referendums and subsequent governmental responses (chapter 17). Other references and
coverage are meant to relate to students’ careers; these include issues around online privacy, the impacts of
posting offensive content, and new material on adult socialization and workplace culture.

Extensive use of survey outcomes and governmental data is designed to add current perspectives on the
concepts and provide more discussion starters for faculty and students. Some of these outcomes may
challenge preconceived notions, while others may simply be interesting to discuss. For example, poll outcomes
regarding perspectives on “When Does Someone Become Old?” in the chapter on Aging and the Elderly may be
notable on their own, but could be also used to begin reflective discussions or further research. The COVID-19
pandemic is referenced frequently, but its inclusion is meant to offer opportunities for students to share their
own stories, and for instructors to lead into more current outcomes.

Finally, the authors, reviewers, and the entire team worked to build understanding of the causes and impacts
of discrimination and prejudice. Introduction to Sociology 3e contains dozens of examples of discrimination
and its outcomes regarding social science, society, institutions, and individuals. The text seeks to strike a
balance between confronting the damaging aspects of our culture and history and celebrating those who have
driven change and overcome challenges. The core discussion of these topics are present in Chapter 11 on Race
and Ethnicity, and Chapter 12 on Gender, Sex, and Sexuality, but their causes and effects are extensively
discussed in the context of other topics, including education, law enforcement, government, healthcare, the
economy, and so on. Together and when connected by an instructor, these elements have potential for deep
and lasting effects.

Pedagogical Foundation

Learning Objectives

Every module begins with a set of clear and concise learning objectives, which have been thoroughly revised to
be both measurable and more closely aligned with current teaching practice. These objectives are designed to
help the instructor decide what content to include or assign, and to guide student expectations of learning.

2 Preface

Access for free at openstax.org.

After completing the module and end-of-module exercises, students should be able to demonstrate mastery of
the learning objectives.

Key Features

• Sociological Research: Highlights specific current and relevant research studies.
• Sociology in the Real World: Ties chapter content to student life and discusses sociology in terms of the

everyday. New and updated examples include discussions of princess culture, social media employment
consequences, and sports teams with Native American names/mascots.

• Big Picture: Present sociological concepts at a national or international level, including the most recent
mass migration crises, the rise of e-waste, and global differences in education pathways.

• Social Policy and Debate: Discusses political issues that relate to chapter content, such as “The Legalese
of Sex and Gender” and “Is the U.S. Bilingual?”

Section Summaries

Section summaries distill the information in each section for both students and instructors down to key,
concise points addressed in the section.

Key Terms

Key terms are bold and are followed by a definition in context. Definitions of key terms are also listed in the
Glossary, which appears at the end of the chapter.

Section Quizzes

Section quizzes provide opportunities to apply and test the information students learn throughout each
section. Both multiple-choice and short-response questions feature a variety of question types and range of

Further Research

This feature helps students further explore the section topic through links to other information sources or


Introduction to Sociology 3e is based on the work of numerous professors, writers, editors, and reviewers who
are able to bring topics to students in the most engaging way.

We would like to thank all those listed below as well as many others who have contributed their time and
energy to review and provide feedback on the manuscript. Their input has been critical in maintaining the
pedagogical integrity and accuracy of the text.

About the Authors

Senior Contributing Authors

Tonja R. Conerly, San Jacinto College
Kathleen Holmes, Northern Essex Community College
Asha Lal Tamang, Minneapolis Community and Technical College and North Hennepin Community College

Contributing Authors

Heather Griffiths, Fayetteville State University
Jennifer Hensley, Vincennes University
Jennifer L. Trost, University of St. Thomas
Pamela Alcasey, Central Texas College
Kate McGonigal, Fort Hays State University

Preface 3

Nathan Keirns, Zane State College
Eric Strayer, Hartnell College
Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Georgia Perimeter College
Gail Scaramuzzo, Lackawanna College
Tommy Sadler, Union University
Sally Vyain, Ivy Tech Community College
Jeff Bry, Minnesota State Community and Technical College at Moorhead
Faye Jones, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College


Karen Sabbah, Los Angeles Pierce College
Nikitah Imani, University of Nebraska – Omaha
Vera Kennedy, West Hills College
Kathryn Kikendall, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Anna Penner, Pepperdine University
Patricia Johnson Coxx, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Mitchell Mackinem, Wingate University
Rick Biesanz, Corning Community College
Cynthia Heddlesten, Metropolitan Community College
Janet Hund, Long Beach City College
Thea Alvarado, College of the Canyons
Daysha Lawrence, Stark State College
Sally Vyain, Ivy Tech Community College
Natashia Willmott, Stark State College
Angela M. Adkins, Stark State College
Carol Jenkins, Glendale Community College
Lillian Marie Wallace, Pima Community College
J. Brandon Wallace, Middle Tennessee State University
Gerry R. Cox, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
David Hunt, Augusta State University
Jennifer L. Newman-Shoemake, Angelo State University, and Cisco College
Matthew Morrison, University of Virginia
Sue Greer-Pitt, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College
Faye Jones, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
Athena Smith, Hillsborough Community College
Kim Winford, Blinn College
Kevin Keating, Broward College
Russell Davis, University of West Alabama
Kimberly Boyd, Piedmont Virginia Community College
Lynn Newhart, Rockford College
Russell C. Ward, Maysville Community and Technical College
Xuemei Hu, Union County College
Margaret A. Choka, Pellissippi State Community College
Cindy Minton, Clark State Community College
Nili Kirschner, Woodland Community College
Shonda Whetstone, Blinn College
Elizabeth Arreaga, instructor emerita at Long Beach City College
Florencio R. Riguera, Catholic University of America
John B. Gannon, College of Southern Nevada

4 Preface

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Gerald Titchener, Des Moines Area Community College
Rahime-Malik Howard, El Centro College, and Collin College
Jeff Bry, Minnesota State Community and Technical College at Moorhead
Cynthia Tooley, Metropolitan Community College at Blue River
Carol Sebilia, Diablo Valley College
Marian Moore, Owens Community College
John Bartkowski, University of Texas at San Antonio
Shelly Dutchin, Western Technical College

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Preface 5

6 Preface

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FIGURE 1.1 Every day, 7.5 million people use the railways around Mumbai, India. The vast majority of them don’t
know each other, but they share much in common as they move together. (Credit: Rajarshi MITRA/flickr)

1.1 What Is Sociology?
1.2 The History of Sociology
1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology
1.4 Why Study Sociology?

INTRODUCTION A busy commuter train station might seem like a very individualized place. Tens of
thousands or hundreds of thousands of strangers flow through with a singular purpose: to get where they need
to go. Whether walking through main doors at a pace of a dozen people each second, or arriving by train
hundreds at a time, the station can feel a bit like a balloon being pumped too full. Throngs of people cluster in
tight bottlenecks until they burst through corridors and stairways and tunnels to reach the next stage of their
journey. In some stations, walking against the crowd can be a tedious, nearly impossible process. And cutting
across a river of determined commuters can be almost dangerous. Things are fast, relentless, and necessary.

But are those hundred thousand or half a million or, in the case of Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, 3.5 million people
really acting individually? It may seem surprising, but even with those numbers, strangers from across cities
can synch up on the same schedules, use the same doors, take one leg of the trip together every day before
separating into different directions. After just a few months, faces can become familiar, and senses can be
tuned. An experienced commuter can tell where another person is going according to their pace and whatever
announcement just went out; they may slow up a bit to let the other person pass, or hold a door open just a bit

1An Introduction to Sociology

longer than usual, certain that someone will grab the handle behind them. Many regulars don’t need to check
the schedule board; they sense whether a train is running late or whether a track has changed simply by the
movement of the crowd.

And then the customs develop: Which side to walk on, how fast to go, where to stand, how much space to leave
between people on the escalator. When you board early, which seat should you take? When you see someone
running for the train, do you jam the closing door with your foot? How does the crowd treat people who ask for
food or money? What’s the risk level in telling someone to be quiet?

Very few of these behaviors are taught. None are written down. But the transit hub, that pocket of constant flow,
is an echo of its society. It takes on some aspects of the city and country around it, but its people also form an
informal group of their own. Sociologists, as you will learn, may study these people. Sociologists may seek to
understand how they feel about their trip, be it proud or annoyed or just plain exhausted. Sociologists might
study how length of commute relates to job satisfaction or family relationships. They may study the ways that
conditions of a train station affect attitudes about government, or how the difficulty of commuting may lead
people to relocate. This understanding isn’t just a collection of interesting facts; it can influence government
policy and spending decisions, employer interventions, and healthcare practices. The work sociologists do to
understand our society, and the work you will do in learning about it, is meaningful to our lives and our

1.1 What Is Sociology?
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain concepts central to sociology.
• Describe how different sociological perspectives have developed.

What Are Society and Culture?

FIGURE 1.2 Sociologists learn about society while studying one-to-one and group interactions. (Credit: GlacierNPS/

Sociology is the scientific and systematic study of groups and group interactions, societies and social
interactions, from small and personal groups to very large groups. A group of people who live in a defined
geographic area, who interact with one another, and who share a common culture is what sociologists call a

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. Sociologists working from the micro-level study small
groups and individual interactions, while those using macro-level analysis look at trends among and between

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large groups and societies. For example, a micro-level study might look at the accepted rules of conversation in
various groups such as among teenagers or business professionals. In contrast, a macro-level analysis might
research the ways that language use has changed over time or in social media outlets.

The term culture refers to the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. Culture encompasses a group’s
way of life, from routine, everyday interactions to the most important parts of group members’ lives. It
includes everything produced by a society, including all the social rules.

Sociologists often study culture using the sociological imagination, which pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills
described as an awareness of the relationship between a person’s behavior and experience and the wider
culture that shaped the person’s choices and perceptions. It’s a way of seeing our own and other people’s
behavior in relationship to history and social structure (1959). One illustration of this is a person’s decision to
marry. In the United States, this choice is heavily influenced by individual feelings. However, the social
acceptability of marriage relative to the person’s circumstances also plays a part.

Remember, though, that culture is a product of the people in a society. Sociologists take care not to treat the
concept of “culture” as though it were alive and real. The error of treating an abstract concept as though it has
a real, material existence is known as reification (Sahn, 2013).

Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society

All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by
interactions with social groups and society. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not
exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns, social forces and influences put pressure on people to select one choice
over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behavior of large groups of
people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.

Consider the changes in U.S. families. The “typical” family in past decades consisted of married parents living
in a home with their unmarried children. Today, the percent of unmarried couples, same-sex couples, single-
parent and single-adult households is increasing, as well as is the number of expanded households, in which
extended family members such as grandparents, cousins, or adult children live together in the family home.
While 15 million mothers still make up the majority of single parents, 3.5 million fathers are also raising their
children alone (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020). Increasingly, single people and cohabitating couples are choosing
to raise children outside of marriage through surrogates or adoption.

FIGURE 1.3 Modern U.S. families may be very different in makeup from what was historically typical. (Credit A: Paul
Brody/flickr; B: Tony Alter/Wikimedia Commons)

Some sociologists study social facts—the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and
cultural rules that govern social life—that may contribute to these changes in the family. Do people in the

1.1 • What Is Sociology? 9

United States view marriage and family differently over the years? Do they view them differently than
Peruvians? Do employment and economic conditions play a role in families? Other sociologists are studying
the consequences of these new patterns, such as the ways children influence and are influenced by them and/
or the changing needs for education, housing, and healthcare.

Sociologists identify and study patterns related to all kinds of contemporary social issues. The “Stop and Frisk”
policy, the emergence of new political factions, how Twitter influences everyday communication—these are all
examples of topics that sociologists might explore.

Studying Part and Whole: How Sociologists View Social Structures

A key component of the sociological perspective is the idea that the individual and society are inseparable. It is
impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias called the process of
simultaneously analyzing the behavior of individuals and the society that shapes that behavior figuration.

Consider religion. While people experience religion in a distinctly individual manner, religion exists in a larger
social context as a social institution. For instance, an individual’s religious practice may be influenced by what
government dictates, holidays, teachers, places of worship, rituals, and so on. These influences underscore the
important relationship between individual practices of religion and social pressures that influence that
religious experience (Elias, 1978). In simpler terms, figuration means that as one analyzes the social
institutions in a society, the individuals using that institution in any fashion need to be ‘figured’ in to the

Individual-Society Connections
When sociologist Nathan Kierns spoke to his friend Ashley (a pseudonym) about the move she and her partner had
made from an urban center to a small Midwestern town, he was curious about how the social pressures placed on a
lesbian couple differed from one community to the other. Ashley said that in the city they had been accustomed to
getting looks and hearing comments when she and her partner walked hand in hand. Otherwise, she felt that they
were at least being tolerated. There had been little to no outright discrimination.

Things changed when they moved to the small town for her partner’s job. For the first time, Ashley found herself
experiencing direct discrimination because of her sexual orientation. Some of it was particularly hurtful. Landlords
would not rent to them. Ashley, who is a highly trained professional, had a great deal of difficulty finding a new job.

When Nathan asked Ashley if she and her partner became discouraged or bitter about this new situation, Ashley
said that rather than letting it get to them, they decided to do something about it. Ashley approached groups at a
local college and several churches in the area. Together they decided to form the town’s first Gay-Straight Alliance.

The alliance has worked successfully to educate their community about same-sex couples. It also worked to raise
awareness about the kinds of discrimination that Ashley and her partner experienced in the town and how those
could be eliminated. The alliance has become a strong advocacy group, and it is working to attain equal rights for
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBTQ individuals.

Kierns observed that this is an excellent example of how negative social forces can result in a positive response
from individuals to bring about social change (Kierns, 2011).

1.2 The History of Sociology
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain why sociology emerged when it did
• Describe how sociology became a separate academic discipline


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FIGURE 1.4 People have been thinking like sociologists long before sociology became a distinct academic
discipline: Plato and Aristotle, Confucius, Khaldun, Voltaire, and Mary Wollenscraft set the stage for modern
sociology. (Credit: A, B, C, and E Wikimedia Commons; D: publicdomainfiles.com.)

For millennia, people have been fascinated by the relationships between individuals and societies. Many topics
studied by ancient philosophers in their desire to describe an ideal society are still studied in modern
sociology, including theories of social conflict, economics, social cohesion, and power in a continued attempt
to describe an ideal society (Hannoum, 2003). Although we are more familiar with western philosophers like
Plato and his student, Aristotle, eastern philosophers also thought about social issues.

Until recently, we have very few texts that are non-religious in nature that theorize about social life. From 4th

century through the 19th century, the Catholic Church was the seat of power from today’s Turkey in the east to
western and northern Europe, including the British Isles. Only monks who were charged with rewriting holy
texts by hand and the aristocracy were literate. Moreover, the Church consolidated power. In the year 800, Pope
Leo III named Charlemagne, the king of Francia (today’s France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany) emperor
of the Holy Roman Empire, giving one individual control over most of Europe. Doing so gave the Catholic
Church the power to maintain its own traditions safeguard them from the influence of people practicing other
religions. If any social patterns challenged any belief of the Church, those practitioners were massacred,
burned at the stake, or labeled heretics. As a result, the records that we have are extremely subjective and do
not offer an unbiased view of social practice.

In the 13th century, Ma Tuan-Lin, a Chinese historian, was the first to record, in his seminal encyclopedia titled
General Study of Literary Remains, the social dynamics underlying and generating historical development.

In the 14th century, the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) set the foundation for both modern
sociology and economics. Khaldun proposed a theory of social conflict and provided a comparison of nomadic
and sedentary life, an analysis of political economy, and a study connecting a tribe’s social cohesion to its
capacity for power (Hannoum, 2003). Khaldun often challenged authorities. As sociologists continue to study
and report on social issues and problems, they often find themselves in the center of controversy.

From 1347 to 1522, the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, killing up to 35% of population (Armstrong, 2019).
The plague dealt a major blow to the credibility of the Catholic Church. Out of this chaos emerged the the work
of Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo, Newton, Linnaeus, and other philosophers whose work sometimes
contradicted church teachings. Events once held to be the product of the divine hand could be analyzed by
human reason and observation and could be explained by scientific, testable, and retestable hypotheses. As
literacy spread through conquests and colonization, more records and literature became available for
sociologists and historians to put social puzzles together.

In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers developed general principles that could be used to explain
social life. Thinkers such as John Locke, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Immanuel Kant, and Thomas
Hobbes responded to what they saw as social ills by writing on topics that they hoped would lead to social
reform. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) wrote about women’s conditions in society. Like Harriet Martineau
and Jane Addams, her works were long ignored by the male academic structure, but since the 1970s,
Wollstonecraft has been widely considered the first feminist thinker of consequence. Ideas about economic

1.2 • The History of Sociology 11

systems, the family, health and hygiene, national offense and defense, were among the many concerns of social

The early 19th century saw great changes with the Industrial Revolution, increased mobility, and new kinds of
employment. It was also a period of increased trade, travel, and globalization that exposed many people — for
the first time—to societies and cultures other than their own. Millions of people moved into cities and many
people turned away from their traditional religious beliefs. Ideas spread rapidly, groups were created, political
decisions became public decisions. Among a new generation of philosophers, there were some who believed
they could make sense of it all.

Creating a Discipline: European Theorists

FIGURE 1.5 Early major European theorists. Top row, left to right: Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, and Herbert
Spencer. Bottom row, left to right: Goerg Simmel, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons;
Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter/Public domain.)

Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857)

The term sociology was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) in
an unpublished manuscript (Fauré et al. 1999). In 1838, the term was reintroduced by Auguste Comte
(1798–1857). Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but later became a pupil of social philosopher Claude
Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). They both thought that social scientists could study
society using the same scientific methods utilized in natural sciences. Comte also believed in the potential of
social scientists to work toward the betterment of society. He held that once scholars identified the laws that
governed society, sociologists could address problems such as poor education and poverty (Abercrombie et al.

Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism. He described his philosophy in a series of

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books called The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) and A General View of Positivism (1848). He
believed that revealing the laws by which societies and individuals interact would usher in a new “positivist”
age of history. While the field and its terminology have grown, sociologists still believe in the positive impact of
their work.

Harriet Martineau (1802 – 1876)

Harriet Martineau introduced sociology to English speaking scholars through her translation of Comte’s
writing from French to English. She was an early analyst of social practices, including economics, social class,
religion, suicide, government, and women’s rights. Her career began with Illustrations of Political Economy, a
work educating ordinary people about the principles of economics (Johnson, 2003). She later developed the
first systematic methodological international comparisons of social institutions in two of her most famous
sociological works: Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).

Martineau found the workings of capitalism at odds with the professed moral principles of people in the United
States. She pointed out the faults with the free enterprise system in which workers were exploited and
impoverished while business owners became wealthy. She further noted that the belief that all are created
equal was inconsistent with the lack of women’s rights. Much like Mary Wollstonecraft, Martineau was often
discounted in her own time because academic sociology was a male-dominated profession.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx was a German philosopher and economist. In 1848, he and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895)
coauthored the Communist Manifesto. This book is one of the most influential political manuscripts in history.
It also presents Marx’s theory of society, which differed from what Comte proposed.

Marx rejected Comte’s positivism. He believed that societies grew and changed as a result of the struggles of
different social classes over the means of production. At the time he was developing his theories, the Industrial
Revolution and the rise of capitalism led to great disparities in wealth between the owners of the factories and
workers. Capitalism, an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and the
means to produce them, had developed in many nations.

Marx predicted that inequalities of capitalism would become so extreme that workers would eventually revolt.
This would lead to the collapse of capitalism, which would be replaced by communism. Communism is an
economic system under which there is no private or corporate ownership: everything is owned communally
and distributed as needed. Marx believed that communism was a more equitable system than capitalism.

While his economic predictions did not materialize in the time frame he predicted, Marx’s idea that social
conflict leads to change in society is still one of the major theories used in modern sociology.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

In 1873, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer published The Study of Sociology, the first book with the
term “sociology” in the title. Spencer rejected much of Comte’s philosophy as well as Marx’s theory of class
struggle and his support of communism. Instead, he favored a form of government that allowed market forces
to control capitalism. His work influenced many early sociologists including Émile Durkheim (1858–1917).
Spencer, using Charles Darwin’s work as a comparison said, “This survival of the fittest, which I have here
sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection,’ or the
preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” (Spencer, 1864) The statement is often misinterpreted
and adopted by those who believe in the superiority of one race over another.

Georg Simmel (1858–1918)

Georg Simmel was a German art critic who wrote widely on social and political issues as well. Simmel took an
anti-positivism stance and addressed topics such as social conflict, the function of money, individual identity
in city life, and the European fear of outsiders (Stapley 2010). Much of his work focused on micro-level theories

1.2 • The History of Sociology 13

and analyzed the dynamics of two-person and three-person groups. His work also emphasized individual
culture as the creative capacities of individuals (Ritzer and Goodman 2004).

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)

Émile Durkheim helped establish sociology as a formal academic discipline by establishing the first European
department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895 and by publishing his Rules of the Sociological
Method in 1895. In Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim further laid out his theory on how societies
transformed from a primitive state into a capitalist, industrial society. According to Durkheim, people rise to
their proper levels in society based on merit.

Durkheim believed that sociologists could study objective social facts (Poggi, 2000). He also believed that
through such studies it would be possible to determine if a society was “healthy” or “pathological.” Healthy
societies were stable while pathological societies experienced a breakdown in social norms.

In 1897, Durkheim attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of his rules of social research when he
published a work titled Suicide. Durkheim examined suicide statistics in different police districts to research
differences between Catholic and Protestant communities. He attributed the differences to socio-religious
forces rather than to individual or psychological causes.

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Prominent sociologist Max Weber established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians
University of Munich in 1919. Weber wrote on many topics related to sociology including political change in
Russia and social forces that affect factory workers. He is known best for his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism. The theory that Weber sets forth in this book is still controversial. Some believe
that Weber argued that the beliefs of many Protestants, especially Calvinists, led to the rise of capitalism.
Others interpret it as simply claiming that the ideologies of capitalism and Protestantism are complementary.

Weber believed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to use standard scientific methods to accurately predict
the behavior of groups as some sociologists hoped to do. Weber argued that the influence of culture on human
behavior had to be taken into account. This even applied to the researchers themselves, who should be aware
of how their own cultural biases could influence their research. To deal with this problem, Weber and Wilhelm
Dilthey introduced the concept of verstehen, a German word that means to understand in a deep way. In
seeking verstehen, outside observers of a social world—an entire culture or a small setting—attempt to
understand it from an insider’s point of view.

In The Nature of Social Action, Weber described sociology as striving to “… interpret the meaning of social
action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which action proceeds and the effects it produces.”
He and other like-minded sociologists proposed a philosophy of anti-positivism whereby social researchers
would strive for subjectivity as they worked to represent social processes, cultural norms, and societal values.
This approach led to some research methods whose aim was not to generalize or predict (traditional in
science), but to systematically gain an in-depth understanding of social worlds.

The different approaches to research based on positivism or anti-positivism are often considered the
foundation for the differences found today between quantitative sociology and qualitative sociology.
Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants.
Researchers analyze data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns of human behavior.
Qualitative sociology seeks to understand human behavior by learning about it through in-depth interviews,
focus groups, and analysis of content sources (like books, magazines, journals, and popular media).

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Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?
During his hard-fought 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden promised Americans that he would raise the federal
minimum wage. Opponents of raising the minimum wage argue that some workers would get larger paychecks while
others would lose their jobs, and companies would be less likely to hire new workers because of the increased cost
of paying them. Biden and other proponents of raising the minimum wage contend that some job loss would be
greatly offset by the positive effects on the standard of living of low-wage workers and reducing the income gap
between the rich and poor.

Sociologists may consider the minimum wage issue from differing perspectives as well. How much of an impact
would a minimum wage raise have for a single mother? Some might study the economic effects, such as her ability
to pay bills and keep food on the table. Others might look at how reduced economic stress could improve family
relationships. Some sociologists might research the impact on the status of small business owners. These could all
be examples of public sociology, a branch of sociology that strives to bring sociological dialogue to public forums.
The goals of public sociology are to increase understanding of the social factors that underlie social problems and
assist in finding solutions. According to Michael Burawoy (2005), the challenge of public sociology is to engage
multiple publics in multiple ways.

Applying the Discipline: American Theorists and Practitioners

FIGURE 1.6 From left to right, William Sumner, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Jane Adams. (Credit A, B, and C: Wikimedia

In the early 1900s, sociology reached universities in the United States. William Sumner held the first
professorship in sociology (Yale University), Franklin Giddings was the first full professor of Sociology
(Columbia University), and Albion Small wrote the first sociology textbook. Early American sociologists tested
and applied the theories of the Europeans and became leaders in social research. Lester Ward (1841 – 1913)
developed social research methods and argued for the use of the scientific method and quantitative data
(Chapter 2) to show the effectiveness of policies. In order for sociology to gain respectability in American
academia, social researchers understood that they must adopt empirical approaches.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois, a Harvard-trained historian, pioneered the use of rigorous
empirical methodology into sociology. His groundbreaking 1896-1897 study of the African American
community in Philadelphia incorporated hundreds of interviews Du Bois conducted in order to document the
familial and employment structures and assess the chief challenges of the community. These new,
comprehensive research methods stood in stark contrast to the less scientific practices of the time, which Du


1.2 • The History of Sociology 15

Bois critiqued as being similar to doing research as if through the window of a moving car. His scientific
approach became highly influential to entire schools of sociological study, and is considered a forerunner to
contemporary practices. Additionally, Du Bois’ 1899 publication provided empirical evidence to challenge
pseudoscientific ideas of biological racism (Morris, 2015; Green & Wortham, 2018), which had been used as
justification to oppress people of different races.

Du Bois also played a prominent role in the effort to increase rights for Black people. Concerned at the slow
pace of progress and advice from some Black leaders to be more accommodating of racism, Du Bois became a
leader in what would later be known as the Niagara Movement. In 1905, he and others drafted a declaration
that called for immediate political, economic, and social equality for African Americans. A few years later, he
helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its
director of publications.

Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929)

After a brief stint as an unemployed college graduate, Thorstein Veblen began to study the economy through a
social lens, writing about the leisure class, the business class, and other areas that touched on the idea of
‘working’ itself. He researched the chronically unemployed, the currently unemployed, the working classes,
and the working classes.

Jane Addams (1860-1935)

Jane Addams founded Hull House, a center that served needy immigrants through social and educational
programs while providing extensive opportunities for sociological research. Founded in Chicago, Addams
worked closely with University of Chicago’s Chicago School of Sociology. This school of thought places much
importance on environment in which relationships and behaviors develop. Research conducted at Hull House
informed child labor, immigration, health care, and other areas of public policy.

Charles Herbert Cooley (1864-1929)

Charles Herbert Cooley posited that individuals compare themselves to others in order to check themselves
against social standards and remain part of the group. Calling this idea ‘the looking-glass self,’ Cooley argued
that we ‘see’ ourselves by the reactions of others with whom we interact. If someone reacts positively to our
behavior, theoretically we will continue that behavior. He wrote substantially on what he saw as the order of life
in Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) followed by Social Organization in 1909. He was very concerned
with the increasing individualism and competitiveness of US society, fearing it would disrupt families as
primary groups lost their importance.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)

George Herbert Mead was a philosopher and sociologist whose work focused on the ways in which the mind
and the self were developed as a result of social processes (Cronk, n.d.). He argued that how an individual
comes to view himself or herself is based to a very large extent on interactions with others. Though Mead
adopted Cooley’s concept of ‘looking-glasses,’ Mead felt that an individual’s reaction to a positive or negative
reflection depended on who the ‘other’ was. Individuals that had the greatest impact on a person’s life were
significant others while generalized others were the organized and generalized attitude of a social group.
Mead often shares the title of father of symbolic interactionism with Cooley and Erving Goffman.

Robert E. Park (1864-1944)

Robert E. Park is best known as the founder of social ecology. Attached to the Chicago School, Park focused on
how individuals lived within their environment. One of the first sociologists to focus on ethnic minorities, he
wrote on the Belgian oppression of the Congolese. When he returned to the US, he and Ernest Burgess
researched the inner city to show that no matter who lived there, social chaos was prevalent. As such, it was
not the residents who caused the chaos but the environment.

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1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology
By the end of this section you should be able to:

• Describe the ways that sociological theories are used to explain social institutions.
• Differentiate between functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

FIGURE 1.7 Sociologists develop theories to explain social occurrences such as protest rallies. (Credit: David

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns, and they develop theories to explain why things
work as they do. In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and to create a
testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006).

For example, although suicide is generally considered an individual phenomenon, Émile Durkheim was
interested in studying the social factors that affect it. He studied social solidarity, social ties within a group,
and hypothesized that differences in suicide rates might be explained by religious differences. Durkheim
gathered a large amount of data about Europeans and found that Protestants were more likely to commit
suicide than Catholics. His work supports the utility of theory in sociological research.

Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level
theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro-level theories look at very specific
relationships between individuals or small groups. Grand theories attempt to explain large-scale
relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change.
Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological
theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their
predecessors and add to them (Calhoun, 2002).

In sociology, a few theories provide broad perspectives that help explain many different aspects of social life,
and these are called paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a
discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them. Three
paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking because they provide useful explanations: structural
functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

1.3 • Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology 17



Level of

Focus Analogies Questions that
might be asked


Macro or

The way each part of society
functions together to contribute
to the functioning of the whole.

How each organ works to
keep your body healthy
(or not.)

How does
education work
to transmit



The way inequities and
inequalities contribute to social,
political, and power differences
and how they perpetuate power.

The ones with the most
toys wins and they will
change the rules to the
games to keep winning.

Does education
transmit only
the dominant


The way one-on-one interactions
and communications behave.

What’s it mean to be an

How do
students react
to cultural
messages in

TABLE 1.1 Sociological Theories or Perspectives Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view
social issues through a variety of useful lenses.


Functionalism, also called structural-functional theory, sees society as a structure with interrelated parts
designed to meet the biological and social needs of the individuals in that society. Functionalism grew out of
the writings of English philosopher and biologist, Herbert Spencer, who saw similarities between society and
the human body. He argued that just as the various organs of the body work together to keep the body
functioning, the various parts of society work together to keep society functioning (Spencer, 1898). The parts of
society that Spencer referred to were the social institutions, or patterns of beliefs and behaviors focused on
meeting social needs, such as government, education, family, healthcare, religion, and the economy.

Émile Durkheim applied Spencer’s theory to explain how societies change and survive over time. Durkheim
believed that society is a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts that work together to
maintain stability (Durkheim, 1893), and that society is held together by shared values, languages, and
symbols. He believed that to study society, a sociologist must look beyond individuals to social facts such as
laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashion, and rituals, which all serve to govern social life
(Durkheim, 1895). Alfred Radcliff-Brown (1881–1955) defined the function of any recurrent activity as the
part it played in social life as a whole, and therefore the contribution it makes to social stability and continuity
(Radcliff-Brown 1952). In a healthy society, all parts work together to maintain stability, a state called dynamic
equilibrium by later sociologists such as Parsons (1961).

Durkheim believed that individuals may make up society, but in order to study society, sociologists have to
look beyond individuals to social facts. . Each of these social facts serves one or more functions within a
society. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence, while another is
to punish criminal behavior, while another is to preserve public health.

Another noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out that social processes often
have many functions. Manifest functions are the consequences of a social process that are sought or

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anticipated, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of a
college education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that
utilizes that education. Latent functions of your college years include meeting new people, participating in
extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. Another latent function of education is creating
a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. Latent functions can be beneficial,
neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are
called dysfunctions. In education, examples of dysfunction include getting bad grades, truancy, dropping out,
not graduating, and not finding suitable employment.


One criticism of the structural-functional theory is that it can’t adequately explain social change even though
the functions are processes. Also problematic is the somewhat circular nature of this theory: repetitive
behavior patterns are assumed to have a function, yet we profess to know that they have a function only
because they are repeated. Furthermore, dysfunctions may continue, even though they don’t serve a function,
which seemingly contradicts the basic premise of the theory. Many sociologists now believe that functionalism
is no longer useful as a macro-level theory, but that it does serve a useful purpose in some mid-level analyses.

A Global Culture?

FIGURE 1.8 Some sociologists see the online world contributing to the creation of an emerging global culture.
Are you a part of any global communities? This Indiana rabbi is participating in what was recognized as the
longest Zoom meeting, which started in Australia after the Sabbath and proceeded through each of the world’s
time zones, effectively lasting much longer than a day. (Credit: Chabad Lubavitch/flickr)

Sociologists around the world look closely for signs of what would be an unprecedented event: the emergence of
a global culture. In the past, empires such as those that existed in China, Europe, Africa, and Central and South
America linked people from many different countries, but those people rarely became part of a common culture.
They lived too far from each other, spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and traded few goods.
Today, increases in communication, travel, and trade have made the world a much smaller place. More and more
people are able to communicate with each other instantly—wherever they are located—by telephone, video, and


1.3 • Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology 19

text. They share movies, television shows, music, games, and information over the Internet. Students can study
with teachers and pupils from the other side of the globe. Governments find it harder to hide conditions inside
their countries from the rest of the world.

Sociologists research many different aspects of this potential global culture. Some explore the dynamics involved
in the social interactions of global online communities, such as when members feel a closer kinship to other
group members than to people residing in their own countries. Other sociologists study the impact this growing
international culture has on smaller, less-powerful local cultures. Yet other researchers explore how international
markets and the outsourcing of labor impact social inequalities. Sociology can play a key role in people’s abilities
to understand the nature of this emerging global culture and how to respond to it.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory looks at society as a competition for limited resources. This perspective is a macro-level
approach most identified with the writings of German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx, who saw society
as being made up of individuals in different social classes who must compete for social, material, and political
resources such as food and housing, employment, education, and leisure time. Social institutions like
government, education, and religion reflect this competition in their inherent inequalities and help maintain
the unequal social structure. Some individuals and organizations are able to obtain and keep more resources
than others, and these “winners” use their power and influence to maintain social institutions. The
perpetuation of power results in the perpetuation of oppression.

Several theorists suggested variations on this basic theme like Polish-Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz
(1838–1909) who expanded on Marx’s ideas by arguing that war and conquest are the bases of civilizations. He
believed that cultural and ethnic conflicts led to states being identified and defined by a dominant group that
had power over other groups (Irving, 2007).

German sociologist Max Weber agreed with Marx but also believed that, in addition to economic inequalities,
inequalities of political power and social structure cause conflict. Weber noted that different groups were
affected differently based on education, race, and gender, and that people’s reactions to inequality were
moderated by class differences and rates of social mobility, as well as by perceptions about the legitimacy of
those in power. A reader of Marx, Georg Simmel believed that conflict can help integrate and stabilize a society.
He said that the intensity of the conflict varies depending on the emotional involvement of the parties, the
degree of solidarity within the opposing groups, and the clarity and limited nature of the goals. Simmel also
showed that groups work to create internal solidarity, centralize power, and reduce dissent. The stronger the
bond, the weaker the discord. Resolving conflicts can reduce tension and hostility and can pave the way for
future agreements.

In the 1930s and 1940s, German philosophers, known as the Frankfurt School, developed critical theory as an
elaboration on Marxist principles. Critical theory is an expansion of conflict theory and is broader than just
sociology, incorporating other social sciences and philosophy. A critical theory is a holistic theory and
attempts to address structural issues causing inequality. It must explain what’s wrong in current social reality,
identify the people who can make changes, and provide practical goals for social transformation (Horkeimer,

More recently, inequality based on gender or race has been explained in a similar manner and has identified
institutionalized power structures that help to maintain inequality between groups. Janet Saltzman Chafetz
(1941–2006) presented a model of feminist theory that attempts to explain the forces that maintain gender
inequality as well as a theory of how such a system can be changed (Turner, 2003). Similarly, critical race
theory grew out of a critical analysis of race and racism from a legal point of view. Critical race theory looks at
structural inequality based on white privilege and associated wealth, power, and prestige.

20 1 • An Introduction to Sociology

Access for free at openstax.org.

Farming and Locavores: How Sociological Perspectives Might View Food Consumption
The consumption of food is a commonplace, daily occurrence. Yet, it can also be associated with important
moments in our lives. Eating can be an individual or a group action, and eating habits and customs are influenced by
our cultures. In the context of society, our nation’s food system is at the core of numerous social movements,
political issues, and economic debates. Any of these factors might become a topic of sociological study.

A structural-functional approach to the topic of food consumption might analyze the role of the agriculture industry
within the nation’s economy and how this has changed from the early days of manual-labor farming to modern
mechanized production. Another might study the different functions of processes in food production, from farming
and harvesting to flashy packaging and mass consumerism.

A conflict theorist might be interested in the power differentials present in the regulation of food, by exploring where
people’s right to information intersects with corporations’ drive for profit and how the government mediates those
interests. Or a conflict theorist might examine the power and powerlessness experienced by local farmers versus
large farming conglomerates, such as the documentary Food Inc., which depicts as resulting from Monsanto’s
patenting of seed technology. Another topic of study might be how nutrition varies between different social classes.

A sociologist viewing food consumption through a symbolic interactionist lens would be more interested in
microlevel topics, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, or the role it plays in the social interaction of a
family dinner. This perspective might also explore the interactions among group members who identify themselves
based on their sharing a particular diet, such as vegetarians (people who don’t eat meat) or locavores (people who
strive to eat locally produced food).


Just as structural functionalism was criticized for focusing too much on the stability of societies, conflict
theory has been criticized because it tends to focus on conflict to the exclusion of recognizing stability. Many
social structures are extremely stable or have gradually progressed over time rather than changing abruptly as
conflict theory would suggest.

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theory that focuses on the relationships among individuals within a
society. Communication—the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is believed to be the way in
which people make sense of their social worlds. Theorists Herman and Reynolds (1994) note that this
perspective sees people as being active in shaping the social world rather than simply being acted upon.

George Herbert Mead is considered a founder of symbolic interactionism though he never published his work
on it (LaRossa and Reitzes, 1993). Mead’s student, Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), coined the term “symbolic
interactionism” and outlined these basic premises: humans interact with things based on meanings ascribed
to those things; the ascribed meaning of things comes from our interactions with others and society; the
meanings of things are interpreted by a person when dealing with things in specific circumstances (Blumer
1969). If you love books, for example, a symbolic interactionist might propose that you learned that books are
good or important in the interactions you had with family, friends, school, or church. Maybe your family had a
special reading time each week, getting your library card was treated as a special event, or bedtime stories
were associated with warmth and comfort.

Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between
individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, while a conflict
theorist studying a political protest might focus on class difference, a symbolic interactionist would be more
interested in how individuals in the protesting group interact, as well as the signs and symbols protesters use


1.3 • Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology 21

to communicate their message.

The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922-1982)
to develop a technique called dramaturgical analysis. Goffman used theater as an analogy for social
interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” He argued that
individuals were actors in a play. We switched roles, sometimes minute to minute—for example, from student
or daughter to dog walker. Because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she
has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds (Goffman, 1958).

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods,
such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds
in which research subjects live.

Constructivism is an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans
cognitively construct it to be. We develop social constructs based on interactions with others, and those
constructs that last over time are those that have meanings which are widely agreed-upon or generally
accepted by most within the society. This approach is often used to examine what’s defined as deviant within a
society. There is no absolute definition of deviance, and different societies have constructed different
meanings for deviance, as well as associating different behaviors with deviance.

One situation that illustrates this is what you believe you’re to do if you find a wallet in the street. In the United
States, turning the wallet in to local authorities would be considered the appropriate action, and to keep the
wallet would be seen as deviant. In contrast, many Eastern societies would consider it much more appropriate
to keep the wallet and search for the owner yourself. Turning it over to someone else, even the authorities,
would be considered deviant behavior.


Research done from this perspective is often scrutinized because of the difficulty of remaining objective.
Others criticize the extremely narrow focus on symbolic interaction. Proponents, of course, consider this one
of its greatest strengths.

Sociological Theory Today

These three approaches still provide the main foundation of modern sociological theory though they have
evolved. Structural-functionalism was a dominant force after World War II and until the 1960s and 1970s. At
that time, sociologists began to feel that structural-functionalism did not sufficiently explain the rapid social
changes happening in the United States at that time. The women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement
forced academics to develop approaches to study these emerging social practices.

Conflict theory then gained prominence, with its emphasis on institutionalized social inequality. Critical
theory, and the particular aspects of feminist theory and critical race theory, focused on creating social change
through the application of sociological principles. The field saw a renewed emphasis on helping ordinary
people understand sociology principles, in the form of public sociology.

Gaining prominence in the wake of Mead’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, symbolic interactionism declined in
influence during the 1960s and 1970s only to be revitalized at the turn of the twenty-first century (Stryker,
1987). Postmodern social theory developed in the 1980s to look at society through an entirely new lens by
rejecting previous macro-level attempts to explain social phenomena. Its growth in popularity coincides with
the rise of constructivist views of symbolic interactionism.

22 1 • An Introduction to Sociology

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1.4 Why Study Sociology?
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain why it is worthwhile to study sociology.
• Identify ways sociology is applied in the real world.

FIGURE 1.9 The research of Kenneth and Mamie Clark helped the Supreme Court decide to end “separate but
equal” racial segregation in schools in the United States. (Credit: University of Texas)

When Elizabeth Eckford tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, she
was met by an angry crowd and was turned away by authorities. But she knew she had the law on her side.
Three years earlier in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had
overturned twenty-one state laws that allowed Black and White people to be taught in separate school systems
as long as the school systems were “equal.” The decision was nothing short of momentous, not only for
education, but for a number of other segregation and discrimination issues that have lasted into this decade.
And in that momentous decision, the Supreme Court cited the research of the husband-and-wife team of social
scientists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, as evidence that segregation generates in minority students a feeling of
inferiority. In the ‘doll test,’ for example, the Clarks showed children four dolls, two with white skin and yellow
hair and two with brown skin and black hair. When asked which doll they preferred, the majority of Black
children chose the doll with the light skin doll, and they assigned positive characteristics to it. Most of the
Black children discarded the doll with the brown skin—the one that had a closer resemblance to themselves.

When asked to choose the doll that looked like them, many children left the room, started to cry, and/or
became depressed. The Clarks’ research contributed to the Supreme Court’s conclusion that separate but
equal was damaging to students, and that separate facilities are unequal.

Sociology and a Better Society

Since it was first founded, many people interested in sociology have been driven by the scholarly desire to
contribute knowledge to this field, while others have seen it as way not only to study society but also to improve
it. Besides desegregation, sociology has played a crucial role in many important social reforms, such as equal
opportunity for women in the workplace, improved treatment for individuals with mental handicaps or
learning disabilities, increased accessibility and accommodation for people with physical handicaps, the right
of native populations to preserve their land and culture, and prison system reforms.

The predominant American sociologist, the late Peter L. Berger (1929–2017), in his 1963 book, Invitation to
Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, describes a sociologist as “someone concerned with understanding
society in a disciplined way.” He asserts that sociologists have a natural interest in the monumental moments
of people’s lives, as well as a fascination with banal, everyday occurrences. Berger also describes the “aha”

1.4 • Why Study Sociology? 23

moment when a sociological theory becomes applicable and understood:

[T]here is a deceptive simplicity and obviousness about some sociological investigations. One reads
them, nods at the familiar scene, remarks that one has heard all this before and don’t people have
better things to do than to waste their time on truisms—until one is suddenly brought up against an
insight that radically questions everything one had previously assumed about this familiar scene. This
is the point at which one begins to sense the excitement of sociology. (Berger, 1963)

Sociology can be exciting because it teaches people ways to recognize how they fit into the world and how
others perceive them. Looking at themselves and society from a sociological perspective helps people see
where they connect to different groups based on the many different ways they classify themselves and how
society classifies them in turn. It raises awareness of how those classifications—such as economic and status
levels, education, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—affect perceptions.

Sociology teaches people not to accept easy explanations. It teaches them a way to organize their thinking so
that they can ask better questions and formulate better answers. It makes people more aware that there are
many different kinds of people in the world who do not necessarily think the way they do. It increases their
willingness and ability to try to see the world from other people’s perspectives. This prepares them to live and
work in an increasingly diverse and integrated world.

Sociology in the Workplace

Employers continue to seek people with what are called “transferable skills.” This means that they want to hire
people whose knowledge and education can be applied in a variety of settings and whose skills will contribute
to various tasks.

Studying sociology can provide people with this wide knowledge and a skill set that can contribute to many
workplaces, including

• an understanding of social systems and large bureaucracies;
• the ability to devise and carry out research projects to assess whether a program or policy is working;
• the ability to collect, read, and analyze statistical information from polls or surveys;
• the ability to recognize important differences in people’s social, cultural, and economic backgrounds;
• skills in preparing reports and communicating complex ideas; and
• the capacity for critical thinking about social issues and problems that confront modern society.

(Department of Sociology, University of Alabama-Huntsville)

Sociology prepares people for a wide variety of careers. Besides actually conducting social research or training
others in the field, people who graduate from college with a degree in sociology are hired by government
agencies and corporations in fields such as social services, counseling (e.g., family planning, career, substance
abuse), community planning, health services, marketing, market research, and human resources. Even a small
amount of training in sociology can be an asset in careers like sales, public relations, journalism, teaching, law,
and criminal justice.

Social Networking Consequences
You’ve probably heard a cautionary story that goes something like this: A high school student spent years working
hard, engaging in their community, helping others, and generally growing into a positive and promising young adult.
During senior year, they start the college application process, and after a couple of interviews and other interactions,
things are looking bright at several of their top choices. But when the time arrives for those fateful notifications
about acceptance or rejection, the student and their family are shocked to get rejected from all schools but one.
Inquiries from family members and guidance counselors had no results. The only news came in the form of a letter


24 1 • An Introduction to Sociology

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three weeks later from the one school that had accepted the student.

“…After an initial investigation, the University has determined that several posts attributed to you violate our
policies, and are offensive and troubling…”

The letter’s remaining two pages detailed the ongoing investigation and outlined the potential outcomes. But that
one statement said it all: The student had posted something offensive on social media, and their prospective
colleges had found it.

Two years earlier, at the beginning of sophomore year, the student had posted two comments and a meme that
mocked a classmate who had been assaulted at a party. Even thought the student had removed them within a few
days, the posts lived on in other forums and on a few friends’ pages; there was also the possibility that someone had
screen-grabbed them. While social media posts are protected forms of speech in relation to the government,
colleges can review them as they evaluate applicants. Employers can do the same, as can romantic partners or even
volunteer organizations.

You may believe that a 15-year-old’s social media comments should not impact them years later. Or you may feel
that someone who jokes about assault may be a risk to commit a similar act or fail to stop or report one. Sociologists
may consider all of those assumptions, and may seek answers or information through research to uncover the
impacts, risks, tendencies, and outcomes on the different groups involved. For example, a sociologist might work to
discover answers to the following questions:

• Is abusive speech or assault less likely to occur at colleges that screen applicants’ social media posts?
• Do sensitivity trainings or cultural competency programs have an effect on online speech?
• Do colleges treat all community members equally when they discover someone has posted offensive comments or

other content?
• Are algorithms and artificial intelligence used to detect problematic comments biased against certain people or


None of these questions could be answered by a single study or even a group of them. But like the Supreme Court’s
use of Mamie and Kenneth Clarke’s research, college administrators, high school counselors, and technology
companies can use the outcomes of research and analysis to make decisions or implement programs.

1.4 • Why Study Sociology? 25

Key Terms
antipositivism the view that social researchers should strive for subjectivity as they worked to represent

social processes, cultural norms, and societal values
conflict theory a theory that looks at society as a competition for limited resources
constructivism an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans

cognitively construct it to be
culture a group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs
dramaturgical analysis a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of

theatrical performance
dynamic equilibrium a stable state in which all parts of a healthy society work together properly
dysfunctions social patterns that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society
figuration the process of simultaneously analyzing the behavior of an individual and the society that shapes

that behavior
function the part a recurrent activity plays in the social life as a whole and the contribution it makes to

structural continuity
functionalism 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
generalized others the organized and generalized attitude of a social group
grand theories an attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as

why societies form and why they change
hypothesis a testable proposition
latent functions the unrecognized or unintended consequences of a social process
macro-level a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society
manifest functions sought consequences of a social process
micro-level theories the study of specific relationships between individuals or small groups
paradigms philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories,

generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them
positivism the scientific study of social patterns
qualitative sociology in-depth interviews, focus groups, and/or analysis of content sources as the source of

its data
quantitative sociology statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants
reification an error of treating an abstract concept as though it has a real, material existence
significant others specific individuals that impact a person’s life
social facts the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all of the cultural rules

that govern social life
social institutions patterns of beliefs and behaviors focused on meeting social needs
social solidarity the social ties that bind a group of people together such as kinship, shared location, and

society a group of people who live in a defined geographical area who interact with one another and who

share a common culture
sociological imagination the ability to understand how your own past relates to that of other people, as well

as to history in general and societal structures in particular
sociology the systematic study of society and social interaction
symbolic interactionism a theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of

individuals within their society by studying their communication (language and symbols)
theory a proposed explanation about social interactions or society
verstehen a German word that means to understand in a deep way

26 1 • Key Terms

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Section Summary
1.1 What Is Sociology?

Sociology is the systematic and scientific study of society and social interaction. In order to carry out their
studies, sociologists identify cultural patterns and social forces and determine how they affect individuals and
groups. They also develop ways to apply their findings to the real world.

1.2 The History of Sociology

Sociology was developed as an academic and scientific way to study and theorize about the changes to society
brought on by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the earliest
sociologists thought that societies and individuals’ roles in society could be studied using the same scientific
methodologies that were used in the natural sciences, while others believed that is was impossible to predict
human behavior scientifically, and still others debated the value of such predictions. Those perspectives
continue to be represented within sociology today.

1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Sociologists develop theories to explain social events, interactions, and patterns. A theory is a proposed
explanation of those social interactions. Theories have different scales. Macro-level theories, such as structural
functionalism and conflict theory, attempt to explain how societies operate as a whole. Micro-level theories,
such as symbolic interactionism, focus on interactions between individuals.

1.4 Why Study Sociology?

Studying sociology is beneficial both for the individual and for society. By studying sociology people learn how
to think critically about social issues and problems that confront our society. The study of sociology enriches
students’ lives and prepares them for careers in an increasingly diverse world. Society benefits because people
with sociological training are better prepared to make informed decisions about social issues and take
effective action to deal with them.

Section Quiz
1.1 What Is Sociology?

1. Which of the following best describes sociology as a subject?
a. The study of individual behavior
b. The study of cultures
c. The study of society and social interaction
d. The study of economics

2. C. Wright Mills once said that sociologists need to develop a sociological __________ to study how society
affects individuals.
a. culture
b. imagination
c. method
d. tool

3. A sociologist defines society as a group of people who reside in a defined area, share a culture, and who:
a. interact
b. work in the same industry
c. speak different languages
d. practice a recognized religion

1 • Section Summary 27

4. Seeing patterns means that a sociologist needs to be able to:
a. compare the behavior of individuals from different societies
b. compare one society to another
c. identify similarities in how social groups respond to social pressure
d. compare individuals to groups

1.2 The History of Sociology

5. Which of the following was a topic of study in early sociology?
a. Astrology
b. Economics
c. Physics
d. History

6. Which founder of sociology believed societies changed due to class struggle?
a. Emile Comte
b. Karl Marx
c. Plato
d. Herbert Spencer

7. Weber believed humans could not be studied purely objectively because they were influenced by:
a. drugs
b. their culture
c. their genetic makeup
d. the researcher

1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

8. Which of these theories is most likely to look at the social world on a micro level?
a. Structural functionalism
b. Conflict theory
c. Positivism
d. Symbolic interactionism

9. Who believed that the history of society was one of class struggle?
a. Emile Durkheim
b. Karl Marx
c. Erving Goffmann
d. George Herbert Mead

10. Who coined the phrase symbolic interactionism?
a. Herbert Blumer
b. Max Weber
c. Lester F. Ward
d. W. I. Thomas

11. A symbolic interactionist may compare social interactions to:
a. behaviors
b. conflicts
c. human organs
d. theatrical roles

28 1 • Section Quiz

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12. Which research technique would most likely be used by a symbolic interactionist?
a. Surveys
b. Participant observation
c. Quantitative data analysis
d. None of the above

1.4 Why Study Sociology?

13. Kenneth and Mamie Clark used sociological research to show that segregation was:
a. beneficial
b. harmful
c. illegal
d. of no importance

14. What did the Clark’s use in their experiment noted in question 15?
a. children and dogs
b. adults and dolls
c. children and dolls
d. adults and pets

15. Studying sociology helps people analyze data because they learn:
a. interview techniques
b. to apply statistics
c. to generate theories
d. all of the above

16. Berger describes sociologists as concerned with:
a. monumental moments in people’s lives
b. common everyday life events
c. both a and b
d. none of the above

17. Berger writes that sociology
a. is not an academic discipline
b. makes the strange familiar
c. makes the familiar strange
d. is not a science

Short Answer
1.1 What Is Sociology?

1. What do you think C. Wright Mills meant when he said that to be a sociologist, one had to develop a
sociological imagination?

2. Describe a situation in which a choice you made was influenced by societal pressures.

1.2 The History of Sociology

3. What do you make of Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology? What perceptions of Marx have you been
exposed to in your society, and how do those perceptions influence your views?

4. Do you tend to place more value on qualitative or quantitative research? Why? Does it matter what topic you
are studying?

1 • Short Answer 29

1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

5. Which theory do you think better explains how societies operate—structural functionalism or conflict
theory? Why?

6. Do you think the way people behave in social interactions is more like the behavior of animals or more like
actors playing a role in a theatrical production? Why?

1.4 Why Study Sociology?

7. How do you think taking a sociology course might affect your social interactions?

8. What sort of career are you interested in? How could studying sociology help you in this career?

Further Research
1.1 What Is Sociology?

Sociology is a broad discipline. Different kinds of sociologists employ various methods for exploring the
relationship between individuals and society. Check out more about sociology at this website.
(http://openstax.org/l/what-is-sociology) .

1.2 The History of Sociology

Many sociologists helped shape the discipline. To learn more, check out this site featuring prominent
sociologists and how they changed sociology. (https://openstax.org/l/3esociobio)

1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

People often think of all conflict as violent, but many conflicts can be resolved nonviolently. To learn more
about nonviolent methods of conflict resolution check out the Albert Einstein Institution
(http://openstax.org/l/ae-institution) .

1.4 Why Study Sociology?

Social communication is rapidly evolving due to ever improving technologies. Check out this website to learn
more about how sociologists study the impact of these changes (http://openstax.org/l/media)

1.1 What Is Sociology?

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Hannoum, A. (2003). Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist. Middletown, CT:
Wesleyan University. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/pss/3590803.

Hill, M. (1991). “Harriet Martineau.” Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook, edited by Mary Jo
Deegan. New York: Greenwood Press.

Johnson, B. (2003). “Harriet Martineau: Theories and Contributions to Sociology.” Education Portal. Retrieved
from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/harriet-martineau-theories-and-contributions-to-

Morris, A. (2015). The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Oakland, California:
University of California Press. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/

Poggi, Gianfranco. (2000). Durkheim. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ritzer, G. & Goodman, D. (2004). Sociological Theory, 6th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill Education.

Stapley, Pierre. (2010). “Georg Simmel.” Cardiff University School of Social Sciences. Retrieved from

U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. (2010). Women and the Economy, 2010: 25 Years of Progress But

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Challenges Remain. August. Washington, DC: Congressional Printing Office. Retrieved from

1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Allan, K. Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine
Forge Press.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Broce, G. (1973). History of Anthropology. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company.

Calhoun, C. (2002). Classical Sociological Theory. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cooley, C. (1902). Human nature and the social order. NY: Charles Schribner’s Sons. Retrieved from

Durkheim, É. (1984 [1893]). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, É. (1964 [1895]). The Rules of Sociological Method, edited by J. Mueller, E. George and E. Caitlin. 8th
ed. Translated by S. Solovay. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, E. (1958). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social
Sciences Research Centre.

Goldschmidt, W. (1996). “Functionalism” in Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2, edited by D.
Levinson and M. Ember. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Henry, S. (2007). “Deviance, Constructionist Perspectives.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Retrieved
from http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/public/

Herman, N. & Reynolds, L. (1994). Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Lanham, MD:
Altamira Press.

Horkeimer, M. (1982). Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Hurst, A. (n.d.) Classical Sociological Theory and Foundations of American Sociology. Retrieved from

Irving, J. (2007). Fifty Key Sociologists: The Formative Theorists. New York: Routledge.

LaRossa, R. & Reitzes, D. (1993). “Symbolic Interactionism and Family Studies.” Pp. 135–163 in Sourcebook of
Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, edited by P. G. Boss, et al. New York: Springer.

Maryanski, A. & Turner, J. (1992). The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1998 [1848]). The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin.

Parsons, T. (1961). Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. New York: Free Press.

Pew Research Center. (2012). “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Internet Project, April 2012.
Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1952). Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London:
Cohen and West.

Spencer, Herbert. (1894). The Principles of Biology. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

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Stanford University. (2017). Max Weber. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/weber/

Stryker, Sheldon (1987). The Vitalization of Symbolic Interactionism. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(1),

Turner, J. (2003). The Structure of Sociological Theory. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth.

UCLA School of Public Affairs. (n.d.) “What is Critical Race Theory?” UCLA School of Public Affairs: Critical
Race Studies. Retrieved from http://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory/.

1.4 Why Study Sociology?

Berger, P. (1963). Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Anchor Books.

Department of Sociology, University of Alabama. (n.d.) Is Sociology Right for You? Huntsville: University of
Alabama. Retrieved from https://www.uah.edu/ahs/departments/sociology/about.

1 • References 33

34 1 • References

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FIGURE 2.1 Many believe that crime rates go up during the full moon, but scientific research does not support this
conclusion. (Credit: Arman Thanvir/flickr.)


2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research
2.2 Research Methods
2.3 Ethical Concerns

As sociology made its way into American universities, scholars developed it into a science
that relies on research to build a body of knowledge. Sociologists began collecting data (observations and
documentation) and applying the scientific method or an interpretative framework to increase understanding
of societies and social interactions.

Our observations about social situations often incorporate biases based on our own views and limited data. To
avoid subjectivity, sociologists conduct experiments or studies that gather and analyze empirical evidence
from direct experience. Peers review the conclusions from this research and often repeat the experiments or
studies or apply them to other contexts in order to validate these conclusions. Examples of peer-reviewed
research are found in scholarly journals.

Consider a study on the relationship between COVID-19 and crime rates published in Crime Science, a
scholarly journal. Researchers hypothesized that COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions would lead to a drop
both in street crimes and home burglaries. Researchers collected the data Swedish police used to track and

2Sociological Research

project future crimes. They found that assaults, pickpocketing and burglary had decreased significantly
(Gerell, Kardell, and Kindgren, 2020). In this way, researchers used empirical evidence and statistical analysis
to answer the question how did COVID-19 restrictions impact crime rates. In this chapter, we will explore the
approaches and methods sociologists use to conduct studies like this one.

2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Define and describe the scientific method.
• Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research.
• Describe the function and importance of an interpretive framework.
• Describe the differences in accuracy, reliability and validity in a research study.

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every
aspect of human behavior is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans
have created and live in. They notice patterns of behavior as people move through that world. Using
sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly
interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered social patterns in the workplace that have transformed
industries, in families that have enlightened family members, and in education that have aided structural
changes in classrooms.

Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen in this
world. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once
the question is formed, the sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. In deciding how to
design that process, the researcher may adopt a scientific approach or an interpretive framework. The
following sections describe these approaches to knowledge.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried and true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, and field research.
But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that these interactions can seem impossible to chart or
explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions or about proving ideas right or
wrong rather than about exploring the nuances of human behavior.

However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behavior. A scientific process of
research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods
provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results.

The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the social world based on empirical
evidence. It is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be
objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of six prescribed steps that have been established
over centuries of scientific scholarship.

36 2 • Sociological Research

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FIGURE 2.2 The Scientific Method. 6 steps of the scientific method are an essential tool in research.

Sociological research does not reduce knowledge to right or wrong facts. Results of studies tend to provide
people with insights they did not have before—explanations of human behaviors and social practices and
access to knowledge of other cultures, rituals and beliefs, or trends and attitudes.

In general, sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes or results. For
example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness,
range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists often
look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs. They might also study
environmental influences and patterns of behavior that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty,
unplanned pregnancies, or illness. And, because sociological studies are not all focused on negative behaviors
or challenging situations, social researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighborhood
organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but also to interpret and analyze data. They
deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in—but not attached to—the results. They
work outside of their own political or social agendas. This does not mean researchers do not have their own
personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method
to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in collecting and analyzing data in research

With its systematic approach, the scientific method has proven useful in shaping sociological studies. The
scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency
in exploring a social problem. They provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the
scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific
method has 6 steps which are described below.

Step 1: Ask a Question or Find a Research Topic

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, select a problem, and identify the specific area of
interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geographic location and time frame. “Are
societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to
have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High
School?” would be too narrow. Sociologists strive to frame questions that examine well-defined patterns and

In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance
(as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the

2.1 • Approaches to Sociological Research 37

cultural value placed on appearance?”

Step 2: Review the Literature/Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review, which is
a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library, a thorough online search, and a survey
of academic journals will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a
broad understanding of work previously conducted, identify gaps in understanding of the topic, and position
their own research to build on prior knowledge. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible
for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to borrow
previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and
never plagiarized.

To study crime, a researcher might also sort through existing data from the court system, police database,
prison information, interviews with criminals, guards, wardens, etc. It’s important to examine this information
in addition to existing research to determine how these resources might be used to fill holes in existing
knowledge. Reviewing existing sources educates researchers and helps refine and improve a research study

Step 3: Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an explanation for a phenomenon based on a conjecture about the relationship between the
phenomenon and one or more causal factors. In sociology, the hypothesis will often predict how one form of
human behavior influences another. For example, a hypothesis might be in the form of an “if, then statement.”
Let’s relate this to our topic of crime: If crime unemployment increases, then the crime rate will increase.

In scientific research, we formulate hypotheses to include an independent variables (IV), which are the cause
of the change, and a dependent variable (DV), which is the effect, or thing that is changed. In the example
above, unemployment is the independent variable and the crime rate is the dependent variable.

In a sociological study, the researcher would establish one form of human behavior as the independent
variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable)
affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family
size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the
independent variable)?

Hypothesis Independent


The greater the availability of affordable housing, the lower the
homeless rate.

Affordable Housing Homeless Rate

The greater the availability of math tutoring, the higher the math

Math Tutoring Math Grades

The greater the police patrol presence, the safer the neighborhood.
Police Patrol


The greater the factory lighting, the higher the productivity. Factory Lighting Productivity

TABLE 2.1 Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables Typically, the independent variable causes the
dependent variable to change in some way.

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Hypothesis Independent


The greater the amount of media coverage, the higher the public

Observation Public Awareness

TABLE 2.1 Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables Typically, the independent variable causes the
dependent variable to change in some way.

Taking an example from Table 12.1, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the
independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Note, however, this
hypothesis can also work the other way around. A sociologist might predict that increasing a child’s sense of
self-esteem (the independent variable) will increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent
variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example
shows, simply identifying related two topics or variables is not enough. Their prospective relationship must be
part of the hypothesis.

Step 4: Design and Conduct a Study

Researchers design studies to maximize reliability, which refers to how likely research results are to be
replicated if the study is reproduced. Reliability increases the likelihood that what happens to one person will
happen to all people in a group or what will happen in one situation will happen in another. Cooking is a
science. When you follow a recipe and measure ingredients with a cooking tool, such as a measuring cup, the
same results is obtained as long as the cook follows the same recipe and uses the same type of tool. The
measuring cup introduces accuracy into the process. If a person uses a less accurate tool, such as their hand,
to measure ingredients rather than a cup, the same result may not be replicated. Accurate tools and methods
increase reliability.

Researchers also strive for validity, which refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to
measure. To produce reliable and valid results, sociologists develop an operational definition, that is, they
define eacj concept, or variable, in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The
operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept. By operationalizing the concept, all
researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. Moreover, researchers can determine
whether the experiment or method validly represent the phenomenon they intended to study.

A study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, might define “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance
by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” However, one researcher might define a “good”
grade as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for “good.” For the results to be replicated and
gain acceptance within the broader scientific community, researchers would have to use a standard
operational definition. These definitions set limits and establish cut-off points that ensure consistency and
replicability in a study.

We will explore research methods in greater detail in the next section of this chapter.

Step 5: Draw Conclusions

After constructing the research design, sociologists collect, tabulate or categorize, and analyze data to
formulate conclusions. If the analysis supports the hypothesis, researchers can discuss the implications of the
results for the theory or policy solution that they were addressing. If the analysis does support the hypothesis,
researchers may consider repeating the experiment or think of ways to improve their procedure.

However, even when results contradict a sociologist’s prediction of a study’s outcome, these results still
contribute to sociological understanding. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they

2.1 • Approaches to Sociological Research 39

are equally interested in exceptions to patterns. In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high
school dropouts have a hard time finding rewarding careers. While many assume that the higher the
education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with
little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A
sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results may substantiate or contradict it.

Sociologists carefully keep in mind how operational definitions and research designs impact the results as
they draw conclusions. Consider the concept of “increase of crime,” which might be defined as the percent
increase in crime from last week to this week, as in the study of Swedish crime discussed above. Yet the data
used to evaluate “increase of crime” might be limited by many factors: who commits the crime, where the
crimes are committed, or what type of crime is committed. If the data is gathered for “crimes committed in
Houston, Texas in zip code 77021,” then it may not be generalizable to crimes committed in rural areas
outside of major cities like Houston. If data is collected about vandalism, it may not be generalizable to assault.

Step 6: Report Results

Researchers report their results at conferences and in academic journals. These results are then subjected to
the scrutiny of other sociologists in the field. Before the conclusions of a study become widely accepted, the
studies are often repeated in the same or different environments. In this way, sociological theories and
knowledge develops as the relationships between social phenomenon are established in broader contexts and
different circumstances.

Interpretive Framework

While many sociologists rely on empirical data and the scientific method as a research approach, others
operate from an interpretive framework. While systematic, this approach doesn’t follow the hypothesis-
testing model that seeks to find generalizable results. Instead, an interpretive framework, sometimes referred
to as an interpretive perspective, seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants,
which leads to in-depth knowledge or understands about the human experience.

Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. Rather than formulating a
hypothesis and method for testing it, an interpretive researcher will develop approaches to explore the topic at
hand that may involve a significant amount of direct observation or interaction with subjects including
storytelling. This type of researcher learns through the process and sometimes adjusts the research methods
or processes midway to optimize findings as they evolve.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociology focuses on deconstruction of existing sociological research and theory. Informed by the work
of Karl Marx, scholars known collectively as the Frankfurt School proposed that social science, as much as any
academic pursuit, is embedded in the system of power constituted by the set of class, caste, race, gender, and
other relationships that exist in the society. Consequently, it cannot be treated as purely objective. Critical
sociologists view theories, methods, and the conclusions as serving one of two purposes: they can either
legitimate and rationalize systems of social power and oppression or liberate humans from inequality and
restriction on human freedom. Deconstruction can involve data collection, but the analysis of this data is not
empirical or positivist.

2.2 Research Methods
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Recall the 6 Steps of the Scientific Method
• Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data

• Explain the appropriateness of specific research approaches for specific topics.

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Sociologists examine the social world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use
research methods to design a study. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study.
Sociologists generally choose from widely used methods of social investigation: primary source data
collection such as survey, participant observation, ethnography, case study, unobtrusive observations,
experiment, and secondary data analysis, or use of existing sources. Every research method comes with
plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use.
When you are conducting research think about the best way to gather or obtain knowledge about your topic,
think of yourself as an architect. An architect needs a blueprint to build a house, as a sociologist your blueprint
is your research design including your data collection method.

When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain
anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some
participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher
wouldn’t stroll into a crime-ridden neighborhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?”

Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a
researcher studying prison behaviors, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers can’t just stroll into
prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviors or attract attention.
In situations like these, other methods are needed. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study
topics, protect research participants or subjects, and that fit with their overall approaches to research.


As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about
behaviors and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire or an interview. The survey is one of the most
widely used scientific research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in
which they can express personal ideas.

FIGURE 2.3 Questionnaires are a common research method. (Credit: CDC Global/flickr)

At some point, most people in the United States respond to some type of survey. The 2020 U.S. Census is an
excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Since 1790, United States has
conducted a survey consisting of six questions to received demographical data pertaining to residents. The
questions pertain to the demographics of the residents who live in the United States. Currently, the Census is
received by residents in the United Stated and five territories and consists of 12 questions.

Not all surveys are considered sociological research, however, and many surveys people commonly encounter
focus on identifying marketing needs and strategies rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing to social
science knowledge. Questions such as, “How many hot dogs do you eat in a month?” or “Were the staff
helpful?” are not usually designed as scientific research. The Nielsen Ratings determine the popularity of
television programming through scientific market research. However, polls conducted by television programs
such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance cannot be generalized, because they are administered to
an unrepresentative population, a specific show’s audience. You might receive polls through your cell phones
or emails, from grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores. They often provide you incentives for completing

2.2 • Research Methods 41

the survey.

FIGURE 2.4 Real-time surveys are common in classrooms, live-audience events, and even popular media. Twitter
polls have often replaced physical devices such as the one pictured. (Credit: Sam Howzit/flickr)

Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types
of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social
situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel, think, and act—or at least how they say they
feel, think, and act. Surveys can track preferences for presidential candidates or reported individual behaviors
(such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits) or information such as employment status, income, and education

A survey targets a specific population, people who are the focus of a study, such as college athletes,
international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes. Most researchers choose to
survey a small sector of the population, or a sample, a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger
population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a
random sample, every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. As a result, a
Gallup Poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of
public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people.

After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses. It is
important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the survey up front. If they agree to participate,
researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The
researcher presents the subjects with an instrument, which is a means of gathering the information.

A common instrument is a questionnaire. Subjects often answer a series of closed-ended questions. The
researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses
to each question. This kind of questionnaire collects quantitative data—data in numerical form that can be
counted and statistically analyzed. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” responses or correct answers,
and chart them into percentages.

Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” or
checkbox options. These types of inquiries use open-ended questions that require short essay responses.
Participants willing to take the time to write those answers might convey personal religious beliefs, political
views, goals, or morals. The answers are subjective and vary from person to person. How do plan to use your
college education?

Some topics that investigate internal thought processes are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to
discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to
questions anonymously. This type of personal explanation is qualitative data—conveyed through words.
Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of

42 2 • Sociological Research

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responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of in-depth
material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and it is a way of
conducting surveys on a topic. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by
predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for
clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally
feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The
subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly.

Questions such as “How does society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to
take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on
your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid
steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be
unreliable. The researcher will also benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating
with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Surveys often collect both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, a researcher interviewing prisoners
might receive quantitative data, such asdemographics – race, age, sex, that can be analyzed statistically. For
example, the researcher might discover that 20 percent of prisoners are above the age of 50. The researcher
might also collect qualitative data, such as why prisoners take advantage of educational opportunities while
they serve and other explanatory information.

The survey can be carried out online, over the phone, by mail, or face-to-face. When researchers collect data
outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting, they are conducting field research, which is our next topic.

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Rather, sociologists go out into the world.
They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a
natural environment. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments
and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In field work, the sociologists, rather than the subjects,
are the ones out of their element.

The researcher interacts with or observes people and gathers data along the way. The key point in field
research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a
homeless shelter or the DMV, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

2.2 • Research Methods 43

FIGURE 2.5 Sociological researchers travel across countries and cultures to interact with and observe subjects in
their natural environments. (Credit: IMLS Digital Collections and Content/flickr)

While field research often begins in a specific setting, the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviors in
that setting. Field work is optimal for observing how people think and behave. It seeks to understand why they
behave that way. However, researchers may struggle to narrow down cause and effect when there are so many
variables floating around in a natural environment. And while field research looks for correlation, its small
sample size does not allow for establishing a causal relationship between two variables. Indeed, much of the
data gathered in sociology do not identify a cause and effect but a correlation.

Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as Sociological Subjects

FIGURE 2.6 Researchers have used surveys and participant observations to accumulate data on Lady Gaga and
Beyonce as multifaceted performers. (Credit a: John Robert Chartlon/flickr, b: Kristopher Harris/flickr.)

Sociologist have studied Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and their impact on music, movies, social media, fan participation,


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and social equality. In their studies, researchers have used several research methods including secondary analysis,
participant observation, and surveys from concert participants.

In their study, Click, Lee & Holiday (2013) interviewed 45 Lady Gaga fans who utilized social media to communicate
with the artist. These fans viewed Lady Gaga as a mirror of themselves and a source of inspiration. Like her, they
embrace not being a part of mainstream culture. Many of Lady Gaga’s fans are members of the LGBTQ community.
They see the “song “Born This Way” as a rallying cry and answer her calls for “Paws Up” with a physical expression
of solidarity—outstretched arms and fingers bent and curled to resemble monster claws.”

Sascha Buchanan (2019) made use of participant observation to study the relationship between two fan groups,
that of Beyoncé and that of Rihanna. She observed award shows sponsored by iHeartRadio, MTV EMA, and BET that
pit one group against another as they competed for Best Fan Army, Biggest Fans, and FANdemonium. Buchanan
argues that the media thus sustains a myth of rivalry between the two most commercially successful Black women
vocal artists.

Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into
the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work
there. His main purpose was simply to see whether anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one
did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as
part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend
a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later,
he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology.
However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot
com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a writer, or a sociologist, will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation, in which researchers join people and
participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method
lets researchers experience a specific aspect of social life. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a
firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behavior. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, live as a
homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often,
these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their
true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.

2.2 • Research Methods 45

FIGURE 2.7 Is she a working waitress or a sociologist conducting a study using participant observation? A field
researcher may take a job or take other steps to get firsthand knowledge of their subjects. (Credit: Gareth Williams/

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the
most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful
method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside.

Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open
minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will
become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in
analyzing data and generating results.

In a study of small towns in the United States conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen
Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study
on the role of religion in U.S. towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of
industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change
their methods, but they revised the purpose of their study.

This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, their published results (Lynd &
Lynd, 1929).

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers
were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of
covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviors of a
group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of
others’ behavior. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort.
Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making

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contacts, networking, or applying for a job.

Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are
observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and
apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized.
Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative,
the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or
book and describe what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed. One day
over lunch with her editor, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How
do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor
responded, Why don’t you do it?

That’s how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the working class. For several months, she left her
comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and
marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning
woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only
her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter.

She discovered the obvious, that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced
and observed attitudes many middle and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the
treatment of working class employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to
survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars,
could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and
out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and
the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

The book she wrote upon her return to her real life as a well-paid writer, has been widely read and used in
many college classrooms.

2.2 • Research Methods 47

FIGURE 2.8 Field research happens in real locations. What type of environment do work spaces foster? What would
a sociologist discover after blending in? (Credit: Lyncconf Games/flickr)


Ethnography is the immersion of the researcher in the natural setting of an entire social community to
observe and experience their everyday life and culture. The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how
subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a social group.

An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small U.S. fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in
Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places all have
borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and
therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to
spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might watch the way villagers go about their daily lives and then
write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and
attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record data, and collate the material into results.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is an extension of basic ethnographic research principles that focuses intentionally
on everyday concrete social relationships. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1990),
institutional ethnography is often considered a feminist-inspired approach to social analysis and primarily
considers women’s experiences within male- dominated societies and power structures. Smith’s work is seen
to challenge sociology’s exclusion of women, both academically and in the study of women’s lives
(Fenstermaker, n.d.).

Historically, social science research tended to objectify women and ignore their experiences except as viewed
from the male perspective. Modern feminists note that describing women, and other marginalized groups, as
subordinates helps those in authority maintain their own dominant positions (Social Sciences and Humanities

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Research Council of Canada n.d.). Smith’s three major works explored what she called “the conceptual
practices of power” and are still considered seminal works in feminist theory and ethnography
(Fensternmaker n.d.).

The Making of Middletown: A Study in Modern U.S. Culture
In 1924, a young married couple named Robert and Helen Lynd undertook an unprecedented ethnography: to
apply sociological methods to the study of one U.S. city in order to discover what “ordinary” people in the United
States did and believed. Choosing Muncie, Indiana (population about 30,000) as their subject, they moved to the
small town and lived there for eighteen months.

Ethnographers had been examining other cultures for decades—groups considered minorities or outsiders—like
gangs, immigrants, and the poor. But no one had studied the so-called average American.

Recording interviews and using surveys to gather data, the Lynds objectively described what they observed.
Researching existing sources, they compared Muncie in 1890 to the Muncie they observed in 1924. Most Muncie
adults, they found, had grown up on farms but now lived in homes inside the city. As a result, the Lynds focused
their study on the impact of industrialization and urbanization.

They observed that Muncie was divided into business and working class groups. They defined business class as
dealing with abstract concepts and symbols, while working class people used tools to create concrete objects.
The two classes led different lives with different goals and hopes. However, the Lynds observed, mass production
offered both classes the same amenities. Like wealthy families, the working class was now able to own radios,
cars, washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. This was an emerging material reality of
the 1920s.

As the Lynds worked, they divided their manuscript into six chapters: Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training
the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities.

When the study was completed, the Lynds encountered a big problem. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had
commissioned the book, claimed it was useless and refused to publish it. The Lynds asked if they could seek a
publisher themselves.

Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was not only published in 1929 but also became an instant
bestseller, a status unheard of for a sociological study. The book sold out six printings in its first year of
publication, and has never gone out of print (Caplow, Hicks, & Wattenberg. 2000).

Nothing like it had ever been done before. Middletown was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times.
Readers in the 1920s and 1930s identified with the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, but they were equally fascinated
by the sociological methods and the use of scientific data to define ordinary people in the United States. The
book was proof that social data was important—and interesting—to the U.S. public.


2.2 • Research Methods 49

FIGURE 2.9 A classroom in Muncie, Indiana, in 1917, five years before John and Helen Lynd began researching
this “typical” U.S. community. (Credit: Don O’Brien/flickr)

Case Study

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a
single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like
documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation and even participant
observation, if possible.

Researchers might use this method to study a single case of a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal,
or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that while offering depth on a topic,
it does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make
universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most
sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can
contribute tremendous incite. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated
from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, which are elements crucial to
a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviors and movements of animals, and often
invent their own language. There are only about one hundred cases of “feral children” in the world.

As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique
information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal”
growth and nurturing. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate
method for researchers to use in studying the subject.

At age three, a Ukranian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with
dogs, and she ate raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing a girl
who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some
human behaviors, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself
and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2011). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect
data that may not be obtained by any other method.


You have probably tested some of your own personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the
morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this,
then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis.

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One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment, meaning they investigate
relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach.

There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments. In a lab
setting, the research can be controlled so that more data can be recorded in a limited amount of time. In a
natural or field- based experiment, the time it takes to gather the data cannot be controlled but the information
might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the

As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a
particular thing happens (cause), then another particular thing will result (effect). To set up a lab-based
experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables.

Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or
education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the
control group. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is
not. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might provide tutoring to the experimental
group of students but not to the control group. Then both groups would be tested for differences in
performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a
case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so
the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record
of a student, for example.

And if a researcher told the students they would be observed as part of a study on measuring the effectiveness
of tutoring, the students might not behave naturally. This is called the Hawthorne effect—which occurs when
people change their behavior because they know they are being watched as part of a study. The Hawthorne
effect is unavoidable in some research studies because sociologists have to make the purpose of the study
known. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result
(Sonnenfeld 1985).

An Experiment in Action

FIGURE 2.10 Sociologist Frances Heussenstamm conducted an experiment to explore the correlation between
traffic stops and race-based bumper stickers. This issue of racial profiling remains a hot-button topic today.
(Credit: dwightsghost/flickr)


2.2 • Research Methods 51

A real-life example will help illustrate the experiment process. In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology
professor at California State University at Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory,
she conducted an experiment. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, White, and
Hispanic. She chose students who routinely drove to and from campus along Los Angeles freeway routes, and
who had had perfect driving records for longer than a year. Those were her independent variables—students,
good driving records, same commute route.

Next, she placed a Black Panther bumper sticker on each car. That sticker, a representation of a social value, was
the independent variable. In the 1970s, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary group actively fighting racism.
Heussenstamm asked the students to follow their normal driving patterns. She wanted to see whether seeming
support for the Black Panthers would change how these good drivers were treated by the police patrolling the
highways. The dependent variable would be the number of traffic stops/citations.

The first arrest, for an incorrect lane change, was made two hours after the experiment began. One participant
was pulled over three times in three days. He quit the study. After seventeen days, the fifteen drivers had
collected a total of thirty-three traffic citations. The experiment was halted. The funding to pay traffic fines had
run out, and so had the enthusiasm of the participants (Heussenstamm, 1971).

Secondary Data Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline
through secondary data analysis. Secondary data does not result from firsthand research collected from
primary sources, but are the already completed work of other researchers or data collected by an agency or
organization. Sociologists might study works written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists.
They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines, or organizational data from any period in

Using available information not only saves time and money but can also add depth to a study. Sociologists
often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To
study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch
movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behavior and
attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new
interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on
the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or social media.

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and
global groups, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the World Health Organization (WHO), publish studies
with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic like the foreclosure rate might be useful for
studying the effects of a recession. A racial demographic profile might be compared with data on education
funding to examine the resources accessible by different groups.

One of the advantages of secondary data like old movies or WHO statistics is that it is nonreactive research (or
unobtrusive research), meaning that it does not involve direct contact with subjects and will not alter or
influence people’s behaviors. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published
data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process.

Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher will
need to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. To guide the search through a vast
library of materials and avoid wasting time reading unrelated sources, sociologists employ content analysis,
applying a systematic approach to record and value information gleaned from secondary data as they relate to
the study at hand.

Also, in some cases, there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy to count how many drunk

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drivers, for example, are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the
percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the
number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not survey the topic from
the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the average salaries paid to professors at a public school
is public record. But these figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary
range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they’ve been teaching.

When conducting content analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and
to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example,
when Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research in the 1920s, attitudes and cultural norms
were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have
changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal insights about small U.S.
communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

2.3 Ethical Concerns
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Understand why ethical standards exist
• Investigate unethical studies
• Demonstrate awareness of the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics

Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviors. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used
to achieve positive change. As a result, conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of
responsibility. Like all researchers, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming human
subjects or groups while conducting research.

Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. Weber
understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted
that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared it was entirely
inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated,
must establish value neutrality, a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the
course of a study and in publishing results (Weber, 1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research
findings without omitting or distorting significant data.

Is value neutrality possible? Many sociologists believe it is impossible to retain complete objectivity. They
caution readers, rather, to understand that sociological studies may contain a certain amount of value bias.
This does not discredit the results, but allows readers to view them as one form of truth—one fact-based
perspective. Some sociologists attempt to remain uncritical and as objective as possible when studying social
institutions. They strive to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when collecting and
analyzing data. They avoid skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a
particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report
results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs.

The American Sociological Association, or ASA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in North
America. The ASA is a great resource for students of sociology as well. The ASA maintains a code of
ethics—formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards
to be used in the discipline. These formal guidelines were established by practitioners in 1905 at John Hopkins
University, and revised in 1997. When working with human subjects, these codes of ethics require
researchers’ to do the following:

1. Maintain objectivity and integrity in research

2.3 • Ethical Concerns 53

2. Respect subjects’ rights to privacy and dignity
3. Protect subject from personal harm
4. Preserve confidentially
5. Seek informed consent
6. Acknowledge collaboration and assistance
7. Disclose sources of financial support

Unfortunately, when these codes of ethics are ignored, it creates an unethical environment for humans being
involved in a sociological study. Throughout history, there have been numerous unethical studies, some of
which are summarized below.

FIGURE 2.11 Participants in the Tuskegee study were denied important information about their diagnosis, leading
to significant health issues. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

The Tuskegee Experiment: This study was conducted 1932 in Macon County, Alabama, and included 600
African American men, including 399 diagnosed with syphilis. The participants were told they were diagnosed
with a disease of “bad blood.” Penicillin was distributed in the 1940s as the cure for the disease, but
unfortunately, the African American men were not given the treatment because the objective of the study was
to see “how untreated syphilis would affect the African American male” (Caplan, 2007)

Henrietta Lacks: Ironically, this study was conducted at the hospital associated with Johns Hopkins University,
where codes of the ethics originated. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was receiving treatment for cervical cancer at
John Hopkins Hospital, and doctors discovered that she had “immortal” cells, which could reproduce rapidly
and indefinitely, making them extremely valuable for medical research. Without her consent, doctors collected
and shared her cells to produce extensive cell lines. Lacks’ cells were widely used for experiments and
treatments, including the polio vaccine, and were put into mass production. Today, these cells are known
worldwide as HeLa cells (Shah, 2010).

Milgram Experiment: In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Yale University. Its
purpose was to measure the willingness of study subjects to obey an authority figure who instructed them to
perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. People in the role of teacher believed they were
administering electric shocks to students who gave incorrect answers to word-pair questions. No matter how
concerned they were about administering the progressively more intense shocks, the teachers were told to
keep going. The ethical concerns involve the extreme emotional distress faced by the teachers, who believed
they were hurting other people. (Vogel 2014).

Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment: In 1971, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted a

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study involving students from Stanford University. The students were put in the roles of prisoners and guards,
and were required to play their assigned role accordingly. The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but
it only last six days due to the negative outcome and treatment of the “prisoners.” Beyond the ethical concerns,
the study’s validity has been questioned after participants revealed they had been coached to behave in
specific ways.

Laud Humphrey: In the 1960s, Laud Humphrey conducted an experiment at a restroom in a park known for
same-sex sexual encounters. His objective was to understand the diversity of backgrounds and motivations of
people seeking same-sex relationships. His ethics were questioned because he misrepresented his identity
and intent while observing and questioning the men he interviewed (Nardi, 1995).

2.3 • Ethical Concerns 55

Key Terms
accuracy using a tool makes the measuring more precise.
case study in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual
code of ethics a set of guidelines that the American Sociological Association has established to foster

ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology
content analysis applying a systematic approach to record and value information gleaned from secondary

data as it relates to the study at hand
correlation when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable, but does not

necessarily indicate causation
debunking looking beyond the obvious to expose falseness by examining merit, logic, and evidence.
dependent variables a variable changed by other variables
empirical evidence evidence that comes from direct observations, scientifically gathered data, or

ethnography participating and observing thinking and behavior in a social setting
experiment the testing of a hypothesis under controlled conditions
field research gathering data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey
Hawthorne effect when study subjects behave in a certain manner due to their awareness of being

observed by a researcher
hypothesis a testable educated guess about predicted outcomes between two or more variables
independent variables variables that cause changes in dependent variables
interpretive framework a sociological research approach that seeks in-depth understanding of a topic or

subject through observation or interaction; this approach is not based on hypothesis testing
interview a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject
literature review a scholarly research step that entails identifying and studying all existing studies on a

topic to create a basis for new research
nonreactive research using secondary data, does not include direct contact with research subjects and

does not alter or influence people’s behaviors
operational definitions specific explanations of abstract concepts that a researcher plans to study
participant observation when a researcher immerses herself in a group or social setting in order to make

observations from an “insider” perspective
population a defined group serving as the subject of a study
primary data data that are collected directly from firsthand experience
qualitative data non-numerical, descriptive data that is often subjective and based on what is experienced

in a natural setting
quantitative data data collected in numerical form that can be counted and analyzed using statistics
random sample a study’s participants being randomly selected to serve as a representation of a larger

reliability a measure of a study’s consistency that considers how likely results are to be replicated if a study

is reproduced
samples small, manageable number of subjects that represent the population
scientific method an established scholarly research that involves asking a question, researching existing

sources, forming a hypothesis, designing a data collection method, gathering data, and drawing

secondary data analysis using data collected by others and applying new interpretations
surveys collect data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about thinking, behaviors, and

opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire
validity the degree to which a sociological measure accurately reflects the topic of study
value neutrality a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study

and in publishing results

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Section Summary
2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

Using the scientific method, a researcher conducts a study in six phases: asking a question, researching
existing sources, formulating a hypothesis, research design, collecting & analyzing data, and drawing
conclusions. The scientific method is useful in that it provides a clear method of organizing a study. Some
sociologists conduct research through an interpretive framework rather than employing the scientific method.

Scientific sociological studies often observe relationships between variables. Researchers study how one
variable influences another. Prior to conducting a study, researchers are careful to apply operational
definitions to their terms and to establish dependent and independent variables.

2.2 Research Methods

Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design.
There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behavior, as well as in interpreting
and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results. Sociologists use the scientific methods for good
reasons. The scientific method provides a system of organization to help researchers plan and conduct a study
to ensure data and results are reliable, valid, and objective.

The many methods available to researchers—including experiments, surveys, participant observation,
ethnography, case study, and secondary data analysis—all come with advantages and disadvantages. The
strength of a study can depend on the choice and implementation of the appropriate method of gathering data.
Depending on the topic, a study might use a single method or a combination of methods. It is important to plan
a research design before undertaking a study. The information gathered may in itself be surprising, and the
study design should provide a solid framework in which to analyze predicted and unpredicted data.

Method Implementation Advantages Challenges

• Questionnaires
• Interviews

• Yields many

• Can survey a large

• Quantitative data
are easy to chart

• Can be time consuming
• Can be difficult to encourage

participant response
• Captures what people think and

believe but not necessarily how
they behave in real life

Field Work

• Participant observation
• Ethnography
• Case study

• Yields detailed,
accurate real-life

• Time consuming
• Data captures how people behave

but not what they think and

• Qualitative data is difficult to


• Deliberate
manipulation of social
customs and mores

• Tests cause and
effect relationships

• Hawthorne Effect
• Ethical concerns about people’s


TABLE 2.2 Main Sociological Research Methods Sociological research methods have advantages and

2 • Section Summary 57

Method Implementation Advantages Challenges


• Analysis of government
data (census, health,
crime statistics)

• Research of historic

• Makes good use of

• Data could be focused on a
purpose other than yours

• Data can be hard to find

TABLE 2.2 Main Sociological Research Methods Sociological research methods have advantages and

2.3 Ethical Concerns

Sociologists and sociology students must take ethical responsibility for any study they conduct. They must first
and foremost guarantee the safety of their participants. Whenever possible, they must ensure that participants
have been fully informed consent before participating ina study.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) establishes parameters for ethical guidelines that sociologists
must take into account as they conduct research. The guidelines address conducting studies, properly using
existing sources, accepting funding, and publishing results. Unfortunately, the code of ethics were not in
existence and in some cases researchers did not adhere to ASA guidelines resulting in unethical practices in
which humans were caused either physical or psychological harm.

Sociologists must try to maintain value neutrality. They must gather and analyze data objectively and set aside
their personal preferences, beliefs, and opinions. They must report findings accurately, even if they contradict
personal values and convictions.

Section Quiz
2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

1. The 1st step of the scientific method:
a. Collect and analyze data
b. Summarize the articles
c. Ask a question about a topic
d. Create a hypothesis

2. A measurement is considered ________ if it actually measures what it is intended to measure, according to
the topic of the study.
a. reliable
b. sociological
c. valid
d. quantitative

3. Sociological studies test relationships in which change in one ________ causes change in another.
a. test subject
b. behavior
c. variable
d. operational definition

58 2 • Section Quiz

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4. In a study, a group of ten-year-old boys are fed doughnuts every morning for a week and then weighed to
see how much weight they gained. Which factor is the dependent variable?
a. The doughnuts
b. The boys
c. The duration of a week
d. The weight gained

5. Which statement provides the best operational definition of “childhood obesity”?
a. Children who eat unhealthy foods and spend too much time watching television and playing video

b. A distressing trend that can lead to health issues including type 2 diabetes and heart disease
c. Body weight at least 20 percent higher than a healthy weight for a child of that height
d. The tendency of children today to weigh more than children of earlier generations

2.2 Research Methods

6. Which materials are considered secondary data?
a. Photos and letters given to you by another person
b. Books and articles written by other authors about their studies
c. Information that you have gathered and now have included in your results
d. Responses from participants whom you both surveyed and interviewed

7. Why is choosing a random sample an effective way to select participants?
a. Participants do not know they are part of a study
b. The researcher has no control over who is in the study
c. It is larger than an ordinary sample
d. Everyone has the same chance of being part of the study

8. What research method did John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd mainly use in their Middletown study?
a. Secondary data
b. Survey
c. Participant observation
d. Experiment

9. Which research approach is best suited to the scientific method?
a. Questionnaire
b. Case study
c. Ethnography
d. Secondary data analysis

10. The main difference between ethnography and other types of participant observation is:
a. ethnography isn’t based on hypothesis testing
b. ethnography subjects are unaware they’re being studied
c. ethnographic studies always involve minority ethnic groups
d. ethnography focuses on how subjects view themselves in relationship to the community

2 • Section Quiz 59

11. Which best describes the results of a case study?
a. It produces more reliable results than other methods because of its depth
b. Its results are not generally applicable
c. It relies solely on secondary data analysis
d. All of the above

12. Using secondary data is considered an unobtrusive or ________ research method.
a. nonreactive
b. nonparticipatory
c. nonrestrictive
d. nonconfrontive

2.3 Ethical Concerns

13. Which statement illustrates value neutrality?
a. Obesity in children is obviously a result of parental neglect and, therefore, schools should take a

greater role to prevent it
b. In 2003, states like Arkansas adopted laws requiring elementary schools to remove soft drink vending

machines from schools
c. Merely restricting children’s access to junk food at school is not enough to prevent obesity
d. Physical activity and healthy eating are a fundamental part of a child’s education

14. Which person or organization defined the concept of value neutrality?
a. Institutional Review Board (IRB)
b. Peter Rossi
c. American Sociological Association (ASA)
d. Max Weber

15. To study the effects of fast food on lifestyle, health, and culture, from which group would a researcher
ethically be unable to accept funding?
a. A fast-food restaurant
b. A nonprofit health organization
c. A private hospital
d. A governmental agency like Health and Social Services

Short Answer
2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

1. Write down the first three steps of the scientific method. Think of a broad topic that you are interested in
and which would make a good sociological study—for example, ethnic diversity in a college, homecoming
rituals, athletic scholarships, or teen driving. Now, take that topic through the first steps of the process. For
each step, write a few sentences or a paragraph: 1) Develop a research question about the topic. 2) Do some
research and write down the titles of some articles or books you’d want to read about the topic. 3) Formulate
a hypothesis.

2. Explain the correlation between accuracy, validity, and reliability in the research method.

60 2 • Short Answer

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2.2 Research Methods

3. What type of data do surveys gather? For what topics would surveys be the best research method? What
drawbacks might you expect to encounter when using a survey? To explore further, ask a research question
and write a hypothesis. Then create a survey of about six questions relevant to the topic. Provide a rationale
for each question. Now define your population and create a plan for recruiting a random sample and
administering the survey.

4. Imagine you are about to do field research in a specific place for a set time. Instead of thinking about the
topic of study itself, consider how you, as the researcher, will have to prepare for the study. What personal,
social, and physical sacrifices will you have to make? How will you manage your personal effects? What
organizational equipment and systems will you need to collect the data?

5. Create a brief research design about a topic in which you are passionately interested. Now write a letter to a
philanthropic or grant organization requesting funding for your study. How can you describe the project in
a convincing yet realistic and objective way? Explain how the results of your study will be a relevant
contribution to the body of sociological work already in existence.

2.3 Ethical Concerns

6. Why do you think the American Sociological Association (ASA) crafted such a detailed set of ethical
principles? What type of study could put human participants at risk? Think of some examples of studies
that might be harmful. Do you think that, in the name of sociology, some researchers might be tempted to
cross boundaries that threaten human rights? Why?

7. Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that could potentially put your health and safety at
risk, but had the potential to help thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people? For example, would
you participate in a study of a new drug that could cure diabetes or cancer, even if it meant great
inconvenience and physical discomfort for you or possible permanent damage?

Further Research
2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

For a historical perspective on the scientific method in sociology, read “The Elements of Scientific Method in
Sociology” by F. Stuart Chapin (1914) in the American Journal of Sociology. (http://openstax.org/l/Method-

2.2 Research Methods

For information on current real-world sociology experiments, visit the Everday Sociology Blog.

2.3 Ethical Concerns

Founded in 1905, the American Sociological Association is a nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC,
with a membership of 14,000 researchers, faculty members, students, and practitioners of sociology. Its
mission is “to articulate policy and implement programs likely to have the broadest possible impact for
sociology now and in the future.” Learn more about this organization here (http://openstax.org/l/ASA) .


Arkowitz, Hal, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. 2009. “Lunacy and the Full Moon: Does a full moon really trigger strange
behavior?” Scientific American. Retrieved December 30, 2014 (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/

2 • Further Research 61

Bradbury Jones, C. and Isham, L. (2020), The pandemic paradox: The consequences of COVID 19 on domestic
violence. J Clin Nurs, 29: 2047-2049. doi:10.1111/jocn.15296

Gerell, M., Kardell, J., & Kindgren, J. (2020, May 2). Minor covid-19 association with crime in Sweden, a ten
week follow up. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/w7gka

Rotton, James, and Ivan W. Kelly. 1985. “Much Ado about the Full Moon: A Meta-analysis of Lunar-Lunacy

Psychological Bulletin 97 (no. 2): 286–306.

2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

Arkowitz, Hal, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. 2009. “Lunacy and the Full Moon: Does a full moon really trigger strange
behavior?” Scientific American. Retrieved October 20, 2014 (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/

Berger, Peter L. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Anchor Books.

Merton, Robert. 1968 [1949]. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

“Scientific Method Lab,” the University of Utah, (http://aspire.cosmic-ray.org/labs/scientific_method/

2.2 Research Methods

Butsch, Richard. 2000. The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP.

Caplow, Theodore, Louis Hicks, and Ben Wattenberg. 2000. “The First Measured Century: Middletown.” The
First Measured Century. PBS. Retrieved February 23, 2012 (http://www.pbs.org/fmc/index.htm).

Click, M., Lee, H., & Holladay, H. (2013). Making monsters: Lady Gaga, fan identification, and social media.
Popular Music and Society, 36(3), 360–379. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2013.798546

Dilling-Hansen, Lise. 2015. “Affective Fan Experiences of Lady Gaga.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no.
20. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2015.0662.

Durkheim, Émile. 1966 [1897]. Suicide. New York: Free Press.

Fenstermaker, Sarah. n.d. “Dorothy E. Smith Award Statement” American Sociological Association. Retrieved
October 19, 2014 (http://www.asanet.org/about/awards/duboiscareer/smith.cfm).

Franke, Richard, and James Kaul. 1978. “The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation.”
American Sociological Review 43(5):632–643.

Grice, Elizabeth. “Cry of an Enfant Sauvage.” The Telegraph. Retrieved July 20, 2011

Griffin, F. J. (2011). At last . . . ? : Michelle obama, beyoncé, race & history. Daedalus, 140(1), 131-141,8.
Retrieved from https://libproxy.uhcl.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/

Heussenstamm, Frances K. 1971. “Bumper Stickers and Cops” Trans-action: Social Science and Modern
Society 4:32–33.

Igo, Sarah E. 2008. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.

Kumari, A. (2016), “Yoü and I”: Identity and the Performance of Self in Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. J Pop Cult, 49:
403-416. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12405

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Jang, S. M., & Lee, H. (2014). When Pop Music Meets a Political Issue: Examining How “Born This Way”
Influences Attitudes Toward Gays and Gay Rights Policies. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,
58(1), 114–130. https://doi-org.libproxy.uhcl.edu/10.1080/08838151.2013.875023

Lynd, Robert S., and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1959. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. San Diego,
CA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Lynd, Staughton. 2005. “Making Middleton.” Indiana Magazine of History 101(3):226–238.

Mihelich, John, and John Papineau. Aug 2005. “Parrotheads in Margaritaville: Fan Practice, Oppositional
Culture, and Embedded Cultural Resistance in Buffett Fandom.” Journal of Popular Music Studies

Pew Research Center. 2014. “Ebola Worries Rise, But Most Are ‘Fairly’ Confident in Government, Hospitals to
Deal with Disease: Broad Support for U.S. Efforts to Deal with Ebola in West Africa.” Pew Research Center for
the People & the Press, October 21. Retrieved October 25, 2014 (http://www.people-press.org/2014/10/21/

Rothman, Rodney. 2000. “My Fake Job.” Pp. 120 in The New Yorker, November 27.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. n.d. “Institutional Ethnography.” Retrieved
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Sonnenfeld, Jeffery A. 1985. “Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies.” Journal of Occupational Behavior

Sascha Buchanan. (2019). Competition and controlling images as the fuel igniting Beyoncé and Rihanna
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2.3 Ethical Concerns

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Zimbardo, P., & Musen, K. (2004). Quiet Rage The Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip G. Zimbardo and
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64 2 • References

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FIGURE 3.1 Martial arts has a strong tradition of deep respect for one’s opponent, as these judo competitors
display after a match. Even in other styles and other venues such as professional boxing or mixed martial arts, it is
common to see opponents showing extreme courtesy and concern for each other despite the level of vitriol before a
fight or the violence during it. While certainly echoed in other competitive arenas, this practice is a significant part of
combat sports culture. (Credit: Special Olympics Nationale/flickr)


3.1 What Is Culture?
3.2 Elements of Culture
3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change
3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

If you passed someone in a hallway, joined a video conference, or even called into a radio
show, it’s likely you and the other people involved would exchange some version of the following question :
“How are you?” One of you may ask the other. You may exchange a greeting and the question or one of its
variants. Generally, we do not consider our responses to these acquaintances as rules. We simply say, “Hello!”
and ask, “How was your weekend?” or some other trivial question meant to be a friendly greeting.

We all adhere to various rules, expectations, and standards that are created and maintained in our specific
culture. These rules and expectations have meaning, and there are many ways by which the meanings can be
misinterpreted or misunderstood. When we do not meet those expectations, we may receive some form of


disapproval such as a look or comment informing us that we did something unacceptable.

Consider what would happen if you stopped and informed everyone who asked “Hi, how are you?” exactly how
you were doing that day, and in detail. In U.S. society, you would violate norms of ‘greeting.’ Perhaps if you were
in a different situation, such as having coffee with a good friend, that question might warrant a detailed

These examples are all aspects of culture, which is comprised of shared values (ideals), beliefs which
strengthen the values, norms and rules that maintain the values, language so that the values can be taught,
symbols that form the language people must learn, arts and artifacts, and the people’s collective identities and
memories. Sociologically, we examine in which situation and context a certain behavior is expected and in
which it is not. People who interact within a shared culture create and enforce these expectations. Sociologists
examine these circumstances and search for patterns.

In everyday conversation, people in the U.S. rarely distinguish between the terms culture and society, but the
terms have different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A culture represents the
values, beliefs, norms, language, symbols, and practices of a group, while society represents the people who
share a culture. Neither society or culture could exist without the other.

Within the U.S., many groups of people share a community and a culture. By “community,” sociologists refer to
a definable region of a society, real terra firma—as small as a neighborhood (Brooklyn, or “the east side of
town”), as large as a country (Ethiopia, Nepal or the U.S.), or somewhere in between (in the U.S., this might
include someone who identifies with Southern or Midwestern society).

In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail and pay special
attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and social changes. A final
discussion examines the theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.

3.1 What Is Culture?
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate between culture and society
• Explain material versus nonmaterial culture
• Discuss the concept of cultural universals as it relates to society
• Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and xenocentrism

Humans are social creatures. According to Smithsonian Institution research, humans have been forming
groups for almost 3 million years in order to survive. Living together, people formed common habits and
behaviors, from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food.

Almost every human behavior, from shopping to marriage, is learned. In the U.S., marriage is generally seen as
an individual choice made by two adults, based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times,
marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire
families. In Papua New Guinea, almost 30 percent of women marry before the age of 18, and 8 percent of men
have more than one wife (National Statistical Office, 2019). To people who are not from such a culture,
arranged marriages may seem to have risks of incompatibility or the absence of romantic love. But many
people from cultures where marriages are arranged, which includes a number of highly populated and
modern countries, often prefer the approach because it reduces stress and increases stability (Jankowiak

Being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and at ease. Knowing to look left instead of right
for oncoming traffic while crossing the street can help avoid serious injury and even death. Knowing unwritten
rules is also fundamental in understanding humor in different cultures. Humor is common to all societies, but
what makes something funny is not. Americans may laugh at a scene in which an actor falls; in other cultures,

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falling is never funny. Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviors will not be
challenged or disrupted. But even an action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal
of cultural propriety, that is, there are a lot of expected behaviors. And many interpretations of them.

FIGURE 3.2 How would a visitor from a rural region act and feel on this crowded Hong Kong train? (Credit: Eric

Take the case of going to work on public transportation. Whether people are commuting in Egypt, Ireland,
India, Japan, and the U.S., many behaviors will be the same and may reveal patterns. Others will be different.
In many societies that enjoy public transportation, a passenger will find a marked bus stop or station, wait for
the bus or train, pay an agent before or after boarding, and quietly take a seat if one is available. But when
boarding a bus in Cairo, Egypt, passengers might board while the bus is moving, because buses often do not
come to a full stop to take on patrons. In Dublin, Ireland, bus riders would be expected to extend an arm to
indicate that they want the bus to stop for them. And when boarding a commuter train in Mumbai, India,
passengers must squeeze into overstuffed cars amid a lot of pushing and shoving on the crowded platforms.
That kind of behavior might be considered rude in other societies, but in Mumbai it reflects the daily
challenges of getting around on a train system that is taxed to capacity.

Culture can be material or nonmaterial. Metro passes and bus tokens are part of material culture, as are the
buses, subway cars, and the physical structures of the bus stop. Think of material culture as items you can
touch-they are tangible. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a
society. These are things you cannot touch. They are intangible. You may believe that a line should be formed
to enter the subway car or that other passengers should not stand so close to you. Those beliefs are intangible
because they do not have physical properties and can be touched.

Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A
metro pass is a material object, but it represents a form of nonmaterial culture, namely, capitalism, and the
acceptance of paying for transportation. Clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry are part of material culture, but the
appropriateness of wearing certain clothing for specific events reflects nonmaterial culture. A school building

3.1 • What Is Culture? 67

belongs to material culture symbolizing education, but the teaching methods and educational standards are
part of education’s nonmaterial culture.

As people travel from different regions to entirely different parts of the world, certain material and
nonmaterial aspects of culture become dramatically unfamiliar. What happens when we encounter different
cultures? As we interact with cultures other than our own, we become more aware of the differences and
commonalities between others and our own. If we keep our sociological imagination awake, we can begin to
understand and accept the differences. Body language and hand gestures vary around the world, but some
body language seems to be shared across cultures: When someone arrives home later than permitted, a parent
or guardian meeting them at the door with crossed arms and a frown on their face means the same in Russia
as it does in the U.S. as it does in Ghana.

Cultural Universals

Although cultures vary, they also share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are
globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: every human society
recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that
family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all
generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults continue to live in the
extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain
and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In the U.S., by contrast, individuals are
expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit that consists of
parents and their offspring. Other cultural universals include customs like funeral rites, weddings, and
celebrations of births. However, each culture may view and conduct the ceremonies quite differently.

Anthropologist George Murdock first investigated the existence of cultural universals while studying systems
of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human
survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and
death or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language,
the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release
tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock, 1949). Sociologists consider humor necessary to
human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Is Music a Cultural Universal?
Imagine that you are sitting in a theater, watching a film. The movie opens with the protagonist sitting on a park
bench with a grim expression on their face. The music starts to come in. The first slow and mournful notes play in
a minor key. As the melody continues, the heroine turns her head and sees a man walking toward her. The music
gets louder, and the sounds don’t seem to go together – as if the orchestra is intentionally playing the wrong
notes. You tense up as you watch, almost hoping to stop. The character is clearly in danger.

Now imagine that you are watching the same movie – the exact same footage – but with a different soundtrack.
As the scene opens, the music is soft and soothing, with a hint of sadness. You see the protagonist sitting on the
park bench with a grim expression. Suddenly, the music swells. The woman looks up and sees a man walking
toward her. The notes are high and bright, and the pace is bouncy. You feel your heart rise in your chest. This is a
happy moment.

Music has the ability to evoke emotional responses. In television shows, movies, commercials, and even the
background music in a store, music has a message and seems to easily draw a response from those who hear it –
joy, sadness, fear, victory. Are these types of musical cues cultural universals?


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In 2009, a team of psychologists, led by Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain
Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, studied people’s reactions to music that they’d never heard (Fritz et al., 2009). The
research team traveled to Cameroon, Africa, and asked Mafa tribal members to listen to Western music. The
tribe, isolated from Western culture, had never been exposed to Western culture and had no context or
experience within which to interpret its music. Even so, as the tribal members listened to a Western piano piece,
they were able to recognize three basic emotions: happiness, sadness, and fear. Music, the study suggested, is a
sort of universal language.

Researchers also found that music can foster a sense of wholeness within a group. In fact, scientists who study
the evolution of language have concluded that originally language (an established component of group identity)
and music were one (Darwin, 1871). Additionally, since music is largely nonverbal, the sounds of music can cross
societal boundaries more easily than words. Music allows people to make connections, where language might be
a more difficult barricade. As Fritz and his team found, music and the emotions it conveys are cultural universals.

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Although human societies have much in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural
universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of conversational etiquette reveals
tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in
conversation. Americans keep more distance and maintain a large “personal space.” Additionally, behaviors as
simple as eating and drinking vary greatly from culture to culture. Some cultures use tools to put the food in
the mouth while others use their fingers. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of
liquid, what do you assume they are drinking? In the U.S., it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a
favorite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

Some travelers pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, like the late celebrated food
writer Anthony Bourdain (1956-2017). Often, however, people express disgust at another culture’s cuisine.
They might think that it’s gross to eat raw meat from a donkey or parts of a rodent, while they don’t question
their own habit of eating cows or pigs.

Such attitudes are examples of ethnocentrism, which means to evaluate and judge another culture based on
one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism is believing your group is the correct measuring standard and if
other cultures do not measure up to it, they are wrong. As sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906)
described the term, it is a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others. Almost everyone is a
little bit ethnocentric.

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy. A shared sense of community pride, for
example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike of other cultures and
could cause misunderstanding, stereotyping, and conflict. Individuals, government, non-government, private,
and religious institutions with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, because
they see them as uneducated, backward, or even inferior. Cultural imperialism is the deliberate imposition of
one’s own cultural values on another culture.

Colonial expansion by Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, and England grew quickly in the fifteenth century was
accompanied by severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in these new lands
as uncultured savages who needed to adopt Catholic governance, Christianity, European dress, and other
cultural practices.

A modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce
agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries into areas that are better served by
indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches to the particular region. Another example would be the
deforestation of the Amazon Basin as indigenous cultures lose land to timber corporations.

3.1 • What Is Culture? 69

FIGURE 3.3 Experiencing an entirely new practice may lead to a high degree of interest or a level of criticism. The
Indegenous people of Sagada, in the Philippines, have for thousands of years placed the bodies of deceased people
into coffins hung on the cliffs near their villages. Some visitors may find this practice admirable, while others may
think it’s inappropriate. (Credit: Arian Zwegers/flickr)

When people find themselves in a new culture, they may experience disorientation and frustration. In
sociology, we call this culture shock. In addition to the traveler’s biological clock being ‘off’, a traveler from
Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. Now, imagine that the
‘difference’ is cultural. An exchange student from China to the U.S. might be annoyed by the constant
interruptions in class as other students ask questions—a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the
Chicago traveler was initially captivated with Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally
excited to see a U.S.- style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their
own culture, they may experience ethnocentrism as their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about
how to behave appropriately in the new situation. According to many authors, international students studying
in the U.S. report that there are personality traits and behaviors expected of them. Black African students
report having to learn to ‘be Black in the U.S.’ and Chinese students report that they are naturally expected to
be good at math. In African countries, people are identified by country or kin, not color. Eventually, as people
learn more about a culture, they adapt to the new culture for a variety of reasons.

Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken
Barger (1971) discovered this when he conducted a participatory observation in an Inuit community in the
Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew
he would never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the
tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value
victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their
environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of
his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes
went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two
nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

During his time with the Inuit tribe, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the
practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own
culture. Practicing cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to,

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new values, norms, and practices.

However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most
culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control
over their own bodies—question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries
such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition. Sociologists attempting to
engage in cultural relativism, then, may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a
culture that they are studying. Sociologists may take issue with the practices of female genital mutilation in
many countries to ensure virginity at marriage just as some male sociologists might take issue with scarring of
the flesh to show membership. Sociologists work diligently to keep personal biases out of research analysis.

Sometimes when people attempt to address feelings of ethnocentrism and develop cultural relativism, they
swing too far to the other end of the spectrum. Xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, and refers to
the belief that another culture is superior to one’s own. (The Greek root word xeno-, pronounced “ZEE-no,”
means “stranger” or “foreign guest.”) An exchange student who goes home after a semester abroad or a
sociologist who returns from the field may find it difficult to associate with the values of their own culture after
having experienced what they deem a more upright or nobler way of living. An opposite reaction is
xenophobia, an irrational fear or hatred of different cultures.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for sociologists studying different cultures is the matter of keeping a
perspective. It is impossible for anyone to overcome all cultural biases. The best we can do is strive to be aware
of them. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values or ideas on others. And an
appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye. This
practice is perhaps the most difficult for all social scientists.

Overcoming Culture Shock
During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew from Chicago, Illinois to Madrid, Spain to visit Maria, the exchange student
she had befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around

Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she
greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10
p.m. Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner
subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honored guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her
hosts’ facial expressions, and did not realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a
strange bed, wishing she had not come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language,
and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?

What Caitlin did not realize was that people depend not only on spoken words but also on body language, like
gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms and practices accompany even the smallest
nonverbal signals (DuBois, 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and
even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for

For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country,
state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture
shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people are excited at first to encounter a new culture. But bit by bit,
they become stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who speak another language and use
different regional expressions. There is new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette
to learn. Living with this constant stress can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration


3.1 • What Is Culture? 71

in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy
might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians.

It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own
country is natural. Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple
living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been
forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was fifteen. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed
more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a
new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and it can take years to fully
adjust to living in a new culture.

By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she had made new lifelong friends. Caitlin stepped out of her comfort zone. She had
learned a lot about Spain, but discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.

FIGURE 3.4 Experiencing new cultures offers an opportunity to practice cultural relativism. (Credit: OledSidorenko/

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3.2 Elements of Culture
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate values, beliefs, and norms
• Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture
• Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
• Discuss the role of social control within culture

Values and Beliefs

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are values and beliefs. Value does not
mean monetary worth in sociology, but rather ideals, or principles and standards members of a culture hold in
high regard. Most cultures in any society hold “knowledge” (education) in high regard. Values are deeply
embedded and are critical for learning a culture’s beliefs, which are the tenets or convictions that people hold
to be true. Individual cultures in a society have personal beliefs, but they also shared collective values. To
illustrate the difference, U.S. citizens may believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard
enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is important. In
other cultures, success may be tied less to wealth and more to having many healthy children. Values shape a
society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided.

Consider the value that the U.S. places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful
adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on
cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The U.S. also has an individualistic culture,
meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are
collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group takes priority over that of the individual. Fulfilling a society’s
values can be difficult. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity
and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the U.S., yet the country’s highest political offices have
been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they don’t accurately reflect how people do behave. Values
portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs
from real culture. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension.
But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or
address these issues. American teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy. However, the number of
unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that the ideal alone is not enough to spare teenagers the potential
consequences of having sex.

One of the ways societies strive to maintain its values is through rewards and punishments. When people
observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly
woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may
receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction unwanted or inappropriate behaviors by withholding support,
approval, or permission, or by implementing sanctions. We may think of ‘sanction’ as a negative term, but
sanctions are forms of social control, ways to encourage conformity to cultural norms or rules. Sometimes
people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions. Receiving good grades, for
instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. Sanctions can also be negative. . A boy who shoves an
elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A
business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can
lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label like ‘lazy’ or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets,
fines, or imprisonment. Utilizing social control encourages most people to conform regardless of whether
authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.

Values are not static. They change across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change

3.2 • Elements of Culture 73

collective social beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values
about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It’s rare to see two male friends or coworkers
holding hands in the U.S. where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations,
masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light
when people reacted to photos of former president G.W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi
Arabia in 2005. Simple gestures, such as hand-holding, carry great symbolic differences across cultures.

FIGURE 3.5 In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, it is considered normal for men to hold hands in friendship.
How would US citizens react to these two soldiers? (Credit: Geordie Mott/Wikimedia Commons)


So far, many of the examples in this chapter have described how people are expected to behave in certain
situations—for example, buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules
of conduct through which societies are structured, or what sociologists call norms. Norms are behaviors that
reflect compliance with what cultures and societies have defined as good, right, and important. Most members
adhere to them.

Formal norms are established, written rules existing in all societies. They support many social institutions,
such as the military, criminal justice and healthcare systems, and public schools. Functionalists may question
what purpose these norms serve, conflict theorists might be interested in who creates, benefits, and suffers
under these formal norms, and symbolic interactionists wonder about how a group that benefits interacts.
Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running”
signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms,
and they are the most strictly enforced. But they are enforced to varying degrees.

For example, private property is highly valued in the U.S. Thieves can be fined, imprisoned, or both. People
safeguard valuable possessions by locking their doors, buying a safe, and installing alarm systems on homes
and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it’s against the law to drive
drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behavior. And though there are laws to punish drunk
driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviors that are generally and
widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general
socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly— “Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while
others are learned by observation, including understanding consequences when someone else violates a
norm. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need of written rules, and so may be difficult
to learn when you are new to or not familiar with the culture.

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Although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. In the U.S.,
there are informal norms regarding behavior at fast food restaurants. Customers line up to order their food
and leave when they are done. They don’t sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their
condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people don’t commit even harmless breaches of informal norms.

Breaching Experiments
Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) studied people’s customs in order to find out how societal rules and
norms not only influence behavior but also shape social order. He believed that members of society together
create a social order (Weber, 2011). His resulting book, Studies in Ethno-methodology (1967) discusses people’s
assumptions about the social makeup of their communities.

One of Garfinkel’s research methods was known as a “breaching experiment,” in which the researcher behaves in
a socially awkward manner in order to test the sociological concepts of social norms and conformity. The
participants are not aware an experiment is in progress, but their response is recorded. For example, if the
experimenter is, say, a man in a business suit, and he skips down the sidewalk or hops on one foot, a passersby is
likely to stare at him with surprised expressions. But the experimenter does not simply “act weird” in public.
Rather, the point is to deviate from a specific social norm in a small way, to subtly break some form of social
etiquette, and see what happens.

For example, he set up a simple game of tic-tac-toe. One player was asked beforehand to mark Xs and Os not in
the boxes but on the lines dividing the spaces instead. The other player, in the dark about the study, was
flabbergasted and did not know how to continue. The second player’s outrage, anger, puzzlement, or other
emotion suggested that a cultural norms had been violated.

There are many rules about speaking with strangers in public. It is okay to tell a woman you like her shoes. It is
not okay to ask if you can try them on. It is okay to stand in line behind someone at the ATM. It is not okay to look
over his shoulder as he makes a transaction. It is okay to sit beside someone on a crowded bus. It’s weird to sit
beside a stranger in a half-empty bus.

For some breaches, the researcher directly engages with innocent bystanders. An experimenter might strike up a
conversation in a public bathroom, where it’s common to respect each other’s privacy. In a grocery store, an
experimenter might take a food item out of another person’s grocery cart, saying, “That looks good! I think I’ll try
it.” An experimenter might sit down at a table with others in a fast-food restaurant or follow someone around a
museum and study the same paintings. In those cases, the bystanders are pressured to respond, and their
discomfort illustrates how much we depend on social norms. Breaching experiments uncover and explore the
many unwritten social rules we live by.

Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the
moral views and principles of a group. They often have a religious foundation. Violating them can have serious
consequences. The strongest mores are protected with laws and other formal sanctions. In most societies, for
instance, homicide is considered immoral, and it’s punishable by law (a formal norm). But more often, mores
are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as
shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups.

The mores of the U.S. school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use
special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Submitting
or publishing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences for
violating this norm are often severe and can result in expulsion from school or termination from employment.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Rather, folkways direct appropriate


3.2 • Elements of Culture 75

behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. We can think of them as ‘traditions’—things
we do because we ‘always have.’ They indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting
another person. They specify whether to wear a tie and blazer or a T-shirt and sandals to an event. In Canada,
women can smile and say hello to men on the street. In Egypt, that’s not acceptable. In regions in the southern
U.S., bumping into an acquaintance means stopping to chat. It’s considered rude not to, no matter how busy
one is. In other regions, people guard their privacy and value time efficiency. A simple nod of the head is
enough. Other accepted folkways in the U.S. may include holding the door open for a stranger or giving
someone a gift on their birthday. The rules regarding these folkways may change from culture to culture. A
folkway in one culture could be extremely rude in another.

Folkways are actions that people everywhere take for granted. People need to act without thinking in order to
get seamlessly through daily routines. They can’t stop and analyze every action (Sumner, 1906). Folkways
might be small actions, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. An important
folkway in many cultures is kissing Grandmother on the cheek. Fail to do so and you will likely be scolded.

Symbols and Culture

Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world.
Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand that world. They
provide communication methods to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are
shared by societies.

The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some
cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance,
provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as
symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are valuable only in what they
represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, represent accomplishments. But many objects
have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.

FIGURE 3.6 Some road signs are universal. But how would you interpret the signage on the right? (Credit: (a)
Andrew Bain/flickr; (b) HonzaSoukup/flickr)

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Symbols often get noticed when they are out of context. Used unconventionally, they convey strong messages.
A stop sign placed on the door of a college building makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military
jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear
disarmament—and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott, 2008). Some college students wear pajamas and
bedroom slippers to class, clothing that was formerly associated only with privacy and bedtime. By wearing the
outfit, students are defying traditional cultural norms.

Some symbols represent only one side of the story and elicit strong emotions, which can lead to social unrest.
Their presence is a reminder of a nation’s worst times and not something to celebrate. Many of these symbols
are targets of vandalism as the destruction of these representations is symbolic. Effigies representing public
figures are burned to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a
decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism. In the U.S.
beginning in 2019, statues associated with slavery and the Civil War were removed from state capitols, college
campuses, and public parks. In Germany, any display of Hitler or Nazi memorabilia or to deny the Holocaust is

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, one system is common to all: language. Whatever its
form, people learn social and cultural norms through it.

Language and Symbols

Language is a system that uses symbols with which people communicate and through which culture is
transmitted. Letters (which make up words), pictographs, and hand gestures are all symbols that create a
language used for communication. Sign language, for example, requires an intimate knowledge not only of an
alphabet but also of signs that represent entire words and the meaning indicated by certain facial expressions
or postures. Its grammar differs from the spoken language. As spoken language is different across regions,
nations and cultures, and can even differ by the age of the person, so too does sign language.

All language systems contain the same basic elements that are effective in communicating ideas – object,
subject, action. A written language system consists of symbols that refer to spoken sound. Taken together,
these symbols convey specific meanings. The English language uses a combination of twenty-six letters to
create words. These twenty-six letters make up over 600,000 recognized words (OED Online, 2011). We can
compare the reliance on tone and inflection to Mandarin Chinese. It contains over 8,000 characters, but the
same character may symbolize different concepts depending on the tone used.

English today contains an English and French version for the same concept. For example, in the English
version, one eats, but in French version, one dines. In the English version, we meet someone. In the French
version, we encounter someone. Readers of American English may be surprised by the inclusion of a ‘u’ in
some spellings of words like ‘behaviour’ or ‘flavour.’ Americans have dropped that ‘u’ that writers of British
English include. Billions of people speak English, and there are almost as many pronunciations of it.

Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you eat a grinder, a sub, or
a hero/gyro? Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as “soda” or “pop”? Is a household entertainment room
a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for a “check,” the
“ticket,” or your “bill”? Language is constantly evolving and adding new words as societies create new ideas. In
this age of technology, many cultures have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “e-mail” and
“Internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” These would have considered nonsense
words just the world twenty-five years ago.

Language and Culture

Even while it constantly evolves, language shapes our perception of reality and our behavior. In the 1920s,
linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf advanced this idea which became known as Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis or linguistic relativity. It is based on the idea that people experience their world through their

3.2 • Elements of Culture 77

language, and therefore understand their world through the cultural meanings embedded in their language.
The hypothesis suggests that language shapes thought and thus behavior (Swoyer, 2003). For example, words
have attached meanings beyond their definition that can influence thought and behavior. In the U.S. where the
number thirteen is associated with bad luck, many high-rise buildings do not have a 13th floor. In Japan,
however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for

Many sociologists believe that language can have a broad and lasting impact on perception. In 2002, Lera
Boroditsky and her colleagues conducted experiments on native German and Spanish speakers in English.
Unlike English, these languages assign genders to nouns. In German, for example, the word for sun, die Sonne,
is feminine, but the word for moon, der Mond, is masculine. The team chose a set of nouns with opposite
genders in German and Spanish and asked participants to provide adjectives to describe them. They found
that German speakers used more masculine adjectives than Spanish speakers when describing a noun that
was grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish. For example, the word for key is masculine
in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated,
and useful, while Spanish speakers used the adjectives, golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The team
concluded that gender perceptions acquired in a person’s native language carry forward to how they see the
world even when they switch to a language without grammatical genders (Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips,

Some sociologists also believe the structure of language can have consequences on both individual and group
behavior. For example, a series of studies have found that Finland has a significantly higher rate of workplace
accidents than Sweden despite the fact that the languages have similar workplace regulations (Salminen &
Johansson, 2000). John A. Lucy explained this discrepancy through differences in the structure of these
languages. Swedish places a greater emphasis on the timing of movement in three-dimensional space.
Consequently, Lucy argued, the Swedish factories are physically arranged in a manner that supports the
smooth running of the product process. Finnish factors experience frequent disruptions, so that workers must
rush and have more accidents (Lucy, 1997).

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been interpreted to suggest that if a word does not exist in a language then
users of that language cannot have the experience. Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have
access to the word “ambivalent,” they don’t recognize having conflicting positive and negative feelings about
an issue as ‘ambivalence.’ However, the hypothesis should not suggest that people do not have conflicting
feelings but rather that they interpret the feelings differently.

In addition to using spoken language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is
symbolic, and, as in the case of language, is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal;
some are not. Smiles often indicate positive reinforcement in the U.S., whereas in some cultures it is rude as
you do not know the person. A thumbs-up in Russia and Australia is an offensive curse (Passero, 2002). Other
gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many
things, depending on how it’s done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no thank you,” or “I’m
royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted
to you.” From a distance, a person may “read” the emotional situation of people just by watching their body
language and facial expressions. However, many cultures communicate with lots of physicality, which people
outside that culture may interpret as an argument. So, for example, you might believe two people are arguing
when, in fact, they are simply having a regular conversation.

Is the U.S. Bilingual?
When she was six, Lucy and her family immigrated to the United States and attended a school that allowed for the


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use of both English and Spanish. Lucy’s teacher and many staff were bilingual (fluent in English and Spanish), and
the district offered books in both languages. While she was being driven to learn English, the dual-language option
helped to ensure that she did not become lost and get behind in her learning of all subjects. Having math, science,
and computing taught in both languages helped her understand those concepts and skills. Within two years of
enrolling in the school, Lucy was getting nearly all of her instruction in English, and rarely used the Spanish-language
books or resources. While she still had trouble with some intricacies of English, her math progress was above grade
level and she did well in other subjects as well.

Some people might believe that Lucy would have learned faster had she been instructed only in English. But
research indicates that is not the case. Johns Hopkins University, researchers conducted a series of studies on the
effects of bilingual education across multiple subjects (Slavin et al. 2008). They found that students taught in both
their native tongue and English make better progress than those taught only in English.

Legally, the U.S. has no official language. But many believe English to be the rightful language of the U.S., and over
thirty states have passed laws specifying English as their official tongue. Proponents of English-only laws suggest
that a national ruling will save money on translation, printing, and human resource costs, including funding for
bilingual teachers. They argue that setting English as the official language will encourage non-English speakers to
learn English faster and adapt to the culture of the U.S. more easily (Mount 2010). Groups such as the American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose making English the official language and claim that it violates the rights of non-
English speakers. English-only laws, they believe, deny the reality of our nation’s diversity and unfairly target non-
English speakers. They point to the fact that much of the debate on this topic has risen since 1970, a period during
which the U.S. has experienced new waves of immigration from Asia and Mexico.

Today, a lot of product information gets written in multiple languages. Enter a store like Home Depot and you’ll find
signs in both English and Spanish. Buy a children’s product and the safety warnings could be presented in multiple
languages. While marketers are financially motivated to reach the largest number of consumers possible, this trend
also may help people become accustomed to a culture of bilingualism.

Studies show that most US immigrants eventually abandon their native tongues and become fluent in English.
Bilingual education helps with that transition. Today, Lucy is an ambitious and high-achieving college student. Fluent
in both English and Spanish, Lucy is studying law enforcement—a field that seeks bilingual employees. The same
bilingualism that contributed to her success in grade school will help her thrive professionally as a law officer
serving her community.

FIGURE 3.7 Many signs—on streets and in stores—include both English and Spanish. What effect does this have on

3.2 • Elements of Culture 79

members of society? What effect does it have on our culture? (Credit: istolethetv/flickr)

3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Discuss the roles of both high culture and pop culture within society
• Differentiate between subculture and counterculture
• Explain the role of innovation, invention, and discovery in culture
• Describe the role of cultural lag and globalization in cultural change

It may seem obvious that there are a multitude of cultural differences between societies in the world. After all,
we can easily see that people vary from one society to the next. It’s natural to think that a young woman from a
village in rural Kenya in Eastern Africa would have a different view of the world from a young woman from
urban Mumbai, India—one of the most populated cities in the world.

Additionally, each culture has its own internal variations. Sometimes the differences between cultures are not
as large as the differences within cultures. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about cultural capital, which
consists of material goods, non-material attitudes, and knowledge that are specific to a certain economic class.
Bourdieu grouped cultural capital into three categories: embodied (a regional dialect), objectified
(possessions), and institutionalized (academic credentials). In the U.S., some group culture into three
categories as well: high, low, and pop (for popular).

High, Low, and Popular Culture

Can you identify the Chief Financial Officer of three major corporations? How about the name of the server at
three local hangouts? How many books do you own? How many social media sites do you visit? Is your family
listed on the Social Register©? Have you ever heard of the Social Register©? In each pair, one type of knowledge
is considered high culture and the other low culture.

This could be considered stereotyping by economic class rather than by race or gender, but sociologists use the
term high culture to describe the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest or elite
class segments of a society. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, political power, and
prestige. In America, high culture also tends to be associated with wealth. Events considered high culture can
be expensive, formal, and exclusive – attending a ballet, seeing a play, listening to a live symphony
performance, or attending a prestigious university. Similarly, low culture is associated with the pattern of
cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the lowest class segments of a society.

The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream
society. Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or the season finale of a television
show. Music, anime, and cosplay are pieces of popular culture. Popular culture is accessible by most and is
expressed and spread via commercial and social media outlets such as radio, television, movies, the music
industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. You can share a discussion of favorite football teams with a
new coworker or comment on a reality show when making small talk in line at the grocery store. But if you
tried to launch into a deep discussion on the classical Greek play Antigone, few members of U.S. society today
would be familiar with it. Although high culture may be considered by some as superior to popular culture, the
lines between high culture and popular culture vary over time and place. Shakespearean plays, considered to
be popular culture when they were written, are now part of our society’s high culture. Five hundred years from
now, will our descendants consider Dancing with the Stars as fine performance art?

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Subculture and Counterculture

FIGURE 3.8 Cosplayers are a distinct subculture (a smaller cultural group within the larger culture) in the United
States. And within the larger subculture are subgroups, such as this one emulating D.C. Comics characters. (Credit:
Pat Loika)

A subculture is just what it sounds like—a smaller cultural group within a larger culture. People of a subculture
are part of the larger culture but also share a specific identity within a smaller group.*

Thousands of subcultures exist within the U.S. Ethnic and racial groups share the language, food, and customs
of their heritage. Other subcultures are formed through shared experiences. Biker culture revolves around an
interest in motorcycles. Some subcultures are formed by people who possess traits or preferences that differ
from the majority of a society’s population. The body modification community embraces aesthetic additions to
the human body, such as tattoos, piercings, and certain forms of plastic surgery. But even as members of a
subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.

Sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which reject some of the larger culture’s norms
and values. In contrast to subcultures, which operate relatively smoothly within the larger society,
countercultures might actively defy larger society by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by,
sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society. Counterculture members are
‘against’ the dominant ruling culture and want to install their own values. Sub-culture members may want to
change some things but established procedures are followed.

Cults, a word derived from culture, are also considered counterculture groups. The group “Yearning for Zion”
(YFZ) in Eldorado, Texas, existed outside the mainstream and the limelight, until its leader was accused of
statutory rape and underage marriage. The sect’s formal norms clashed too severely to be tolerated by US law,
and in 2008, authorities raided the compound and removed more than two hundred women and children from
the property. Many cults claim to be spiritual, often establishing themselves as a religion. When each of the
three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) in the world began, they were treated as cults and
suffered much oppression because of it.

Cultural Change

Cultures continually change because new items are added to material culture every day and in turn, meanings
are assigned to them (non-material), which affects other cultural components. For example, a new technology,
such as railroads or smartphones, might introduce new ways of traveling or communicating. New ideas, such
as flash mobs or crowdfunding, enter a culture . Sociologists identify two broad categories of change as

3.3 • High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change 81

innovation (meaning new) and diffusion (to spread out). Material cultural change happens when new items
are discovered or invented or enter a culture as a result of globalization.

Innovation: Discovery and Invention

An innovation refers to an object or concept’s initial appearance in society—it is innovative because it is new.
Innovations are discovered or invented. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of
reality. In 1610, when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already
there, but until then, no one had known about it. When Christopher Columbus encountered Hispaniola, the
island was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. However, his discovery was new knowledge for
Europeans, and it opened the way to changes in European culture, as well as to the cultures of the discovered
lands. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses
brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Great Plains Native Americans.

Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put
together in an entirely new manner. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric appliances were invented at an
astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new
inventions. Inventions may shape a culture by replacing older ways of carrying out tasks, being integrated into
current practices, or creating new activities. Their adoption reflects (and may shape) cultural values, and their
use may introduce new norms and practices.

Consider the rise of mobile phones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone
conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths. People on trains, in restaurants,
and in other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. New norms and behaviors
were needed for cell phone use. Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should
pay attention to their companions and surroundings. Fortunately, technology found a workaround: texting,
which enables quiet communication surpassed phone conversations as the primary way to communicate
anywhere, everywhere.

When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. Technological gadgets that catch on
quickly with one generation are sometimes dismissed by an older generation that is skeptical or struggles to
adopt them. The older generation might tune into a musician performing on public television while the
younger generation prefers a livestream. A culture’s objects and ideas can cause not just generational but
cultural gaps. Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread
through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change
including methods for researching or learning information (e.g., library versus Internet search).

FIGURE 3.9 Technology Adoption Lifecycle — Sociologist Everett Rogers (1962) developed a model of the diffusion
of innovations. As consumers gradually adopt a new innovation, the item grows toward 100 percent usage, or
complete saturation within a society. This graph is frequently used in business, sales, technology, and cultural
innovations. It can be used to describe how quickly different groups adopt (or begin using) a new technology or a
new slang word, but note it is just a framework: not every innovation follows this exact pattern, but it provides a

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good foundation for discussion and prediction. (Graph attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY
4.0 license)

Coined by sociologist William F. Ogburn (1957), the term culture lag refers to the time that passes between the
introduction of a new item of material culture and its social acceptance. Culture lag can also cause tangible
problems. The infrastructure of the U.S., built a hundred years ago or more, is having trouble supporting
today’s more heavily populated and fast-paced life. Yet there is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to
infrastructure problems. Municipalities struggle with traffic control, increased air pollution, and limited
parking, which are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences,
overuse, or lack of resources, addressing these needs takes time.

Diffusion and Globalization

Another way material and nonmaterial culture crosses borders is through diffusion. Like a gas in a laboratory
experiment, the item or idea spreads throughout. Diffusion relates to the process of the integration of cultures
into the mainstream while globalization refers to the promotion and increase of interactions between
different regions and populations around the globe resulting in the integration of markets and
interdependence of nations fostered through trade.

Ideas concepts, or artifacts are often diffused, or spread, to individuals and groups, resulting in new social
practices. People might develop a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato (ice cream). Access to
television and the Internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in U.S. sitcoms into homes around
the globe and vice versa. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political
protesters in other countries. When this kind of diffusion occurs, ideas from one culture are introduced into
another, often before the associated material objects. The graph above displays when diffusion typically
occurs, essentially driving an innovation to spread beyond its earliest adopters to the wider majority of people.

FIGURE 3.10 Officially patented in 1893 as the “clasp locker” (left), the zipper did not diffuse through society for
many decades. Today, it is immediately recognizable around the world. (Credit: (a) US Patent Office/Wikimedia
Commons; (b) Rabensteiner/Wikimedia Commons).

3.3 • High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change 83

3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
By the end of this section you should be able to:

• Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation

Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. But what do they mean? How do
sociologists perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let’s finish our
analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict
theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a
whole. They often use the human body as an analogy. Looking at life in this way, societies need culture to exist.
Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making
choices. Just as members of a society work together to fulfill a society’s needs, culture exists to meet its
members’ social and personal needs.

Functionalists also study culture in terms of values. For example, education is highly valued in the U.S. The
culture of education—including material culture such as classrooms, textbooks, libraries, educational
technology, dormitories and non-material culture such as specific teaching approaches—demonstrates how
much emphasis is placed on the value of educating a society’s members. In contrast, if education consisted of
only providing guidelines and some study material without the other elements, that would demonstrate that
the culture places a lower value on education.

FIGURE 3.11 This statue of Superman stands in the center of Metropolis, Illinois. His pedestal reads
“Truth—Justice—The American Way.” How would a functionalist interpret this statue? What does it reveal about the
values of American culture? (Credit: David Wilson/flickr)

Functionalists view the different categories of culture as serving many functions. Having membership in a
culture, a subculture, or a counterculture brings camaraderie and social cohesion and benefits the larger
society by providing places for people who share similar ideas.

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Conflict theorists, however, view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to
issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a conflict theorist, established educational methods are seen as
reinforcing the dominant societal culture and issues of privilege. The historical experiences of certain groups—
those based upon race, sex, or class, for instance, or those that portray a negative narrative about the dominant
culture—are excluded from history books. For a long time, U.S. History education omitted the assaults on
Native American people and society that were part of the colonization of the land that became the United
States. A more recent example is the recognition of historical events like race riots and racially based
massacres like the Tulsa Massacre, which was widely reported when it occurred in 1921 but was omitted from
many national historical accounts of that period of time. When an episode of HBO’s Watchmen showcased the
event in stunning and horrific detail, many people expressed surprise that it had occurred and it hadn’t been
taught or discussed (Ware 2019).

Historical omission is not restricted to the U.S. North Korean students learn of their benevolent leader without
information about his mistreatment of large portions of the population. According to defectors and North
Korea experts, while famines and dire economic conditions are obvious, state media and educational agencies
work to ensure that North Koreans do not understand how different their country is from others (Jacobs 2019).

Inequities exist within a culture’s value system and become embedded in laws, policies, and procedures. This
inclusion leads to the oppression of the powerless by the powerful. A society’s cultural norms benefit some
people but hurt others. Women were not allowed to vote in the U.S. until 1920, making it hard for them to get
laws passed that protected their rights in the home and in the workplace. Same-sex couples were denied the
right to marry in the U.S. until 2015. Elsewhere around the world, same-sex marriage is only legal in 31 of the
planet’s 195 countries.

At the core of conflict theory is the effect of economic production and materialism. Dependence on technology
in rich nations versus a lack of technology and education in poor nations. Conflict theorists believe that a
society’s system of material production has an effect on the rest of culture. People who have less power also
have fewer opportunities to adapt to cultural change. This view contrasts with the perspective of
functionalism. Where functionalists would see the purpose of culture—traditions, folkways, values—as helping
individuals navigate through life and societies run smoothly, conflict theorists examine socio-cultural
struggles, including the power and privilege created for some by using and reinforcing a dominate culture that
sustains their position in society

Symbolic interactionism is the sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face
interactions and cultural meanings between members of society. It is considered a micro-level analysis.
Instead of looking how access is different between the rich and poor, interactionists see culture as being
created and maintained by the ways people interact and in how individuals interpret each other’s actions. In
this perspective, people perpetuate cultural ways. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interaction
as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others.
Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and
communicate interpretations of these meanings to others. Symbolic interactionists perceive culture as highly
dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when
conveying these meanings. Interactionists research changes in language. They study additions and deletions
of words, the changing meaning of words, and the transmission of words in an original language into different

3.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Culture 85

FIGURE 3.12 Sometimes external observers may believe that people from a culture dress a certain way based on
images from a parade or special event. In reality, these two people may wear business suits or jeans and T-shirts
when they are not participating in a flower parade. While people may not always outwardly express their cultural
identity or use items related to their culture, special events often bring out those expressions. (Credit: John

We began this chapter by asking, “What is culture?” Culture is comprised of values, beliefs, norms, language,
practices, and artifacts of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express
themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture
on us and our way of life. We inherit language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behavior, including
those of family, friends, faith, and politics.

To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what
defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if
people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree on
similar values and systems of social control.

Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through
processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. As such, cultures are social constructions. The
society approves or disapproves of items or ideas, which are therefore included or not in the culture. We may
be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans we have the ability to question values and
make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity
around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.

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Key Terms
alarm reaction first stage of the general adaptation syndrome; characterized as the body’s immediate

physiological reaction to a threatening situation or some other emergency; analogous to the fight-or-flight

beliefs tenets or convictions that people hold to be true
cortisol stress hormone released by the adrenal glands when encountering a stressor; helps to provide a

boost of energy, thereby preparing the individual to take action
countercultures groups that reject and oppose society’s widely accepted cultural patterns
culture shared beliefs, values, and practices
culture lag the gap of time between the introduction of material culture and nonmaterial culture’s

acceptance of it
diffusion the spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another
discoveries things and ideas found from what already exists
distress bad form of stress; usually high in intensity; often leads to exhaustion, fatigue, feeling burned out;

associated with erosions in performance and health
eustress good form of stress; low to moderate in intensity; associated with positive feelings, as well as

optimal health and performance
fight-or-flight response set of physiological reactions (increases in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration

rate, and sweat) that occur when an individual encounters a perceived threat; these reactions are
produced by activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system

folkways direct, appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture
formal norms established, written rules
general adaptation syndrome Hans Selye’s three-stage model of the body’s physiological reactions to stress

and the process of stress adaptation: alarm reaction, stage of resistance, and stage of exhaustion
globalization the integration of international trade and finance markets
health psychology subfield of psychology devoted to studying psychological influences on health, illness,

and how people respond when they become ill
high culture the cultural patterns of a society’s elite
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis set of structures found in both the limbic system

(hypothalamus) and the endocrine system (pituitary gland and adrenal glands) that regulate many of the
body’s physiological reactions to stress through the release of hormones

ideal culture the standards a society would like to embrace and live up to
informal norms casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to
innovations new objects or ideas introduced to culture for the first time
inventions a combination of pieces of existing reality into new forms
language a symbolic system of communication
mores the moral views and principles of a group
norms the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured
popular culture mainstream, widespread patterns among a society’s population
primary appraisal judgment about the degree of potential harm or threat to well-being that a stressor might

real culture the way society really is based on what actually occurs and exists
sanctions a way to authorize or formally disapprove of certain behaviors
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the way that people understand the world based on their form of language
secondary appraisal judgment of options available to cope with a stressor and their potential effectiveness
social control a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms
society people who live in a definable community and who share a culture
stage of exhaustion third stage of the general adaptation syndrome; the body’s ability to resist stress

becomes depleted; illness, disease, and even death may occur

3 • Key Terms 87

stage of resistance second stage of the general adaptation syndrome; the body adapts to a stressor for a
period of time

stress process whereby an individual perceives and responds to events that one appraises as overwhelming
or threatening to one’s well-being

stressors environmental events that may be judged as threatening or demanding; stimuli that initiate the
stress process

subcultures groups that share a specific identification, apart from a society’s majority, even as the
members exist within a larger society

symbols gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who
share a culture

values a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society

Section Summary
3.1 What Is Culture?

Though “society” and “culture” are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. A society is a
group of people sharing a community and culture. The term culture generally describes the shared values,
beliefs, norms, language, practices, and artifacts of these people, and includes material and nonmaterial
elements. Our experience of cultural difference is influenced by our ethnocentrism (judging others using your
cultural standards) and Xenocentrism (belief that another culture is superior). Sociologists practice cultural
relativism (assessing others using their own cultural standards) although it is quite difficult.

3.2 Elements of Culture

A culture consists of many elements, such as the values and beliefs of its society. Culture is also governed by
norms, including laws, mores (norms that embody moral views), and folkways (traditions without any moral
underpinnings). The symbols and language of a society are key to developing and conveying culture. In a
nutshell, the four main components are values, beliefs, norms, language, practices, and artifacts.

3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change

Sociologists recognize that there is a dominant culture or cultural practice that is dominant often
characterized as the norm in a society as well as different types of cultures within societies. Societies also
consist of many subcultures (a smaller cultural group within a larger culture). Some arese as a result of a
shared identity or interest. Countercultures reject the dominant culture’s values and create their own cultural
rules and norms. Cultural change can happen through invention or discovery. Cultures evolve via new ideas
and new ways of thinking. In many modern cultures, the cornerstone of innovation is technology, the rapid
growth of which can lead to cultural lag (time from creation or introduction to social acceptance). Technology
is also responsible for the spread of both material and nonmaterial culture that contributes to globalization
(the increase of movement and exchange of goods and ideas all over the planet).

3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

There are three major theoretical approaches toward the interpretation of culture. A functionalist perspective
acknowledges that the many parts of culture work together as a system to fulfill society’s needs. Functionalists
view culture as a reflection of society’s values. Conflict theorists see culture as inherently unequal, reinforcing
inequalities in gender, class, race, and age. Symbolic interactionists are primarily interested in culture as
experienced in the daily interactions, interpretations, and exchanges between individuals and the symbols
that comprise a culture. Various cultural and sociological occurrences can be explained by these theories. Each
theory provides a different perspective or lens to help understand culture in societies.

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Section Quiz
3.1 What Is Culture?

1. The terms _______ and ______ are often used interchangeably, but have nuances that differentiate them.
a. imperialism and relativism
b. culture and society
c. society and ethnocentrism
d. ethnocentrism and Xenocentrism

2. The American flag is a material object that denotes the U.S. However, many associate ideas with the flag,
like bravery and freedom. In this example, what are bravery and freedom?
a. Symbols
b. Language
c. Material culture
d. Nonmaterial culture

3. The belief that one’s culture is inferior to another culture is called:
a. ethnocentrism
b. nationalism
c. xenocentrism
d. imperialism

4. The irrational fear or hatred of another culture is called:
a. ethnocentrism
b. xenophobia
c. xenophile
d. ethnophobia

5. Rodney and Elise are U.S. students studying abroad in Italy. When they are introduced to their host families,
the families kiss them on both cheeks. When Rodney’s host brother introduces himself and kisses Rodney
on both cheeks, Rodney pulls back in surprise. Where he is from, unless they are romantically involved,
men do not kiss one another. This is an example of:
a. culture shock
b. imperialism
c. ethnocentrism
d. xenocentrism

6. Most cultures have been found to identify laughter as a sign of humor, joy, or pleasure. Laughter is an
examples of:
a. relativism
b. ethnocentrism
c. xenocentrism
d. universalism

3 • Section Quiz 89

3.2 Elements of Culture

7. A nation’s flag is:
a. A symbol
b. A value
c. A culture
d. A folkway

8. The existence of social norms, both formal and informal, is one of the main things that inform
___________, otherwise known as encouraging social conformity.
a. values
b. sanctions
c. social control
d. mores

9. The biggest difference between mores and folkways is that
a. mores are linked to morality, whereas folkways are tied to commonplace behaviors
b. mores are absolute, whereas folkways are temporary
c. mores refer to material culture, whereas folkways refer to nonmaterial culture
d. mores refer to nonmaterial culture, whereas folkways refer to material culture

10. The notion that people cannot feel or experience something that they do not have a word for can be
explained by:
a. linguistics
b. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
c. Ethnographic imagery
d. bilingualism

11. Cultural sanctions can also be viewed as ways that society:
a. Establishes leaders
b. Determines language
c. Regulates behavior
d. Determines laws

3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change

12. An example of high culture is _________, whereas an example of popular culture would be ____________.
a. Dostoevsky style in film; “American Idol” winners
b. medical marijuana; film noir
c. country music; pop music
d. political theory; sociological theory

13. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of what part of culture?
a. Counterculture
b. Subculture
c. Multiculturalism
d. pop culture

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14. Modern-day hipsters are an example of:
a. ethnocentricity
b. counterculture
c. subculture
d. high culture

15. Your eighty-three-year-old grandmother has been using a computer for some time now. As a way to keep
in touch, you frequently send emails of a few lines to let her know about your day. She calls after every
email to respond point by point, but she has never emailed a response back. This can be viewed as an
example of:
a. cultural lag
b. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
c. Ethnographic imagery
d. bilingualism

16. Some jobs today advertise in multinational markets and permit telecommuting in lieu of working from a
primary location. This broadening of the job market and the way that jobs are performed can be attributed
a. cultural lag
b. diffusion
c. discovery
d. globalization

17. The major difference between invention and discovery is:
a. Invention is based on technology, whereas discovery is usually based on culture
b. Discovery involves finding items that already exists, but invention puts things together in a new way
c. Invention refers to material culture, whereas discovery can be material or theoretic, like laws of

d. Invention is typically used to refer to prehistoric objects, whereas discovery refers to local culture

18. McDonald’s restaurants are found in almost every country around the world. What is this an example of?
a. globalization
b. diffusion
c. culture lag
d. xenocentrism

3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

19. A sociologist conducts research into the ways that Hispanic American students are historically
underprivileged in the U.S. education system. What theoretical approach is the sociologist Using?
a. Symbolic interactionism
b. Functionalism
c. Conflict theory
d. Ethnocentrism

3 • Section Quiz 91

20. Members of a counterculture movement believed that the economic disparity between the highest and the
mid to lower economic classes is growing at an exponentially alarming rate. A sociologist who studies that
movement by examining the interactions between its members would most likely use what theoretical
a. Symbolic interactionism
b. Functionalism
c. Conflict theory
d. Ethnocentrism

21. What theoretical perspective views society as having a system of interdependent inherently connected
a. Sociobiology
b. Functionalism
c. Conflict theory
d. Ethnocentrism

22. The “American Dream”—the notion that anybody can be successful and rich if they work hard enough—is
most commonly associated with which sociological theory?
a. Sociobiology
b. Functionalism
c. Conflict theory
d. Ethnocentrism

Short Answer
3.1 What Is Culture?

1. Examine the difference between material and nonmaterial culture in your world. Identify ten objects that
are part of your regular cultural experience. For each, then identify what aspects of nonmaterial culture
(values, beliefs, norms, language, and practices) that these objects represent. What has this exercise
revealed to you about your culture?

2. Do you believe that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentric attitudes and practices are prevalent in U.S.
culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might influence your ideas about these concepts?

3.2 Elements of Culture

3. What do you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Do you agree or disagree with it? Cite examples or
research to support your point of view.

4. How would the elimination of a social “norm” influence your culture? Describe the positive and negative

3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change

5. Identify several examples of popular culture and describe how they form societal culture. How prevalent is
the effect of these examples in your everyday life?

6. Consider some of the specific issues or concerns of your generation. Are any ideas or concepts
countercultural? What subcultures have emerged from your generation? How have the issues of your
generation expressed themselves culturally? How has your generation made its mark on society’s collective

7. What are some examples of cultural lag that are present in your life? What influence does technology have
on culture? Explain.

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3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

8. Consider a current social trend that you have witnessed, perhaps situated around family, education,
transportation, or finances. For example, many veterans of the Armed Forces, after completing tours of
duty in the Middle East, are returning to college rather than entering jobs as previous generations did.
Choose a sociological approach—functionalism, conflict theory, or symbolic interactionism—to describe,
explain, and analyze the social issue you choose. Afterward, determine why you chose the approach you
did. Does it suit your own way of thinking? Or does it offer the most relevant method of illuminating the
social issue?

Further Research
3.1 What Is Culture?

Ethnocentrism is a problem in many arenas. In the workplace, it can be hurtful and detrimental to an entire
organization and especially to those who face mistreatment or feel unwelcome. People who exhibit
ethnocentrism in the workplace are not only putting their careers at risk, but missing opportunities to
flourish and advance with colleagues and customers of different backgrounds. In other words, curbing
ethnocentrism is an important personal and societal goal, and it’s important for careers. This guide from an
executive leadership academy (http://openstax.org/l/eurac1) discusses ways that multicultural teams can
create more success if the people and company undertake the correct practices.

3.2 Elements of Culture

The science-fiction novel, Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delaney was based upon the principles of the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis. Read an excerpt from Babel-17 here (http://openstax.org/l/Babel-17) .

3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change

Many people believe that the time of the counterculture is over. Like many aspects of culture, it could come
back at any time. In this interview (https://openstax.org/l/counterculture) , Princeton professor German
Labrador and director of exhibitions at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona discuss the past,
present, and potential future of counterculture.

3.1 What Is Culture?

Amazon.com. 2020. Search for Humor Studies. “1-16 of over 40,000 results for Books : “humor studies””.
Retrieved October 6, 2020. (Amazon.com)

Barger, Ken. 2008. “Ethnocentrism.” Indiana University, July 1. Retrieved May 2, 2011

Darwin, Charles R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

DuBois, Cora. 1951. “Culture Shock.” Presentation to Panel Discussion at the First Midwest Regional Meeting of
the Institute of International Education.” November 28. Also presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954.

Fritz, Thomas, S and Jentschke, N. Gosselin, et al. 2009. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in
Music.” Current Biology 19(7).

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11, 2021. (https://www.sapiens.org/culture/love-and-marriage)

Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

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Health Survey 2016-18. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and Rockville, Maryland, USA: NSO and ICF.
Retrieved https://dhsprogram.com/publications/publication-fr364-dhs-final-reports.cfm.

Oberg, Kalervo. 1960. “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Practical Anthropology

Old Dominion University. ‘Journal of International Students’. Accessed October 16, 2020.

Smithsonian Institution. Natural History Museum. What does it mean to be human? Retrieved October 6, 2020.

Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs,
Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.

Swoyer, Chris. 2003. “The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited
by E. N. Zalta, Winter. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2003/entries/davidson/)

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Boroditsky, Lera & Schmidt, Lauren. (2000). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual
Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.

Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2020. Ethnologue: Languages of the World.
Twenty-Third edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version http://www.ethnologue.com

Lucy, J. (1997). Linguistic Relativity. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, 291-312. Retrieved January 31, 2021,
from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2952524

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Passero, Kathy. 2002. “Global Travel Expert Roger Axtell Explains Why.” Biography July:70–73,97–98.

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3 • References 95

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FIGURE 4.1 Some aspects of teenage life cross societal boundaries, while others are distinct. (Credit: USAID/flickr)


4.1 Types of Societies
4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

It was a school day, and Inayah woke up at 5:15 a.m, checked her phone, and began a few
chores. Her aunt had gone to work, but had left a pile of vegetables for be cut for dinner. After taking care of
that, Inayah gathered and organized the laundry, then woke up her younger cousin and sister. She led them in
prayers, gave them breakfast, and dressed for school. Inayah was running late, so she didn’t have time to
record a full video. Instead she took a few pictures and posted a good-morning clip, updated her status on
another platform, and went to check on the younger girls.

Twenty minutes later, Inayah was fixing her sister’s uniform and calling to her cousin to hurry along. She
loaded them up with their school bags and one sack of laundry each. The three girls walked the two kilometers
to the bus station, dropping the laundry at the cleaner on the way. The ride to school took about thirty minutes.

Inayah had grown up about sixty kilometers away, where her parents still lived. She usually saw them on
weekends. She had previously attended a boarding school, but those had become dangerous due to
kidnappings or other trouble. Inayah’s new school was not quite as good old one, but she was still learning. She
did particularly well in math and economics.

4Society and Social Interaction

After school and the bus ride back, Inayah sent her sister and her cousin to the house while she stayed in town
with some friends. The girls sat at the picnic tables near the basketball courts, where groups of other teenagers
and some adults usually came to play. She didn’t talk to any of the boys there, but she had met several of them
at her uncle’s store. The girls recorded a few videos together, started on their homework, and after about an
hour, headed home to help with dinner.

How does Inayah’s day compare with yours? How does it compare to the days of teenagers you know? Inayah
interacts with her family and friends based on individual relationships and personalities, but societal norms
and acceptable behaviors shape those interactions. Someone from outside of her community might feel that
her society’s expectations are too challenging, while others may feel they are too lenient. But Inayah may
disagree with both perspectives. She might have taken those societal expectations as her own.

4.1 Types of Societies
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies
• Explain the role of environment on preindustrial societies
• Interpret the ways that technology impacts societal development

FIGURE 4.2 How does technology influence a society? Here, a NASA engineer is working with samples of a coating
typically used in space flight, and which now may play a role in preserving artifacts and scientific specimens on
earth. The space program is expensive, but throughout its history it has provided the U.S. significant advantages in
scientific innovations. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)

In sociological terms, society refers to a group of people who live in a definable community and share the same
culture. On a broader scale, society consists of the people and institutions around us, our shared beliefs, and
our cultural ideas. Typically, many societies also share a political authority.

Consider China and the United States. Both are technologically advanced, have dense networks of
transportation and communications, rely on foreign trading partners for large portions of their economies,

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focus on education as a way to advance their citizens, and have large and expensive militaries. Both countries
have citizens that may be largely satisfied with their governments and ways of life, while still holding some
degree of distrust or discontent regarding their leaders. And both have a rural versus urban disparity that can
cause tension and economic inequality among the population. An individual family or even a whole office full
of people in one of the countries may look and act very similarly to families or offices in the other country.

But what is different? In China, a far greater percentage of people may be involved in manufacturing than
America. Many of China’s cities didn’t evolve from ports, transit centers, or river confluences hundreds of
years ago, but are newly created urban centers inhabited by recent transplants from other locations. While
citizens in the U.S. can openly express their dissatisfaction with their government through social activism in
person or, especially, online, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are banned in China, and the press is controlled
by the government. Their appearance might be very similar, but the two countries are very different societies.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski Jr. (1924–2015) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. As
a society advances, so does its use of technology. Societies with rudimentary technology depend on the
fluctuations of their environments, while industrialized societies have more control over the impact of their
surroundings and thus develop different cultural features. This distinction is so important that sociologists
generally classify societies along a spectrum of their level of industrialization—from preindustrial to industrial
to postindustrial.

Preindustrial Societies

Before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of machines, societies were small, rural, and
dependent largely on local resources. Economic production was limited to the amount of labor a human being
could provide, and there were few specialized occupations. The very first occupation was that of hunter-


Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the strongest dependence on the environment of the various types of
preindustrial societies. As the basic structure of human society until about 10,000–12,000 years ago, these
groups were based around kinship or tribes. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival—they
hunted wild animals and foraged for uncultivated plants for food. When resources became scarce, the group
moved to a new area to find sustenance, meaning they were nomadic. These societies were common until
several hundred years ago, but today only a few hundred remain in existence, such as indigenous Australian
tribes sometimes referred to as “aborigines,” or the Bambuti, a group of pygmy hunter-gatherers residing in
the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hunter-gatherer groups are quickly disappearing as the world’s population


Changing conditions and adaptations led some societies to rely on the domestication of animals where
circumstances permitted. Roughly 7,500 years ago, human societies began to recognize their ability to tame
and breed animals and to grow and cultivate their own plants. Pastoral societies, such as the Maasai villagers,
rely on the domestication of animals as a resource for survival. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers who depended
entirely on existing resources to stay alive, pastoral groups were able to breed livestock for food, clothing, and
transportation, and they created a surplus of goods. Herding, or pastoral, societies remained nomadic because
they were forced to follow their animals to fresh feeding grounds. Around the time that pastoral societies
emerged, specialized occupations began to develop, and societies commenced trading with local groups.

4.1 • Types of Societies 99

Where Societies Meet—The Worst and the Best
When cultures meet, technology can help, hinder, and even destroy. The Exxon Valdez oil spillage in Alaska nearly
destroyed the local inhabitants’ entire way of life. Oil spills in the Nigerian Delta have forced many of the Ogoni tribe
from their land and forced removal has meant that over 100,000 Ogoni have sought refuge in the country of Benin
(University of Michigan, n.d.). And the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2006 drew great attention as it
occurred in the United States. Environmental disasters continue as Western technology and its need for energy
expands into less developed (peripheral) regions of the globe.

Of course not all technology is bad. We take electric light for granted in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the
developed world. Such light extends the day and allows us to work, read, and travel at night. It makes us safer and
more productive. But regions in India, Africa, and elsewhere are not so fortunate. Meeting the challenge, one
particular organization, Barefoot College, located in District Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, works with numerous less
developed nations to bring solar electricity, water solutions, and education. The focus for the solar projects is the
village elders. The elders agree to select two grandmothers to be trained as solar engineers and choose a village
committee composed of men and women to help operate the solar program.

The program has brought light to over 450,000 people in 1,015 villages. The environmental rewards include a large
reduction in the use of kerosene and in carbon dioxide emissions. The fact that the villagers are operating the
projects themselves helps minimize their sense of dependence.

FIGURE 4.3 Otherwise skeptical or hesitant villagers are more easily convinced of the value of the solar project
when they realize that the “solar engineers” are their local grandmothers. (Credit: Abri le Roux/flickr)


Around the same time that pastoral societies were on the rise, another type of society developed, based on the
newly developed capacity for people to grow and cultivate plants. Previously, the depletion of a region’s crops
or water supply forced pastoral societies to relocate in search of food sources for their livestock. Horticultural
societies formed in areas where rainfall and other conditions allowed them to grow stable crops. They were


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similar to hunter-gatherers in that they largely depended on the environment for survival, but since they didn’t
have to abandon their location to follow resources, they were able to start permanent settlements. This created
more stability and more material goods and became the basis for the first revolution in human survival.


While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes,
agricultural societies relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 3000 B.C.E., an explosion of new
technology known as the Agricultural Revolution made farming possible—and profitable. Farmers learned to
rotate the types of crops grown on their fields and to reuse waste products such as manure as fertilizer, which
led to better harvests and bigger surpluses of food. New tools for digging and harvesting were made of metal,
and this made them more effective and longer lasting. Human settlements grew into towns and cities, and
particularly bountiful regions became centers of trade and commerce.

This is also the age in which people had the time and comfort to engage in more contemplative and thoughtful
activities, such as music, poetry, and philosophy. This period became referred to as the “dawn of civilization”
by some because of the development of leisure and humanities. Craftspeople were able to support themselves
through the production of creative, decorative, or thought-provoking aesthetic objects and writings.

As resources became more plentiful, social classes became more divisive. Those who had more resources
could afford better living and developed into a class of nobility. Difference in social standing between men and
women increased. As cities expanded, ownership and preservation of resources became a pressing concern.


The ninth century gave rise to feudal societies. These societies contained a strict hierarchical system of power
based around land ownership and protection. The nobility, known as lords, placed vassals in charge of pieces
of land. In return for the resources that the land provided, vassals promised to fight for their lords.

These individual pieces of land, known as fiefdoms, were cultivated by the lower class. In return for
maintaining the land, peasants were guaranteed a place to live and protection from outside enemies. Power
was handed down through family lines, with peasant families serving lords for generations and generations.
Ultimately, the social and economic system of feudalism failed and was replaced by capitalism and the
technological advances of the industrial era.

Industrial Society

In the eighteenth century, Europe experienced a dramatic rise in technological invention, ushering in an era
known as the Industrial Revolution. What made this period remarkable was the number of new inventions that
influenced people’s daily lives. Within a generation, tasks that had until this point required months of labor
became achievable in a matter of days. Before the Industrial Revolution, work was largely person- or animal-
based, and relied on human workers or horses to power mills and drive pumps. In 1782, James Watt and
Matthew Boulton created a steam engine that could do the work of twelve horses by itself.

Steam power began appearing everywhere. Instead of paying artisans to painstakingly spin wool and weave it
into cloth, people turned to textile mills that produced fabric quickly at a better price and often with better
quality. Rather than planting and harvesting fields by hand, farmers were able to purchase mechanical seeders
and threshing machines that caused agricultural productivity to soar. Products such as paper and glass
became available to the average person, and the quality and accessibility of education and health care soared.
Gas lights allowed increased visibility in the dark, and towns and cities developed a nightlife.

One of the results of increased productivity and technology was the rise of urban centers. Workers flocked to
factories for jobs, and the populations of cities became increasingly diverse. The new generation became less
preoccupied with maintaining family land and traditions and more focused on acquiring wealth and achieving
upward mobility for themselves and their families. People wanted their children and their children’s children
to continue to rise to the top, and as capitalism increased, so did social mobility.

4.1 • Types of Societies 101

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Industrial Revolution that sociology was born. Life
was changing quickly and the long-established traditions of the agricultural eras did not apply to life in the
larger cities. Masses of people were moving to new environments and often found themselves faced with
horrendous conditions of filth, overcrowding, and poverty. Social scientists emerged to study the relationship
between the individual members of society and society as a whole.

It was during this time that power moved from the hands of the aristocracy and “old money” to business-savvy
newcomers who amassed fortunes in their lifetimes. Families such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts
became the new power players and used their influence in business to control aspects of government as well.
Eventually, concerns over the exploitation of workers led to the formation of labor unions and laws that set
mandatory conditions for employees. Although the introduction of new technology at the end of the nineteenth
century ended the industrial age, much of our social structure and social ideas—like family, childhood, and
time standardization—have a basis in industrial society.

FIGURE 4.4 John D. Rockefeller, cofounder of the Standard Oil Company, came from an unremarkable family of
salesmen and menial laborers. By his death at age 98, he was worth $1.4 billion. In industrial societies, business
owners such as Rockefeller hold the majority of the power. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Postindustrial Society

Information societies, sometimes known as postindustrial or digital societies, are a recent development.
Unlike industrial societies that are rooted in the production of material goods, information societies are based
on the production of information and services.

Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and computer moguls such as Steve Jobs and
Bill Gates are its John D. Rockefellers and Cornelius Vanderbilts. Since the economy of information societies is
driven by knowledge and not material goods, power lies with those in charge of storing and distributing
information. Members of a postindustrial society are likely to be employed as sellers of services—software
programmers or business consultants, for example—instead of producers of goods. Social classes are divided
by access to education, since without technical skills, people in an information society lack the means for

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4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe Durkheim’s functionalist view of society
• Summarize the conflict theorist view of society
• Explain Marx’s concepts of class and alienation
• Identify how symbolic interactionists understand society

FIGURE 4.5 Warren Buffett’s ideas about taxation and spending habits of the very wealthy are controversial,
particularly since they raise questions about America’s embedded system of class structure and social power. The
three major sociological paradigms differ in their perspectives on these issues. (Credit: Medill DC/flickr)

While many sociologists have contributed to research on society and social interaction, three thinkers form
the base of modern-day perspectives. Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber developed different
theoretical approaches to help us understand the way societies function.

Émile Durkheim and Functionalism

As a functionalist, Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) perspective on society stressed the necessary
interconnectivity of all of its elements. To Durkheim, society was greater than the sum of its parts. He asserted
that individual behavior was not the same as collective behavior and that studying collective behavior was
quite different from studying an individual’s actions. Durkheim called the communal beliefs, morals, and
attitudes of a society the collective conscience. In his quest to understand what causes individuals to act in
similar and predictable ways, he wrote, “If I do not submit to the conventions of society, if in my dress I do not

4.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Society 103

conform to the customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke, the social isolation in
which I am kept, produce, although in an attenuated form, the same effects as punishment” (Durkheim 1895).
Durkheim also believed that social integration, or the strength of ties that people have to their social groups,
was a key factor in social life.

Following the ideas of Comte and Spencer, Durkheim likened society to a living organism, in which each organ
plays a necessary role in keeping the being alive. Even the socially deviant members of society are necessary,
Durkheim argued, as punishments for deviance affirm established cultural values and norms. That is,
punishment of a crime reaffirms our moral consciousness. “A crime is a crime because we condemn it,”
Durkheim wrote in 1893. “An act offends the common consciousness not because it is criminal, but it is
criminal because it offends that consciousness” (Durkheim 1893). Durkheim called these elements of society
“social facts.” By this, he meant that social forces were to be considered real and existed outside the individual.

As an observer of his social world, Durkheim was not entirely satisfied with the direction of society in his day.
His primary concern was that the cultural glue that held society together was failing, and people were
becoming more divided. In his book The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim argued that as society
grew more complex, social order made the transition from mechanical to organic.

Preindustrial societies, Durkheim explained, were held together by mechanical solidarity, a type of social
order maintained by the collective conscience of a culture. Societies with mechanical solidarity act in a
mechanical fashion; things are done mostly because they have always been done that way. This type of
thinking was common in preindustrial societies where strong bonds of kinship and a low division of labor
created shared morals and values among people, such as hunter-gatherer groups. When people tend to do the
same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and act alike.

In industrial societies, mechanical solidarity is replaced with organic solidarity, which is social order based
around an acceptance of economic and social differences. In capitalist societies, Durkheim wrote, division of
labor becomes so specialized that everyone is doing different things. Instead of punishing members of a
society for failure to assimilate to common values, organic solidarity allows people with differing values to
coexist. Laws exist as formalized morals and are based on restitution rather than revenge.

While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society,
Durkheim noted that it can be a time of chaos and “normlessness.” One of the outcomes of the transition is
something he called social anomie. Anomie—literally, “without law”—is a situation in which society no longer
has the support of a firm collective consciousness. Collective norms are weakened. People, while more
interdependent to accomplish complex tasks, are also alienated from each other. Anomie is experienced in
times of social uncertainty, such as war or a great upturn or downturn in the economy. As societies reach an
advanced stage of organic solidarity, they avoid anomie by redeveloping a set of shared norms. According to
Durkheim, once a society achieves organic solidarity, it has finished its development.

Karl Marx and Conflict Theory

Karl Marx (1818–1883) is certainly among the most significant social thinkers in recent history. While there
are many critics of his work, it is still widely respected and influential. For Marx, society’s constructions were
predicated upon the idea of “base and superstructure.” This term refers to the idea that a society’s economic
character forms its base, upon which rests the culture and social institutions, the superstructure. For Marx, it
is the base (economy) that determines what a society will be like.

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FIGURE 4.6 Karl Marx asserted that all elements of a society’s structure depend on its economic structure.

Additionally, Marx saw conflict in society as the primary means of change. Economically, he saw conflict
existing between the owners of the means of production—the bourgeoisie—and the laborers, called the

Marx maintained that these conflicts appeared consistently throughout history during times of social
revolution. These revolutions or “class antagonisms” as he called them, were a result of one class dominating
another. Most recently, with the end of feudalism, a new revolutionary class he called the bourgeoisie
dominated the proletariat laborers. The bourgeoisie were revolutionary in the sense that they represented a
radical change in the structure of society. In Marx’s words, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up
into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”
(Marx and Engels 1848).

In the mid-nineteenth century, as industrialization was booming, industrial employers, the “owners of the
means of production” in Marx’s terms, became more and more exploitative toward the working class. The large
manufacturers of steel were particularly ruthless, and their facilities became popularly dubbed “satanic mills”
based on a poem by William Blake. Marx’s colleague and friend, Frederick Engels, wrote The Condition of the
Working-Class in England in 1844, which described in detail the horrid conditions.

“Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of
being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and
uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise
the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a
district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world.”

Add to that the long hours, the use of child labor, and exposure to extreme conditions of heat, cold, and toxic
chemicals, and it is no wonder that Marx and Engels referred to capitalism, which is a way of organizing an
economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships,
etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government, as the “dictatorship of the

4.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Society 105

FIGURE 4.7 Karl Marx (left) and Friedrich Engels (right) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and
“have-not” groups. (Credit: (a) Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) George Lester/Wikimedia Commons)

For Marx, what we do defines who we are. In historical terms, in spite of the persistent nature of one class
dominating another, some element of humanity existed. There was at least some connection between the
worker and the product, augmented by the natural conditions of seasons and the rise and fall of the sun, such
as we see in an agricultural society. But with the bourgeoisie revolution and the rise of industry and capitalism,
the worker now worked for wages alone. His relationship to his efforts was no longer of a human nature, but
based on artificial conditions.

Marx described modern society in terms of alienation. Alienation refers to the condition in which the
individual is isolated and divorced from his or her society, work, or the sense of self. Marx defined four specific
types of alienation.

Alienation from the product of one’s labor. An industrial worker does not have the opportunity to relate to the
product he labors on. Instead of training for years as a watchmaker, an unskilled worker can get a job at a
watch factory pressing buttons to seal pieces together. The worker does not care if he is making watches or
cars, simply that the job exists. In the same way, a worker may not even know or care what product to which he
is contributing. A worker on a Ford assembly line may spend all day installing windows on car doors without
ever seeing the rest of the car. A cannery worker can spend a lifetime cleaning fish without ever knowing what
product they are used for.

Alienation from the process of one’s labor. A worker does not control the conditions of her job because she does
not own the means of production. If a person is hired to work in a fast food restaurant, she is expected to make
the food the way she is taught. All ingredients must be combined in a particular order and in a particular
quantity; there is no room for creativity or change. An employee at Burger King cannot decide to change the
spices used on the fries in the same way that an employee on a Ford assembly line cannot decide to place a
car’s headlights in a different position. Everything is decided by the bourgeoisie who then dictate orders to the

Alienation from others. Workers compete, rather than cooperate. Employees vie for time slots, bonuses, and
job security. Even when a worker clocks out at night and goes home, the competition does not end. As Marx
commented in The Communist Manifesto (1848), “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the
manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of
the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker.”

Alienation from one’s self. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and
her occupation. Because there is nothing that ties a worker to her labor, there is no longer a sense of self.

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Instead of being able to take pride in an identity such as being a watchmaker, automobile builder, or chef, a
person is simply a cog in the machine.

Taken as a whole, then, alienation in modern society means that an individual has no control over his life. Even
in feudal societies, a person controlled the manner of his labor as to when and how it was carried out. But why,
then, does the modern working class not rise up and rebel? (Indeed, Marx predicted that this would be the
ultimate outcome and collapse of capitalism.)

Another idea that Marx developed is the concept of false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition in
which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the
ideology of the dominant class (here, the bourgeoisie capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas
such as the emphasis of competition over cooperation, or of hard work being its own reward, clearly benefit
the owners of industry. Therefore, workers are less likely to question their place in society and assume
individual responsibility for existing conditions.

In order for society to overcome false consciousness, Marx proposed that it be replaced with class
consciousness, the awareness of one’s rank in society. Instead of existing as a “class in itself,” the proletariat
must become a “class for itself” in order to produce social change (Marx and Engels 1848), meaning that
instead of just being an inert strata of society, the class could become an advocate for social improvements.
Only once society entered this state of political consciousness would it be ready for a social revolution.

FIGURE 4.8 An assembly line worker installs car parts with the aid of complex machinery. Has technology made
this type of labor more or less alienating? (Credit: Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

Max Weber and Symbolic Interactionism

While Karl Marx may be one of the best-known thinkers of the nineteenth century, Max Weber is certainly one
of the greatest influences in the field of sociology. Like the other social thinkers discussed here, he was
concerned with the important changes taking place in Western society with the advent of industrialization.
And, like Marx and Durkheim, he feared that industrialization would have negative effects on individuals.

Weber’s primary focus on the structure of society lay in the elements of class, status, and power. Similar to
Marx, Weber saw class as economically determined. Society, he believed, was split between owners and
laborers. Status, on the other hand, was based on noneconomic factors such as education, kinship, and

4.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Society 107

religion. Both status and class determined an individual’s power, or influence over ideas. Unlike Marx, Weber
believed that these ideas formed the base of society.

Weber’s analysis of modern society centered on the concept of rationalization. A rational society is one built
around logic and efficiency rather than morality or tradition. To Weber, capitalism is entirely rational.
Although this leads to efficiency and merit-based success, it can have negative effects when taken to the
extreme. In some modern societies, this is seen when rigid routines and strict design lead to a mechanized
work environment and a focus on producing identical products in every location.

Another example of the extreme conditions of rationality can be found in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern
Times (1936). Chaplin’s character performs a routine task to the point where he cannot stop his motions even
while away from the job. Indeed, today we even have a recognized medical condition that results from such
tasks, known as “repetitive stress syndrome.”

Weber was also unlike his predecessors in that he was more interested in how individuals experienced societal
divisions than in the divisions themselves. The symbolic interactionism theory, the third of the three most
recognized theories of sociology, is based on Weber’s early ideas that emphasize the viewpoint of the
individual and how that individual relates to society. For Weber, the culmination of industrialization,
rationalization, and the like results in what he referred to as the iron cage, in which the individual is trapped
by institutions and bureaucracy. This leads to a sense of “disenchantment of the world,” a phrase Weber used
to describe the final condition of humanity. Indeed a dark prediction, but one that has, at least to some degree,
been borne out (Gerth and Mills 1918). In a rationalized, modern society, we have supermarkets instead of
family-owned stores. We have chain restaurants instead of local eateries. Superstores that offer a multitude of
merchandise have replaced independent businesses that focused on one product line, such as hardware,
groceries, automotive repair, or clothing. Shopping malls offer retail stores, restaurants, fitness centers, even
condominiums. This change may be rational, but is it universally desirable?

FIGURE 4.9 Cubicles are used to maximize individual workspace in an office. Such structures may be rational, but
they are also isolating. (Credit: Tim Patterson/flickr)

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The Protestant Work Ethic
In a series of essays in 1904, Max Weber presented the idea of the Protestant work ethic, a new attitude toward
work based on the Calvinist principle of predestination. In the sixteenth century, Europe was shaken by the
Protestant Revolution. Religious leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin argued against the Catholic
Church’s belief in salvation through obedience. While Catholic leaders emphasized the importance of religious
dogma and performing good deeds as a gateway to Heaven, Protestants believed that inner grace, or faith in God,
was enough to achieve salvation.

John Calvin in particular popularized the Christian concept of predestination, the idea that all events—including
salvation—have already been decided by God. Because followers were never sure whether they had been chosen
to enter Heaven or Hell, they looked for signs in their everyday lives. If a person was hard-working and
successful, he was likely to be one of the chosen. If a person was lazy or simply indifferent, he was likely to be
one of the damned.

Weber argued that this mentality encouraged people to work hard for personal gain; after all, why should one
help the unfortunate if they were already damned? Over time, the Protestant work ethic spread and became the
foundation for capitalism.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Interpret the sociological concept of reality as a social construct
• Define roles and describe their places in people’s daily interactions
• Explain how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context

FIGURE 4.10 Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through
our interactions with others. In a way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Credit: Jan

Until now, we’ve primarily discussed the differences between societies. Rather than discuss their problems


4.3 • Social Constructions of Reality 109

and configurations, we’ll now explore how society came to be and how sociologists view social interaction.

In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book called The Social Construction of
Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call
habitualization. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a
pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical
effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society but we also accept it as it is
because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, “habit.”

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a
school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it
exists by consensus, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act
of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is
still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept is through W.I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If
men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is,
people’s behavior can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality.
For example, a teenager who is repeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum—might live up to the term
even though it initially wasn’t a part of his character.

Like Berger and Luckmann in their description of habitualization, Thomas states that our moral codes and
social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” This concept is defined by sociologist
Robert K. Merton as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false
idea can become true if it is acted upon. One example he gives is of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a
number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to
their bank and demand all of their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the
bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. Here, reality is constructed by an idea.

Symbolic interactionists offer another lens through which to analyze the social construction of reality. With a
theoretical perspective focused on the symbols (like language, gestures, and artifacts) that people use to
interact, this approach is interested in how people interpret those symbols in daily interactions. For example,
we might feel fright at seeing a person holding a gun, unless, of course, it turns out to be a police officer.
Interactionists also recognize that language and body language reflect our values. One has only to learn a
foreign tongue to know that not every English word can be easily translated into another language. The same is
true for gestures. While Americans might recognize a “thumbs up” as meaning “great,” in Germany it would
mean “one” and in Japan it would mean “five.” Thus, our construction of reality is influenced by our symbolic

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FIGURE 4.11 The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in
the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of
his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story illustrates one way in which members of
society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Credit: Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia

Roles and Status

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviors in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behavior
that we recognize in each other that are representative of a person’s social status. Currently, while reading this
text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,”
“neighbor,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences
according to their rank and role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son,
elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by choice, such as a high school
dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbor
or employee. One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as
“student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957). It is important to note that
status refers to the rank in social hierarchy, while role is the behavior expected of a person holding a certain

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent:
cooking, cleaning, driving, problem-solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a
person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-
time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child
needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your
children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with
being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life have a great effect on our
decisions and who we become.

4.3 • Social Constructions of Reality 111

FIGURE 4.12 Parents often experience role strain or role conflict as they try to balance different and often urgent
competing responsibilities. (Credit: Ran Zwigenberg/flickr)

Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can
observe is behavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role.
Sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Calling his theory
dramaturgy, Goffman believed that we use “impression management” to present ourselves to others as we
hope to be perceived. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who
is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave
around your grandparents versus the way you behave with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to
alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.

As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are
playing the role of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a
lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are
expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get
out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a
guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.

Impression management is a critical component of symbolic interactionism. For example, a judge in a
courtroom has many “props” to create an impression of fairness, gravity, and control—like their robe and
gavel. Those entering the courtroom are expected to adhere to the scene being set. Just imagine the
“impression” that can be made by how a person dresses. This is the reason that attorneys frequently select the
hairstyle and apparel for witnesses and defendants in courtroom proceedings.

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FIGURE 4.13 A judge’s gavel is known as a prop designed to add gravity and ceremony to the proceedings. (Credit:
Brian Turner/flickr)

Goffman’s dramaturgy ideas expand on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. According to
Cooley, we base our image on what we think other people see (Cooley 1902). We imagine how we must appear
to others, then react to this speculation. We don certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear
makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how
others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it.
But more than that, Cooley believed that our sense of self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to
others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, and then we develop our personal sense of self. In
other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected.

4.3 • Social Constructions of Reality 113

Key Terms
achieved status the status a person chooses, such as a level of education or income
agricultural societies societies that rely on farming as a way of life
alienation an individual’s isolation from his society, his work, and his sense of self
anomie a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness
ascribed status the status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race
bourgeoisie the owners of the means of production in a society
capitalism a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products

(such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the

class consciousness the awareness of one’s rank in society
collective conscience the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society
false consciousness a person’s beliefs and ideology that are in conflict with her best interests
feudal societies societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land

ownership and protection
habitualization the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit
horticultural societies societies based around the cultivation of plants
hunter-gatherer societies societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants

for survival
industrial societies societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labor to create material goods
information societies societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services
institutionalization the act of implanting a convention or norm into society
iron cage a situation in which an individual is trapped by social institutions
looking-glass self our reflection of how we think we appear to others
mechanical solidarity a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture
organic solidarity a type of social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences
pastoral societies societies based around the domestication of animals
proletariat the laborers in a society
rationalization a belief that modern society should be built around logic and efficiency rather than morality

or tradition
role conflict a situation when one or more of an individual’s roles clash
role performance the expression of a role
role strain stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role
role-set an array of roles attached to a particular status
roles patterns of behavior that are representative of a person’s social status
self-fulfilling prophecy an idea that becomes true when acted upon
social integration how strongly a person is connected to his or her social group
society a group of people who live in a definable community and share the same culture
status the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in

Thomas theorem how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality,

despite being originally unsupported by objective reality

Section Summary
4.1 Types of Societies

Societies are classified according to their development and use of technology. For most of human history,
people lived in preindustrial societies characterized by limited technology and low production of goods. After
the Industrial Revolution, many societies based their economies around mechanized labor, leading to greater

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profits and a trend toward greater social mobility. At the turn of the new millennium, a new type of society
emerged. This postindustrial, or information, society is built on digital technology and nonmaterial goods.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Émile Durkheim believed that as societies advance, they make the transition from mechanical to organic
solidarity. For Karl Marx, society exists in terms of class conflict. With the rise of capitalism, workers become
alienated from themselves and others in society. Sociologist Max Weber noted that the rationalization of
society can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

Society is based on the social construction of reality. How we define society influences how society actually is.
Likewise, how we see other people influences their actions as well as our actions toward them. We all take on
various roles throughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who
we assume them with, and the scene where interaction takes place.

Section Quiz
4.1 Types of Societies

1. Which of the following fictional societies is an example of a pastoral society?
a. The Deswan people, who live in small tribes and base their economy on the production and trade of

b. The Rositian Clan, a small community of farmers who have lived on their family’s land for centuries
c. The Hunti, a wandering group of nomads who specialize in breeding and training horses
d. The Amaganda, an extended family of warriors who serve a single noble family

2. Which of the following occupations is a person of power most likely to have in an information society?
a. Software engineer
b. Coal miner
c. Children’s book author
d. Sharecropper

3. Which of the following societies were the first to have permanent residents?
a. Industrial
b. Hunter-gatherer
c. Horticultural
d. Feudal

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

4. Organic solidarity is most likely to exist in which of the following types of societies?
a. Hunter-gatherer
b. Industrial
c. Agricultural
d. Feudal

5. According to Marx, the _____ own the means of production in a society.
a. proletariat
b. vassals
c. bourgeoisie
d. anomie

4 • Section Quiz 115

6. Which of the following best depicts Marx’s concept of alienation from the process of one’s labor?
a. A supermarket cashier always scans store coupons before company coupons because she was taught to

do it that way.
b. A businessman feels that he deserves a raise, but is nervous to ask his manager for one; instead, he

comforts himself with the idea that hard work is its own reward.
c. An associate professor is afraid that she won’t be given tenure and starts spreading rumors about one

of her associates to make herself look better.
d. A construction worker is laid off and takes a job at a fast food restaurant temporarily, although he has

never had an interest in preparing food before.

7. The Protestant work ethic is based on the concept of predestination, which states that ________.
a. performing good deeds in life is the only way to secure a spot in Heaven
b. salvation is only achievable through obedience to God
c. no person can be saved before he or she accepts Jesus Christ as his or her savior
d. God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned

8. The concept of the iron cage was popularized by which of the following sociological thinkers?
a. Max Weber
b. Karl Marx
c. Émile Durkheim
d. Friedrich Engels

9. Émile Durkheim’s ideas about society can best be described as ________.
a. functionalist
b. conflict theorist
c. symbolic interactionist
d. rationalist

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

10. Mary works full-time at an office downtown while her young children stay at a neighbor’s house. She’s just
learned that the childcare provider is leaving the country. Mary has succumbed to pressure to volunteer at
her church, plus her ailing mother-in-law will be moving in with her next month. Which of the following is
likely to occur as Mary tries to balance her existing and new responsibilities?
a. Role conflict
b. Self-fulfilling prophecy
c. Status conflict
d. Status strain

11. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, society is based on ________.
a. habitual actions
b. status
c. institutionalization
d. role performance

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12. Paco knows that women find him attractive, and he’s never found it hard to get a date. But as he ages, he
dyes his hair to hide the gray and wears clothes that camouflage the weight he has put on. Paco’s behavior
can be best explained by the concept of ___________.
a. role strain
b. the looking-glass self
c. role performance
d. habitualization

Short Answer
4.1 Types of Societies

1. In which type or types of societies do the benefits seem to outweigh the costs? Explain your answer, and cite
social and economic reasons.

2. Is Gerhard Lenski right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might
be appropriate, based on what you have read?

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

3. Choose two of the three sociologists discussed here (Durkheim, Marx, Weber), and use their arguments to
explain a current social event such as the Occupy movement. Do their theories hold up under modern

4. Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts
be applied to students and their educations?

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

5. Draw a large circle, and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status
that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog
owner, gardener, traveler, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are
there role conflicts?

6. Think of a self-fulfilling prophecy that you’ve experienced. Based on this experience, do you agree with the
Thomas theorem? Use examples from current events to support your answer as well.

Further Research
4.1 Types of Societies

The Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read
more about the Maasai people and see pictures of their daily lives here (http://openstax.org/l/The-Maasai) .

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

One of the most influential pieces of writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The
Communist Manifesto. Visit this site to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the
world. (http://openstax.org/l/Communist-Party)

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

TV Tropes (http://openstax.org/l/tv-tropes) is a website where users identify concepts that are commonly used
in literature, film, and other media. Although its tone is for the most part humorous, the site provides a good
jumping-off point for research. Browse the list of examples under the entry of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Pay
careful attention to the real-life examples. Are there ones that surprised you or that you don’t agree with?

4 • Short Answer 117


Maasai Association. “Facing the Lion.” Retrieved January 4, 2012 (http://www.maasai-association.org/

4.1 Types of Societies

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 2005. “Israel: Treatment of Bedouin, Including Incidents of
Harassment, Discrimination or Attacks; State Protection (January 2003–July 2005)”, Refworld, July 29.
Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/440ed71325.html).

Kjeilen, Tore. “Bedouin.” Looklex.com. Retrieved February 17, 2012 (http://looklex.com/index.htm).

University of Michigan. n.d. “The Curse of Oil in Ogoniland”. Retrieved January 2, 2015

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Durkheim, Émile. 1960 [1893]. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York:
Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1982 [1895]. The Rules of the Sociological Method. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Free

Engels, Friedrich. 1892. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. London: Swan Sonnenschein
& Co.

Geographia. 1998. “The Bedouin Way.” Geograpia.com. Retrieved January 4, 2012

Gerth, H. H., and C. Wright Mills. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1998 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin Group.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

Berger, P. L., and T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of
Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Merton, Robert K. 1957. “The Role-Set: Problems in Sociological Theory.” British Journal of Sociology

Thomas, W.I., and D.S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York:

118 4 • References

Access for free at openstax.org.

FIGURE 5.1 Emergency workers are prepared to treat patients with a wide array of illnesses and injuries. Beyond
their medical training, they build skills in decision making, teamwork, communication, and stress management.
These abilities can be extremely valuable throughout the workers’ life and careers, even if they move into other
areas of employment. However, fast and efficient decision making doesn’t always translate to less intense
environments. (Credit: COD Newsroom/Flickr)


5.1 Theories of Self-Development
5.2 Why Socialization Matters
5.3 Agents of Socialization
5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course

When Noel was fifteen, they saw a flyer about joining the volunteer ambulance corps. Noel
was intrigued: They had an interest in pursuing medicine, and liked volunteering, but ambulance work
seemed like something for older people with professional training. At the information session, Noel learned
that junior members of the ambulance corps could help with supplies and communications, and were allowed
to ride on ambulance calls to assist the Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Noel was thrilled and signed
up right away.

Noel was amazed by how confidently the EMTs—some just a few years older than Noel—made consequential


decisions. The EMTs relied heavily on their training and guidelines, but they did so quickly. And upon arriving
at the hospital with a patient, Noel was similarly impacted by the efficiency of the nurses, doctors, and other
staff. Noel developed a deep level of respect for that level of decisiveness and the expertise it required.

Over their college years, Noel found themselves drawn toward the more strategic aspects of medicine, and
pursued a degree in healthcare administration. Meanwhile, they did get an EMT certification and joined the
college emergency services team; later on, while in grad school, Noel was a part-time professional EMT in a
small city. With good grades and varied experience, Noel was recruited into a great job several states away.

After interning in an urban hospital and spending years as an EMT, Noel had come to expect a degree of
urgency in medicine. Hospital administration was certainly not an ambulance facility, but the slow pace of
Noel’s job was agonizing. Every inventory list, bill of lading, email reply, and even meeting schedule went
through at several people for approval. Noel enjoyed the job, but was used to working more quickly.

One day, Noel was looking over an equipment bill and noticed a serious error that no one else had caught.
Nearly $250,000 in overpayment was about to be paid to a supplier. Noel immediately called the accounting
department. No answer. Then they sent a group Slack message and fired off an email to their boss and a few
other people involved with the billing and payment process. Noel was about to head across the building to
address the issue in person, but finally a message popped up: “Good eye, Noel. We’ll hold this payment until we
clear things up.”

Toward the end of the day, Noel received a message from their manager, Tracy, asking them to stop by. Tracy’s
office was crowded with three other people, including the director of accounting. Expecting to be
congratulated, Noel was shocked when Tracy began outlining all the things Noel had done wrong.

“Your frantic messaging and over-the-top language was incredibly disruptive…almost irresponsible,” Tracy

“But I was right,” Noel replied in a louder voice than they intended.

“Right or wrong,” Tracy said, “you should have told your contact in accounting and waited to see the outcome.
Instead, you panicked.”

“I did call accounting, but when I didn’t hear back, I needed to take the next step. I wasn’t panicking; I was
being decisive.” As Noel said this, they were thinking of all the times they had saved someone’s life by making
good decisions.

Tracy sighed. “Decisiveness isn’t good when it’s disruptive. You caused five people to drop everything and start
investigating. A few thought it was their fault.” Noel started to protest but Tracy shook her head. “I understand
that you are coming from a faster-paced environment, and I can tell you’ve been frustrated. But if you’re going
to work here, you’re going to have to work within our culture. Instead of pushing against how we do things, try
to appreciate them. Otherwise, no one will be happy, least of all you.” Tracy told Noel to take the evening to
think about it and come back for a talk the next morning.

Who was correct in this situation? Noel saved the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars, or at least the
hours of managing the refund process. Tracy, with broader responsibilities, was considering the long-term
impacts of Noel’s style, and how Noel, as a talented member of the team, will function within the team.

Tracy was concerned about the organization’s culture. Culture, as discussed in the chapter on the topic, is the
shared beliefs, values and practices of a group. Countries, societies, religions, and sports teams all have
culture, and companies do, too. When you interview for a job, it will likely come up. Researchers who study
organizations find that when workers aren’t properly incorporated into the corporate culture, they begin a
cycle of mutual disappointment, where workers are likely to reject company values and ultimately leave or be
fired (Cebollero 2019).

Why didn’t Noel enjoy the job, and why were people put off by Noel’s approach? For the most part, Noel wasn’t

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prepared for the pacing and style; their previous experience was in opposition to the culture of the hospital.
Company culture is easier to learn if someone is predisposed to it, while others might need time to unlearn
past behaviors (Schein 1988). Experts indicate that the responsibility for such adaptation is shared between
the new employee and the company.

How could Noel have learned, and what could Tracy have done to help? Company culture is learned the same
way that other types of culture are learned: through observing and adapting to the norms and values,
understanding and applying beliefs, and, in general, seeking to be productive as a member of the group. Just
like a child learns how to behave during a play-date or school day, people learn to be productive partners
through an ongoing process called socialization.

Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It
describes the ways that people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs,
and to be aware of societal values. Socialization is not the same as socializing (interacting with others, like
family and friends); to be precise, it is a sociological process that occurs through socializing.

While Noel’s story is about a relatively advanced stage of life, socialization is crucial for early childhood. Even
the most basic of human activities are learned. Learning to crawl and then walk are major milestones, but as
any parent, guardian, or family member of a toddler knows, other minor accomplishments can be life-altering
for the child: climbing stairs, safely getting out of bed, sitting in a regular chair, and drinking from a regular
cup. Likewise, family behaviors and values must be learned, sometimes through observation and sometimes
through active instruction.

In the following sections, we will examine the importance of the complex process of socialization and how it
takes place through interaction with many individuals, groups, and social institutions. We will explore how
socialization is not only critical to children as they develop but how it is also a lifelong process through which
we become prepared for new social environments and expectations in every stage of our lives. But first, we will
turn to scholarship about self-development, the process of coming to recognize a sense of self, a “self” that is
then able to be socialized.

5.1 Theories of Self-Development
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate psychological and sociological theories of self-development
• Explain the process of moral development

When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beings
develops through social interaction. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and in sociology, have
described the process of self-development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Psychological Perspectives on Self-Development

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to put forth a
theory about how people develop a sense of self. He divided the maturation process into stages, and posited
that people’s self-development is closely linked to their early stages of development.

According to Freud, failure to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage results in emotional and
psychological consequences throughout adulthood.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based, in part, on the work
of Freud. However, Erikson believed the personality continued to change over time and was never truly
finished. His theory includes eight stages of development, beginning with birth and ending with death.
According to Erikson, people move through these stages throughout their lives. In contrast to Freud’s focus on
psychosexual stages and basic human urges, Erikson’s view of self-development gave credit to more social
aspects, like the way we negotiate between our own base desires and what is socially accepted (Erikson 1982).

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Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was a psychologist who focused on the role of social interactions in child
development. He recognized that the development of self evolved through a negotiation between the world as it
exists in one’s mind and the world that exists as it is experienced socially (Piaget 1954). All three of these
thinkers have contributed to our modern understanding of self-development.

Sociology or Psychology: What’s the Difference?
You might be wondering: if sociologists and psychologists are both interested in people and their behavior, how
are these two disciplines different? What do they agree on, and where do their ideas diverge? The answers are
complicated, but the distinction is important to scholars in both fields.

As a general difference, we might say that while both disciplines are interested in human behavior, psychologists
are focused on how the mind influences that behavior, while sociologists study the role of society in shaping
behavior. Psychologists are interested in people’s mental development and how their minds process their world.
Sociologists are more likely to focus on how different aspects of society contribute to an individual’s relationship
with his world. Another way to think of the difference is that psychologists tend to look inward (mental health,
emotional processes), while sociologists tend to look outward (social institutions, cultural norms, interactions
with others) to understand human behavior.

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was the first to make this distinction in research, when he attributed differences in
suicide rates among people to social causes (religious differences) rather than to psychological causes (like their
mental wellbeing) (Durkheim 1897). Today, we see this same distinction. For example, a sociologist studying how
a couple gets to the point of their first kiss on a date might focus her research on cultural norms for dating, social
patterns of sexual activity over time, or how this process is different for seniors than for teens. A psychologist
would more likely be interested in the person’s earliest sexual awareness or the mental processing of sexual

Sometimes sociologists and psychologists have collaborated to increase knowledge. In recent decades, however,
their fields have become more clearly separated as sociologists increasingly focus on large societal issues and
patterns, while psychologists remain honed in on the human mind. Both disciplines make valuable contributions
through different approaches that provide us with different types of useful insights.

Sociological Theories of Self-Development

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). He asserted
that people’s self understanding is constructed, in part, by their perception of how others view them—a
process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902).

Later, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) studied the self, a person’s distinct identity that is developed through
social interaction. In order to engage in this process of “self,” an individual has to be able to view him or herself
through the eyes of others. That’s not an ability that we are born with (Mead 1934). Through socialization we
learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at the world through their perspective. This assists us
in becoming self-aware, as we look at ourselves from the perspective of the “other.” The case of Danielle, for
example, illustrates what happens when social interaction is absent from early experience: Danielle had no
ability to see herself as others would see her. From Mead’s point of view, she had no “self.”

How do we go from being newborns to being humans with “selves?” Mead believed that there is a specific path
of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation:
they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they
regularly interact, such as their caregivers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to
take on the role that one other person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by


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acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing dress-up and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy
telephone the way they see adults do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact
with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes.
For example, a child at this stage is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant
who together make for a smooth dining experience (someone seats you, another takes your order, someone
else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral
expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is
viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Moral development is an important part of the socialization process. The term refers to the way people learn
what society considered to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. Moral
development prevents people from acting on unchecked urges, instead considering what is right for society
and good for others. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is
right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes
three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world
around them only through their senses. It isn’t until the teen years that the conventional theory develops, when
youngsters become increasingly aware of others’ feelings and take those into consideration when determining
what’s “good” and “bad.” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in
abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly
(Kohlberg 1981). When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in 2011 to protest government
corruption, they were using postconventional morality. They understood that although their government was
legal, it was not morally correct.

Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development and Gender

Another sociologist, Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since
his research was only conducted on male subjects. Would females study subjects have responded differently?
Would a female social scientist notice different patterns when analyzing the research? To answer the first
question, she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research
suggested that boys and girls do have different understandings of morality. Boys appeared to have a justice
perspective, by placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, seem to have a care and
responsibility perspective; they consider people’s reasons behind behavior that seems morally wrong.

While Gilligan is correct that Kohlberg’s research should have included both male and female subjects, her
study has been scientifically discredited due to its small sample size. The results Gilligan noted in this study
also have not been replicated by subsequent researchers. The differences Gilligan observed were not an issue
of the development of morality, but an issue of socialization. Differences in behavior between males and
females is the result of gender socialization that teaches boys and girls societal norms and behaviors expected
of them based on their sex (see “What a Pretty Little Lady”).

Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the
right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better”: the two
norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work
environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment

5.1 • Theories of Self-Development 123

where flexibility allows for harmony in caretaking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982; Gilligan 1990).

What a Pretty Little Lady!
“What a cute dress!” “I like the ribbons in your hair.” “Wow, you look so pretty today.”

According to Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, most of
us use pleasantries like these when we first meet little girls. “So what?” you might ask.

Bloom asserts that we are too focused on the appearance of young girls, and as a result, our society is socializing
them to believe that how they look is of vital importance. And Bloom may be on to something. How often do you tell
a little boy how attractive his outfit is, how nice looking his shoes are, or how handsome he looks today? To support
her assertions, Bloom cites, as one example, that about 50 percent of girls ages three to six worry about being fat
(Bloom 2011). We’re talking about kindergarteners who are concerned about their body image. Sociologists are
acutely interested in of this type of gender socialization, by which societal expectations of how boys and girls should
be—how they should behave, what toys and colors they should like, and how important their attire is—are reinforced.

One solution to this type of gender socialization is being experimented with at the Egalia preschool in Sweden,
where children develop in a genderless environment. All the children at Egalia are referred to with neutral terms like
“friend” instead of “he” or “she.” Play areas and toys are consciously set up to eliminate any reinforcement of
gender expectations (Haney 2011). Egalia strives to eliminate all societal gender norms from these children’s
preschool world.

Extreme? Perhaps. So what is the middle ground? Bloom suggests that we start with simple steps: when introduced
to a young girl, ask about her favorite book or what she likes. In short, engage with her mind … not her outward
appearance (Bloom 2011).

5.2 Why Socialization Matters
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the importance of socialization both for individuals and society
• Explain the nature versus nurture debate

Socialization is critical both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. It illustrates how completely
intertwined human beings and their social worlds are. First, it is through teaching culture to new members
that a society perpetuates itself. If new generations of a society don’t learn its way of life, it ceases to exist.
Whatever is distinctive about a culture must be transmitted to those who join it in order for a society to
survive. For U.S. culture to continue, for example, children in the United States must learn about cultural
values related to democracy: they have to learn the norms of voting, as well as how to use material objects such
as voting machines. They may learn these through watching their parents or guardians vote, or, in some
schools, by using real machines in student government elections. Of course, some would argue that it’s just as
important in U.S. culture for the younger generation to learn the etiquette of eating in a restaurant or the
rituals of tailgate parties at football games. In fact, there are many ideas and objects that people in the United
States teach children about in hopes of keeping the society’s way of life going through another generation.


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FIGURE 5.2 Can you use your hands to eat? Who should pay? Do you stand when someone else gets up, and is that
dependent on their gender? The dining manners and customs of different cultures are learned by socialization.
(Credit: Kurman Communications/flickr)

Socialization is just as essential to us as individuals. Social interaction provides the means via which we
gradually become able to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and how we learn who we are and how we fit
into the world around us. In addition, to function successfully in society, we have to learn the basics of both
material and nonmaterial culture, everything from how to dress ourselves to what’s suitable attire for a specific
occasion; from when we sleep to what we sleep on; and from what’s considered appropriate to eat for dinner to
how to use the stove to prepare it. Most importantly, we have to learn language—whether it’s the dominant
language or one common in a subculture, whether it’s verbal or through signs—in order to communicate and to
think. As we saw with Danielle, without socialization we literally have no self.

Nature versus Nurture

Some experts assert that who we are is a result of nurture—the relationships and caring that surround us.
Others argue that who we are is based entirely in genetics. According to this belief, our temperaments,
interests, and talents are set before birth. From this perspective, then, who we are depends on nature.

One way researchers attempt to measure the impact of nature is by studying twins. Some studies have followed
identical twins who were raised separately. The pairs shared the same genetics but in some cases were
socialized in different ways. Instances of this type of situation are rare, but studying the degree to which
identical twins raised apart are the same and different can give researchers insight into the way our
temperaments, preferences, and abilities are shaped by our genetic makeup versus our social environment.

For example, in 1968, twin girls were put up for adoption, separated from each other, and raised in different
households. The adoptive parents, and certainly the babies, did not realize the girls were one of five pairs of
twins who were made subjects of a scientific study (Flam 2007).

In 2003, the two women, then age thirty-five, were reunited. Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein sat together in
awe, feeling like they were looking into a mirror. Not only did they look alike but they also behaved alike, using

5.2 • Why Socialization Matters 125

the same hand gestures and facial expressions (Spratling 2007). Studies like these point to the genetic roots of
our temperament and behavior.

Though genetics and hormones play an important role in human behavior, sociology’s larger concern is the
effect society has on human behavior, the “nurture” side of the nature versus nurture debate. What race were
the twins? From what social class were their parents? What about gender? Religion? All these factors affected
the lives of the twins as much as their genetic makeup and are critical to consider as we look at life through the
sociological lens.

The Life of Chris Langan, the Smartest Man You’ve Never Heard Of
Bouncer. Firefighter. Factory worker. Cowboy. Chris Langan spent the majority of his adult life just getting by with
jobs like these. He had no college degree, few resources, and a past filled with much disappointment. Chris
Langan also had an IQ of over 195, nearly 100 points higher than the average person (Brabham 2001). So why
didn’t Chris become a neurosurgeon, professor, or aeronautical engineer? According to Macolm Gladwell (2008)
in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Chris didn’t possess the set of social skills necessary to succeed on
such a high level—skills that aren’t innate but learned.

Gladwell looked to a recent study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau in which she closely shadowed 12
families from various economic backgrounds and examined their parenting techniques. Parents from lower
income families followed a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth,” which is to say they let their children
develop on their own with a large amount of independence; parents from higher-income families, however,
“actively fostered and accessed a child’s talents, opinions, and skills” (Gladwell 2008). These parents were more
likely to engage in analytical conversation, encourage active questioning of the establishment, and foster
development of negotiation skills. The parents were also able to introduce their children to a wide range of
activities, from sports to music to accelerated academic programs. When one middle-class child was denied
entry to a gifted and talented program, the mother petitioned the school and arranged additional testing until her
daughter was admitted. Lower-income parents, however, were more likely to unquestioningly obey authorities
such as school boards. Their children were not being socialized to comfortably confront the system and speak up
(Gladwell 2008).

What does this have to do with Chris Langan, deemed by some the smartest man in the world (Brabham 2001)?
Chris was born in severe poverty, moving across the country with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather. His genius
went largely unnoticed. After accepting a full scholarship to Reed College, he lost his funding after his mother
failed to fill out necessary paperwork. Unable to successfully make his case to the administration, Chris, who had
received straight A’s the previous semester, was given F’s on his transcript and forced to drop out. After he
enrolled in Montana State, an administrator’s refusal to rearrange his class schedule left him unable to find the
means necessary to travel the 16 miles to attend classes. What Chris had in brilliance, he lacked in practical
intelligence, or what psychologist Robert Sternberg defines as “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to
say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect” (Sternberg et al. 2000). Such knowledge was never part of
his socialization.

Chris gave up on school and began working an array of blue-collar jobs, pursuing his intellectual interests on the
side. Though he’s recently garnered attention for his “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe,” he remains
weary of and resistant to the educational system.

As Gladwell concluded, “He’d had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes,
not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone” (2008).


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FIGURE 5.3 Identical twins may look alike, but their differences can give us clues to the effects of socialization.
These twins chose the same career path, but many twins do not. (Credit: Senior Airman Lauren Douglas/U.S. Air

Sociologists all recognize the importance of socialization for healthy individual and societal development. But
how do scholars working in the three major theoretical paradigms approach this topic? Structural
functionalists would say that socialization is essential to society, both because it trains members to operate
successfully within it and because it perpetuates culture by transmitting it to new generations. Without
socialization, a society’s culture would perish as members died off. A conflict theorist might argue that
socialization reproduces inequality from generation to generation by conveying different expectations and
norms to those with different social characteristics. For example, individuals are socialized differently by
gender, social class, and race. As in Chris Langan’s case, this creates different (unequal) opportunities. An
interactionist studying socialization is concerned with face-to-face exchanges and symbolic communication.
For example, dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink is one small way we convey messages about
differences in gender roles.

5.3 Agents of Socialization
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Evaluate the roles of families and peer groups in socialization
• Describe how people are socialized through institutions like schools, workplaces, and the government

Socialization helps people learn to function successfully in their social worlds. How does the process of
socialization occur? How do we learn to use the objects of our society’s material culture? How do we come to
adopt the beliefs, values, and norms that represent its nonmaterial culture? This learning takes place through
interaction with various agents of socialization, like peer groups and families, plus both formal and informal
social institutions.

Social Group Agents

Social groups often provide the first experiences of socialization. Families, and later peer groups,
communicate expectations and reinforce norms. People first learn to use the tangible objects of material

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culture in these settings, as well as being introduced to the beliefs and values of society.


Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an
extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use
objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,”
others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbors”); and how the world works (what is
“real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or from your role
in helping to raise one, socialization includes teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and

Keep in mind, however, that families do not socialize children in a vacuum. Many social factors affect the way a
family raises its children. For example, we can use sociological imagination to recognize that individual
behaviors are affected by the historical period in which they take place. Sixty years ago, it would not have been
considered especially strict for a father to hit his son with a wooden spoon or a belt if he misbehaved, but today
that same action might be considered child abuse.

Sociologists recognize that race, social class, religion, and other societal factors play an important role in
socialization. For example, poor families usually emphasize obedience and conformity when raising their
children, while wealthy families emphasize judgment and creativity (National Opinion Research Center 2008).
This may occur because working-class parents have less education and more repetitive-task jobs for which it
is helpful to be able to follow rules and conform. Wealthy parents tend to have better educations and often
work in managerial positions or careers that require creative problem solving, so they teach their children
behaviors that are beneficial in these positions. This means children are effectively socialized and raised to
take the types of jobs their parents already have, thus reproducing the class system (Kohn 1977). Likewise,
children are socialized to abide by gender norms, perceptions of race, and class-related behaviors.

In Sweden, for instance, stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of the social landscape. A government
policy provides subsidized time off work—480 days for families with newborns—with the option of the paid
leave being shared between mothers and fathers. As one stay-at-home dad says, being home to take care of his
baby son “is a real fatherly thing to do. I think that’s very masculine” (Associated Press 2011). Close to 90
percent of Swedish fathers use their paternity leave (about 340,000 dads); on average they take seven weeks
per birth (The Economist, 2014). How do U.S. policies—and our society’s expected gender roles—compare?
How will Swedish children raised this way be socialized to parental gender norms? How might that be different
from parental gender norms in the United States?

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FIGURE 5.4 The socialized roles of parents and guardians vary by society. (Credit: Quaries.com/flickr)

Peer Groups

A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group
socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms
about taking turns, the rules of a game, or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process
continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate
from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for
socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their
families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their
families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is
balanced by parental influence.

Institutional Agents

The social institutions of our culture also inform our socialization. Formal institutions—like schools,
workplaces, and the government—teach people how to behave in and navigate these systems. Other
institutions, like the media, contribute to socialization by inundating us with messages about norms and


Most U.S. children spend about seven hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, which makes it hard to deny the
importance school has on their socialization (U.S. Department of Education 2004). Students are not in school
only to study math, reading, science, and other subjects—the manifest function of this system. Schools also
serve a latent function in society by socializing children into behaviors like practicing teamwork, following a
schedule, and using textbooks.

5.3 • Agents of Socialization 129

FIGURE 5.5 These kindergarteners aren’t just learning to read and write; they are being socialized to norms like
keeping their hands to themselves, standing in line, and playing together. (Credit: woodleywonderworks/flickr)

School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what
society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the
informal teaching done by schools.

For example, in the United States, schools have built a sense of competition into the way grades are awarded
and the way teachers evaluate students (Bowles and Gintis 1976). When children participate in a relay race or
a math contest, they learn there are winners and losers in society. When children are required to work together
on a project, they practice teamwork with other people in cooperative situations. The hidden curriculum
prepares children for the adult world. Children learn how to deal with bureaucracy, rules, expectations, waiting
their turn, and sitting still for hours during the day. Schools in different cultures socialize children differently
in order to prepare them to function well in those cultures. The latent functions of teamwork and dealing with
bureaucracy are features of U.S. culture.

Schools also socialize children by teaching them about citizenship and national pride. In the United States,
children are taught to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Most districts require classes about U.S. history and
geography. As academic understanding of history evolves, textbooks in the United States have been
scrutinized and revised to update attitudes toward other cultures as well as perspectives on historical events;
thus, children are socialized to a different national or world history than earlier textbooks may have done. For
example, information about the mistreatment of African Americans and Native American Indians more
accurately reflects those events than in textbooks of the past.

Controversial Textbooks
On August 13, 2001, twenty South Korean men gathered in Seoul. Each chopped off one of his own fingers
because of textbooks. These men took drastic measures to protest eight middle school textbooks approved by
Tokyo for use in Japanese middle schools. According to the Korean government (and other East Asian nations),


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the textbooks glossed over negative events in Japan’s history at the expense of other Asian countries.

In the early 1900s, Japan was one of Asia’s more aggressive nations. For instance, it held Korea as a colony
between 1910 and 1945. Today, Koreans argue that the Japanese are whitewashing that colonial history through
these textbooks. One major criticism is that they do not mention that, during World War II, the Japanese forced
Korean women into sexual slavery. The textbooks describe the women as having been “drafted” to work, a
euphemism that downplays the brutality of what actually occurred. Some Japanese textbooks dismiss an
important Korean independence demonstration in 1919 as a “riot.” In reality, Japanese soldiers attacked
peaceful demonstrators, leaving roughly 6,000 dead and 15,000 wounded (Crampton 2002).

The protest affirms that textbooks are a significant tool of socialization in state-run education systems.

The Workplace

FIGURE 5.6 Workplace socialization occurs informally and formally, and may include material and non-material
culture (Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr).

Just as children spend much of their day at school, many U.S. adults at some point invest a significant amount
of time at a place of employment. Although socialized into their culture since birth, workers require new
socialization into a workplace, in terms of both material culture (such as how to operate the copy machine) and
nonmaterial culture (such as whether it’s okay to speak directly to the boss or how to share the refrigerator). In
the chapter introduction, Noel did not fully embrace the culture of their new company. Importantly, the
obligation of such socialization is not simply on the worker: Organizational behavior and other business
experts place responsibility on companies; organizations must have strong onboarding and socialization
programs in order to build satisfaction, productivity, and workplace retention (Cebollero 2019).

Different jobs require different types of socialization. In the past, many people worked a single job until
retirement. Today, the trend is to switch jobs at least once a decade. Between the ages of eighteen and forty-six,
the average Baby Boomer of the younger set held 11.3 different jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).
This means that people must become socialized to, and socialized by, a variety of work environments.


While some religions are informal institutions, here we focus on practices followed by formal institutions.
Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. The United States is full of synagogues,
temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn.
Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like
a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family

5.3 • Agents of Socialization 131

structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many religious institutions also
uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of
passage that reinforce the family unit to power dynamics that reinforce gender roles, organized religion fosters
a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.


Although we do not think about it, many of the rites of passage people go through today are based on age
norms established by the government. To be defined as an “adult” usually means being eighteen years old, the
age at which a person becomes legally responsible for him- or herself. And sixty-five years old is the start of
“old age” since most people become eligible for senior benefits at that point.

Each time we embark on one of these new categories—senior, adult, taxpayer—we must be socialized into our
new role. Seniors must learn the ropes of Medicare, Social Security benefits, and senior shopping discounts.
When U.S. males turn eighteen, they must register with the Selective Service System within thirty days to be
entered into a database for possible military service. These government dictates mark the points at which we
require socialization into a new category.

Mass Media

Mass media distribute impersonal information to a wide audience, via television, newspapers, radio, and the
Internet. With the average person spending over four hours a day in front of the television (and children
averaging even more screen time), media greatly influences social norms (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005).
People learn about objects of material culture (like new technology and transportation options), as well as
nonmaterial culture—what is true (beliefs), what is important (values), and what is expected (norms).

Girls and Movies

FIGURE 5.7 Some researchers, parents, and children’s advocates are concerned about the effects of raising girls
within what they call “princess culture.” Many place blame on entertainment companies, such as Disney, for its


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portrayals of girls in its movies.

Movies aimed at young people have featured a host of girls and women leads. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping
Beauty gave way to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan. In many of those cases, if the character is
not a princess to begin with, she typically ends the movie by marrying a prince or, in the case of Mulan, a military
general. Although not all “princesses” in Disney movies play a passive role in their lives, they typically find
themselves needing to be rescued by a man, and the happy ending they all search for includes marriage.

Alongside this prevalence of princesses, many parents are expressing concern about the culture of princesses that
Disney has created. Peggy Orenstein addresses this problem in her popular book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
Orenstein wonders why every little girl is expected to be a “princess” and why pink has become an all-consuming
obsession for many young girls. Another mother wondered what she did wrong when her three-year-old daughter
refused to do “nonprincessy” things, including running and jumping. The effects of this princess culture can have
negative consequences for girls throughout life. An early emphasis on beauty and can lead to reduced interest in
math and science among girls, as well as avoiding educational scenarios that are “typically feminine” (Coyne 2016).

Others acknowledge these issues, but find princess movies and “princess culture” less alarming. Some remind
concerned parents that children have an array of media and activities around them, and the children may be happy
wearing their princess outfit while digging for worms or going to hockey practice, which run counter to feminine
stereotypes (Wagner 2019). Others indicate that rather than disallowing princess movies and merchandise,
engaging with the children as they enjoy them might be more effective. And many people acknowledge that girls and
women are often currently portrayed differently than they were in years past.

Disney seems to have gotten the message about the concerns. Its 2009 Tiana and the Frog was specifically billed as
“a princess movie for people who don’t like princess movies,” and features a talented chef and business owner—who
didn’t need a man to rescue her—as its main character. Brave’s Merida and the title character in Moana seem to go
out of their way to separate themselves from traditional princesses, and undertake great acts of bravery to help
others. Frozen focuses on sisterly love rather than romantic love. And though she was never meant to be a princess,
Star Wars’ Rey was the go-to girls Halloween costume for years after she was introduced in the movies.

5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain how socialization occurs and recurs throughout life
• Apply socialization to age-related transition points
• Describe when and how resocialization occurs

Socialization isn’t a one-time or even a short-term event. We aren’t “stamped” by some socialization machine
as we move along a conveyor belt and thereby socialized once and for all. In fact, socialization is a lifelong

In the United States, socialization throughout the life course is determined greatly by age norms and “time-
related rules and regulations” (Settersten 2002). As we grow older, we encounter age-related transition points
that require socialization into a new role, such as becoming school age, entering the workforce, or retiring. For
example, the U.S. government mandates that all children attend school. Child labor laws, enacted in the early
twentieth century, nationally declared that childhood be a time of learning, not of labor. In countries such as
Niger and Sierra Leone, however, child labor remains common and socially acceptable, with little legislation to
regulate such practices (UNICEF 2012).

5.4 • Socialization Across the Life Course 133

Life After High School Around the World
In the United States, recent high school graduates have increasingly been focusing on college attendance. In
recent years, about two-thirds of high school graduates are enrolled in college between their teen years and age
twenty-four. About one-third of the same population primarly participates in the work force, meaning that they
are employed or are looking for employment (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020). Of those who attend college,
most (about 69 percent) are considered immediate enrollers, meaning that they begin college in the first fall
academic term immediately after their high school graduation (NCES 2020).

Other countries, especially high-income nations in Western Europe, have similar trends in college education, but
fewer students start immediately. Gap years, overseas experiences, or mandatory wait times all lead students to
a wide array of pre-college destinations. In Denmark, for example numbers of students who take a “year out” are
so high that the government has sought to give students cash bonuses for attending immediately (Anderson
2009). For several decades, only about 25 percent of Denmark’s high school graduates enrolled in college right
away, and that number continued to drop in the 2010s, with a record low of only 15 percent in 2018 (Ritzau
2019). Compare that to the U.S. numbers mentioned above, where over two thirds of the students enroll in
college immediately. And note that in Denmark, college is almost universally free.

In the United States, this life transition point is socialized quite differently. Taking a year off much less common
than some other countries, but has certainly picked up in recent years. In most cases, U.S. youth are encouraged
to select a few target colleges or potential workforce options by their late teens, and to get started on those
pathways soon after high school. As mentioned above, many U.S. students do not attend college, but most of
those students are in the workforce (including the military).

Other nations have entirely different approaches based on available educational institutions, financial
circumstances, and family needs. In some nations, students often go to college soon after high school, but do so
in other countries (including the U.S.). Dozens of nations require military conscription—military service—for men,
and a few (such as Sweden, Israel, Norway, Eritrea, and Venezuela) for women as well.

How might your life be different if you lived in one of these other countries? Can you think of similar social
norms—related to life age-transition points—that vary from country to country?

Many of life’s social expectations are made clear and enforced on a cultural level. Through interacting with
others and watching others interact, the expectation to fulfill roles becomes clear. While in elementary or
middle school, the prospect of having a boyfriend or girlfriend may have been considered undesirable. The
socialization that takes place in high school changes the expectation. By observing the excitement and
importance attached to dating and relationships within the high school social scene, it quickly becomes
apparent that one is now expected not only to be a child and a student, but also a significant other. Graduation
from formal education—high school, vocational school, or college—involves socialization into a new set of

Educational expectations vary not only from culture to culture, but also from class to class. While middle- or
upper-class families may expect their daughter or son to attend a four-year university after graduating from
high school, other families may expect their child to immediately begin working full-time, as many within their
family have done before.


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The Long Road to Adulthood for Millennials
Socialization differences also vary by generation. As you will see in the chapter on Aging and the Elderly, Millennials
(those born from the early 1980’s to the middle 1990’s) have very different attitudes about when childhood ends,
the prime of life begins, and when people become “old.” (Preview: Millennials thought childhood ended later and
people became old earlier than did Baby Boomers and Gen Xers at the same age.)

Millennials were deeply affected by the financial Recession in 2008. While the recession was in full swing, many
were in the process of entering, attending, or graduating from high school and college. With employment prospects
at historical lows, large numbers of graduates were unable to find work, sometimes moving back in with their
parents and struggling to pay back student loans.

According to the New York Times, this economic stall caused the Millennials to postpone what most Americans
consider to be adulthood: “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered
to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding
commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America
jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life” (Henig 2010). The term Boomerang Generation describes recent college
graduates, for whom lack of adequate employment upon college graduation often leads to a return to the parental
home (Davidson, 2014).

The five milestones that define adulthood, Henig writes, are “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially
independent, marrying, and having a child” (Henig 2010). These social milestones are taking longer for Millennials
to attain, if they’re attained at all. Sociologists wonder what long-term impact this generation’s situation may have
on society as a whole.

In the process of socialization, adulthood brings a new set of challenges and expectations, as well as new roles to
fill. As the aging process moves forward, social roles continue to evolve. Pleasures of youth, such as wild nights out
and serial dating, become less acceptable in the eyes of society. Responsibility and commitment are emphasized as
pillars of adulthood, and men and women are expected to “settle down.” During this period, many people enter into
marriage or a civil union, bring children into their families, and focus on a career path. They become partners or
parents instead of students or significant others.

Just as young children pretend to be doctors or lawyers, play house, and dress up, adults also engage in
anticipatory socialization, the preparation for future life roles. Examples would include a couple who cohabitate
before marriage or soon-to-be parents who read infant care books and prepare their home for the new arrival. As
part of anticipatory socialization, adults who are financially able begin planning for their retirement, saving money,
and looking into future healthcare options. The transition into any new life role, despite the social structure that
supports it, can be difficult.

About a decade after the nation began to recover from the Recession, it was hit by another. Millennials, who had
entered a very challenging employment situation, were saddled with debt and had very little in savings. By July
2020, the Millennial unemployment rate was 11.5 percent, which was actually higher than their unemployment rate
during the 2008 Recession. Gen Z, the group of people born after the Millennials, fared even worse—with an 18
percent unemployment rate (Hoffower 2020). The cycle of financial insecurity and the potential socialization
impacts may happen again in this decade.


In the process of resocialization, old behaviors that were helpful in a previous role are removed because they
are no longer of use. Resocialization is necessary when a person moves to a senior care center, goes to
boarding school, or serves a sentence in the prison system. In the new environment, the old rules no longer


5.4 • Socialization Across the Life Course 135

apply. The process of resocialization is typically more stressful than normal socialization because people have
to unlearn behaviors that have become customary to them. While resocialization has a specific meaning, many
organizations consider their training or retraining processes to embody elements of resocialization.

The most common way resocialization occurs is in a total institution where people are isolated from society
and are forced to follow someone else’s rules. A ship at sea is a total institution, as are religious convents,
prisons, or some cult organizations. They are places cut off from a larger society. The 6.9 million Americans
who lived in prisons and penitentiaries at the end of 2012 are also members of this type of institution (U.S.
Department of Justice 2012).

Many individuals are resocialized into an institution through a two-part process. First, members entering an
institution must leave behind their old identity through what is known as a degradation ceremony. In a
degradation ceremony, new members lose the aspects of their old identity and are given new identities. The
process is sometimes gentle. To enter a senior care home, an elderly person often must leave a family home
and give up many belongings which were part of his or her long-standing identity. Though caretakers guide the
elderly compassionately, the process can still be one of loss. In many cults, this process is also gentle and
happens in an environment of support and caring.

In other situations, the degradation ceremony can be more extreme. New prisoners lose freedom, rights
(including the right to privacy), and personal belongings. When entering the military, soldiers have their hair
cut short. Their old clothes are removed, and they wear matching uniforms. These individuals must give up
any markers of their former identity in order to be resocialized into an identity as a “soldier.”

FIGURE 5.8 In basic training, members of the Air Force are taught to walk, move, and look like each other. (Credit:
Staff Sergeant Desiree N. Palacios, U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

After new members of an institution are stripped of their old identity, they build a new one that matches the
new society. In the military, soldiers go through basic training together, where they learn new rules and bond
with one another. They follow structured schedules set by their leaders. Soldiers must keep their areas clean
for inspection, learn to march in correct formations, and salute when in the presence of superiors.

Learning to deal with life after having lived in a total institution requires yet another process of resocialization.
In the U.S. military, soldiers learn discipline and a capacity for hard work. They set aside personal goals to

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achieve a mission, and they take pride in the accomplishments of their units. Many soldiers who leave the
military transition these skills into excellent careers. Others have significant challenges upon leaving,
uncertain about the outside world and what to do next. The process of resocialization to civilian life is not a
simple one.

Other types of organizations may utilize or extend the concept of resocialization with regard to changing
people’s behaviors. Corporate trainers (and training researchers) sometimes emphasize the need for trainees
to shed their old behaviors and adopt entirely new ones. When the people return to their jobs after training,
they may be called to leave their old behaviors behind. Similarly, if an entire team goes for training, they may
be called to leave their culture behind (Weinbauer-Heidel 2019). Not all such training would apply the
resocialization metaphor, but behavioral or personal-professional areas such as stress management or
priority/project management might borrow from resocialization principles in order to make the training

5.4 • Socialization Across the Life Course 137

Key Terms
anticipatory socialization the way we prepare for future life roles
degradation ceremony the process by which new members of a total institution lose aspects of their old

identities and are given new ones
generalized other the common behavioral expectations of general society
hidden curriculum the informal teaching done in schools that socializes children to societal norms
moral development the way people learn what is “good” and “bad” in society
nature the influence of our genetic makeup on self-development
nurture the role that our social environment plays in self-development
peer group a group made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests
resocialization the process by which old behaviors are removed and new behaviors are learned in their

self a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction
socialization the process wherein people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept

society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values

Section Summary
5.1 Theories of Self-Development

Psychological theories of self-development have been broadened by sociologists who explicitly study the role
of society and social interaction in self-development. Charles Cooley and George Mead both contributed
significantly to the sociological understanding of the development of self. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol
Gilligan developed their ideas further and researched how our sense of morality develops. Gilligan added the
dimension of gender differences to Kohlberg’s theory.

5.2 Why Socialization Matters

Socialization is important because it helps uphold societies and cultures; it is also a key part of individual
development. Research demonstrates that who we are is affected by both nature (our genetic and hormonal
makeup) and nurture (the social environment in which we are raised). Sociology is most concerned with the
way that society’s influence affects our behavior patterns, made clear by the way behavior varies across class
and gender.

5.3 Agents of Socialization

Our direct interactions with social groups, like families and peers, teach us how others expect us to behave.
Likewise, a society’s formal and informal institutions socialize its population. Schools, workplaces, and the
media communicate and reinforce cultural norms and values.

5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course

Socialization is a lifelong process that reoccurs as we enter new phases of life, such as adulthood or senior age.
Resocialization is a process that removes the socialization we have developed over time and replaces it with
newly learned rules and roles. Because it involves removing old habits that have been built up, resocialization
can be a stressful and difficult process.

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Section Quiz
5.1 Theories of Self-Development

1. Socialization, as a sociological term, describes:
a. how people interact during social situations
b. how people learn societal norms, beliefs, and values
c. a person’s internal mental state when in a group setting
d. the difference between introverts and extroverts

2. The Harlows’ study on rhesus monkeys showed that:
a. rhesus monkeys raised by other primate species are poorly socialized
b. monkeys can be adequately socialized by imitating humans
c. food is more important than social comfort
d. social comfort is more important than food

3. What occurs in Lawrence Kohlberg’s conventional level?
a. Children develop the ability to have abstract thoughts.
b. Morality is developed by pain and pleasure.
c. Children begin to consider what society considers moral and immoral.
d. Parental beliefs have no influence on children’s morality.

4. What did Carol Gilligan believe earlier researchers into morality had overlooked?
a. The justice perspective
b. Sympathetic reactions to moral situations
c. The perspective of females
d. How social environment affects how morality develops

5. What is one way to distinguish between psychology and sociology?
a. Psychology focuses on the mind, while sociology focuses on society.
b. Psychologists are interested in mental health, while sociologists are interested in societal functions.
c. Psychologists look inward to understand behavior while sociologists look outward.
d. All of the above

6. How did nearly complete isolation as a child affect Danielle’s verbal abilities?
a. She could not communicate at all.
b. She never learned words, but she did learn signs.
c. She could not understand much, but she could use gestures.
d. She could understand and use basic language like “yes” and “no.”

5.2 Why Socialization Matters

7. Why do sociologists need to be careful when drawing conclusions from twin studies?
a. The results do not apply to singletons.
b. The twins were often raised in different ways.
c. The twins may turn out to actually be fraternal.
d. The sample sizes are often small.

5 • Section Quiz 139

8. From a sociological perspective, which factor does not greatly influence a person’s socialization?
a. Gender
b. Class
c. Blood type
d. Race

9. Chris Langan’s story illustrates that:
a. children raised in one-parent households tend to have higher IQs.
b. intelligence is more important than socialization.
c. socialization can be more important than intelligence.
d. neither socialization nor intelligence affects college admissions.

5.3 Agents of Socialization

10. Why are wealthy parents more likely than poor parents to socialize their children toward creativity and
problem solving?
a. Wealthy parents are socializing their children toward the skills of white-collar employment.
b. Wealthy parents are not concerned about their children rebelling against their rules.
c. Wealthy parents never engage in repetitive tasks.
d. Wealthy parents are more concerned with money than with a good education.

11. How do schools prepare children to one day enter the workforce?
a. With a standardized curriculum
b. Through the hidden curriculum
c. By socializing them in teamwork
d. All of the above

12. Which one of the following is not a way people are socialized by religion?
a. People learn the material culture of their religion.
b. Life stages and roles are connected to religious celebration.
c. An individual’s personal internal experience of a divine being leads to their faith.
d. Places of worship provide a space for shared group experiences.

13. Which of the following is a manifest function of schools?
a. Understanding when to speak up and when to be silent
b. Learning to read and write
c. Following a schedule
d. Knowing locker room etiquette

14. Which of the following is typically the earliest agent of socialization?
a. School
b. Family
c. Mass media
d. Workplace

140 5 • Section Quiz

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5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course

15. Which of the following is not an age-related transition point when Americans must be socialized to new
a. Infancy
b. School age
c. Adulthood
d. Senior citizen

16. Which of the following is true regarding U.S. socialization of recent high school graduates?
a. They are expected to take a year “off” before college.
b. They are required to serve in the military for one year.
c. They are expected to enter college, trade school, or the workforce shortly after graduation.
d. They are required to move away from their parents.

Short Answer
5.1 Theories of Self-Development

1. Think of a current issue or pattern that a sociologist might study. What types of questions would the
sociologist ask, and what research methods might he employ? Now consider the questions and methods a
psychologist might use to study the same issue. Comment on their different approaches.

2. Explain why it’s important to conduct research using both male and female participants. What sociological
topics might show gender differences? Provide some examples to illustrate your ideas.

5.2 Why Socialization Matters

3. Why are twin studies an important way to learn about the relative effects of genetics and socialization on
children? What questions about human development do you believe twin studies are best for answering?
For what types of questions would twin studies not be as helpful?

4. Why do you think that people like Chris Langan continue to have difficulty even after they are helped
through societal systems? What is it they’ve missed that prevents them from functioning successfully in the
social world?

5.3 Agents of Socialization

5. Do you think it is important that parents discuss gender roles with their young children, or is gender a topic
better left for later? How do parents consider gender norms when buying their children books, movies, and
toys? How do you believe they should consider it?

6. Based on your observations, when are adolescents more likely to listen to their parents or to their peer
groups when making decisions? What types of dilemmas lend themselves toward one social agent over

5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course

7. Consider a person who is joining a sorority or fraternity, attending college or boarding school, or even a
child beginning kindergarten. How is the process the student goes through a form of socialization? What
new cultural behaviors must the student adapt to?

8. Do you think resocialization requires a total institution? Why, or why not? Can you think of any other ways
someone could be resocialized?

5 • Short Answer 141

Further Research
5.1 Theories of Self-Development

Lawrence Kohlberg was most famous for his research using moral dilemmas. He presented dilemmas to boys
and asked them how they would judge the situations. Visit this site to read about Kohlberg’s most famous
moral dilemma, known as the Heinz dilemma. (http://openstax.org/l/Dilemma) .

5.2 Why Socialization Matters

Check out this article about other sets of twins who grew up apart and discovered each other later in life
(http://openstax.org/l/twins) .

5.3 Agents of Socialization

Glassdoor.com provides reviews of companies and also articles on finding the correct fit. Take a look at what
Glassdoor.com’s blog (https://openstax.org/l/company_culture) has to say on these topics and explore some
companies you might like in order to learn about their corporate culture and worker experience.

5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course

Homelessness is an endemic problem among veterans. Many soldiers leave the military or return from war
and have difficulty resocializing into civilian life. Learn more about this problem at the National Coalition
for Homeless Veterans’ website (http://openstax.org/l/NCHV) .


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Ritzau. 2019. “Rekordfå studenter læser videre med det samme” (English title translation: “Record few
students move on immediately.”) Ritzau News Agency. June 11 2019. (https://fagbladet3f.dk/artikel/

Settersten, Richard A., Jr. 2002. “Socialization in the Life Course: New Frontiers in Theory and Research.” New
Frontiers in Socialization, Vol. 7. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Ltd.

UNICEF. 2011. “Percentage of Children Aged 5–14 Engaged in Child Labour.” Retrieved December 28, 2011

UNICEF. 2012. “Percentage of Children Aged 5-14 Engaged in Child Labour.” Retrieved Oct. 27th, 2014

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U.S. Department of Justice. 2012. “Corrections Populations in the US, 2012.” Retrieved October 27, 2014

Weinbauer-Heidel, Ina and Ibeschitz-Manderbach, Masha. 2019. “What Makes Training Really Work.”
Tredition Publishing. January 24 2019. Page 37.

5 • References 145

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FIGURE 6.1 The national tour of the Tea Party Express visited Minnesota and held a rally outside the state capitol
building. Tarana Burke, who originated the term “me too” in the context of supporting or acknowledging sexual
harassment or assault victims, has spoken frequently on the evolution and issues regarding the MeToo movement.
(Credit: a. Fibonacci Blue/flickr; b Marco Verch)


6.1 Types of Groups
6.2 Group Size and Structure
6.3 Formal Organizations

Throughout the history of the United States, individuals have formed groups in order to
achieve goals and bring about change. Some groups are loosely defined, while others have highly organized
structure and mission. And in some cases, groups can have significant influence on culture, society, the
economy, and government.

In 2009, people protesting government spending held a series of “tea parties,” referencing the Boston Tea
Party, an anti-taxation event that led up to the Revolutionary War. Tea Party activists also opposed big
government, high taxes, and political corruption and supported gun rights and traditional family values. They
called for “awareness to any issue which challenges the security, sovereignty, or domestic tranquility of our
beloved nation, the United States of America” (Tea Party, Inc. 2021). The movement grew into a major political
force, with chapters popping up in nearly every community across the country.

By 2010, Tea Party candidates had won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate,
demonstrating the political power of the group and its message. As grassroots activism faded, the Tea Party
gained influence within the Republican Party. Many of its ideas have been assimilated into the mainstream
conservative movement and Republican Party platform.

6Groups and Organization

In 2016, highly successful Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against Fox chairman, Roger Ailes,
for sexual harassment. The suit led other women to come forward with similar allegations against Ailes and
others in the entertainment industry. Soon after, actress Alyssa Milano posted this statement on Twitter: “If all
the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a
sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The phrase, “Me Too” had been first used in this context in 2006 by
activist Tarana Burke, in an effort to empower women of color. Within a day of Milano’s post, the “Me Too”
phrase or hashtag was used over 500,000 times on Twitter, and was used in over 12 million posts by 4.7 million
people on Facebook. Thousands of people, including other celebrities, shared their own stories of sexual
harassment, abuse, or assault. (MeTooMvmt.org, 2020) The “MeToo” movement became the lead story on
many newscasts and talk shows. Over the months that followed, the movement sparked reforms within
companies and governments to combat sexual harassment and better support women. The movement
inspired abuse victims to come forward and led to the sanction or removal of prominent individuals accused of
serial harassment or abuse in academia, media, government, and other industries.

The Tea Party evolved into an organization. From a loosely associated set of local chapters, it developed into
several closely affiliated nonprofits (filed with the IRS), a political faction within the Republican Party, and a
caucus within Congress. What about the MeToo movement? Burke started it in 2006 and was working to enact
change long before the hashtag sparked more awareness and new policies. The MeToo has brought together
people to work in groups, but it has yet to form into a permanent MeToo organization.

As enduring social units, groups help foster shared value systems and are key to the structure of society as we
know it. There are three primary sociological perspectives for studying groups: Functionalist, Conflict, and
Interactionist. We can look at the Tea Party and the MeToo movements through the lenses of these methods to
better understand the roles and challenges that they offer.

The Functionalist perspective is a big-picture, macro-level view that looks at how different aspects of society
are intertwined. This perspective is based on the idea that society is a well-balanced system with all parts
necessary to the whole, and it studies the roles these parts play in relation to the whole. A Functionalist might
look at the macro-level needs that each movement serves. For example, a Structural Functionalist might ask
how the Tea Party arose to voice the concerns of a large sector of society that felt politically underrepresented,
or how MeToo drove people to pay attention to sexual harassment and gender inequality. This approach might
look at how each group enabled the voicing of discontent and so stabilized society.

The Conflict perspective is another macroanalytical view, one that focuses on the genesis and growth of
inequality. A conflict theorist studying the Tea Party Movement might look at how it checked interests that
have manipulated the political system over the last 30 years. Or this perspective might explore how MeToo
challenged organizations that have allowed sexual harassment to persist in order to protect those in power.

A third perspective is the Symbolic Interaction or Interactionist perspective. This method of analyzing groups
takes a micro-level view. Instead of studying the big picture, these researchers look at the day-to-day
interactions of groups. Studying these details, the Interactionist looks at issues like leadership style and group
dynamics. In the case of the Tea Party Movement, Interactionists might ask, “How does the Tea Party dynamic
in New York differ from that in Atlanta?” Or, in the case of the MeToo, researchers may seek to learn about who
defines the agenda and approach within the movement.

6.1 Types of Groups
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate between primary and secondary groups.
• Recognize in-groups and out-groups as subtypes of primary and secondary groups
• Define reference groups

Most of us feel comfortable using the word “group” without giving it much thought. Often, we mean different

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things when using that word. We might say that a group of kids all saw the dog, and it could mean 250 students
in a lecture hall or four siblings playing on a front lawn. In everyday use, it can be a generic term, although it
carries important clinical and scientific meanings. Moreover, the concept of a group is central to much of how
we think about society and human interaction. So how can we hone the meaning more precisely for
sociological purposes?

Defining a Group

The term group is an amorphous one and can refer to a wide variety of gatherings, from just two people (think
about a “group project” in school when you partner with another student), a club, a regular gathering of
friends, or people who work together or share a hobby. In short, the term refers to any collection of at least two
people who interact with some frequency and who share a sense that their identity is somehow aligned with
the group. Of course, every time people are gathered, it is not necessarily a group. A rally is usually a one-time
event, for instance, and belonging to a political party doesn’t imply interaction with others. People who happen
to be in the same place at the same time but who do not interact or share a sense of identity—such as a bunch
of people standing in line at Starbucks—are considered an aggregate, or a crowd.

Another example of a nongroup is people who share similar characteristics but are not tied to one another in
any way. These people are considered a category, and as an example all children born from approximately
1980–2000 are referred to as “Millennials.” Why are Millennials a category and not a group? Because while
some of them may share a sense of identity, they do not, as a whole, interact frequently with each other.

Interestingly, people within an aggregate or category can become a group. During disasters, people in a
neighborhood (an aggregate) who did not know each other might become friendly and depend on each other at
the local shelter. After the disaster when people go back to simply living near each other, the feeling of
cohesiveness may last since they have all shared an experience. They might remain a group, practicing
emergency readiness, coordinating supplies for next time, or taking turns caring for neighbors who need extra

Similarly, there may be many groups within a single category. Consider teachers, for example. Within this
category, groups may exist like teachers’ unions, teachers who coach, or staff members who are involved with
the PTA.

Types of Groups

Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) suggested that groups can broadly be divided into two
categories: primary groups and secondary groups (Cooley 1909). According to Cooley, primary groups play
the most critical role in our lives. The primary group is usually fairly small and is made up of individuals who
generally engage face-to-face in long-term emotional ways. This group serves emotional needs: expressive
functions rather than pragmatic ones. The primary group is usually made up of significant others, those
individuals who have the most impact on our socialization. The best example of a primary group is the family.

Secondary groups are often larger and impersonal. They may also be task-focused and time-limited. These
groups serve an instrumental function rather than an expressive one, meaning that their role is more goal- or
task-oriented than emotional. A classroom or office can be an example of a secondary group.

Neither primary nor secondary groups are bound by strict definitions or set limits. In fact, people can move
from one group to another. A group of coworkers, for example, can start as a secondary group, but as the
employees work together over the years, they may find common interests and strong ties that transform them
into a primary group. As we will discuss in the chapter on Media and Technology, even online networks of
people with common interests can sometimes move from secondary to primary group status.

6.1 • Types of Groups 149

Best Friends She’s Never Met
Writer Allison Levy worked alone. While she liked the freedom and flexibility of working from home, she sometimes
missed having a community of coworkers, both for the practical purpose of brainstorming and socializing. Levy did
what many do in the Internet age: she found a group of other writers online through a web forum. Over time, a group
of approximately twenty writers, who all wrote for a similar audience, broke off from the larger group and started a
private invitation-only forum. While writers in general represent all genders, ages, and interests, this group ended up
being a collection of twenty- and thirty-something women who all wrote fiction for children and young adults.

At first, the writers’ forum was clearly a secondary group united by the members’ professions and work situations.
As Levy explained, “On the Internet, you can be present or absent as often as you want. No one is expecting you to
show up.” It was a useful place to research information about publishers, recently-published books and authors,
and industry trends. But as time passed, Levy found it served a different purpose. Since the group shared other
characteristics beyond their writing (such as age and gender), their conversation naturally turned to matters such as
child-rearing, aging parents, health, and exercise. Levy found it was a sympathetic place to talk about any number of
subjects, not just writing. Further, when people didn’t post for several days, others expressed concern, asking
whether anyone had heard from the missing writers. It reached a point where most members would tell the group if
they were traveling or needed to be offline for awhile.

The group continued to share. One member on the site who was going through a difficult family illness wrote, “I
don’t know where I’d be without you women. It is so great to have a place to vent that I know isn’t hurting anyone.”
Others shared similar sentiments.

So is this a primary group? Most of these people have never met each other. They live in Hawaii, Australia,
Minnesota, and across the world. They may never meet. Levy wrote recently to the group, saying, “Most of my ‘real-
life’ friends and even my husband don’t really get the writing thing. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Despite
the distance and the lack of physical contact, the group clearly fills an expressive need.

FIGURE 6.2 Engineering and construction students gather around a job site. How do your academic interests define


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your in- and out-groups? (Credit: USACEpublicaffairs/flickr)

In-Groups and Out-Groups

One of the ways that groups can be powerful is through inclusion, and its inverse, exclusion. The feeling that
we belong in an elite or select group is a heady one, while the feeling of not being allowed in, or of being in
competition with a group, can be motivating in a different way. Sociologist William Sumner (1840–1910)
developed the concepts of in-group and out-group to explain this phenomenon (Sumner 1906). In short, an
in-group is the group that an individual feels she belongs to, and she believes it to be an integral part of who
she is. An out-group, conversely, is a group someone doesn’t belong to; often we may feel disdain or
competition in relationship to an out-group. Sports teams, unions, and sororities are examples of in-groups
and out-groups. Primary groups consist of both in-groups and out-groups, as do secondary groups.

While group affiliations can be neutral or positive, the concept of in-groups and out-groups can also explain
some negative human behavior, such as white supremacist movements. By defining others as “not like us” and
inferior, in-groups can end up practicing ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism—manners
of judging others negatively based on their culture, race, sex, age, or sexuality.

Often, in-groups can form within a secondary group. For instance, a workplace can have cliques of people,
from senior executives who play golf together, to engineers who write code together, to young singles who
socialize after hours. While these in-groups might show favoritism and affinity for other in-group members,
the overall organization may be unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Therefore, it pays to be wary of the
politics of in-groups, since members may exclude others as a form of gaining status within the group.

Bullying and Cyberbullying: How Technology Has Changed the Game
Most of us know that the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is
inaccurate. Words can hurt, and never is that more apparent than in instances of bullying. Bullying often reaches
extreme levels of cruelty in children and young adults. People at these stages of life are especially vulnerable to
opinions of others and deeply invested in their peer groups. Today, cyberbullying is on the rise. Cyberbullying can
involve sending threatening texts, harassing someone in a public forum (such as Facebook), hacking someone’s
account and pretending to be him or her, posting embarrassing images online, and so on. A study by the
Cyberbullying Research Center found that 28 percent of teens have been a victim of cyberbullying (Hinduja and
Patchin, 2019). Severe bullying can lead students to commit or contemplate suicide. A 2010 study found that 20
percent of middle school students admitted to “seriously thinking about committing suicide” as a result of online
bullying (Hinduja and Patchin 2010). Whereas bullying face-to-face requires willingness to interact with your
victim, cyberbullying allows bullies to harass others from the privacy of their homes without witnessing the
damage firsthand. This form of bullying is particularly dangerous because it’s widely accessible and therefore
easier to carry out.

Cyberbullying first made international headlines in 2010 when a fifteen-year-old girl, Phoebe Prince, in South
Hadley, Massachusetts, committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied by girls at her school. In the aftermath
of her death, the bullies were prosecuted and the state passed anti-bullying legislation. This marked a significant
change in how bullying, including cyberbullying, is viewed in the United States. Now there are numerous
resources for schools, families, and communities to provide education and prevention on this issue. The White
House hosted a Bullying Prevention summit in March 2011, and President and First Lady Obama have used
Facebook and other social media sites to discuss the importance of the issue.

According to a report released in 2013 by the National Center for Educational Statistics, close to 1 in every 3
(27.8 percent) students report being bullied by their school peers. Seventeen percent of students reported being
the victims of cyberbullying.


6.1 • Types of Groups 151

Will legislation change the behavior of would-be cyberbullies? That remains to be seen. But we can hope
communities will work to protect victims before they feel they must resort to extreme measures.

Reference Groups

FIGURE 6.3 Athletes are often viewed as a reference group for young people. (Credit: nonorganical/ flickr)

A reference group is a group that people compare themselves to—it provides a standard of measurement. In
U.S. society, peer groups are common reference groups. Kids and adults pay attention to what their peers wear,
what music they like, what they do with their free time—and they compare themselves to what they see. Most
people have more than one reference group, so a middle school boy might look not just at his classmates but
also at his older brother’s friends and see a different set of norms. And he might observe the behaviors of his
favorite athletes for yet another point of reference.

Some other examples of reference groups can be one’s cultural center, workplace, family gathering, and even
parents. Often, reference groups convey competing messages. For instance, on television and in movies, young
adults often have wonderful apartments and cars and lively social lives despite not holding a job. In music
videos, young women might dance and sing in a sexually aggressive way that suggests experience beyond their
years. At all ages, we use reference groups to help guide our behavior and establish our social norms. So how
important is it to surround yourself with positive reference groups? You may not recognize a reference group,
but it still influences the way you act. Identifying your reference groups can help you understand the source of
the social identities you aspire to or want to distance yourself from.

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College: A World of In-Groups, Out-Groups, and Reference Groups

FIGURE 6.4 Which fraternity or sorority would you fit into, if any? Sorority recruitment day offers students an
opportunity to learn about these different groups. (Credit: Texas A&M/flickr)

For a student entering college, the sociological study of groups takes on an immediate and practical meaning. After
all, when we arrive someplace new, most of us glance around to see how well we fit in or stand out in the ways we
want. This is a natural response to a reference group, and on a large campus, there can be many competing groups.
Say you are a strong athlete who wants to play intramural sports, and your favorite musicians are a local punk band.
You may find yourself engaged with two very different reference groups.

These reference groups can also become your in-groups or out-groups. For instance, different groups on campus
might solicit you to join. Are there fraternities and sororities at your school? If so, chances are they will try to
convince students—that is, students they deem worthy—to join them. And if you love playing soccer and want to play
on a campus team, but you’re wearing shredded jeans, combat boots, and a local band T-shirt, you might have a
hard time convincing the soccer team to give you a chance. While most campus groups refrain from insulting
competing groups, there is a definite sense of an in-group versus an out-group. “Them?” a member might say.
“They’re all right, but their parties are nowhere near as cool as ours.” Or, “Only serious engineering geeks join that
group.” This immediate categorization into in-groups and out-groups means that students must choose carefully,
since whatever group they associate with might define their friends for several years to come.

6.2 Group Size and Structure
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain the ways that size influences group dynamics
• Differentiate among styles of leadership
• Interpret the impact of groups on individual behavior


6.2 • Group Size and Structure 153

FIGURE 6.5 Cadets illustrate how strongly conformity can define groups. (Credit: West Point — The U.S. Military

Dyads, Triads, and Large Groups

A small group is typically one where the collection of people is small enough that all members of the group
know each other and share simultaneous interaction, such as a nuclear family, a dyad, or a triad. Georg
Simmel (1858–1915) wrote extensively about the difference between a dyad, or two-member group, and a
triad, which is a three-member group (Simmel 1902). In the former, if one person withdraws, the group can no
longer exist. We can think of a divorce, which effectively ends the “group” of the married couple or of two best
friends never speaking again. In a triad, however, the dynamic is quite different. If one person withdraws, the
group lives on. A triad has a different set of relationships. If there are three in the group, two-against-one
dynamics can develop, and a majority opinion may form on any issue.

Small groups generally have strong internal cohesiveness and a sense of connection. Small groups may face
challenges when trying to achieve large goals. They can struggle to be heard or to be a force for change if they
are pushing against larger groups.

It is difficult to define exactly when a small group becomes a large group. Perhaps it occurs when one group
grows so large that there are too many people to join in a simultaneous discussion. Sometimes it occurs when
a group joins with other groups as part of a movement. These larger groups may share a geographic space,
such as a fraternity or sorority on the same campus, or they might be spread out around the globe. The larger
the group, the more attention it can garner, and the more pressure members can put toward whatever goal
they wish to achieve. At the same time, the larger the group becomes, the more the risk grows for division and
lack of cohesion.

Group Leadership

Often, larger groups require some kind of leadership. In small, primary groups, leadership tends to be
informal. After all, most families don’t take a vote on who will rule the group, nor do most groups of friends.
This is not to say that de facto leaders don’t emerge, but formal leadership is rare. In secondary groups,
leadership is usually more overt. They often outline roles and responsibilities, with a chain of command to
follow. Some secondary groups, like the military, have highly structured and clearly understood chains of
command, and sometimes lives depend on those. After all, how well could soldiers function in a battle if
different people were calling out orders and if they had no idea whom to listen to? Other secondary groups, like
a workplace or a classroom, also have formal leaders, but the styles and functions of leadership can vary

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Leadership function refers to the main goal of the leader, which may be instrumental or expressive. An
instrumental leader is one who is goal-oriented and largely concerned with accomplishing set tasks. We can
imagine that an army general or a Fortune 500 CEO would be an instrumental leader. In contrast, expressive
leaders are more concerned with promoting emotional strength and health, and ensuring that people feel
supported. Social and religious leaders—rabbis, priests, imams, directors of youth homes and social service
programs—are often perceived as expressive leaders. Sometimes people expect men to take on instrumental
roles and women to assume expressive roles. Women and men who exhibit the other-gender manner can be
seen as deviants and can encounter resistance. Yet, both men and women prefer leaders who use a
combination of expressive and instrumental leadership (Boatwright and Forrest, 2000).

Sociologists recognize three leadership styles. Democratic leaders encourage group participation in all
decision making. They work hard to build consensus before choosing a course of action and moving forward.
This type of leader is particularly common, for example, in a club where the members vote on which activities
or projects to pursue. Democratic leaders can be well liked, but there is often a danger that decisions will
proceed slowly since consensus building is time-consuming. A further risk is that group members might pick
sides and entrench themselves into opposing factions rather than reaching a solution.

In contrast, a laissez-faire (French for “leave it alone”) leader is hands-off, allowing group members to self-
manage and make their own decisions. An example of this kind of leader might be an art teacher who opens
the art cupboard, leaves materials on the shelves, and tells students to help themselves and make some art.
While this style can work well with highly motivated and mature participants who have clear goals and
guidelines, it risks group dissolution and a lack of progress.

Finally, authoritarian leaders issue orders and assign tasks with little to no feedback from group members.
These leaders are often instrumental leaders with a strong focus on meeting goals. Often, entrepreneurs fall
into this mold, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Not surprisingly, authoritarian leaders risk alienating
the workers. When decisions need to made quickly or informed by a high level of expertise, however, this style
of leadership can be required.

In different circumstances, each of these leadership styles can be effective and successful. Consider what
leadership style you prefer. Why? Do you like the same style in different areas of your life, such as a classroom,
a workplace, and a sports team?

6.2 • Group Size and Structure 155

Women Political Candidates

FIGURE 6.6 Kamala Harris, like many other women leaders, faces unique and sometimes conflicting
expectations. She may want to lead, but some care more about whether she is liked. (Credit: California National

Kamala Harris broke a significant barrier when she became the first woman and first person of Black and South
Asian descent to be elected vice president of the United States. A prominent presidential candidate in her own
right during the 2020 primary election, Harris was asked by then-candidate Joe Biden to be his running mate in
order to secure his electoral victory.

You may be surprised, however, to learn that more than ten other women were on the ballot for president or vice
president on November 3, 2020. Many were not on the ballot in every state, and at least one (Ricki Sue King)
actually encouraged people not to vote for her. Shirley Chisholm, Lenora Fulani, Jill Stein, Hillary Clinton and
many other women have been candidates, but the United States has yet to elect a woman to the presidency.

Researchers and political analysts have long established that gender plays a significant role in how political
leaders (both candidates and elected officials) are perceived. As a starting point, research indicates that, even
among women, the public prefer masculine qualities in presidents. For example, a study in which subjects
completed the Bem Sex-Role Inventory and Implicit Leadership Inventory found that the hypothetical “Ideal”
president possessed more masculine qualities than feminine qualities (Powell and Butterfield 2011).

Beyond the implicit preference toward masculine qualities, women candidates face what is sometimes referred
to the “likability trap.” Essentially, the public expects and prefers certain qualities from its leaders, and also
expects and prefers certain qualities based on the candidates’ gender. For women presidential candidates, these
expectations often conflict. For example, when a male candidate ranks low on feminine qualities, their likeability
is not significantly affected. But when a female candidate, like Hillary Clinton, ranks low on feminine qualities,
their likability is significantly impacted. Interestingly, the same survey found that Kamala Harris had a much more
balanced gender quality rating than Clinton did. The researchers qualified that since Kamala Harris ran for vice
president, rather than president, the ratings cannot be directly compared to Clinton’s. This difference, though,
may indicate why many women are elected to legislative and gubernatorial roles, but not to the presidency


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(Conroy, Martin, and Nadler, 2020).

These same perceptions present themselves in the workplace. Prescriptive stereotypes—that is, ideas about how
men or women should behave—limit women’s advancement to leadership positions. Men are often appreciated
for being ambitious, while women who exhibit assertive behavior are generally perceived as selfish or overly
competitive (Baldoni, 2020). Furthermore, when men help out in the workplace, their contribution is appreciated
while the same task carried out by women goes unacknowledged. Scholars observe that women are
underrepresented in the top levels of U.S. businesses and Fortune 500 companies (Heilman 2012).

FIGURE 6.7 This gag gift demonstrates how female leaders may be viewed if they violate social norms. (Credit:


We all like to fit in to some degree. Likewise, if we want to stand out, then we want to choose how we stand out
and for what reasons. For example, a person who loves cutting-edge fashion might dress in thought-provoking
new styles to set a new trend.

Conformity is the extent to which an individual complies with group norms or expectations. As you might
recall, we use reference groups to assess and understand how to act, to dress, and to behave. Not surprisingly,
young people are particularly aware of who conforms and who does not. A high school boy whose mother
makes him wear ironed button-down shirts might protest that everyone else wears T-shirts and he will look
stupid. Another high school boy might like wearing those shirts as a way of standing out. How much do you

6.2 • Group Size and Structure 157

enjoy being noticed? Do you consciously prefer to conform to group norms so as not to be singled out? Are
there people in your class who immediately come to mind when you think about those who don’t want to

Psychologist Solomon Asch (1907–1996) conducted experiments that illustrated how great the pressure to
conform is, specifically within a small group (1956). Read about his work in the Sociological Research feature
and consider what you would do in Asch’s experiment. Would you speak up? What would help you speak up
and what would discourage it?

Conforming to Expectations
In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch sat a small group of about eight people around a table. Only one of the
people sitting there was the true subject; the rest were associates of the experimenter. However, the subject was
led to believe that the others were all, like him, people brought in for an experiment in visual judgments. The
group was shown two cards, the first card with a single vertical line, and the second card with three vertical lines
differing in length. The experimenter polled the group and asked each participant one at a time which line on the
second card matched up with the line on the first card.

However, this was not really a test of visual judgment. Rather, it was Asch’s study on the pressures of conformity.
He was curious to see what the effect of multiple wrong answers would be on the subject, who presumably was
able to tell which lines matched. In order to test this, Asch had each planted respondent answer in a specific
way. The subject was seated in such a way that he had to hear almost everyone else’s answers before it was his
turn. Sometimes the nonsubject members would unanimously choose an answer that was clearly wrong.

So what was the conclusion? Asch found that thirty-seven out of fifty test subjects responded with an “obviously
erroneous” answer at least once. When faced by a unanimous wrong answer from the rest of the group, the
subject conformed to a mean of four of the staged answers. Asch revised the study and repeated it, wherein the
subject still heard the staged wrong answers, but was allowed to write down his answer rather than speak it
aloud. In this version, the number of examples of conformity––giving an incorrect answer so as not to contradict
the group––fell by two thirds. He also found that group size had an impact on how much pressure the subject felt
to conform.

The results showed that speaking up when only one other person gave an erroneous answer was far more
common than when five or six people defended the incorrect position. Finally, Asch discovered that people were
far more likely to give the correct answer in the face of near-unanimous consent if they had a single ally. If even
one person in the group also dissented, the subject conformed only a quarter as often. Clearly, it was easier to be
a minority of two than a minority of one.

Asch concluded that there are two main causes for conformity: people want to be liked by the group or they
believe the group is better informed than they are. He found his study results disturbing. To him, they revealed
that intelligent, well-educated people would, with very little coaxing, go along with an untruth. He believed this
result highlighted real problems with the education system and values in our society (Asch 1956).

Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, had similar results in his experiment that is now known simply as the
Milgram Experiment. In 1962, Milgram found that research subjects were overwhelmingly willing to perform acts
that directly conflicted with their consciences when directed by a person of authority. In the experiment, subjects
were willing to administer painful, even supposedly deadly, shocks to others who answered questions incorrectly.

To learn more about similar research, visit http://www.prisonexp.org/


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The Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility

Social psychologists have recognized that other people’s presence influences our behavior, whether we are
aware of it or not. One example is the bystander effect, a situation in which people are less likely to interfere
during an emergency or when a social norm is being violated if there are others around. They feel less
responsible because of the presence of other bystanders (Beyer et al., 2017). This is known as diffusion of

Most of the time people report that they don’t want to get involved and that’s why they don’t respond when they
see something wrong. They assume someone else will step up and help. Researchers have found that people
are less likely to help if they don’t know the victim (Cherry 2020).

Think about it this way, you’re walking to class and there are several students around. Someone falls on the
ground having a seizure. What would you do? The bystander effect suggests that unless you know the person
who has fallen, you are more likely to walk away than help. However, social psychologists believe that you are
much more likely to help, or at least stop and check, if you are the only one around.

6.3 Formal Organizations
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Distinguish the types of formal organizations
• Recognize the characteristics of bureaucracies
• Identify the impact of the McDonaldization of society

A complaint of modern life is that society is dominated by large and impersonal secondary organizations.
From schools to businesses to healthcare to government, these organizations, referred to as formal
organizations, are highly bureaucratized. Indeed, all formal organizations are, or likely will become,
bureaucracies. We will discuss the purpose of formal organizations and the structure of their bureaucracies.

Types of Formal Organizations

FIGURE 6.8 Girl Scout troops and correctional facilities are both formal organizations. (Credit: (a) moonlightbulb/
flickr; (b) CxOxS/flickr)

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni (1975) posited that formal organizations fall into three categories. Normative
organizations, also called voluntary organizations, are based on shared interests. As the name suggests,
joining them is voluntary. People find membership rewarding in an intangible way. They receive non-material
benefits. The Audubon Society and a ski club are examples of normative organizations.

Coercive organizations are groups that we must be coerced, or pushed, to join. These may include prison or a
rehabilitation center. Symbolic interactionist Erving Goffman states that most coercive organizations are total
institutions (1961). A total institution is one in which inmates or military soldiers live a controlled lifestyle and

6.3 • Formal Organizations 159

in which total resocialization takes place.

The third type is utilitarian organizations, which, as the name suggests, are joined because of the need for a
specific material reward. High school and the workplace fall into this category—one joined in pursuit of a
diploma, the other in order to make money.

Normative or Voluntary Coercive Utilitarian

Benefit of Membership Intangible benefit Corrective benefit Tangible benefit

Type of Membership Volunteer basis Required Contractual basis

Feeling of Connectedness Shared affinity No affinity Some affinity

TABLE 6.1 Table of Formal Organizations This table shows Etzioni’s three types of formal
organizations. (Credit: Etzioni 1975)

The Structure of Bureaucracies

Bureaucracies are an ideal type of formal organization. By ideal, sociologists don’t mean “best.” Rather,
bureaucracies have a collection of characteristics that most of them exhibit. Pioneer sociologist Max Weber
characterized a bureaucracy as having a hierarchy of authority, a clear division of labor, explicit rules, and
impersonality (1922). People often complain about bureaucracies––declaring them slow, rule-bound, difficult
to navigate, and unfriendly. Let’s take a look at terms that define a bureaucracy to understand what they mean.

Hierarchy of authority refers to the chain of command that places one individual or office in charge of
another, who in turn must answer to her own superiors. For example, as an employee at Walmart, your shift
manager assigns you tasks. Your shift manager answers to his store manager, who must answer to her regional
manager, and so on, up to the CEO who must answer to the board members, who in turn answer to the
stockholders. Everyone in this bureaucracy follows the chain of command.

Bureaucracies have a clear division of labor: each individual has a specialized task to perform. For example,
at a university, psychology professors teach psychology, but they do not attempt to provide students with
financial aid forms. The Office of Admissions often takes on this task. In this case, it is a clear and
commonsense division. But what about in a restaurant where food is backed up in the kitchen and a hostess is
standing nearby texting on her phone? Her job is to seat customers, not to deliver food. Is this a smart division
of labor?

Bureaucracies have explicit rules, rules that are outlined, written down, and standardized. For example, at
your college or university, the student guidelines are contained within the Student Handbook. As technology
changes and campuses encounter new concerns like cyberbullying, identity theft, and other problems that
arise, organizations scramble to ensure their explicit rules cover these emerging issues.

Finally, bureaucracies are also characterized by impersonality, which takes personal feelings out of
professional situations. This characteristic grew, to some extent, out of a desire to avoid nepotism, backroom
deals, and other types of favoritism, while simultaneously protecting customers and others served by the
organization. Impersonality Bureaucracies can effectively and efficiently serve volumes of customers quickly.
However, explicit rules, clear division of labor, and a strict hierarchy of authority does not allow them to easily
adjust to unique or new situations. As a result, customers frequently complain that stores with bureaucratic
structures, like Walmart, care little about individuals, other businesses, and the community at large.

Bureaucracies are often meritocracies, meaning that hiring and promotion is based on proven and
documented skills, rather than on nepotism or random choice. In order to get into a prestigious college, you

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need to perform well on the SAT and have an impressive transcript. In order to become a lawyer and represent
clients, you must graduate law school and pass the state bar exam. Of course, there are many well-documented
examples of success by those who did not proceed through traditional meritocracies. Think about technology
companies with founders who dropped out of college, or performers who became famous after a YouTube
video went viral.

In addition, organizations that aspire to become meritocracies encounter challenges. How well do you think
established meritocracies identify talent? Wealthy families hire tutors, interview coaches, test-prep services,
and consultants to help their kids get into the best schools. This starts as early as kindergarten in New York
City, where competition for the most highly-regarded schools is especially fierce. Are these schools, many of
which have copious scholarship funds that are intended to make the school more democratic, really offering
all applicants a fair shake?

There are several positive aspects of bureaucracies. They are intended to improve efficiency, ensure equal
opportunities, and serve a large population. And there are times when rigid hierarchies are needed. But
remember that many of our bureaucracies grew large at the same time that our school model was
developed––during the Industrial Revolution. Young workers were trained, and organizations were built for
mass production, assembly line work, and factory jobs. In these scenarios, a clear chain of command was
critical. Now, in the information age, this kind of rigid training and adherence to protocol can actually decrease
both productivity and efficiency.

Today’s workplace requires a faster pace, more problem solving, and a flexible approach to work. Too much
adherence to explicit rules and a division of labor can leave an organization behind. And unfortunately, once
established, bureaucracies can take on a life of their own. Maybe you have heard the expression “trying to turn
a tanker around mid-ocean,” which refers to the difficulties of changing direction with something large and set
in its ways. State governments and current budget crises are examples of this challenge. It is almost impossible
to make quick changes, leading states to fail, year after year, to address increasingly unbalanced budgets.
Finally, bureaucracies, grew as institutions at a time when privileged white males held all the power. While
ostensibly based on meritocracy, bureaucracies can perpetuate the existing balance of power by only
recognizing the merit in traditionally male and privileged paths.

Michels (1911) suggested that all large organizations are characterized by the Iron Rule of Oligarchy, wherein
an entire organization is ruled by a few elites. Do you think this is true? Can a large organization be

FIGURE 6.9 This McDonald’s storefront in Egypt shows the McDonaldization of society. (Credit: s_w_ellis/flickr)

6.3 • Formal Organizations 161

The McDonaldization of Society

The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 1993) refers to the increasing presence of the fast food business
model in common social institutions, including government, education, and even relationships. The term itself
isn’t widely used in publications, research, or common conversation, but its effects are very familiar, even
commonplace. The McDonald’s model includes efficiency (the division of labor), predictability, calculability,
and control (monitoring). For example, in your average chain grocery store, people at the register check out
customers while stockers keep the shelves full of goods and deli workers slice meats and cheese to order
(efficiency). Whenever you enter a store within that grocery chain, you receive the same type of goods, see the
same store organization, and find the same brands at the same prices (predictability). You will find that goods
are sold by the pound, so that you can weigh your fruit and vegetable purchase rather than simply guessing at
the price for that bag of onions. The employees use a timecard to calculate their hours and receive overtime
pay (calculability). Finally, you will notice that all store employees are wearing a uniform, and usually a name
tag, so that they can be easily identified. There are security cameras to monitor the store, and some parts of the
store, such as the stockroom, are generally considered off-limits to customers (control). This approach is so
common in chain stores that you might not even notice it; in fact, if you went to a large-chain resturant or a
store like Walmart, seeing a worker or a process that didn’t have these uniform characteristics would seem

While McDonaldization has resulted in improved profits and an increased availability of various goods and
services to more people worldwide, it has also reduced the variety of goods available in the marketplace while
rendering available products uniform, generic, and bland. Think of the difference between a mass-produced
shoe and one made by a local cobbler, between a chicken from a family-owned farm and a corporate grower, or
between a cup of coffee from the local diner and one from Starbucks. Some more contemporary efforts can be
referred to as “de-McDonaldization”: farmers markets, microbreweries, and various do-it-yourself trends. And
with recent advertising and products emphasizing individuality, even McDonald’s seems to be de-
McDonaldizing itself.

The corporate impact of this phenomenon is interesting on its own, but sociologists and ordinary citizens are
often more concerned about its echoes in other areas of society. A primary example, discussed extensively
later on in this text, is education. Curricula and teaching practices were long the domain of local districts
under state guidance. Some experts felt that this led to both inefficiency and underperformance. Starting in
the 1990s and especially in the early 2000s with the No Child Left Behind law, national standards began to
override local approaches. But the desired outcome (improved education) is difficult to measure and far more
difficult to achieve. Due to funding gaps, difficult standards, and intense public and local government
opposition, the law was largely seen as having limited impact and was eventually phased out.

Healthcare has also gone to a mass production and efficiency model. As you will explore later in the text, U.S.
healthcare providers and insurers faced overwhelming increases in demand, partly the result of America’s
aging and less healthy population. In the 1990s, providers consolidated in what was called hospital “merger
mania.” Local hospitals and even small doctors’ offices were merged or acquired by larger systems (Fuchs
1997). The trend continued with new growth in providers like urgent care offices. Other efficiency and
standardization methods include telemedicine, new types of healthcare professionals, insurance mandates,
and artificial intelligence.

Secrets of the McJob
We often talk about bureaucracies disparagingly, and no organization takes more heat than fast food restaurants.
Several books and movies, such as Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schossler, paint
an ugly picture of what goes in, what goes on, and what comes out of fast food chains. From their environmental


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impact to their role in the U.S. obesity epidemic, fast food chains are connected to numerous societal ills.
Furthermore, working at a fast food restaurant is often disparaged, and even referred to dismissively, as having a
McJob rather than a real job.

But business school professor Jerry Newman went undercover and worked behind the counter at seven fast food
restaurants to discover what really goes on there. His book, My Secret Life on the McJob, documents his experience.
Unlike Schossler, Newman found that these restaurants offer much good alongside the bad. Specifically, he asserted
that the employees were honest and hardworking, that management was often impressive, and that the jobs
required a lot more skill and effort than most people imagined. In the book, Newman cites a pharmaceutical
executive who says a fast-food service job on an applicant’s résumé is a plus because it indicates the employee is
reliable and can handle pressure.

Businesses like Chipotle, Panera, and Costco attempt to combat many of the effects of McDonaldization. In fact,
Costco is known for paying its employees an average of $20 per hour, or slightly more than $40,000 per year. Nearly
90% of their employees receive health insurance from Costco, a number that is unheard of in the retail sector.

While Chipotle is not known for the high wages of its employees, it is known for attempting to sell high-quality foods
from responsibly sourced providers. This is a different approach from what Schossler describes among burger
chains like McDonalds.

So, what do you think? Are these McJobs and the organizations that offer them still serving an important role in the
economy and people’s careers? Or are they dead-end jobs that typify all that is negative about large bureaucracies?
Have you ever worked in one? Would you?

6.3 • Formal Organizations 163

Key Terms
aggregate a collection of people who exist in the same place at the same time, but who don’t interact or

share a sense of identity
authoritarian leader a leader who issues orders and assigns tasks
bureaucracies formal organizations characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a clear division of labor,

explicit rules, and impersonality.
category people who share similar characteristics but who are not connected in any way
clear division of labor the fact that each individual in a bureaucracy has a specialized task to perform
coercive organizations organizations that people do not voluntarily join, such as prison or a mental

conformity the extent to which an individual complies with group or societal norms
democratic leader a leader who encourages group participation and consensus-building before moving

into action
dyad a two-member group
explicit rules the types of rules in a bureaucracy; rules that are outlined, recorded, and standardized
expressive function a group function that serves an emotional need
expressive leader a leader who is concerned with process and with ensuring everyone’s emotional

formal organizations large, impersonal organizations
group any collection of at least two people who interact with some frequency and who share some sense of

aligned identity
hierarchy of authority a clear chain of command found in a bureaucracy
impersonality the removal of personal feelings from a professional situation
in-group a group a person belongs to and feels is an integral part of his identity
instrumental function being oriented toward a task or goal
instrumental leader a leader who is goal oriented with a primary focus on accomplishing tasks
Iron Rule of Oligarchy the theory that an organization is ruled by a few elites rather than through

laissez-faire leader a hands-off leader who allows members of the group to make their own decisions
leadership function the main focus or goal of a leader
leadership style the style a leader uses to achieve goals or elicit action from group members
McDonaldization of Society the increasing presence of the fast food business model in common social

meritocracy a bureaucracy where membership and advancement is based on merit—proven and

documented skills
normative or voluntary organizations organizations that people join to pursue shared interests or because

they provide some intangible rewards
out-group a group that an individual is not a member of, and may even compete with
primary groups small, informal groups of people who are closest to us
reference groups groups to which an individual compares herself
secondary groups larger and more impersonal groups that are task-focused and time limited
total institution an organization in which participants live a controlled lifestyle and in which total

resocialization occurs
triad a three-member group
utilitarian organizations organizations that are joined to fill a specific material need

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Section Summary
6.1 Types of Groups

Groups largely define how we think of ourselves. There are two main types of groups: primary and secondary.
As the names suggest, the primary group is the long-term, complex one. People use groups as standards of
comparison to define themselves—both who they are and who they are not. Sometimes groups can be used to
exclude people or as a tool that strengthens prejudice.

6.2 Group Size and Structure

The size and dynamic of a group greatly affects how members act. Primary groups rarely have formal leaders,
although there can be informal leadership. Groups generally are considered large when there are too many
members for a simultaneous discussion. In secondary groups there are two types of leadership functions, with
expressive leaders focused on emotional health and wellness, and instrumental leaders more focused on
results. Further, there are different leadership styles: democratic leaders, authoritarian leaders, and laissez-
faire leaders.

Within a group, conformity is the extent to which people want to go along with the norm. A number of
experiments have illustrated how strong the drive to conform can be. It is worth considering real-life examples
of how conformity and obedience can lead people to ethically and morally suspect acts.

6.3 Formal Organizations

Large organizations fall into three main categories: normative/voluntary, coercive, and utilitarian. We live in a
time of contradiction: while the pace of change and technology are requiring people to be more nimble and
less bureaucratic in their thinking, large bureaucracies like hospitals, schools, and governments are more
hampered than ever by their organizational format. At the same time, the past few decades have seen the
development of a trend to bureaucratize and conventionalize local institutions. Increasingly, Main Streets
across the country resemble each other; instead of a Bob’s Coffee Shop and Jane’s Hair Salon there is a Dunkin
Donuts and a Supercuts. This trend has been referred to as the McDonaldization of society.

Section Quiz
6.1 Types of Groups

1. What does a Functionalist consider when studying a phenomenon like the Tea Party movement?
a. The minute functions that every person at the protests plays in the whole
b. The internal conflicts that play out within such a diverse and leaderless group
c. How the movement contributes to the stability of society by offering the discontented a safe, controlled

outlet for dissension
d. The factions and divisions that form within the movement

2. What is the largest difference between the Functionalist and Conflict perspectives and the Interactionist
a. The former two consider long-term repercussions of the group or situation, while the latter focuses on

the present.
b. The first two are the more common sociological perspective, while the latter is a newer sociological

c. The first two focus on hierarchical roles within an organization, while the last takes a more holistic

d. The first two perspectives address large-scale issues facing groups, while the last examines more

detailed aspects.

6 • Section Summary 165

3. What role do secondary groups play in society?
a. They are transactional, task-based, and short-term, filling practical needs.
b. They provide a social network that allows people to compare themselves to others.
c. The members give and receive emotional support.
d. They allow individuals to challenge their beliefs and prejudices.

4. When a high school student gets teased by her basketball team for receiving an academic award, she is
dealing with competing ______________.
a. primary groups
b. out-groups
c. reference groups
d. secondary groups

5. Which of the following is not an example of an in-group?
a. The Ku Klux Klan
b. A fraternity
c. A synagogue
d. A high school

6. What is a group whose values, norms, and beliefs come to serve as a standard for one’s own behavior?
a. Secondary group
b. Formal organization
c. Reference group
d. Primary group

7. A parent who is worrying over her teenager’s dangerous and self-destructive behavior and low self-esteem
may wish to look at her child’s:
a. reference group
b. in-group
c. out-group
d. All of the above

6.2 Group Size and Structure

8. Two people who have just had a baby have turned from a _______ to a _________.
a. primary group; secondary group
b. dyad; triad
c. couple; family
d. de facto group; nuclear family

9. Who is more likely to be an expressive leader?
a. The sales manager of a fast-growing cosmetics company
b. A high school teacher at a reform school
c. The director of a summer camp for chronically ill children
d. A manager at a fast-food restaurant

166 6 • Section Quiz

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10. Which of the following is not an appropriate group for democratic leadership?
a. A fire station
b. A college classroom
c. A high school prom committee
d. A homeless shelter

11. In Asch’s study on conformity, what contributed to the ability of subjects to resist conforming?
a. A very small group of witnesses
b. The presence of an ally
c. The ability to keep one’s answer private
d. All of the above

12. Which type of group leadership has a communication pattern that flows from the top down?
a. Authoritarian
b. Democratic
c. Laissez-faire
d. Expressive

6.3 Formal Organizations

13. Which is not an example of a normative organization?
a. A book club
b. A church youth group
c. A People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protest group
d. A study hall

14. Which of these is an example of a total institution?
a. Jail
b. High school
c. Political party
d. A gym

15. Why do people join utilitarian organizations?
a. Because they feel an affinity with others there
b. Because they receive a tangible benefit from joining
c. Because they have no choice
d. Because they feel pressured to do so

16. Which of the following is not a characteristic of bureaucracies?
a. Coercion to join
b. Hierarchy of authority
c. Explicit rules
d. Division of labor

17. What are some of the intended positive aspects of bureaucracies?
a. Increased productivity
b. Increased efficiency
c. Equal treatment for all
d. All of the above

6 • Section Quiz 167

18. What is an advantage of the McDonaldization of society?
a. There is more variety of goods.
b. There is less theft.
c. There is more worldwide availability of goods.
d. There is more opportunity for businesses.

19. What is a disadvantage of the McDonaldization of society?
a. There is less variety of goods.
b. There is an increased need for employees with postgraduate degrees.
c. There is less competition so prices are higher.
d. There are fewer jobs so unemployment increases.

Short Answer
6.1 Types of Groups

1. How has technology changed your primary groups and secondary groups? Do you have more (and separate)
primary groups due to online connectivity? Do you believe that someone, like Levy, can have a true primary
group made up of people she has never met? Why, or why not?

2. Compare and contrast two different political groups or organizations, such as the MeToo and Tea Party
movements. How do the groups differ in terms of leadership, membership, and activities? How do the
group’s goals influence participants? Are any of them in-groups (and have they created out-groups)?
Explain your answer.

3. The concept of hate crimes has been linked to in-groups and out-groups. Can you think of an example
where people have been excluded or tormented due to this kind of group dynamic?

6.2 Group Size and Structure

4. Think of a scenario where an authoritarian leadership style would be beneficial. Explain. What are the
reasons it would work well? What are the risks?

5. Describe a time you were led by a leader using, in your opinion, a leadership style that didn’t suit the
situation. When and where was it? What could she or he have done better?

6. Imagine you are in Asch’s study. Would you find it difficult to give the correct answer in that scenario? Why
or why not? How would you change the study now to improve it?

7. What kind of leader do you tend to be? Do you embrace different leadership styles and functions as the
situation changes? Give an example of a time you were in a position of leadership and what function and
style you expressed.

6.3 Formal Organizations

8. What do you think about the recent spotlight on fast food restaurants? Do you think they contribute to
society’s ills? Do you believe they provide a needed service? Have you ever worked a job like this? What did
you learn?

9. Do you consider today’s large companies like General Motors, Amazon, or Facebook to be bureaucracies?
Why, or why not? Which of the main characteristics of bureaucracies do you see in them? Which are

10. Where do you prefer to shop, eat out, or grab a cup of coffee? Large chains like Walmart or smaller
retailers? Starbucks or a local restaurant? What do you base your decisions on? Does this section change
how you think about these choices? Why, or why not?

168 6 • Short Answer

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Further Research
6.1 Types of Groups

For more information about cyberbullying causes and statistics, check out this website on cyberbullying
research (http://openstax.org/l/Cyberbullying) .

6.2 Group Size and Structure

What is your leadership style? This leadership style quiz (http://openstax.org/l/Leadership) helps you find out.

6.3 Formal Organizations

As mentioned above, the concept of McDonaldization is a growing one. Check out this article discussing the
phenomenon of McDonaldization further (http://openstax.org/l/McDonaldization) .


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Fuchs, Victor R.. 1997. “Managed Care and Merger Mania,” JAMA 277.11 (920-921).

Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Chicago,
IL: Aldine.

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Michels, Robert. 1949 [1911]. Political Parties. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Newman, Jerry. 2007. My Secret Life on the McJob. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ritzer, George. 1993. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010–2011
Edition. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos162.htm).

Weber, Max. 1968 [1922]. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. New York: Bedminster.

6 • References 171

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FIGURE 7.1 In their push for marijuana legalization, advocates worked to change the notion that cannabis users
were associated with criminal behavior. (Credit: Cannabis Culture/flickr)


7.1 Deviance and Control
7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime
7.3 Crime and the Law

After decades of classification as an illegal substance, marijuana is now legal in some form in
nearly every state in the country. Most of the others have decriminalized the drug and/or have made it
available for medical use. Considering public opinion and the policy stances of governors and legislators just
ten or fifteen years ago, this is a remarkable turn of events.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center found for the first time that a majority of people in the United States (52
percent) favored legalizing marijuana. Until that point, most people were in favor of retaining the drug’s status
as illegal. (The question about marijuana’s legal status was first asked in a 1969 Gallup poll, and only 12
percent of U.S. adults favored legalization at that time.) Marijuana had for years been seen as a danger to
society, especially to youth, and many people applied stereotypes to users, often considering them lazy or
burdens on society, and often conflating marijuana use with negative stereotypes about race. In essence,
marijuana users were considered deviants.

Public opinion has certainly changed. That 2013 study showed support for legalization had just gone over the
50 percent mark. By 2019, the number was up to 67 percent. Fully two-thirds of Americans favored permitting
some types of legal usage, as well as decriminalization and elimination of jail time for users of the drug

7Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

(Daniller 2019). Government officials took note, and states began changing their policies. Now, many people
who had once shunned cannabis users are finding benefits of the substance, and perhaps rethinking their past

As in many aspects of sociology, there are no absolute answers about deviance. What people agree is deviant
differs in various societies and subcultures, and it may change over time.

Tattoos, vegan lifestyles, single parenthood, breast implants, and even jogging were once considered deviant
but are now widely accepted. The change process usually takes some time and may be accompanied by
significant disagreement, especially for social norms that are viewed as essential. For example, divorce affects
the social institution of family, and so divorce carried a deviant and stigmatized status at one time. Marijuana
use was once seen as deviant and criminal, but U.S. social norms on this issue are changing.

7.1 Deviance and Control
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Define deviance, and explain the nature of deviant behavior
• Differentiate between methods of social control

FIGURE 7.2 Are financial crimes deviant? Why do we consider them less harmful than other types of crimes, even
though they may impact many more victims? (Credit: Justin Ruckman/flickr)

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf was forced to resign after his company enrolled customers in unnecessary auto
insurance programs, while also fraudulently creating bank accounts without client consent. Both of these
actions are prohibited by a range of laws and regulations. Over a million victims were charged improper fees or
overcharged for insurance; some suffered reductions in their credit scores, and an estimated 25,000 people
had their cars improperly repossessed. Even though these actions were found to be criminal, no one from
Wells Fargo faced jail time, as is common in financial crimes. Deviance does not always align with punishment,
and perceptions of its impact vary greatly.

What, exactly, is deviance? And what is the relationship between deviance and crime? According to sociologist
William Graham Sumner, deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether
folkways, mores, or codified law (1906). It can be as minor as picking your nose in public or as major as
committing murder. Although the word “deviance” has a negative connotation in everyday language,
sociologists recognize that deviance is not necessarily bad (Schoepflin 2011). In fact, from a structural
functionalist perspective, one of the positive contributions of deviance is that it fosters social change. For

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example, during the U.S. civil rights movement, Rosa Parks violated social norms when she refused to move to
the “Black section” of the bus, and the Little Rock Nine broke customs of segregation to attend an Arkansas
public school.

“What is deviant behavior?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. Whether an act is labeled
deviant or not depends on many factors, including location, audience, and the individual committing the act
(Becker 1963). Listening to music on your phone on the way to class is considered acceptable behavior.
Listening to music during your 2 p.m. sociology lecture is considered rude. Listening to music when on the
witness stand before a judge may cause you to be held in contempt of court and consequently fined or jailed.

As norms vary across cultures and time, it also makes sense that notions of deviance change. Sixty years ago,
public schools in the United States had dress codes that often banned women from wearing pants to class.
Today, it’s socially acceptable for women to wear pants, but less so for men to wear skirts. And more recently,
the act of wearing or not wearing a mask became a matter of deviance, and in some cases, political affiliation
and legality. Whether an act is deviant or not depends on society’s response to that act.

Why I Drive a Hearse
When sociologist Todd Schoepflin ran into his childhood friend Bill, he was shocked to see him driving a hearse for
everyday tasks, instead of an ordinary car. A professionally trained researcher, Schoepflin wondered what effect
driving a hearse had on his friend and what effect it might have on others on the road. Would using such a vehicle for
everyday errands be considered deviant by most people?

Schoepflin interviewed Bill, curious first to know why he drove such an unconventional car. Bill had simply been on
the lookout for a reliable winter car; on a tight budget, he searched used car ads and stumbled upon one for the
hearse. The car ran well, and the price was right, so he bought it.

Bill admitted that others’ reactions to the car had been mixed. His parents were appalled, and he received odd
stares from his coworkers. A mechanic once refused to work on it, and stated that it was “a dead person machine.”
On the whole, however, Bill received mostly positive reactions. Strangers gave him a thumbs-up on the highway and
stopped him in parking lots to chat about his car. His girlfriend loved it, his friends wanted to take it tailgating, and
people offered to buy it. Could it be that driving a hearse isn’t really so deviant after all?

Schoepflin theorized that, although viewed as outside conventional norms, driving a hearse is such a mild form of
deviance that it actually becomes a mark of distinction. Conformists find the choice of vehicle intriguing or
appealing, while nonconformists see a fellow oddball to whom they can relate. As one of Bill’s friends remarked,
“Every guy wants to own a unique car like this, and you can certainly pull it off.” Such anecdotes remind us that
although deviance is often viewed as a violation of norms, it’s not always viewed in a negative light (Schoepflin


7.1 • Deviance and Control 175

FIGURE 7.3 A hearse with the license plate “LASTRYD.” How would you view the owner of this car? (Credit: Brian

Deviance, Crime, and Society

Deviance is a more encompassing term than crime, meaning that it includes a range of activities, some of
which are crimes and some of which are not. Sociologists may study both with equal interest, but, as a whole,
society views crime as far more significant. Crime preoccupies several levels of government, and it drives
concerns among families and communities.

Deviance may be considered relative: Behaviors may be considered deviant based mostly on the
circumstances in which they occurred; those circumstances may drive the perception of deviance more than
the behavior itself. Relatively minor acts of deviance can have long-term impacts on the person and the people
around them. For example, if an adult, who should “know better,” spoke loudly or told jokes at a funeral, they
may be chastised and forever marked as disrespectful or unusual. But in many cultures, funerals are followed
by social gatherings – some taking on a party-like atmosphere – so those same jovial behaviors would be
perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, just an hour later.

As discussed earlier, we typically learn these social norms as children and evolve them with experience. But
the relativity of deviance can have significant societal impacts, including perceptions and prosecutions of
crime. They may often be based on racial, ethnic, or related prejudices. When 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford of
the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter her legally desegregated high school, she was abiding by the law; but
she was considered deviant by the crowd of White people that harassed and insulted her. (These events are
discussed in more detail in the Education chapter.)

Consider the example of marijuana legalization mentioned earlier. Why was marijuana illegal in the first
place? In fact, it wasn’t. Humans have used cannabis openly in their societies for thousands of years. While it
was not a widely used substance in the United States, it had been accepted as a medicinal and recreational
option, and was neither prohibited nor significantly regulated until the early 1900s. What changed?

In the early 1900s, an influx of immigrants began entering the country from Mexico. These newcomers took up
residence in White communities, spoke a different language, and began competing for jobs and resources.
They used marijuana more frequently than most Americans. Police and others began to circulate rumors
regarding the substance’s link to violence and immorality. Newspapers and lawmakers spoke about the
“Marijuana Menace” and the “evil weed,” and articles and images began to portray it as a corrupting force on
America’s youth. Beginning in 1916, state after state began passing laws prohibiting marijuana use, and in
1937 Congress passed a federal law banning it (White 2012). Penalties for its usage increased over time,

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spiking during the War on Drugs, with racially and ethnically disparate applications. But more recently, as
discussed in the introduction, marijuana is once again seen as an important medical treatment and an
acceptable recreational pursuit. What changed this time?

Perceptions and proclamations of deviance have long been a means to oppress people by labeling their private
behavior as criminal. Until the 1970s and 1980s, same-sex acts were prohibited by state laws. It was illegal to
be gay or lesbian, and the restrictions extended to simple displays like holding hands. Other laws prohibited
clothing deemed “inappropriate” for one’s biological sex. As a result, military service members and even war
veterans were dishonorably discharged (losing all benefits) if they were discovered to be gay. Police harassed
and humiliated LGBTQ people and regularly raided gay bars. And anti-LGBTQ street violence or hate crimes
were tacitly permitted because they were rarely prosecuted and often lightly punished. While most states had
eliminated their anti-LGBTQ laws by the time the Supreme Court struck them down in 2003, 14 states still had
some version of them on the books.

To further explore the relativity of deviance and its relationship to perceptions of crime, consider gambling.
Excessive or high-risk gambling is usually seen as deviant, but more moderate gambling is generally accepted.
Still, gambling has long been limited in most of the United States, making it a crime to participate in certain
types of gambling or to do so outside of specified locations. For example, a state may allow betting on horse
races but not on sports. Changes to these laws are occurring, but for decades, a generally non-deviant behavior
has been made criminal: When otherwise law-abiding people decided to engage in low-stakes and non-
excessive gambling, they were breaking the law. Sociologists may study the essential question arising from this
situation: Are these gamblers being deviant by breaking the law, even when the actual behavior at hand is not
generally considered deviant?

Social Control

When a person violates a social norm, what happens? A driver caught speeding can receive a speeding ticket.
A student who wears a bathrobe to class gets a warning from a professor. An adult belching loudly is avoided.
All societies practice social control, the regulation and enforcement of norms. The underlying goal of social
control is to maintain social order, an arrangement of practices and behaviors on which society’s members
base their daily lives. Think of social order as an employee handbook and social control as a manager. When a
worker violates a workplace guideline, the manager steps in to enforce the rules; when an employee is doing an
exceptionally good job at following the rules, the manager may praise or promote the employee.

The means of enforcing rules are known as sanctions. Sanctions can be positive as well as negative. Positive
sanctions are rewards given for conforming to norms. A promotion at work is a positive sanction for working
hard. Negative sanctions are punishments for violating norms. Being arrested is a punishment for shoplifting.
Both types of sanctions play a role in social control.

Sociologists also classify sanctions as formal or informal. Although shoplifting, a form of social deviance, may
be illegal, there are no laws dictating the proper way to scratch your nose. That doesn’t mean picking your nose
in public won’t be punished; instead, you will encounter informal sanctions. Informal sanctions emerge in
face-to-face social interactions. For example, wearing flip-flops to an opera or swearing loudly in church may
draw disapproving looks or even verbal reprimands, whereas behavior that is seen as positive—such as helping
an elderly person carry grocery bags across the street—may receive positive informal reactions, such as a
smile or pat on the back.

Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are ways to officially recognize and enforce norm violations. If a student
violates a college’s code of conduct, for example, the student might be expelled. Someone who speaks
inappropriately to the boss could be fired. Someone who commits a crime may be arrested or imprisoned. On
the positive side, a soldier who saves a life may receive an official commendation.

The table below shows the relationship between different types of sanctions.

7.1 • Deviance and Control 177

Informal Formal

Positive An expression of thanks A promotion at work

Negative An angry comment A parking fine

TABLE 7.1 Informal/Formal Sanctions Formal and informal
sanctions may be positive or negative. Informal sanctions
arise in social interactions, whereas formal sanctions officially
enforce norms.

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society through four sociologist’s theories
• Explain how conflict theory understands deviance and crime in society
• Describe the symbolic interactionist approach to deviance, including labeling and other theories

FIGURE 7.4 Functionalists believe that deviance plays an important role in society and can be used to challenge
people’s views. Protesters, such as these PETA members, often use this method to draw attention to their cause.
(Credit: David Shankbone/flickr)

Why does deviance occur? How does it affect a society? Since the early days of sociology, scholars have
developed theories that attempt to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be
grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and
conflict theory.


Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach are concerned with the way the different elements of a
society contribute to the whole. They view deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Strain theory,
social disorganization theory, and cultural deviance theory represent three functionalist perspectives on
deviance in society.

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Émile Durkheim: The Essential Nature of Deviance

Émile Durkheim believed that deviance is a necessary part of a successful society. One way deviance is
functional, he argued, is that it challenges people’s present views (1893). For instance, when Black students
across the United States participated in sit-ins during the civil rights movement, they challenged society’s
notions of segregation. Moreover, Durkheim noted, when deviance is punished, it reaffirms currently held
social norms, which also contributes to society (1893). Seeing a student given detention for skipping class
reminds other high schoolers that playing hooky isn’t allowed and that they, too, could get detention.

Durkheim’s point regarding the impact of punishing deviance speaks to his arguments about law. Durkheim
saw laws as an expression of the “collective conscience,” which are the beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a
society. “A crime is a crime because we condemn it,” he said (1893). He discussed the impact of societal size
and complexity as contributors to the collective conscience and the development of justice systems and
punishments. For example, in large, industrialized societies that were largely bound together by the
interdependence of work (the division of labor), punishments for deviance were generally less severe. In
smaller, more homogeneous societies, deviance might be punished more severely.

Robert Merton: Strain Theory

Sociologist Robert Merton agreed that deviance is an inherent part of a functioning society, but he expanded
on Durkheim’s ideas by developing strain theory, which notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a
part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates. From birth, we’re encouraged to achieve the
“American Dream” of financial success. A person who attends business school, receives an MBA, and goes on
to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our
society stands on equal footing. That MBA-turned-CEO may have grown up in the best school district and had
means to hire tutors. Another person may grow up in a neighborhood with lower-quality schools, and may not
be able to pay for extra help. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a
socially acceptable way to reach that goal. According to Merton’s theory, an entrepreneur who can’t afford to
launch their own company may be tempted to embezzle from their employer for start-up funds.

Merton defined five ways people respond to this gap between having a socially accepted goal and having no
socially accepted way to pursue it.

1. Conformity: Those who conform choose not to deviate. They pursue their goals to the extent that they can
through socially accepted means.

2. Innovation: Those who innovate pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by instead
using criminal or deviant means.

3. Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable
ways. These members of society focus on conformity rather than attaining a distant dream.

4. Retreatism: Others retreat and reject society’s goals and means. Some people who beg and people who are
homeless have withdrawn from society’s goal of financial success.

5. Rebellion: A handful of people rebel and replace a society’s goals and means with their own. Terrorists or
freedom fighters look to overthrow a society’s goals through socially unacceptable means.

Social Disorganization Theory

Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory
asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social
control. An individual who grows up in a poor neighborhood with high rates of drug use, violence, teenage
delinquency, and deprived parenting is more likely to become engaged in crime than an individual from a
wealthy neighborhood with a good school system and families who are involved positively in the community.

7.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime 179

FIGURE 7.5 Proponents of social disorganization theory believe that individuals who grow up in impoverished areas
are more likely to participate in deviant or criminal behaviors. (Credit: Apollo 1758/Wikimedia Commons)

Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person isn’t born as
someone who will commit crimes but becomes one over time, often based on factors in their social
environment. Robert Sampson and Byron Groves (1989) found that poverty and family disruption in given
localities had a strong positive correlation with social disorganization. They also determined that social
disorganization was, in turn, associated with high rates of crime and delinquency—or deviance. Recent studies
Sampson conducted with Lydia Bean (2006) revealed similar findings. High rates of poverty and single-parent
homes correlated with high rates of juvenile violence. Research into social disorganization theory can greatly
influence public policy. For instance, studies have found that children from disadvantaged communities who
attend preschool programs that teach basic social skills are significantly less likely to engage in criminal
activity. (Lally 1987)

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance. Unlike
functionalists, conflict theorists don’t see these factors as positive functions of society. They see them as
evidence of inequality in the system. They also challenge social disorganization theory and control theory and
argue that both ignore racial and socioeconomic issues and oversimplify social trends (Akers 1991). Conflict
theorists also look for answers to the correlation of gender and race with wealth and crime.

Karl Marx: An Unequal System

Conflict theory was greatly influenced by the work of German philosopher, economist, and social scientist Karl
Marx. Marx believed that the general population was divided into two groups. He labeled the wealthy, who
controlled the means of production and business, the bourgeois. He labeled the workers who depended on the
bourgeois for employment and survival the proletariat. Marx believed that the bourgeois centralized their
power and influence through government, laws, and other authority agencies in order to maintain and expand
their positions of power in society. Though Marx spoke little of deviance, his ideas created the foundation for
conflict theorists who study the intersection of deviance and crime with wealth and power.

C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite

In his book The Power Elite (1956), sociologist C. Wright Mills described the existence of what he dubbed the
power elite, a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and
resources. Wealthy executives, politicians, celebrities, and military leaders often have access to national and

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international power, and in some cases, their decisions affect everyone in society. Because of this, the rules of
society are stacked in favor of a privileged few who manipulate them to stay on top. It is these people who
decide what is criminal and what is not, and the effects are often felt most by those who have little power. Mills’
theories explain why celebrities can commit crimes and suffer little or no legal retribution. For example, USA
Today maintains a database of NFL players accused and convicted of crimes. 51 NFL players had been
convicted of committing domestic violence between the years 2000 and 2019. They have been sentenced to a
collective 49 days in jail, and most of those sentences were deferred or otherwise reduced. In most cases,
suspensions and fines levied by the NFL or individual teams were more severe than the justice system’s
(Schrotenboer 2020 and clickitticket.com 2019).

Crime and Social Class

While crime is often associated with the underprivileged, crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful
remain an under-punished and costly problem within society. The FBI reported that victims of burglary,
larceny, and motor vehicle theft lost a total of $15.3 billion dollars in 2009 (FB1 2010). In comparison, when
former advisor and financier Bernie Madoff was arrested in 2008, the U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission reported that the estimated losses of his financial Ponzi scheme fraud were close to $50 billion
(SEC 2009).

This imbalance based on class power is also found within U.S. criminal law. In the 1980s, the use of crack
cocaine (a less expensive but powerful drug) quickly became an epidemic that swept the country’s poorest
urban communities. Its pricier counterpart, cocaine, was associated with upscale users and was a drug of
choice for the wealthy. The legal implications of being caught by authorities with crack versus cocaine were
starkly different. In 1986, federal law mandated that being caught in possession of 50 grams of crack was
punishable by a ten-year prison sentence. An equivalent prison sentence for cocaine possession, however,
required possession of 5,000 grams. In other words, the sentencing disparity was 1 to 100 (New York Times
Editorial Staff 2011). This inequality in the severity of punishment for crack versus cocaine paralleled the
unequal social class of respective users. A conflict theorist would note that those in society who hold the power
are also the ones who make the laws concerning crime. In doing so, they make laws that will benefit them,
while the powerless classes who lack the resources to make such decisions suffer the consequences.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, states passed numerous laws increasing penalties, especially for
repeat offenders. The U.S. government passed an even more significant law, the Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act of 1994 (known as the 1994 Crime Bill), which further increased penalties, funded prisons,
and incentivized law enforcement agencies to further pursue drug offenders. One outcome of these policies
was the mass incarceration of Black and Hispanic people, which led to a cycle of poverty and reduced social
mobility. The crack-cocaine punishment disparity remained until 2010, when President Obama signed the
Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased the disparity to 1 to 18 (The Sentencing Project 2010).

7.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime 181

FIGURE 7.6 From 1986 until 2010, the punishment for possessing crack, a “poor person’s drug,” was 100 times
stricter than the punishment for cocaine use, a drug favored by the wealthy. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social
groups come to view behaviors as deviant or conventional.

Labeling Theory

Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Those who
do, however, have often been labeled “deviant” by society and have gradually come to believe it themselves.
Labeling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society. Thus,
what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviors themselves or the people who commit
them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviors. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over
time and can vary significantly across cultures.

Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labeling theory and identified two types of deviance
that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term
effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a
speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-
concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are
likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.

Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary
deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled
as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of
rebellion against the society that has labeled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school
student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and
school staff, and soon enough, develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting
out even more and breaking more rules; the student has adopted the “troublemaker” label and embraced this
deviant identity. Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A
master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves
primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts.

Techniques of Neutralization

How do people deal with the labels they are given? This was the subject of a study done by Sykes and Matza
(1957). They studied teenage boys who had been labeled as juvenile delinquents to see how they either
embraced or denied these labels. Have you ever used any of these techniques?

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Let’s take a scenario and apply all five techniques to explain how they are used. A young person is working for
a retail store as a cashier. Their cash drawer has been coming up short for a few days. When the boss confronts
the employee, they are labeled as a thief for the suspicion of stealing. How does the employee deal with this

The Denial of Responsibility: When someone doesn’t take responsibility for their actions or blames others.
They may use this technique and say that it was their boss’s fault because they don’t get paid enough to make
rent or because they’re getting a divorce. They are rejecting the label by denying responsibility for the action.

The Denial of Injury: Sometimes people will look at a situation in terms of what effect it has on others. If the
employee uses this technique they may say, “What’s the big deal? Nobody got hurt. Your insurance will take
care of it.” The person doesn’t see their actions as a big deal because nobody “got hurt.”

The Denial of the Victim: If there is no victim there’s no crime. In this technique the person sees their actions
as justified or that the victim deserved it. Our employee may look at their situation and say, “I’ve worked here
for years without a raise. I was owed that money and if you won’t give it to me I’ll get it my own way.”

The Condemnation of the Condemners: The employee might “turn it around on” the boss by blaming them.
They may say something like, “You don’t know my life, you have no reason to judge me.” This is taking the
focus off of their actions and putting the onus on the accuser to, essentially, prove the person is living up to the
label, which also shifts the narrative away from the deviant behavior.

Appeal to a Higher Authority: The final technique that may be used is to claim that the actions were for a
higher purpose. The employee may tell the boss that they stole the money because their mom is sick and needs
medicine or something like that. They are justifying their actions by making it seem as though the purpose for
the behavior is a greater “good” than the action is “bad.” (Sykes & Matza, 1957)

The Right to Vote
Before she lost her job as an administrative assistant, Leola Strickland postdated and mailed a handful of checks for
amounts ranging from $90 to $500. By the time she was able to find a new job, the checks had bounced, and she
was convicted of fraud under Mississippi law. Strickland pleaded guilty to a felony charge and repaid her debts; in
return, she was spared from serving prison time.

Strickland appeared in court in 2001. More than ten years later, she is still feeling the sting of her sentencing. Why?
Because Mississippi is one of twelve states in the United States that bans convicted felons from voting (ProCon

To Strickland, who said she had always voted, the news came as a great shock. She isn’t alone. Some 5.3 million
people in the United States are currently barred from voting because of felony convictions (ProCon 2009). These
individuals include inmates, parolees, probationers, and even people who have never been jailed, such as Leola

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, states are allowed to deny voting privileges to individuals who have participated
in “rebellion or other crime” (Krajick 2004). Although there are no federally mandated laws on the matter, most
states practice at least one form of felony disenfranchisement.

Is it fair to prevent citizens from participating in such an important process? Proponents of disfranchisement laws
argue that felons have a debt to pay to society. Being stripped of their right to vote is part of the punishment for
criminal deeds. Such proponents point out that voting isn’t the only instance in which ex-felons are denied rights;
state laws also ban released criminals from holding public office, obtaining professional licenses, and sometimes
even inheriting property (Lott and Jones 2008).


7.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime 183

Opponents of felony disfranchisement in the United States argue that voting is a basic human right and should be
available to all citizens regardless of past deeds. Many point out that felony disfranchisement has its roots in the
1800s, when it was used primarily to block Black citizens from voting. These laws disproportionately target poor
minority members, denying them a chance to participate in a system that, as a social conflict theorist would point
out, is already constructed to their disadvantage (Holding 2006). Those who cite labeling theory worry that denying
deviants the right to vote will only further encourage deviant behavior. If ex-criminals are disenfranchised from
voting, are they being disenfranchised from society?

FIGURE 7.7 Should a former felony conviction permanently strip a U.S. citizen of the right to vote? (Credit: Joshin

Edwin Sutherland: Differential Association

In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland sought to understand how deviant behavior developed among
people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social
interactions and group learning (Laub 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory,
which suggested that individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and
opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of
differential socialization processes. For example, a young person whose friends are sexually active is more
likely to view sexual activity as acceptable. Sutherland developed a series of propositions to explain how
deviance is learned. In proposition five, for example, he discussed how people begin to accept and participate
in a behavior after learning whether it is viewed as “favorable” by those around them. In proposition six,
Sutherland expressed the ways that exposure to more “definitions” favoring the deviant behavior than those
opposing it may eventually lead a person to partake in deviance (Sutherland 1960), applying almost a
quantitative element to the learning of certain behaviors. In the example above, a young person may find
sexual activity more acceptable once a certain number of their friends become sexually active, not after only

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one does so.

Sutherland’s theory may explain why crime is multigenerational. A longitudinal study beginning in the 1960s
found that the best predictor of antisocial and criminal behavior in children was whether their parents had
been convicted of a crime (Todd and Jury 1996). Children who were younger than ten years old when their
parents were convicted were more likely than other children to engage in spousal abuse and criminal behavior
by their early thirties. Even when taking socioeconomic factors such as dangerous neighborhoods, poor school
systems, and overcrowded housing into consideration, researchers found that parents were the main influence
on the behavior of their offspring (Todd and Jury 1996).

Travis Hirschi: Control Theory

Continuing with an examination of large social factors, control theory states that social control is directly
affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society.
Individuals who believe they are a part of society are less likely to commit crimes against it.

Travis Hirschi (1969) identified four types of social bonds that connect people to society:

1. Attachment measures our connections to others. When we are closely attached to people, we worry about
their opinions of us. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval)
from family, friends, and romantic partners.

2. Commitment refers to the investments we make in the community. A well-respected local businessperson
who volunteers at their synagogue and is a member of the neighborhood block organization has more to
lose from committing a crime than a person who doesn’t have a career or ties to the community.

3. Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s
likelihood of deviance. A child who plays little league baseball and takes art classes has fewer
opportunities to ______.

4. The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as
beliefs, they will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park, because a
clean environment is a social value to them (Hirschi 1969).


Deviance arises from:

Strain Theory Robert Merton
A lack of ways to reach socially accepted goals by accepted


University of
Chicago researchers

Weak social ties and a lack of social control; society has lost the
ability to enforce norms with some groups

Cultural Deviance

Clifford Shaw and
Henry McKay

Conformity to the cultural norms of lower-class society

Conflict Theory

Deviance arises from:

Unequal System Karl Marx
Inequalities in wealth and power that arise from the economic


7.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime 185

Power Elite C. Wright Mills
Ability of those in power to define deviance in ways that maintain
the status quo



Deviance arises from:

Labeling Theory Edwin Lemert
The reactions of others, particularly those in power who are able to
determine labels


Edwin Sutherland
Learning and modeling deviant behavior seen in other people close
to the individual

Control Theory Travis Hirschi Feelings of disconnection from society


7.3 Crime and the Law
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Identify and differentiate between different types of crimes
• Evaluate U.S. crime statistics
• Understand the three branches of the U.S. criminal justice system

FIGURE 7.8 Both underage smoking and underage vaping are either illegal or highly regulated in every U.S. state. If
vaping is a crime, who is the victim? What is the obligation of the government to protect children, and in some cases
adults, from themselves? (Credit: Vaping360/flickr)

Although deviance is a violation of social norms, it’s not always punishable, and it’s not necessarily bad. Crime,
on the other hand, is a behavior that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions. Walking
to class backward is a deviant behavior. Driving with a blood alcohol percentage over the state’s limit is a
crime. Like other forms of deviance, however, ambiguity exists concerning what constitutes a crime and
whether all crimes are, in fact, “bad” and deserve punishment. For example, during the 1960s, civil rights
activists often violated laws intentionally as part of their effort to bring about racial equality. In hindsight, we
recognize that the laws that deemed many of their actions crimes—for instance, Rosa Parks refusing to give up

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her seat to a White man—were inconsistent with social equality.

As you have learned, all societies have informal and formal ways of maintaining social control. Within these
systems of norms, societies have legal codes that maintain formal social control through laws, which are rules
adopted and enforced by a political authority. Those who violate these rules incur negative formal sanctions.
Normally, punishments are relative to the degree of the crime and the importance to society of the value
underlying the law. As we will see, however, there are other factors that influence criminal sentencing.

Types of Crimes

Not all crimes are given equal weight. Society generally socializes its members to view certain crimes as more
severe than others. For example, most people would consider murdering someone to be far worse than
stealing a wallet and would expect a murderer to be punished more severely than a thief. In modern U.S.
society, crimes are classified as one of two types based on their severity. Violent crimes (also known as
“crimes against a person”) are based on the use of force or the threat of force. Rape, murder, and armed
robbery fall under this category. Nonviolent crimes involve the destruction or theft of property but do not use
force or the threat of force. Because of this, they are also sometimes called “property crimes.” Larceny, car
theft, and vandalism are all types of nonviolent crimes. If you use a crowbar to break into a car, you are
committing a nonviolent crime; if you mug someone with the crowbar, you are committing a violent crime.

When we think of crime, we often picture street crime, or offenses committed by ordinary people against
other people or organizations, usually in public spaces. An often overlooked category is corporate crime, or
crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment. Embezzlement, insider trading, and
identity theft are all types of corporate crime. Although these types of offenses rarely receive the same amount
of media coverage as street crimes, they can be far more damaging. Financial frauds such as insurance scams,
Ponzi schemes, and improper practices by banks can devastate families who lose their savings or home.

An often-debated third type of crime is victimless crime. Crimes are called victimless when the perpetrator is
not explicitly harming another person. As opposed to battery or theft, which clearly have a victim, a crime like
drinking a beer when someone is twenty years old or selling a sexual act do not result in injury to anyone other
than the individual who engages in them, although they are illegal. While some claim acts like these are
victimless, others argue that they actually do harm society. Prostitution may foster abuse toward women by
clients or pimps. Drug use may increase the likelihood of employee absences. Such debates highlight how the
deviant and criminal nature of actions develops through ongoing public discussion.

Hate Crimes
Attacks based on a person’s race, religion, or other characteristics are known as hate crimes. Hate crimes in the
United States evolved from the time of early European settlers and their violence toward Native Americans. Such
crimes weren’t investigated until the early 1900s, when the Ku Klux Klan began to draw national attention for its
activities against Black people and other groups. The term “hate crime,” however, didn’t become official until the
1980s (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2011).

The severity and impact of hate crimes is significant, but the different crime reporting methods mentioned earlier
can obscure the issue. According to the Department of Justice, an average of approximately 205,000 Americans
fall victim to hate crimes each year (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2021). But the FBI reports a much lower
number; for example, the 2019 report indicates 7,314 criminal incidents and 8,559 related offenses as being
motivated by bias (FBI 2020). The discrepancy is due to many factors: very few people actually report hate
crimes for fear of retribution or based on the difficulties of enduring a criminal proceeding; also, law enforcement
agencies must find clear proof that a particular crime was motivated by bias rather than other factors. (For
example, an assailant who robs someone and uses a slur while committing that crime may not be deemed to be


7.3 • Crime and the Law 187

bias-motivated.) But both reports show a growth in hate crimes, with quantities increasing each year.

The majority of hate crimes are racially motivated, but many are based on religious (especially anti-Semitic)
prejudice (FBI 2020). The murders of Brandon Teena in 1993 and Matthew Shepard in 1998 significantly
increased awareness of hate crimes based on gender expression and sexual orientation; LGBTQ people remain a
major target of hate crimes.

The motivation behind hate crimes can arise quickly, singling out specific groups who endure a rash of abuses in
a short period of time. For example, beginning in 2020, people increasingly began committing violent crimes
against people of Asian descent, with evidence that the attackers associated the victims with the coronavirus
pandemic (Asian American Bar Association 2021).

FIGURE 7.9 Bias Motivation Categories for Victims of Single-bias Incidents in 2019. The FBI Hate Crimes report
identified 8,552 victims of hate crimes in 2019. This represents less than five percent of the number of people
who claimed to be victims of hate crimes when surveyed. (Graph courtesy of FBI 2020)

Crime Statistics

The FBI gathers data from approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies, and the Uniform Crime Reports
(UCR) is the annual publication of this data (FBI 2021). The UCR has comprehensive information from police
reports but fails to account for the many crimes that go unreported, often due to victims’ fear, shame, or
distrust of the police. The quality of this data is also inconsistent because of differences in approaches to
gathering victim data; important details are not always asked for or reported (Cantor and Lynch 2000). As of
2021, states will be required to provide data for the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which
captures more detailed information on each crime, including time of day, location, and other contexts. NIBRS
is intended to provide more data-informed discussion to better improve crime prevention and policing (FBI

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes a separate self-report study known as the National Crime
Victimization Survey (NCVS). A self-report study is a collection of data gathered using voluntary response
methods, such as questionnaires or telephone interviews. Self-report data are gathered each year, asking
approximately 160,000 people in the United States about the frequency and types of crime they’ve

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experienced in their daily lives (BJS 2019). The NCVS reports a higher rate of crime than the UCR, likely
picking up information on crimes that were experienced but never reported to the police. Age, race, gender,
location, and income-level demographics are also analyzed.

The NCVS survey format allows people to more openly discuss their experiences and also provides a more-
detailed examination of crimes, which may include information about consequences, relationship between
victim and criminal, and substance abuse involved. One disadvantage is that the NCVS misses some groups of
people, such as those who don’t have telephones and those who move frequently. The quality of information
may also be reduced by inaccurate victim recall of the crime (Cantor and Lynch 2000).

Public Perception of Crime

Neither the NCVR nor the UCR accounts for all crime in the United States, but general trends can be
determined. Crime rates, particularly for violent and gun-related crimes, have been on the decline since
peaking in the early 1990s (Cohn, Taylor, Lopez, Gallagher, Parker, and Maass 2013). However, the public
believes crime rates are still high, or even worsening. Recent surveys (Saad 2011; Pew Research Center 2013,
cited in Overburg and Hoyer 2013) have found U.S. adults believe crime is worse now than it was twenty years

Inaccurate public perception of crime may be heightened by popular crime series such as Law & Order (Warr
2008) and by extensive and repeated media coverage of crime. Many researchers have found that people who
closely follow media reports of crime are likely to estimate the crime rate as inaccurately high and more likely
to feel fearful about the chances of experiencing crime (Chiricos, Padgett, and Gertz 2000). Recent research
has also found that people who reported watching news coverage of 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombing for
more than an hour daily became more fearful of future terrorism (Holman, Garfin, and Silver 2014).

The U.S. Criminal Justice System

A criminal justice system is an organization that exists to enforce a legal code. There are three branches of the
U.S. criminal justice system: the police, the courts, and the corrections system.


Police are a civil force in charge of enforcing laws and public order at a federal, state, or community level. No
unified national police force exists in the United States, although there are federal law enforcement officers.
Federal officers operate under specific government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations
(FBI); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); and the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS). Federal officers can only deal with matters that are explicitly within the power of the federal
government, and their field of expertise is usually narrow. A county police officer may spend time responding
to emergency calls, working at the local jail, or patrolling areas as needed, whereas a federal officer would be
more likely to investigate suspects in firearms trafficking or provide security for government officials.

State police have the authority to enforce statewide laws, including regulating traffic on highways. Local or
county police, on the other hand, have a limited jurisdiction with authority only in the town or county in which
they serve.

7.3 • Crime and the Law 189

FIGURE 7.10 Police use a range of tools and resources to protect the community and prevent crime. As a part of K9
units, dogs search for explosives or illegal substances on trains and at other public facilities. (Credit: MTA/flickr)


Once a crime has been committed and a violator has been identified by the police, the case goes to court. A
court is a system that has the authority to make decisions based on law. The U.S. judicial system is divided into
federal courts and state courts. As the name implies, federal courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) deal
with federal matters, including trade disputes, military justice, and government lawsuits. Judges who preside
over federal courts are selected by the president with the consent of Congress.

State courts vary in their structure but generally include three levels: trial courts, appellate courts, and state
supreme courts. In contrast to the large courtroom trials in TV shows, most noncriminal cases are decided by a
judge without a jury present. Traffic court and small claims court are both types of trial courts that handle
specific civil matters.

Criminal cases are heard by trial courts with general jurisdictions. Usually, a judge and jury are both present. It
is the jury’s responsibility to determine guilt and the judge’s responsibility to determine the penalty, though in
some states the jury may also decide the penalty. Unless a defendant is found “not guilty,” any member of the
prosecution or defense (whichever is the losing side) can appeal the case to a higher court. In some states, the
case then goes to a special appellate court; in others it goes to the highest state court, often known as the state
supreme court.

FIGURE 7.11 This county courthouse in Kansas (left) is a typical setting for a state trial court. Compare this to the

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courtroom of the Michigan Supreme Court (right). (Credit: (a) Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) Steve &
Christine/Wikimedia Commons)


The corrections system is charged with supervising individuals who have been arrested, convicted, and
sentenced for a criminal offense, plus people detained while awaiting hearings, trials, or other procedures. At
the end of 2018, approximately 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States (BJS 2020); these
include people who are in state and federal prisons as well as those in local jails or related facilities, as
explained below. Since many convicted people are placed on probation or parole, have their sentences
deferred or otherwise altered, or are released under other circumstances, the total number of people within
the corrections system is much higher. In 2018, the total number of people either incarcerated, detained,
paroled, or on probation was 6,410,000 (BJS 2020).

The U.S. incarceration rate has grown considerably in the last hundred years, but has begun to decline in the
past decade. The total correctional population (including parolees and those on probation), peaked in 2007 at
7.3 million, resulting in approximately 1 in 32 people being under some sort of correctional supervision. With
the 2018 correction system number close to 6.4 million people, that ratio goes to 1 in every 40 people (BJS
2020). The declines are seen as a positive, but the United States holds the largest number of prisoners of any
nation in the world.

Prison is different from jail. A jail provides temporary confinement, usually while an individual awaits trial or
parole. Prisons are facilities built for individuals serving sentences of more than a year. Whereas jails are small
and local, prisons are large and run by either the state or the federal government. While incarcerated, people
have differing levels of freedom and opportunity for engagement. Some inmates have options to take classes,
play organized sports, and otherwise enrich themselves, usually with the goal of improving their lives upon
release. Other incarcerated people have very limited opportunities. Usually these distinctions are based on the
severity of their crimes and their behavior once imprisoned, but available resources and funding can be a
significant factor.

Parole refers to a temporary release from prison or jail that requires supervision and the consent of officials.
Parole is different from probation, which is supervised time used as an alternative to prison. Probation and
parole can both follow a period of incarceration in prison, especially if the prison sentence is shortened. Most
people in these situations are supervised by correctional officers or other appropriate professionals, including
mental health professionals; they may attend regular meetings or counseling sessions and may be required to
report on their activities and travel. People on probation or parole often have strict guidelines; not only will
they be returned to jail upon committing a crime, but they may also be prohibited from associating with known
criminals or suspects. These strategies are designed to prevent people on parole or probation from returning
to criminal engagements, and to increase the likelihood that they will remain positive members of the
community through interactions with family, productive employment, and mental health treatment if needed.

Policing and Race

This chapter described just a few of the sociological theories regarding deviance and crime; there are many
more, as well as many approaches for preventing crime and enforcing laws. Citizens, law enforcement, and
elected officials weigh a wide array of contexts and personal experiences when considering the best way to
address crime. In at least some cases, decision makers are motivated by a desire to protect the status quo or
improve their political or financial position.

As discussed earlier, during the 1980s, crack cocaine was exploding in usage among lower income, Black, and
Hispanic people. White middle class and upper economic class Americans became terrified of the potential for
their family and children to be involved with drugs and drug-related crime. State governments passed
increasingly harsh laws, resulting in stiffer penalties and the removal of judges’ discretion in drug case
sentencing. Among the most well known of these were “three strikes laws,” which mandated long sentences for

7.3 • Crime and the Law 191

anyone convicted of multiple drug offenses, even if the offenses themselves were minor. Practices like civil
forfeiture, in which law enforcement or municipalities could seize cash and property of suspected criminals
even before they were convicted, provided a significant financial incentive to investigate drug crimes (Tiegen

The additional funding sources and high likelihood of successful prosecution drove police forces toward more
aggressive and inequitable tactics. After training by the Drug Enforcement Agency, police forces around the
country began racial profiling in a focused, consistent manner. Black and Hispanic people were many times
more likely than White people to be pulled over for routine traffic stops. Local police forces focused on
patrolling minority-inhabited neighborhoods, resulting in more arrests and prosecutions of Black and
Hispanic people (Harris 2020).

No issue related to race and policing is of more concern than the shooting of unarmed Black people by police.
The lack of punishment of police officers for committing these acts perpetuates the issue of unequal justice.
Eric Garner was killed by an officer using a prohibited chokehold after Garner had allegedly committed a
misdemeanor. Breonna Taylor was killed by police who violently infiltrated the wrong home. None of the
officers involved in those deaths were prosecuted, though several were fired. The officer who killed George
Floyd was immediately charged with the crime, and was eventually convicted, but some believe that to be the
case due to the clear and horrific video of the event (Abdollah 2021).

Police advocates, elected officials, and ordinary citizens often express the importance of effective and just law
enforcement. When “Defund The Police” became a widespread position during 2020, many Black people spoke
out against it; polling revealed that a majority of Black people did not support the idea, and over 80 percent of
Black people preferred having the police spend the same or more time in their communities (Saad 2020).
While this frequently cited result is relatively consistent across different polls, it also reveals divisions within
the Black community, often based on age or other factors. The same polls find that many Black people still
distrust the police or feel less secure when they see them (Yahoo/Yougov 2020).

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Key Terms
conflict theory a theory that examines social and economic factors as the causes of criminal deviance
control theory a theory that states social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that

deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society
corporate crime crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment
corrections system the system tasked with supervising individuals who have been arrested for, convicted

of, or sentenced for criminal offenses
court a system that has the authority to make decisions based on law
crime a behavior that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions
criminal justice system an organization that exists to enforce a legal code
cultural deviance theory a theory that suggests conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class

society causes crime
deviance a violation of contextual, cultural, or social norms
differential association theory a theory that states individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to

them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance
formal sanctions sanctions that are officially recognized and enforced
hate crimes attacks based on a person’s race, religion, or other characteristics
informal sanctions sanctions that occur in face-to-face interactions
labeling theory the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society
legal codes codes that maintain formal social control through laws
master status a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual
negative sanctions punishments for violating norms
nonviolent crimes crimes that involve the destruction or theft of property, but do not use force or the threat

of force
police a civil force in charge of regulating laws and public order at a federal, state, or community level
positive sanctions rewards given for conforming to norms
power elite a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and

primary deviance a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-

image or interactions with others
sanctions the means of enforcing rules
secondary deviance deviance that occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after

his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society
self-report study a collection of data acquired using voluntary response methods, such as questionnaires

or telephone interviews
social control the regulation and enforcement of norms
social disorganization theory a theory that asserts crime occurs in communities with weak social ties and

the absence of social control
social order an arrangement of practices and behaviors on which society’s members base their daily lives
strain theory a theory that addresses the relationship between having socially acceptable goals and having

socially acceptable means to reach those goals
street crime crime committed by average people against other people or organizations, usually in public

victimless crime activities against the law, but that do not result in injury to any individual other than the

person who engages in them
violent crimes crimes based on the use of force or the threat of force

7 • Key Terms 193

Section Summary
7.1 Deviance and Control

Deviance is a violation of norms. Whether or not something is deviant depends on contextual definitions, the
situation, and people’s response to the behavior. Society seeks to limit deviance through the use of sanctions
that help maintain a system of social control. Deviance is often relative, and perceptions of it can change
quickly and unexpectedly.

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and
crime. Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding
people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to injustice in the
system. Conflict theorists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at
the top and those without power at the bottom. Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially
constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment
and enforced or discouraged by those around us.

7.3 Crime and the Law

Crime is established by legal codes and upheld by the criminal justice system. In the United States, there are
three branches of the justice system: police, courts, and corrections. Although crime rates and incarceration
increased throughout most of the twentieth century, they are now dropping. Despite these developments,
inequitable law enformcenent is a destructive reality in American communities, and efforts are underway to
improve outcomes.

Section Quiz
7.1 Deviance and Control

1. Which of the following best describes how deviance is defined?
a. Deviance is defined by federal, state, and local laws.
b. Deviance’s definition is determined by one’s religion.
c. Deviance occurs whenever someone else is harmed by an action.
d. Deviance is socially defined.

2. During the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks and other Black protestors spoke out against segregation by
refusing to sit at the back of the bus. This is an example of ________.
a. An act of social control
b. An act of deviance
c. A social norm
d. Criminal mores

3. A student has a habit of talking on their cell phone during class. One day, the professor stops the lecture and
asks the student to respect others in the class by turning off the phone. In this situation, the professor used
__________ to maintain social control.
a. Informal negative sanctions
b. Informal positive sanctions
c. Formal negative sanctions
d. Formal positive sanctions

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4. Societies practice social control to maintain ________.
a. formal sanctions
b. social order
c. cultural deviance
d. sanction labeling

5. One day, you decide to wear pajamas to the grocery store. While you shop, you notice people giving you
strange looks and whispering to others. In this case, the grocery store patrons are demonstrating _______.
a. deviance
b. formal sanctions
c. informal sanctions
d. positive sanctions

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

6. A student wakes up late and realizes their sociology exam starts in five minutes. They jump into their car
and speed down the road, where they are pulled over by a police officer. The student explains that they are
running late, and the officer lets them off with a warning. The student’s actions are an example of
a. primary deviance
b. positive deviance
c. secondary deviance
d. master deviance

7. According to C. Wright Mills, which of the following people is most likely to be a member of the power elite?
a. A war veteran
b. A senator
c. A professor
d. A mechanic

8. According to social disorganization theory, crime is most likely to occur where?
a. A community where neighbors don’t know each other very well
b. A neighborhood with mostly elderly citizens
c. A city with a large minority population
d. A college campus with students who are very competitive

9. According to the concept of the power elite, why would a celebrity commit a crime?
a. Because his parents committed similar crimes
b. Because his fame protects him from retribution
c. Because his fame disconnects him from society
d. Because he is challenging socially accepted norms

10. A convicted sexual offender is released on parole and arrested two weeks later for repeated sexual crimes.
How would labeling theory explain this?
a. The offender has been labeled deviant by society and has accepted a new master status.
b. The offender has returned to their old neighborhood and so reestablished their former habits.
c. The offender has lost the social bonds they made in prison and feels disconnected from society.
d. The offender is poor and responding to the different cultural values that exist in their community.

7 • Section Quiz 195

11. ______ deviance is a violation of norms that ______result in a person being labeled a deviant.
a. Secondary; does not
b. Negative; does
c. Primary; does not
d. Primary; may or may not

7.3 Crime and the Law

12. Which of the following is an example of corporate crime?
a. Embezzlement
b. Larceny
c. Assault
d. Burglary

13. Spousal abuse is an example of a ________.
a. street crime
b. corporate crime
c. violent crime
d. nonviolent crime

14. Which of the following situations best describes crime trends in the United States?
a. Rates of violent and nonviolent crimes are decreasing.
b. Rates of violent crimes are decreasing, but there are more nonviolent crimes now than ever before.
c. Crime rates have skyrocketed since the 1970s due to lax corrections laws.
d. Rates of street crime have gone up, but corporate crime has gone down.

15. What is a disadvantage of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)?
a. The NCVS doesn’t include demographic data, such as age or gender.
b. The NCVS may be unable to reach important groups, such as those without phones.
c. The NCVS doesn’t address the relationship between the criminal and the victim.
d. The NCVS only includes information collected by police officers.

Short Answer
7.1 Deviance and Control

1. If given the choice, would you purchase an unusual car such as a hearse for everyday use? How would your
friends, family, or significant other react? Since deviance is culturally defined, most of the decisions we
make are dependent on the reactions of others. Is there anything the people in your life encourage you to do
that you don’t? Why don’t you?

2. Think of a recent time when you used informal negative sanctions. To what act of deviance were you
responding? How did your actions affect the deviant person or persons? How did your reaction help
maintain social control?

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

3. Pick a famous politician, business leader, or celebrity who has been arrested recently. What crime did they
allegedly commit? Who was the victim? Explain their actions from the point of view of one of the major
sociological paradigms. What factors best explain how this person might be punished if convicted of the

196 7 • Short Answer

Access for free at openstax.org.

4. If we assume that the power elite’s status is always passed down from generation to generation, how would
Edwin Sutherland explain these patterns of power through differential association theory? What crimes do
these elite few get away with?

7.3 Crime and the Law

5. Recall the crime statistics presented in this section. Do they surprise you? Are these statistics represented
accurately in the media? Why, or why not?

Further Research
7.1 Deviance and Control

Although we rarely think of it in this way, deviance can have a positive effect on society. Check out the Positive
Deviance Initiative (http://openstax.org/l/Positive_Deviance) , a program initiated by Tufts University to
promote social movements around the world that strive to improve people’s lives.

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

The Skull and Bones Society (http://openstax.org/l/Dilemma) made news in 2004 when it was revealed that
then-President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, had both been members at Yale
University. In the years since, conspiracy theorists have linked the secret society to numerous world events,
arguing that many of the nation’s most powerful people are former Bonesmen. Although such ideas may
raise a lot of skepticism, many influential people of the past century have been Skull and Bones Society
members, and the society is sometimes described as a college version of the power elite later in life.

7.3 Crime and the Law

Is the U.S. criminal justice system confusing? You’re not alone. Check out this handy flowchart from the Bureau
of Justice Statistics (http://openstax.org/l/US_Criminal_Justice_BJS) .

How is crime data collected in the United States? Read about the methods of data collection and take the
National Crime Victimization Survey (http://openstax.org/l/Victimization_Survey) .


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Daniller, Andrew. 2019. “Two Thirds of Americans Support Marijuana Legalization.” Pew Research Center

Governing. 2014. “Governing Data: State Marijuana Laws Map.” Governing: The States and Localities,
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Pew Research Center. 2013. “Partisans Disagree on Legalization of Marijuana, but Agree on Law Enforcement
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Motel, Seth. 2014. “6 Facts About Marijuana.” Pew Research Center: FactTank: News in the Numbers,
November 5. Retrieved (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/05/6-facts-about-marijuana/).

7.1 Deviance and Control

Becker, Howard. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.

7 • Further Research 197

Schoepflin, Todd. 2011. “Deviant While Driving?” Everyday Sociology Blog, January 28. Retrieved February 10,
2012 (http://nortonbooks.typepad.com/everydaysociology/2011/01/deviant-while-driving.html).

Sumner, William Graham. 1955 [1906]. Folkways. New York, NY: Dover.

White, K., & Holman, M. (2012). Marijuana Prohibition in California: Racial Prejudice and Selective-Arrests.
Race, Gender & Class, 19(3/4), 75-92.

7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime

Akers, Ronald L. 1991. “Self-control as a General Theory of Crime.” Journal of Quantitative

Cantor, D. and Lynch, J. 2000. Self-Report Surveys as Measures of Crime and Criminal Victimization. Rockville,
MD: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (https://www.ncjrs.gov/criminal_justice2000/

Clickitticket.com, 2019. “A Complete List (with Statistics) of the NFL Players Arrested For Domestic Abuse in
the 21st Century.” Retrieved January 3, 2021. (https://www.clickitticket.com/nfl-domestic-violence/)

Durkheim, Émile. 1997 [1893]. The Division of Labor in Society New York, NY: Free Press.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010. “Crime in the United States, 2009.” Retrieved January 6, 2012

Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Holding, Reynolds. 2006. “Why Can’t Felons Vote?” Time, November 21. Retrieved February 10, 2012

Krajick, Kevin. 2004. “Why Can’t Ex-Felons Vote?” The Washington Post, August 18, p. A19. Retrieved February
10, 2012 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A9785-2004Aug17.html).

Lally, J.R., Mangione, P.L., and Honig, A.S. 1987. “The Syracuse University Family development Research
Program: Long-Range Impact of an Early Intervention with Low-Income Children and Their Families.”

Laub, John H. 2006. “Edwin H. Sutherland and the Michael-Adler Report: Searching for the Soul of Criminology
Seventy Years Later.” Criminology 44:235–57.

Lott, John R. Jr. and Sonya D. Jones. 2008. “How Felons Who Vote Can Tip an Election.” Fox News, October 20.
Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,441030,00.html).

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

New York Times Editorial Staff. 2011. “Reducing Unjust Cocaine Sentences.” New York Times, June 29.
Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/opinion/30thu3.html).

ProCon.org. 2009. “Disenfranchised Totals by State.” April 13. Retrieved February 10, 2012

Schrotenboer, Brent. 2020. “NFL player arrests database: Records since 2000” Gannett, USA Today. Retrieved
January 3, 2021. (https://databases.usatoday.com/nfl-arrests/).

Sutherland, Edwin H., and Donald R. Cressey. “A Theory of Differential Association.” (1960) Criminological
Theory: Past to Present. Ed. Francis T. Cullen and Robert Agnew. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2006.

ProCon.org. 2011. “State Felon Voting Laws.” April 8. Retrieved February 10, 2012

Sampson, Robert J. and Lydia Bean. 2006. “Cultural Mechanisms and Killing Fields: A Revised Theory of

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Community-Level Racial Inequality.” The Many Colors of Crime: Inequalities of Race, Ethnicity and Crime in
America, edited by R. Peterson, L. Krivo and J. Hagan. New York: New York University Press.

Sampson, Robert J. and W. Byron Graves. 1989. “Community Structure and Crimes: Testing Social-
Disorganization Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 94:774-802.

Shaw, Clifford R. and Henry McKay. 1942. Juvenile Delinquency in Urban Areas Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. 2009. “SEC Charges Bernard L. Madoff for Multi-Billion Dollar Ponzi
Scheme.” Washington, DC: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Retrieved January 6, 2012

The Sentencing Project. 2010. “Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing.” The Sentencing Project: Research and
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Shaw, Clifford R. and Henry H. McKay. 1942. Juvenile Delinquency in Urban Areas. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Todd, Roger and Louise Jury. 1996. “Children Follow Convicted Parents into Crime.” The Independent,
February 27. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/children-follow-convicted-

7.3 Crime and the Law

Abdollah, Tami. 2021. “Reckless Disregard for Human Life, Or Tragic Accident: Derek Chauvin Goes On Trial.”
USA Today, March 5, 2021. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/03/05/derek-chauvin-trial-

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200 7 • References

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FIGURE 8.1 Music fans connect in ways that overcome geographic, socioeconomic, and political differences.
(Credit: whataleydude/flickr)


8.1 Technology Today
8.2 Media and Technology in Society
8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology
8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

When a celebrity announces that they are quitting social media, it’s big news (especially on
social media). Depending on the star’s status and their reason for leaving, the decision is met with a blend of
astonishment, dismay, concern for the individual or others they affect, and discussion about larger problems
like bullying or online toxicity.

Why do they quit? Their reasons vary, and many eventually return. Lizzo left Twitter after claiming there were
“too many trolls.” Lorde indicated that the stress of continual updates, “having front-row seats to the hellfire”
necessitated a break (Kirkpatrick 2020). Other artists, like Coldplay, never formally deactivated their accounts,
but went for long periods of inactivity. Rhianna took a six month hiatus; Justin Bieber and Adele also went
without for some time. No matter what the reason, if a popular artist quits social media, a slew of articles and
interviews will focus on the decision and the reasons behind it.

What makes these decisions newsworthy? A person deciding not to use a particular app doesn’t affect our day-
to-day life. Or does it? What if that person shared intimate aspects of their life, offering a sense of connection to
their followers? What if the singer provided continual updates on the progress of their new album, or gave their
followers a better chance of meeting them? What if that singer posted or liked new remixes or playlists of their
material, giving their fans new music to try?

8Media and Technology

Beyond the relationship with the artist, the social media presence gives fans a sense of community. Recall the
discussion of groups. In traditional terms, a musician’s fanbase would be a secondary group: The group creates
community, but the members aren’t close and are unlikely to serve expressive functions. But social media can
easily turn that secondary group into a primary one. Follow a Reddit thread about a new video, and you’ll see
dozens of people who seem to know each other well, who affirm or argue with each other along familiar lines,
as if they’re cousins reuniting over a dinner table. They’ve never met in person and probably never will, but
they may know intimate details about each other’s lives; they’ve shared ups and downs in the manner similar
to a local, close-knit group.

Selena Gomez has had a complicated relationship with social media. She has announced several times that she
is quitting, and went through periods of regular downtime. She’s indicated that many of her updates are posted
from friends’ devices. “As soon as I became the most followed person on Instagram,” she said, “I sort of freaked
out. It had become so consuming to me. It’s what I woke up to and went to sleep to. I was an addict, and it felt
like I was seeing things I didn’t want to see, like it was putting things in my head that I didn’t want to care
about” (Haskell 2017).

This chapter will further explore the relationships, opportunities, and issues related to media and technology.
While the specific products and platforms may quickly grow out of date, consider the larger implications of
group dynamics, culture, socialization, and stratification as they relate to the ways we communicate and
connect, and the old and new technologies that are meant to help us.

8.1 Technology Today
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Define technology and describe its evolution
• Explain technological inequality and issues related to unequal access to technology
• Describe the role of planned obsolescence in technological development

202 8 • Media and Technology

FIGURE 8.2 Throughout history, technology has been used to convey information. From petroglyphs near a Native
American dwelling at Canyon de Chelly to warning signs outside of animal pens, our innovations have been used to
provide the most effective delivery possible. (Credit: a: Anthony Quintano/flickr; b: tenioman/flickr)

It is easy to look at the latest virtual reality headset and think technology is a recent addition to our world. But
from the steam engine to the most cutting-edge robotic surgery tools, technology has described the
application of science to address the problems of daily life. We might roll our eyes at enormous and clunky
computers of the 1970s that had far less storage than a free thumb drive. But chances are, twenty years from
now our skinny laptops and pocket-filling phones will look just as archaic.

What Is Technology?
If someone asked your instructor what instructional technology they used, your instructor would likely assume
the questioner was referring to courseware platforms, classroom response offerings, or presentation software.
But if your instructor simply responded with, “pencil and paper,” they’d still be accurately describing

Access for free at openstax.org

technology. Modern paper and writing devices would have been considered fantastical creations in ancient
times. And the fact that they endure, even as many other potential replacements have come into play, shows
how effective those technologies are.

Just as the availability of digital technology shapes how we live today, the creation of stone tools changed how
premodern humans lived and how well they ate. From the first calculator, invented in 2400 BCE Babylon in the
form of an abacus, to the predecessor of the modern computer, created in 1882 by Charles Babbage, all of our
technological innovations are advancements on previous iterations. And indeed, all aspects of our lives are
influenced by technology. In agriculture, the introduction of machines that can till, thresh, plant, and harvest
greatly reduced the need for manual labor, which in turn meant there were fewer rural jobs. This led to the
urbanization of society, as well as lowered birth rates because there was less need for large families to work the
farms. In the criminal justice system, the ability to ascertain innocence through DNA testing has saved the
lives of people on death row. The examples are endless: technology plays a role in absolutely every aspect of
our lives.

Technological Inequality

FIGURE 8.3 Augmented reality devices, robotics and 3D printing labs, and creatorspaces can significantly improve
education. But due to their expense, they can also increase learning inequities.

As with any improvement to human society, not everyone has equal access. Technology, in particular, often
creates changes that lead to ever greater inequalities. In short, the gap gets wider faster. This technological
stratification has led to a new focus on ensuring better access for all.

There are two forms of technological stratification. The first is differential class-based access to technology in
the form of the digital divide. This digital divide has led to the second form, a knowledge gap, which is, as it
sounds, an ongoing and increasing gap in information for those who have less access to technology. Simply
put, students in well-funded schools receive more exposure to technology than students in poorly funded
schools. Those students with more exposure gain more proficiency, which makes them far more marketable in
an increasingly technology-based job market and leaves our society divided into those with technological
knowledge and those without. Even as we improve access, we have failed to address an increasingly evident
gap in e-readiness—the ability to sort through, interpret, and process knowledge (Sciadas 2003).

Since the beginning of the millennium, social science researchers have tried to bring attention to the digital
divide, the uneven access to technology among different races, classes, and geographic areas. The term
became part of the common lexicon in 1996, when then Vice President Al Gore used it in a speech. This was
the point when personal computer use shifted dramatically, from 300,000 users in 1991 to more than 10
million users by 1996 (Rappaport 2009). In part, the issue of the digital divide had to do with communities that
received infrastructure upgrades that enabled high-speed Internet access, upgrades that largely went to

8.1 • Technology Today 203

affluent urban and suburban areas, leaving out large swaths of the country.

At the end of the twentieth century, technology access was also a big part of the school experience for those
whose communities could afford it. Early in the millennium, poorer communities had little or no technology
access, while well-off families had personal computers at home and wired classrooms in their schools. In the
2000s, however, the prices for low-end computers dropped considerably, and it appeared the digital divide was
naturally ending. Research demonstrates that technology use and Internet access still vary a great deal by race,
class, and age in the United States, though most studies agree that there is minimal difference in Internet use
by adult men and adult women.

Data from the Pew Research Center (Perrin 2019) suggests the emergence of yet another divide. Larger
percentages of groups such as Latinos and African Americans use their phones rather than traditional
computers to connect to the Internet and undertake related activities. Roughly eight in ten White people
reported owning computers, in contrast to roughly six in ten Black and Hispanic people owning them. White
people were also more likely to have broadband (high-speed Internet) in their homes. But approximately one
in four Black and Hispanic people reported being smartphone-only Internet users, a number that far outpaces
White people’s reliance on the devices. While it might seem that the Internet is the Internet, regardless of how
you get there, there’s a notable difference. Tasks like updating a résumé or filling out a job application are
much harder on a cell phone than on a large-screen computer in the home. As a result, the digital divide might
mean no access to computers or the Internet, but could mean access to the kind of online technology that
allows for empowerment, not just entertainment (Washington 2011).

Another aspect of the digital divide is present in the type of community one lives in. Census data released in
2018 showed that in the study period of 2013 to 2017, 78 percent of U.S. households had Internet access, but
that homes in rural and low-income areas were below that national average by 13 percent. The data was
collected by county, and showed that “mostly urban” counties significantly outpaced “mostly rural” counties.
“Completely rural,” lower-income counties had the lowest rates of home Internet adoption, at about 60 percent
(Martin 2019).

One potential outcome of reduced home Internet and computer access can be the relatively low representation
of certain populations in computing courses, computing majors, and computing careers. Some school districts,
often with the help of government grants or corporate sponsorships, aim to address this aspect of the digital
divide by providing computers to those who need them, either at a low cost or at no charge. A number of
organizations, such as Code.org, Black Girls Code, and Black Boys Code, work to overcome the disparity by
offering computer science education programs and camps, collaborative instruction programs with local
school districts, and (perhaps most impactful in the long term) teacher training programs. As a result, the
number of Black and Hispanic students in courses like Advanced Placement Computer Science has increased
dramatically in recent years, as has the number of college majors from the same populations.

As a whole, the digital divide brings some level of controversy. Some question why it still exists after having
been identified more than twenty years ago. Others question whether or not it exists at all, and offer data to
support the claim that it does not exist (American Press Institute 2015). However, most experts agree that the
COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the digital divide has persisted, particularly in education. While millions of
students were confined to home and remote instruction, they were divided by their Internet access, their
familiarity with computer hardware and software, and their ability to solve their own technology issues (PRB
2020). Even when governments and educational institutions implemented improvements to the access and
technology situation, there remained the qualitative aspect of unplanned remote education: Many instructors
and students are not as effective while communicating only through computer screens. When considering
education, policymakers faced arduous decision-making processes and contentious debates as they tried the
balance the issues of safety, educational quality, teacher safety, student mental health, and the overall
changing landscape of the pandemic.

204 8 • Media and Technology

Access for free at openstax.org.

Constant Contact and Replaced Relationships

How often do you check your phone for new messages or alerts? If you’re typical, it might be over 100 times a
day. (The number is difficult to cite with confidence, because every few months, organizations or companies
release new studies claiming to have updated statistics.) What happens to your phone when you are sleeping?
In 2012, researchers reported that “44% of cell phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed
because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night,
and 29% of cell owners describe their cell phone as ‘something they can’t imagine living without’” (Smith
2012). Just three years later, a frequently cited report by Bank of America indicated the number of phone-
accompanied sleepers was at 71 percent (Kooser 2015). A more recent survey of 500 people found it to be 66
percent, but that survey only included adults (Abbott 2020). However, these surveys and the reaction to them
might be a factor of selective memory: Prior to the rise of cell phones, many people had telephones in their
rooms, often within arm’s reach of their bed.

While people report that cell phones make it easier to stay in touch, simplify planning, and increase their
productivity, those are not the only impacts of constant device usage in the United States. Smith also reports
that “roughly one in five cell owners say that their phone has made it at least somewhat harder to forget about
work at home or on the weekends; to give people their undivided attention; or to focus on a single task without
being distracted” (Smith 2012). As mentioned in the opening of this chapter, even celebrities who have
perhaps benefitted the most from increased communication and social media report stress and concern about
their online presence and its related outcomes.

With so many people using social media both in the United States and abroad, it is no surprise that social
media is a powerful force for social change or political expression. For example, McKenna Pope, a thirteen-
year-old girl, used the Internet to successfully petition Hasbro to fight gender stereotypes by creating a gender-
neutral Easy-Bake Oven instead of using only the traditional pink color (Kumar 2014). Movements such as
MeToo and Black Lives Matter gained prominence partly through what is sometimes referred to as “hashtag
activism.” More recently, TikTok users who actively opposed Donald Trump’s re-election registered for nearly
all the seats at a major rally. When they did not attend, the arena was nearly empty, after the campaign had
predicted it would be overflowing. Later, Trump supporters used the social media site Parler in their own rally
planning and coordination.

Such consistent and impactful usage leads to unavoidable results: Newer communication methods are
replacing older ones. Speaking by phone seems archaic and almost intrusive for some people, who greatly
prefer non-voice messaging apps or texts. Media observers, etiquette commentators, and friends and family
may lament people beginning and ending relationships by text message, but those methods have proven more
comfortable, especially for young people.

What are the effects? There have not been studies on every type of relationship, but research into romantic
relationships shows interesting results. First, consider the elements of a relationship. One is attachment, or the
bond that people form with each other. Research has shown that constant communication via messaging
significantly increases the level of attachment. That fact seems intuitive: people who continually check in on
each other, report their whereabouts, and offer support or affirmation will build a stronger bond. The same
study, however, found that the respondents rated the overall quality of the relationship as weaker or less
satisfying when it was dominated by text messaging instead of voice conversation (Luo 2014).

Many of us have experienced another aspect of relationships: reliance or imbalance. Researchers have found
that close friends who are heavily reliant on mobile devices and associated messaging may have more issues
regarding overdependence on the relationship and differing expectations regarding communication.
Friendships that do not rely on mobile devices may have far less frequent contact. Research found elements of
guilt and pressure to respond (called entrapment) in mobile-dependent relationships, which led to overall
dissatisfaction (Hall 2012).

8.1 • Technology Today 205

Online Privacy, Security, and Control

As we increase our footprints on the web by going online more often to connect socially, share material,
conduct business, and store information, we also increase our vulnerability to those with negative intent. Most
Americans seem to accept that increased usage of online and related tools brings risks, but their perceptions
of those risks are evolving. For example, people have different viewpoints on risks associated with individuals,
companies, and the government. The Pew Research Center conducts frequent surveys on these topics. A recent
publication indicated the following:

• 81 percent of people felt they had little control over the data collected by companies; 84 percent felt they
had little control over data collected by the government.

• 62 percent felt that it was not possible to go through the day without having data collected about them by
companies; 63% felt it wasn’t possible to go through a day without data collection by the government.

• 79 percent were concerned about that data use by companies; 64 percent were concerned about data use
by the government.

Other elements of the research demonstrate that older Americans felt more concern than younger ones, and
that Black and Hispanic people were more likely than White people to believe the government was tracking
them (Auxier 2019).

These attitudes may be revealed by practices or attitudes toward privacy efforts and safeguards. One person
may be annoyed every time a privacy notice interrupts them, and they may simply sign the statement without
thinking much about it. Another person may read every word of the agreement and carefully deliberate over
whether to proceed.

Online privacy concerns also extend from individuals to their dependents. In accordance with the Child Online
Privacy Protection Act, school districts must consider and control certain elements of privacy on behalf of
students, meaning they cannot require or encourage students under age thirteen to provide personal
information. Likewise, online platforms such as Instagram do not let children under the age of thirteen register
for their sites. And where children are registered by their parents, sites like YouTube and, more recently,
TikTok issue controls to prevent inappropriate portrayals by children or inappropriate behavior by other
members. For example, YouTube often disables comments on videos produced by children (Moreno 2020).
TikTok added privacy and protection methods in 2020, but in early 2021 was hit with allegations of violating
child safety and privacy guidelines.

Although schools and companies are required to take steps to lower risks to children, parents and guardians
are free to make their own choices on behalf of their children. Some parents avoid showing their children on
social media; they do not post pictures, and ask family members to refrain from doing so (Levy, 2019). On the
other end of the spectrum, some parents run social media accounts for their children. Sometimes referred to
as “sharents,” they may share entertaining videos, promote products through demos or try-ons, or post
professionally produced photos on behalf of clothing companies or equipment makers. A child’s (even a
toddler’s) role as an influencer can be financially lucrative, and companies making everything from helmets to
dancewear have taken notice (Allchin 2012).

Net Neutrality

The issue of net neutrality, the principle that all Internet data should be treated equally by Internet service
providers, is part of the national debate about Internet access and the digital divide. On one side of this debate
is the belief that those who provide Internet service, like those who provide electricity and water, should be
treated as common carriers, legally prohibited from discriminating based on the customer or nature of the
goods. Supporters of net neutrality suggest that without such legal protections, the Internet could be divided
into “fast” and “slow” lanes. A conflict perspective theorist might suggest that this discrimination would allow
bigger corporations, such as Amazon, to pay Internet providers a premium for faster service, which could lead
to gaining an advantage that would drive small, local competitors out of business.

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The other side of the debate holds the belief that designating Internet service providers as common carriers
would constitute an unreasonable regulatory burden and limit the ability of telecommunication companies to
operate profitably. A functional perspective theorist might point out that, without profits, companies would not
invest in making improvements to their Internet service or expanding those services to underserved areas.
The final decision rests with the Federal Communications Commission and the federal government, which
must decide how to fairly regulate broadband providers without dividing the Internet into haves and have-

8.2 Media and Technology in Society
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the evolution and current role of different media, like newspapers, television, and new media
• Describe the function of product advertising in media
• Demonstrate awareness of the social homogenization and social fragmentation that occur via modern society’s

use of technology and media

FIGURE 8.4 Facebook’s VP of Engineering Regina Dugan gave a talk about innovations in the platform’s
technologies in which she shared potential innovations, including creating text directly from our thoughts. While the
prospect of drafting messages or papers by thinking about them would certainly speed up our processes, opening
our thoughts directly to a social media company might have larger implications. (Credit: Anthony Quintano/flickr)

Technology and the media are interwoven, and neither can be separated from contemporary society in most
core and semi-peripheral nations. Media is a term that refers to all print, digital, and electronic means of
communication. From the time the printing press was created (and even before), technology has influenced
how and where information is shared. Today, it is impossible to discuss media and the ways societies
communicate without addressing the fast-moving pace of technology change. Twenty years ago, if you wanted
to share news of your baby’s birth or a job promotion, you phoned or wrote letters. You might tell a handful of
people, but you probably wouldn’t call up several hundred, including your old high school chemistry teacher,
to let them know. Now, you might join an online community of parents-to-be even before you announce your
pregnancy via a staged Instagram picture. The circle of communication is wider than ever, and when we talk
about how societies engage with technology, we must take media into account, and vice versa.

Technology creates media. The comic book you bought your daughter is a form of media, as is the movie you
streamed for family night, the web site you used to order takeout, the billboard you passed on the way to pick
up your food, and the newspaper you read while you were waiting for it. Without technology, media would not
exist, but remember, technology is more than just the media we are exposed to.

Categorizing Technology

There is no one way of dividing technology into categories. Whereas once it might have been simple to classify

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innovations such as machine-based or drug-based or the like, the interconnected strands of technological
development mean that advancement in one area might be replicated in dozens of others. For simplicity’s
sake, we will look at how the U.S. Patent Office, which receives patent applications for nearly all major
innovations worldwide, addresses patents. This regulatory body will patent three types of innovation. Utility
patents are the first type. These are granted for the invention or discovery of any new and useful process,
product, or machine, or for a significant improvement to existing technologies. The second type of patent is a
design patent. Commonly conferred in architecture and industrial design, this means someone has invented a
new and original design for a manufactured product. Plant patents, the final type, recognize the discovery of
new plant types that can be asexually reproduced. While genetically modified food is the hot-button issue
within this category, farmers have long been creating new hybrids and patenting them. A more modern
example might be food giant Monsanto, which patents corn with built-in pesticide (U.S. Patent and Trademark
Office 2011).

Anderson and Tushman (1990) suggest an evolutionary model of technological change, in which a
breakthrough in one form of technology leads to a number of variations. Once those are assessed, a prototype
emerges, and then a period of slight adjustments to the technology, interrupted by a breakthrough. For
example, in terms of portable data storage, the first mainstream device was a floppy disk–a square, plastic
object larger than a playing card, which in its final iteration held 1.4 megabytes of data (or less than a single
high-resolution photo). Until the early 2000s, these were common formats, and students and professionals
would regularly carry several of them. Floppy disks were improved and upgraded, then replaced by higher-
capacity Zip and Jaz disks, which were then replaced by flash drives. This is essentially a generational model
for categorizing technology, in which first-generation technology is a relatively unsophisticated jumping-off
point that leads to an improved second generation, and so on.

Another type of evolution involves disruptive technology (or disruptive innovation), which is a product,
service, or process that has a major effect on the operation of an entire industry, and/or may create new
industries or new markets. In the example above, a disruptive technology might be the advent of cloud-based
storage platforms like Google Drive and iCloud, which have significantly reduced the need for physical portable
storage. Disruptive technology can create and destroy entire industries, sometimes in a rapid manner rather
than in an evolutionary one. In one of the most famous examples, the advent of digital photography rendered
film-based cameras obsolete; the change came quickly, and many companies could not adjust. In a similar
manner, ride-sharing services have had a massive impact on the taxi and limousine industry. Emerging
technologies such as blockchain, additive manufacturing (3D printing), and augmented reality are likely to
have similar impacts. For example, if companies decide that it is more efficient to 3D print many products or
components close to their destinations instead of shipping them from distant manufacturing plants and
warehouses, the entire shipping industry may be affected.

The sociological impact of disruptive technology can be sudden. Digital photography, for example, resulted in
the rapid decline of companies like Kodak, which had been stalwarts of the American economy and a major
employer. Layoffs devastated cities like Rochester, New York. The advent of online music purchasing and
subscription services resulted in the closure of thousands of record stores, both small businesses and large
chains like Tower Records. Beyond the economic impact, these stores were often parts of the fabric of
communities, places for fans to gather to explore and share music. Automation has likewise changed
manufacturing and mining, resulting in severe job loss and drastic alterations in regions such as the Great
Lakes, where many towns went from being part of the Manufacturing Belt to being part of the Rust Belt.

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Violence in Media and Video Games: Does It Matter?

FIGURE 8.5 One of the most popular video games, Grand Theft Auto, has frequently been at the center of debate
about gratuitous violence in the gaming world. (Credit: Meddy Garnet/flickr)

A glance through popular video game and movie titles geared toward children and teens shows the vast spectrum of
violence that is displayed, condoned, and acted out.

As a way to guide parents in their programming choices, the motion picture industry put a rating system in place in
the 1960s. But new media—video games in particular—proved to be uncharted territory. In 1994, the Entertainment
Software Rating Board (ERSB) set a ratings system for games that addressed issues of violence, sexuality, drug use,
and the like. California took it a step further by making it illegal to sell video games to underage buyers. The case led
to a heated debate about personal freedoms and child protection, and in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
against the California law, stating it violated freedom of speech (ProCon 2012).

Children’s play has often involved games of aggression—from cops and robbers to fake sword fights. Many articles
report on the controversy surrounding the suggested link between violent video games and violent behavior. Is the
link real? Psychologists Anderson and Bushman (2001) reviewed forty-plus years of research on the subject and, in
2003, determined that there are causal linkages between violent video game use and aggression. They found that
children who had just played a violent video game demonstrated an immediate increase in hostile or aggressive
thoughts, an increase in aggressive emotions, and physiological arousal that increased the chances of acting out
aggressive behavior (Anderson 2003).

However, though the American Psychological Association and other researchers found an increase in aggressive
tendencies based on video game play, several studies and conclusions indicated “scant evidence” that violent video
games cause either physical violence or criminal behavior. Researchers have found correlations between those
behaviors, essentially indicating that violent people may be more likely to play violent video games, but that still
does not mean that video games cause violence.

Types of Media and Technology

Media and technology have evolved hand in hand, from early print to modern publications, from radio to


8.2 • Media and Technology in Society 209

television to film. New media emerge constantly, such as we see in the online world.


Early forms of print media, found in ancient Rome, were hand-copied onto boards and carried around to keep
the citizenry informed. With the invention of the printing press, the way that people shared ideas changed, as
information could be mass produced and stored. For the first time, there was a way to spread knowledge and
information more efficiently; many credit this development as leading to the Renaissance and ultimately the
Age of Enlightenment. This is not to say that newspapers of old were more trustworthy than the Weekly World
News and National Enquirer are today. Sensationalism abounded, as did censorship that forbade any subjects
that would incite the populace.

The invention of the telegraph, in the mid-1800s, changed print media almost as much as the printing press.
Suddenly information could be transmitted in minutes. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, U.S.
publishers such as Hearst redefined the world of print media and wielded an enormous amount of power to
socially construct national and world events. Of course, even as the media empires of William Randolph Hearst
and Joseph Pulitzer were growing, print media also allowed for the dissemination of countercultural or
revolutionary materials. Internationally, Vladimir Lenin’s Irksa (The Spark) newspaper was published in 1900
and played a role in Russia’s growing communist movement (World Association of Newspapers 2004).

With the invention and widespread use of television in the mid-twentieth century, newspaper circulation
steadily dropped off, and in the 21st century, circulation has dropped further as more people turn to internet
news sites and other forms of new media to stay informed. According to the Pew Research Center, 2009 saw an
unprecedented drop in newspaper circulation––down 10.6 percent from the year before (Pew 2010).

This shift away from newspapers as a source of information has profound effects on societies. When the news
is given to a large diverse conglomerate of people, it must maintain some level of broad-based reporting and
balance in order to appeal to a broad audience and keep them subscribing. As newspapers decline, news
sources become more fractured, so each segment of the audience can choose specifically what it wants to hear
and what it wants to avoid. Increasingly, newspapers are shifting online in an attempt to remain relevant. It is
hard to tell what impact new media platforms will have on the way we receive and process information.

It is hard to tell what impact new media platforms will have on the way we receive and process information.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (2013) reported that audiences for all the
major news magazines declined in 2012, though digital ad revenue increased. The same report suggested that,
while newspaper circulation is holding steady at around $10 billion after years of decline, it is digital pay plans
that allow newspapers to keep their heads above water, and the digital ad revenue that is increasing for news
magazines is not enough to compensate for print revenue loss in newspapers.

A 2014 report suggested that U.S. adults read a median of five books per year in 2013, which is about average.
But are they reading traditional print or e-books? About 69 percent of people said they had read at least one
printed book in the past year, versus 28 percent who said they’d read an e-book (DeSilver 2014). Is print more
effective at conveying information? In recent study, Mangen, Walgermo, and Bronnick (2013) found that
students who read on paper performed slightly better than those who read an e-book on an open-book reading
comprehension exam of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. While a meta-analysis of research by
Andrews (1992) seemed to confirm that people read more slowly and comprehend less when reading from
screens, a meta-analysis of more recent research on this topic does not show anything definite (Noyes and
Garland 2008).

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Television and Radio

FIGURE 8.6 Television control rooms feature feeds from many other networks, so that producers and reporters can
see different perspectives on the same events and be alerted to new developments around the world (Credit:
Anthony Quintano/flickr).

Radio programming obviously preceded television, but both shaped people’s lives in much the same way. In
both cases, information (and entertainment) could be enjoyed at home, with a kind of immediacy and
community that newspapers could not offer. For instance, many people in the United States might remember
when they saw on television or heard on the radio that the Twin Towers in New York City had been attacked in
2001. Even though people were in their own homes, media allowed them to share these moments in real time.
This same kind of separate-but-communal approach occurred with entertainment too. School-aged children
and office workers gathered to discuss the previous night’s installment of a serial television or radio show.

Right up through the 1970s, U.S. television was dominated by three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) that
competed for ratings and advertising dollars. The networks also exerted a lot of control over what people
watched. Public television, in contrast, offered an educational nonprofit alternative to the sensationalization of
news spurred by the network competition for viewers and advertising dollars. Those sources—PBS (Public
Broadcasting Service), the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting
Company)—garnered a worldwide reputation for high-quality programming and a global perspective. Al
Jazeera, the Arabic independent news station, has joined this group as a similar media force that broadcasts to
people worldwide.

The impact of television on U.S. society is hard to overstate. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of U.S. homes had at
least one television set, and the average person watched between two and a half and five hours of television
daily. All this television has a powerful socializing effect, providing reference groups while reinforcing social
norms, values, and beliefs.


The film industry took off in the 1930s, when color and sound were first integrated into feature films. Like
television, early films were unifying for society: as people gathered in theaters to watch new releases, they
would laugh, cry, and be scared together. Movies also act as time capsules or cultural touchstones for society.
From Westerns starring the tough-talking Clint Eastwood to the biopic of Facebook founder and Harvard
dropout Mark Zuckerberg, movies illustrate society’s dreams, fears, and experiences. While many consider
Hollywood the epicenter of moviemaking, India’s Bollywood actually produces more films per year, speaking to
the cultural aspirations and norms of Indian society. The film industry, like other media formats, has gone

8.2 • Media and Technology in Society 211

through substantial change as a result of streaming services, online privacy, and the new competition for
people’s entertainment dollars. Because the mainstream movie industry has been so reliant on ticket sales at
live theaters, the COVID-19 pandemic affected it more dramatically than most other media categories. Highly
anticipated movies slated for 2020 and 2021 releases were delayed or shifted to streaming distribution,
reducing revenue. And some companies made lasting decisions regarding their future offerings.

New Media and Online Environments

New media encompasses all interactive forms of information exchange. These include social networking sites,
blogs, podcasts, wikis, and virtual worlds. Many are not “new” in the sense that they were developed in the past
few years (some may be older than you), but they are newer than the media mentioned above, and they rely on
types of technologies that were not available until about thirty years ago. Many are ways disruptive to
traditional media or to companies that rely on those other formats. Clearly, the list of new media grows almost
daily, and you might feel we are missing some. In fact, the immediacy of new media coupled with the lack of
oversight means we must be more careful than ever to ensure that we are making good decisions about the
accuracy, ethics, and cultural responsiveness of these formats.

Planned Obsolescence: Technology That’s Built to Crash

FIGURE 8.7 Many people are incredibly reliant on their devices, but in business contexts, a failing phone or
computer can have impacts on customers and revenues. (Credit: Rawpixel Ltd/flickr)

Chances are your mobile phone company, as well as the makers of your laptop and your household appliances, are
all counting on their products to fail. Not too quickly, of course, or consumers wouldn’t stand for it—but frequently
enough that you might find that it costs far more to fix a device than to replace it with a newer model. Or you find the
phone company e-mails you saying that you’re eligible for a free new phone, because yours is a whopping two years
old. And appliance repair people say that while they might be fixing some machines that are twenty years old, they
generally aren’t fixing those that are seven years old; newer models are built to be thrown out. This strategy is called
planned obsolescence, and it is the business practice of planning for a product to be obsolete or unusable from the
time it is created.


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To some extent, planned obsolescence is a natural extension of new and emerging technologies. After all, who is
going to cling to an enormous and slow desktop computer from 2000 when a few hundred dollars can buy one that
is significantly faster and better? But the practice is not always so benign. The classic example of planned
obsolescence is the nylon stocking. Women’s stockings—once an everyday staple of women’s lives––get “runs” or
“ladders” after only a few wearings. This requires the stockings to be discarded and new ones purchased. Not
surprisingly, the garment industry did not invest heavily in finding a rip-proof fabric; it was in manufacturers’ best
interest that their product be regularly replaced.

Those who use Microsoft Windows might feel that like the women who purchased endless pairs of stockings, they
are victims of planned obsolescence. Every time Windows releases a new operating system, there are typically not
many innovations in it that consumers feel they must have. However, the software programs are upwardly
compatible only. This means that while the new versions can read older files, the old version cannot read the newer
ones. In short order, those who have not upgraded right away find themselves unable to open files sent by
colleagues or friends, and they usually wind up upgrading as well.

Planned obsolescence is not always done ethically, and some companies can dictate the obsolescence after the
user makes a purchase. Apple users took to social media to confirm that their older iPhones suddenly began losing
power or were slowing down considerably. Many users bought new phones at high prices, and later learned that the
slow downs were intended by the phone maker. Customers filed dozens of class action lawsuits, which are suits
where a very large group of people can band together. Apple was found to have intentionally and improperly altered
its phones through a software update in order to hide battery problems. While it never admitted guilt, Apple’s $500
million settlement paid benefits to iPhone 6 and iPhone 7 users who had been affected, and a later $113 agreement
with state attorneys general included provisions to behave more ethically and transparently (CNBC 2020).

Product Advertising and the Attention Economy

Companies use advertising to sell to us, but the way they reach us is changing. Naomi Klein identified the
destructive impact of corporate branding her 1999 text, No Logo, an antiglobalization treatise that focused on
sweatshops, corporate power, and anticonsumerist social movements. In the post-millennial society,
synergistic advertising practices ensure you are receiving the same message from a variety of sources and on a
variety of platforms. For example, you may see billboards for Miller beer on your way to a stadium, sit down to
watch a game preceded by a Miller commercial on the big screen, and watch a halftime ad in which people are
shown holding up the trademark bottles. Chances are you can guess which brand of beer is for sale at the
concession stand.

Advertising has changed, as technology and media have allowed consumers to bypass traditional advertising
venues. From the invention of the remote control, which allows us to skip television advertising without
leaving our seats, to recording devices that let us watch programs but skip the ads, conventional television
advertising is on the wane. And print media is no different. Advertising revenue in newspapers and on
television has fallen significantly, which shows that companies need new ways of getting their messages to

Brand ambassadorships can also be powerful tools for advertisers. For example, companies hire college
students to be their on-campus representatives, and they may target for students engaged in high-profile
activities like sports, fraternities, and music. (This practice is slightly different from sponsorships, and note
that some students, particularly athletes, need to follow strict guidelines about accepting money or products.)
The marketing team is betting that if we buy perfume because Beyoncé tells us to, we’ll also choose our
workout gear, clothing, or make-up brand if another student encourages that choice. Tens of thousands of
brand ambassadors or brand evangelists work on college campuses, and such marketing approaches are seen
as highly effective investments for companies. The numbers make it clear: Ambassador-referred customers
provide sixteen percent higher value to companies than other customers, and over ninety percent of people
indicate that people trust referrals from people they know (On-Campus Advertising, 2017).

8.2 • Media and Technology in Society 213

Social media has made such influencer and ambassador marketing a near constant. Some formal
ambassadors are sponsored by companies to show or use their products. In some cases, compensation arrives
only in the form of the free products and whatever monetization the ambassador receives from the site, such
as YouTube. Influencers are usually less formally engaged with companies than are ambassadors, relying
mostly on site revenue to reward their efforts. Some influencers may overstate their popularity in order to get
free products or services. For example, luxury hotels report that they are barraged by influencers (some with
very few followers, and therefore questionable influence) who expect free stays in exchange for creating posts
promoting the location (Locker 2019).

One ethical and perhaps relationship-oriented question is whether paid ambassadors should be required to
disclose their relationship with a company, and how that works in online versus face-to-face interactions. In
this case, online presence may be more “truthful” than in-person relationships. A video can formally include
sponsorship information, and some ambassadors list partners or sponsors on their profiles. But in day-to-day,
in-person conversations, it might be awkward for a classmate or colleague to mention that they are wearing a
particular brand or using gear based on a financial relationship. In other words, the person sitting next to you
with the great bag may be paid to carry it, and you may never know.

Homogenization and Fragmentation

Despite the variety of media at hand, the mainstream news and entertainment you enjoy are increasingly
homogenized. Research by McManus (1995) suggests that different news outlets all tell the same stories, using
the same sources, resulting in the same message, presented with only slight variations. So whether you are
reading the New York Times or the CNN’s web site, the coverage of national events like a major court case or
political issue will likely be the same.

Simultaneously with this homogenization among the major news outlets, the opposite process is occurring in
the newer media streams. With so many choices, people increasingly customize their news experience,
minimizing their opportunity to encounter information that does not jive with their worldview (Prior 2005).
For instance, those who are staunchly Republican can avoid centrist or liberal-leaning cable news shows and
web sites that would show Democrats in a favorable light. They know to seek out Fox News over MSNBC, just as
Democrats know to do the opposite. Further, people who want to avoid politics completely can choose to visit
web sites that deal only with entertainment or that will keep them up to date on sports scores. They have an
easy way to avoid information they do not wish to hear. Americans seem to view this phenomenon with great
concern, indicating that the impact of customized or personalized news delivers worse news. Yet, they still
engage with the platforms that deliver news in that manner.

The fragmentation of the news has led to an increased amount of digital tribalism. Tribalism in this sense is
the state or tendency to gather and reinforce ideas belonging to a group, and to do so out of a sense of strong
loyalty. Digital tribalism, then, is the tendency to do so online, and also to forge new tribes purely based on
online personas or ideologies. Instead of basing these groups on the classic bonds of ethnic, religious, or
geographic ideologies, they are based on politics, emotions, lifestyles or lifestyle goals, or even brands (Taute &
Sierra 2014). Digital tribes can lead people to a greater sense of belonging, and can also be heavily exploited
for commercial or power-attaining interests.

8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain the advantages and concerns of media globalization
• Explain the globalization of technology

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FIGURE 8.8 This graphic indicates the connections among people who tweeted or replied about the State of the
Union address. Green lines indicate people who follow each other on the platform. (Credit Marc Smith/flickr)

Technology, and increasingly media, has always driven globalization. In a landmark book, Thomas Friedman
(2005), identified several ways in which technology “flattened” the globe and contributed to our global
economy. The first edition of The World Is Flat, written in 2005, posits that core economic concepts were
changed by personal computing and high-speed Internet. Access to these two technological shifts has allowed
core-nation corporations to recruit workers in call centers located in China or India. Using examples like a
Midwestern U.S. woman who runs a business from her home via the call centers of Bangalore, India, Friedman
warns that this new world order will exist whether core-nation businesses are ready or not, and that in order to
keep its key economic role in the world, the United States will need to pay attention to how it prepares workers
of the twenty-first century for this dynamic.

Of course not everyone agrees with Friedman’s theory. Many economists pointed out that in reality innovation,
economic activity, and population still gather in geographically attractive areas, and they continue to create
economic peaks and valleys, which are by no means flattened out to mean equality for all. China’s hugely
innovative and powerful cities of Shanghai and Beijing are worlds away from the rural squalor of the country’s
poorest denizens.

It is worth noting that Friedman is an economist, not a sociologist. His work focuses on the economic gains and
risks this new world order entails. In this section, we will look more closely at how media globalization and
technological globalization play out in a sociological perspective. As the names suggest, media globalization is
the worldwide integration of media through the cross-cultural exchange of ideas, while technological
globalization refers to the cross-cultural development and exchange of technology.

Media Globalization

Lyons (2005) suggests that multinational corporations are the primary vehicle of media globalization, and
these corporations control global mass-media content and distribution (Compaine 2005). It is true, when
looking at who controls which media outlets, that there are fewer independent news sources as larger and
larger conglomerates develop. In the early 2000s, the United States offered about 1,500 newspapers, 2,800
book publishers, plus 6,000 magazines and a whopping 10,000 radio outlets (Bagdikian 2004). By 2019, some
of those numbers had changed: There were only 1,000 newspapers, but over 7,000 magazines (note that both
newspapers and magazines count as such even if they publish largely online) (BBC 2019). The number of book

8.3 • Global Implications of Media and Technology 215

publishers and radio outlets has generally remained static, which may seem surprising.

On the surface, there is endless opportunity to find diverse media outlets. But the numbers are misleading.
Media consolidation is a process in which fewer and fewer owners control the majority of media outlets. This
creates an oligopoly in which a few firms dominate the media marketplace. In 1983, a mere 50 corporations
owned the bulk of mass-media outlets. Today in the United States (which has no government-owned media)
just five companies control 90 percent of media outlets (McChesney 1999). Ranked by 2014 company revenue,
Comcast is the biggest, followed by the Disney Corporation, Time Warner, CBS, and Viacom (Time.com 2014).
What impact does this consolidation have on the type of information to which the U.S. public is exposed? Does
media consolidation deprive the public of multiple viewpoints and limit its discourse to the information and
opinions shared by a few sources? Why does it matter?

Monopolies matter because less competition typically means consumers are less well served since dissenting
opinions or diverse viewpoints are less likely to be found. Media consolidation results in the following
dysfunctions. First, consolidated media owes more to its stockholders than to the public. Publicly traded
Fortune 500 companies must pay more attention to their profitability and to government regulators than to the
public’s right to know. The few companies that control most of the media, because they are owned by the
power elite, represent the political and social interests of only a small minority. In an oligopoly there are fewer
incentives to innovate, improve services, or decrease prices.

While some social scientists predicted that the increase in media forms would create a global village (McLuhan
1964), current research suggests that the public sphere accessing the global village will tend to be rich,
Caucasoid, and English-speaking (Jan 2009). As shown by the spring 2011 uprisings throughout the Arab
world, technology really does offer a window into the news of the world. For example, here in the United States
we saw internet updates of Egyptian events in real time, with people tweeting, posting, and blogging on the
ground in Tahrir Square.

Still, there is no question that the exchange of technology from core nations to peripheral and semi-peripheral
ones leads to a number of complex issues. For instance, someone using a conflict theorist approach might
focus on how much political ideology and cultural colonialism occurs with technological growth. In theory at
least, technological innovations are ideology-free; a fiber optic cable is the same in a Muslim country as a
secular one, a communist country or a capitalist one. But those who bring technology to less-developed
nations—whether they are nongovernment organizations, businesses, or governments—usually have an
agenda. A functionalist, in contrast, might focus on the ways technology creates new means to share
information about successful crop-growing programs, or on the economic benefits of opening a new market
for cell phone use. Either way, cultural and societal assumptions and norms are being delivered along with
those high-speed wires.

Cultural and ideological bias are not the only risks of media globalization. In addition to the risk of cultural
imperialism and the loss of local culture, other problems come with the benefits of a more interconnected
globe. One risk is the potential for censoring by national governments that let in only the information and
media they feel serve their message, as is occurring in China. In addition, core nations such as the United
States risk the use of international media by criminals to circumvent local laws against socially deviant and
dangerous behaviors such as gambling, child pornography, and the sex trade. Offshore or international web
sites allow U.S. citizens (and others) to seek out whatever illegal or illicit information they want, from twenty-
four hour online gambling sites that do not require proof of age, to sites that sell child pornography. These
examples illustrate the societal risks of unfettered information flow.

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Authority and the Internet: An Uncomfortable Friendship

FIGURE 8.9 What information is accessible to these patrons of an internet café in China? What is censored from
their view? (Credit: Kai Hendry/flickr)

In the United States, the Internet is used to access illegal gambling and pornography sites, as well as to research
stocks, crowd-source what car to buy, or keep in touch with childhood friends. Can we allow one or more of those
activities, while restricting the rest? And who decides what needs restricting? In a country with democratic
principles and an underlying belief in free-market capitalism, the answer is decided in the court system. But
globally, the questions––and the governments’ responses––are very different.

Other countries take a far more restrictive and directive approach to Internet regulation. China, which is a
country with a tight rein on the dissemination of information, has long worked to suppress what it calls “harmful
information,” including dissent concerning government politics, dialogue about China’s relationship with Hong
Kong, or criticism of the government’s handling of events.

With sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube blocked in China, the nation’s Internet users turn to local media
companies for their needs. Even so, the country exerts strong control by identifying and prosecuting some
violators of the bans, and undertaking more far-reaching tactics.

The nation blocks the use of certain terms, such as “human rights,” and passes new laws that require people to
register with their real names and make it more dangerous to criticize government actions.

In early 2021, Myanmar’s military launched a coup against its government. Elected leader Ang San Suu Kyi was
arrested, and other top officials were detained or pushed from power. (Suu Kyi had previously spent years under
house arrest.) Immediately, citizens launched widespread and persistent protests against the coup. Myanmar’s
military took immediate steps to quell the protests, including firing at and killing dozens of protesters and
storming colleges and hospitals. But first, the government banned Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp
in an effort to reduce coordination among protesters and restrain news about the crackdown. The government
also arrested reporters, including foreign nationals, who were accused of violating a public order law. Social
media companies replied in what ways they could, such as deactivating the accounts of Myanmar’s military so
that they couldn’t share their own messages.


8.3 • Global Implications of Media and Technology 217

Technological Globalization

Technological globalization is speeded in large part by technological diffusion, the spread of technology
across borders. In the last two decades, there has been rapid improvement in the spread of technology to
peripheral and semi-peripheral nations, and a 2008 World Bank report discusses both the benefits and
ongoing challenges of this diffusion. In general, the report found that technological progress and economic
growth rates were linked, and that the rise in technological progress has helped improve the situations of
many living in absolute poverty (World Bank 2008). The report recognizes that rural and low-tech products
such as corn can benefit from new technological innovations, and that, conversely, technologies like mobile
banking can aid those whose rural existence consists of low-tech market vending. In addition, technological
advances in areas like mobile phones can lead to competition, lowered prices, and concurrent improvements
in related areas such as mobile banking and information sharing.

However, the same patterns of social inequality that create a digital divide in the United States also create
digital divides within peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. While the growth of technology use among
countries has increased dramatically over the past several decades, the spread of technology within countries
is significantly slower among peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. In these countries, far fewer people
have the training and skills to take advantage of new technology, let alone access it. Technological access tends
to be clustered around urban areas and leaves out vast swaths of peripheral-nation citizens. While the
diffusion of information technologies has the potential to resolve many global social problems, it is often the
population most in need that is most affected by the digital divide. For example, technology to purify water
could save many lives, but the villages in peripheral nations most in need of water purification don’t have
access to the technology, the funds to purchase it, or the technological comfort level to introduce it as a

The Mighty Cell Phone: How Mobile Phones Are Impacting Sub-Saharan Africa
Many of Africa’s poorest countries suffer from a marked lack of infrastructure including poor roads, limited
electricity, and minimal access to education and telephones. But while landline use has not changed appreciably
during the past ten years, there’s been a fivefold increase in mobile phone access; more than a third of people in
Sub-Saharan Africa have the ability to access a mobile phone (Katine 2010). Even more can use a “village
phone”—through a shared-phone program created by the Grameen Foundation. With access to mobile phone
technology, a host of benefits become available that have the potential to change the dynamics in these poorest
nations. Sometimes that change is as simple as being able to make a phone call to neighboring market towns. By
finding out which markets have vendors interested in their goods, fishers and farmers can ensure they travel to the
market that will serve them best and avoid a wasted trip. Others can use mobile phones and some of the emerging
money-sending systems to securely send money to a family member or business partner elsewhere (Katine 2010).

These shared-phone programs are often funded by businesses like Germany’s Vodafone or Britain’s Masbabi, which
hope to gain market share in the region. Phone giant Nokia points out that there are 4 billion mobile phone users
worldwide—that’s more than twice as many people as have bank accounts—meaning there is ripe opportunity to
connect banking companies with people who need their services (ITU Telecom 2009). Not all access is corporate-
based, however. Other programs are funded by business organizations that seek to help peripheral nations with
tools for innovation and entrepreneurship.

But this wave of innovation and potential business comes with costs. There is, certainly, the risk of cultural
imperialism, and the assumption that core nations (and core-nation multinationals) know what is best for those
struggling in the world’s poorest communities. Whether well intentioned or not, the vision of a continent of Africans
successfully chatting on their iPhone may not be ideal. Like all aspects of global inequity, access to technology in
Africa requires more than just foreign investment. There must be a concerted effort to ensure the benefits of


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technology get to where they are needed most.

8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Discuss how we analyze media and technology through various sociological perspectives

It is difficult to conceive of any one theory or theoretical perspective that can explain the variety of ways in
which people interact with technology and the media. Technology runs the gamut from the match you strike to
light a candle all the way up to sophisticated nuclear power plants that might power the factory where that
candle was made. Media could refer to the television you watch, the ads wrapping the bus you take to work or
school, or the magazines you flip through in a dentist’s waiting room, not to mention all the forms of new
media, including Instagram, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and the like. Are media and technology critical to the
forward march of humanity? Are they pernicious capitalist tools that lead to the exploitation of workers
worldwide? Are they the magic bullet the world has been waiting for to level the playing field and raise the
world’s poor out of extreme poverty? Choose any opinion and you will find studies and scholars who agree with
you––and those who disagree.


Because functionalism focuses on how media and technology contribute to the smooth functioning of society, a
good place to begin understanding this perspective is to write a list of functions you perceive media and
technology to perform. Your list might include the ability to find information on the Internet, television’s
entertainment value, or how advertising and product placement contribute to social norms.

Commercial Function

FIGURE 8.10 TV commercials can carry significant cultural currency. For some, the ads during the Super Bowl are
more water cooler-worthy than the game itself. (Credit: Dennis Yang/flickr)

As you might guess, with nearly every U.S. household possessing a television, and the 250 billion hours of
television watched annually by people in the United States, companies that wish to connect with consumers

8.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology 219

find television an irresistible platform to promote their goods and services (Nielsen 2012). Television
advertising is a highly functional way to meet a market demographic where it lives. Sponsors can use the
sophisticated data gathered by network and cable television companies regarding their viewers and target
their advertising accordingly. Whether you are watching cartoons on Nick Jr. or a cooking show on Telemundo,
chances are advertisers have a plan to reach you.

And it certainly doesn’t stop with television. Commercial advertising precedes movies in theaters and shows
up on and inside public transportation, as well as on the sides of building and roadways. Major corporations
such as Coca-Cola bring their advertising into public schools, by sponsoring sports fields or tournaments, as
well as filling the halls and cafeterias of those schools with vending machines hawking their goods. With rising
concerns about childhood obesity and attendant diseases, the era of soda machines in schools may be
numbered. In fact, as part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act and
Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, a ban on junk food in school began in July 2014.

Entertainment Function

An obvious manifest function of media is its entertainment value. Most people, when asked why they watch
television or go to the movies, would answer that they enjoy it. And the numbers certainly illustrate that. While
2012 Nielsen research shows a slight reduction of U.S. homes with televisions, the reach of television is still
vast. And the amount of time spent watching is equally large. Clearly, enjoyment is paramount. On the
technology side, as well, there is a clear entertainment factor to the use of new innovations. From online
gaming to chatting with friends on Facebook, technology offers new and more exciting ways for people to
entertain themselves.

Social Norm Functions

Even while the media is selling us goods and entertaining us, it also serves to socialize us, helping us pass
along norms, values, and beliefs to the next generation. In fact, we are socialized and resocialized by media
throughout our whole lives. All forms of media teach us what is good and desirable, how we should speak, how
we should behave, and how we should react to events. Media also provide us with cultural touchstones during
events of national significance. How many of your older relatives can recall watching the explosion of the space
shuttle Challenger on television? How many of those reading this textbook followed the events of September 11
or Hurricane Katrina on television or the Internet?

Just as in Anderson and Bushman’s (2011) evidence in the Violence in Media and Video Games: Does It Matter?
feature, debate still exists over the extent and impact of media socialization. One recent study (Krahe et al.
2011) demonstrated that violent media content does have a desensitizing affect and is correlated with
aggressive thoughts. Another group of scholars (Gentile, Mathieson, and Crick 2011) found that among
children exposure to media violence led to an increase in both physical and relational aggression. Yet, a meta-
analysis study covering four decades of research (Savage 2003) could not establish a definitive link between
viewing violence and committing criminal violence.

It is clear from watching people emulate the styles of dress and talk that appear in media that media has a
socializing influence. What is not clear, despite nearly fifty years of empirical research, is how much
socializing influence the media has when compared to other agents of socialization, which include any social
institution that passes along norms, values, and beliefs (such as peers, family, religious institutions, and the

Life-Changing Functions

Like media, many forms of technology do indeed entertain us, provide a venue for commercialization, and
socialize us. For example, some studies suggest the rising obesity rate is correlated with the decrease in
physical activity caused by an increase in use of some forms of technology, a latent function of the prevalence
of media in society (Kautiainen et al. 2011). Without a doubt, a manifest function of technology is to change our

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lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Think of how the digital age has improved the
ways we communicate. Have you ever used Skype or another webcast to talk to a friend or family member far
away? Or maybe you have organized a fund drive, raising thousands of dollars, all from your desk chair.

Of course, the downside to this ongoing information flow is the near impossibility of disconnecting from
technology that leads to an expectation of constant convenient access to information and people. Such a fast-
paced dynamic is not always to our benefit. Some sociologists assert that this level of media exposure leads to
narcotizing dysfunction, a result in which people are too overwhelmed with media input to really care about
the issue, so their involvement becomes defined by awareness instead of by action (Lazerfeld and Merton

Conflict Perspective

In contrast to theories in the functional perspective, the conflict perspective focuses on the creation and
reproduction of inequality—social processes that tend to disrupt society rather than contribute to its smooth
operation. When we take a conflict perspective, one major focus is the differential access to media and
technology embodied in the digital divide. Conflict theorists also look at who controls the media, and how
media promotes the norms of upper-middle-class White people in the United States while minimizing the
presence of the working class, especially people of color.

Control of Media and Technology

Powerful individuals and social institutions have a great deal of influence over which forms of technology are
released, when and where they are released, and what kind of media is available for our consumption, which is
a form of gatekeeping. Shoemaker and Vos (2009) define gatekeeping as the sorting process by which
thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media-appropriate form and reduced to a manageable
amount. In other words, the people in charge of the media decide what the public is exposed to, which, as C.
Wright Mills (1956) famously noted, is the heart of media’s power. Take a moment to think of the way “new
media” evolve and replace traditional forms of hegemonic media. With hegemonic media, a culturally diverse
society can be dominated by one race, gender, or class that manipulates the media to impose its worldview as a
societal norm. New media weakens the gatekeeper role in information distribution. Popular sites such as
YouTube and Facebook not only allow more people to freely share information but also engage in a form of self-
policing. Users are encouraged to report inappropriate behavior that moderators will then address.

In addition, some conflict theorists suggest that the way U.S. media are generated results in an unbalanced
political arena. Those with the most money can buy the most media exposure, run smear campaigns against
their competitors, and maximize their visual presence. Almost a year before the 2012 U.S. presidential
election, the candidates––Barack Obama for the Democrats and numerous Republican contenders––had
raised more than $186 million (Carmi et al. 2012). Some would say that the Citizens United vs. Federal Election
Committee is a major contributing factor to our unbalanced political arena. In Citizens United, the Supreme
Court affirmed the right of outside groups, including Super Political Action Committees (SuperPACs) with
undisclosed donor lists, to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads as long as they don’t coordinate
with the candidate’s campaign or specifically advocate for a candidate. What do you think a conflict
perspective theorist would suggest about the potential for the non-rich to be heard in politics, especially when
SuperPACs ensure that the richest groups have the most say?

Technological Social Control and Digital Surveillance

Social scientists take the idea of the surveillance society so seriously that there is an entire journal devoted to
its study, Surveillance and Society. The panoptic surveillance envisioned by Jeremy Bentham, depicted in the
form of an all-powerful, all-seeing government by George Orwell in 1984, and later analyzed by Michel
Foucault (1975) is increasingly realized in the form of technology used to monitor our every move. This
surveillance was imagined as a form of constant monitoring in which the observation posts are decentralized
and the observed is never communicated with directly. Today, digital security cameras capture our

8.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology 221

movements, observers can track us through our cell phones, and police forces around the world use facial-
recognition software.

Feminist Perspective

FIGURE 8.11 Many people argue that women’s portrayal in the media remains misleadingly narrow. But the advent
of influencer culture may provide more agency to women, who can control their own portrayal. (Credit: Nenad

Take a look at popular television shows, advertising campaigns, and online game sites. In most, women are
portrayed in a particular set of parameters and tend to have a uniform look that society recognizes as
attractive. Most are thin, White or light-skinned, beautiful, and young. Why does this matter? Feminist
perspective theorists believe this idealized image is crucial in creating and reinforcing stereotypes. For
example, Fox and Bailenson (2009) found that online female avatars conforming to gender stereotypes
enhance negative attitudes toward women, and Brasted (2010) found that media (advertising in particular)
promotes gender stereotypes. As early as 1990, Ms. magazine instituted a policy to publish without any
commercial advertising.

The gender gap in tech-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) is no secret. A 2011 U.S.
Department of Commerce Report suggested that gender stereotyping is one reason for this gap which
acknowledges the bias toward men as keepers of technological knowledge (US Department of Commerce
2011). But gender stereotypes go far beyond the use of technology. Press coverage in the media reinforces
stereotypes that subordinate women; it gives airtime to looks over skills, and coverage disparages women who
defy accepted norms.

Recent research in new media has offered a mixed picture of its potential to equalize the status of men and
women in the arenas of technology and public discourse. A European agency, the Advisory Committee on
Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (2010), issued an opinion report suggesting that while there is the
potential for new media forms to perpetuate gender stereotypes and the gender gap in technology and media
access, at the same time new media could offer alternative forums for feminist groups and the exchange of
feminist ideas. Still, the committee warned against the relatively unregulated environment of new media and
the potential for antifeminist activities, from pornography to human trafficking, to flourish there.

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Increasingly prominent in the discussion of new media and feminism is cyberfeminism, the application to,
and promotion of, feminism online. Research on cyberfeminism runs the gamut from the liberating use of
blogs by women living in Iraq during the second Gulf War (Peirce 2011) to an investigation of the Suicide Girls
web site (Magnet 2007).

Symbolic Interactionism

Technology itself may act as a symbol for many. The kind of computer you own, the kind of car you drive, your
ability to afford the latest Apple product—these serve as a social indicator of wealth and status. Neo-Luddites
are people who see technology as symbolizing the coldness and alienation of modern life. But for
technophiles, technology symbolizes the potential for a brighter future. For those adopting an ideological
middle ground, technology might symbolize status (in the form of a massive flat-screen television) or failure
(ownership of a basic old mobile phone with no bells or whistles).

Social Construction of Reality

Meanwhile, media create and spread symbols that become the basis for our shared understanding of society.
Theorists working in the interactionist perspective focus on this social construction of reality, an ongoing
process in which people subjectively create and understand reality. Media constructs our reality in a number
of ways. For some, the people they watch on a screen can become a primary group, meaning the small informal
groups of people who are closest to them. For many others, media becomes a reference group: a group that
influences an individual and to which an individual compares himself or herself, and by which we judge our
successes and failures. We might do very well without the latest smartphone, until we see characters using it
on our favorite television show or our classmates whipping it out between classes.

While media may indeed be the medium to spread the message of rich White men, Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes,
and Sasson (1992) point out that some forms of media discourse allow competing constructions of reality to
appear. For example, advertisers find new and creative ways to sell us products we don’t need and probably
wouldn’t want without their prompting, but some networking sites such as Freecycle offer a commercial-free
way of requesting and trading items that would otherwise be discarded. The web is also full of blogs
chronicling lives lived “off the grid,” or without participation in the commercial economy.

Social Networking and Social Construction

While Tumblr and Facebook encourage us to check in and provide details of our day through online social
networks, corporations can just as easily promote their products on these sites. Even supposedly crowd-
sourced sites like Yelp (which aggregates local reviews) are not immune to corporate shenanigans. That is, we
think we are reading objective observations when in reality we may be buying into one more form of

Facebook, which started as a free social network for college students, is increasingly a monetized business,
selling you goods and services in subtle ways. But chances are you don’t think of Facebook as one big online
advertisement. What started out as a symbol of coolness and insider status, unavailable to parents and
corporate shills, now promotes consumerism in the form of games and fandom. For example, think of all the
money spent to upgrade popular Facebook games like Candy Crush. And notice that whenever you become a
“fan,” you likely receive product updates and special deals that promote online and real-world consumerism. It
is unlikely that millions of people want to be “friends” with Pampers. But if it means a weekly coupon, they will,
in essence, rent out space on their Facebook pages for Pampers to appear. Thus, we develop both new ways to
spend money and brand loyalties that will last even after Facebook is considered outdated and obsolete.

8.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology 223

Key Terms
cyberfeminism the application to and promotion of feminism online
design patents patents that are granted when someone has invented a new and original design for a

manufactured product
digital divide the uneven access to technology around race, class, and geographic lines
e-readiness the ability to sort through, interpret, and process digital knowledge
evolutionary model of technological change a breakthrough in one form of technology that leads to a

number of variations, from which a prototype emerges, followed by a period of slight adjustments to the
technology, interrupted by a breakthrough

gatekeeping the sorting process by which thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media-
appropriate form and reduced to a manageable amount

knowledge gap the gap in information that builds as groups grow up without access to technology
media all print, digital, and electronic means of communication
media consolidation a process by which fewer and fewer owners control the majority of media outlets
media globalization the worldwide integration of media through the cross-cultural exchange of ideas
neo-Luddites those who see technology as a symbol of the coldness of modern life
net neutrality the principle that all Internet data should be treated equally by internet service providers
new media all interactive forms of information exchange
oligopoly a situation in which a few firms dominate a marketplace
panoptic surveillance a form of constant monitoring in which the observation posts are decentralized and

the observed is never communicated with directly
planned obsolescence the act of a technology company planning for a product to be obsolete or unable

from the time it’s created
plant patents patents that recognize the discovery of new plant types that can be asexually reproduced
technological diffusion the spread of technology across borders
technological globalization the cross-cultural development and exchange of technology
technology the application of science to solve problems in daily life
technophiles those who see technology as symbolizing the potential for a brighter future
utility patents patents that are granted for the invention or discovery of any new and useful process,

product, or machine

Section Summary
8.1 Technology Today

Technology is the application of science to address the problems of daily life. The fast pace of technological
advancement means the advancements are continuous, but that not everyone has equal access. The gap
created by this unequal access has been termed the digital divide. The knowledge gap refers to an effect of the
digital divide: the lack of knowledge or information that keeps those who were not exposed to technology from
gaining marketable skills

8.2 Media and Technology in Society

Media and technology have been interwoven from the earliest days of human communication. The printing
press, the telegraph, and the Internet are all examples of their intersection. Mass media have allowed for more
shared social experiences, but new media now create a seemingly endless amount of airtime for any and every
voice that wants to be heard. Advertising has also changed with technology. New media allow consumers to
bypass traditional advertising venues and cause companies to be more innovative and intrusive as they try to
gain our attention.

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8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology

Technology drives globalization, but what that means can be hard to decipher. While some economists see
technological advances leading to a more level playing field where anyone anywhere can be a global contender,
the reality is that opportunity still clusters in geographically advantaged areas. Still, technological diffusion
has led to the spread of more and more technology across borders into peripheral and semi-peripheral
nations. However, true technological global equality is a long way off.

8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

There are myriad theories about how society, technology, and media will progress. Functionalism sees the
contribution that technology and media provide to the stability of society, from facilitating leisure time to
increasing productivity. Conflict theorists are more concerned with how technology reinforces inequalities
among communities, both within and among countries. They also look at how media typically give voice to the
most powerful, and how new media might offer tools to help those who are disenfranchised. Symbolic
interactionists see the symbolic uses of technology as signs of everything from a sterile futuristic world to a
successful professional life.

Section Quiz
8.1 Technology Today

1. Jerome is able to use the Internet to select reliable sources for his research paper, but Charlie just copies
large pieces of web pages and pastes them into his paper. Jerome has _____________ while Charlie does
a. a functional perspective
b. the knowledge gap
c. e-readiness
d. a digital divide

2. The ________ can be directly attributed to the digital divide, because differential ability to access the
internet leads directly to a differential ability to use the knowledge found on the Internet.
a. digital divide
b. knowledge gap
c. feminist perspective
d. e-gap

3. The fact that your cell phone is using outdated technology within a year or two of purchase is an example of
a. the conflict perspective
b. conspicuous consumption
c. media
d. planned obsolescence

4. The history of technology began _________.
a. in the early stages of human societies
b. with the invention of the computer
c. during the Renaissance
d. during the nineteenth century

8 • Section Quiz 225

8.2 Media and Technology in Society

5. When it comes to technology, media, and society, which of the following is true?
a. Media can influence technology, but not society.
b. Technology created media, but society has nothing to do with these.
c. Technology, media, and society are bound and cannot be separated.
d. Society influences media but is not connected to technology.

6. If the U.S. Patent Office were to issue a patent for a new type of tomato that tastes like a jellybean, it would
be issuing a _________ patent?
a. utility patent
b. plant patent
c. design patent
d. The U.S. Patent Office does not issue a patent for plants.

7. Which of the following is the primary component of the evolutionary model of technological change?
a. Technology should not be subject to patenting.
b. Technology and the media evolve together.
c. Technology can be traced back to the early stages of human society.
d. A breakthrough in one form of technology leads to a number of variations, and technological


8. Which of the following is not a form of new media?
a. The cable television program Yellowstone
b. Wikipedia
c. Snapchat
d. A cooking blog written by Rachael Ray

9. Research regarding video game violence suggests that _________.
a. boys who play violent video games become more aggressive, but girls do not
b. girls who play violent video games become more aggressive, but boys do not
c. violent video games have no connection to aggressive behavior
d. violent video games lead to an increase in aggressive thought and behavior

10. Comic books, Wikipedia, MTV, and a commercial for Coca-Cola are all examples of:
a. media
b. symbolic interaction perspective
c. e-readiness
d. the digital divide

8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology

11. When Japanese scientists develop a new vaccine for swine flu and offer that technology to U.S.
pharmaceutical companies, __________ has taken place.
a. media globalization
b. technological diffusion
c. monetizing
d. planned obsolescence

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12. In the mid-90s, the U.S. government grew concerned that Microsoft was a _______________, exercising
disproportionate control over the available choices and prices of computers.
a. monopoly
b. conglomerate
c. oligopoly
d. technological globalization

13. The movie Babel featured an international cast and was filmed on location in various nations. When it
screened in theaters worldwide, it introduced a number of ideas and philosophies about cross-cultural
connections. This might be an example of:
a. technology
b. conglomerating
c. symbolic interaction
d. media globalization

14. Which of the following is not a risk of media globalization?
a. The creation of cultural and ideological biases
b. The creation of local monopolies
c. The risk of cultural imperialism
d. The loss of local culture

15. The government of __________ blocks citizens’ access to popular new media sites like Facebook,
YouTube, and Twitter.
a. China
b. India
c. Afghanistan
d. Australia

8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

16. A parent secretly monitoring the babysitter through the use of GPS, site blocker, and nanny cam is a good
example of:
a. the social construction of reality
b. technophilia
c. a neo-Luddite
d. panoptic surveillance

17. The use of Facebook to create an online persona by only posting images that match your ideal self
exemplifies the_____________ that can occur in forms of new media.
a. social construction of reality
b. cyberfeminism
c. market segmentation
d. referencing

18. _________ tend to be more pro-technology, while _______ view technology as a symbol of the coldness of
modern life.
a. Luddites; technophiles
b. technophiles; Luddites
c. cyberfeminists; technophiles
d. liberal feminists; conflict theorists

8 • Section Quiz 227

19. When it comes to media and technology, a functionalist would focus on:
a. the symbols created and reproduced by the media
b. the association of technology and technological skill with men
c. the way that various forms of media socialize users
d. the digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots

20. When all media sources report a simplified version of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing,
with no effort to convey the hard science and complicated statistical data behind the story, ___________ is
probably occurring.
a. gatekeeping
b. the digital divide
c. technophilia
d. market segmentation

Short Answer
8.1 Technology Today

1. Can you think of people in your own life who support or defy the premise that access to technology leads to
greater opportunities? How have you noticed technology use and opportunity to be linked, or does your
experience contradict this idea?

2. Should the U.S. government be responsible for providing all citizens with access to the Internet? Or is
gaining Internet access an individual responsibility?

3. How have digital media changed social interactions? Do you believe it has deepened or weakened human
connections? Defend your answer.

4. Conduct sociological research. Google yourself. How much information about you is available to the public?
How many and what types of companies offer private information about you for a fee? Compile the data and
statistics you find. Write a paragraph or two about the social issues and behaviors you notice.

8.2 Media and Technology in Society

5. Where and how do you get your news? Do you watch network television? Read the newspaper? Go online?
How about your parents or grandparents? Do you think it matters where you seek out information? Why, or
why not?

6. Do you believe new media allows for the kind of unifying moments that television and radio programming
used to? If so, give an example.

7. Where are you most likely to notice advertisements? What causes them to catch your attention?

8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology

8. Do you believe that technology has indeed flattened the world in terms of providing opportunity? Why, or
why not? Give examples to support your reason.

9. Where do you get your news? Is it owned by a large conglomerate (you can do a web search and find out!)?
Does it matter to you who owns your local news outlets? Why, or why not?

10. Who do you think is most likely to bring innovation and technology (like cell phone businesses) to Sub-
Saharan Africa: nonprofit organizations, governments, or businesses? Why?

8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

11. Contrast a functionalist viewpoint of digital surveillance with a conflict perspective viewpoint.

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12. In what ways has the Internet affected how you view reality? Explain using a symbolic interactionist

13. Describe how a cyberfeminist might address the fact that powerful female politicians are often demonized
in traditional media.

14. The issue of airplane-pilot exhaustion is an issue of growing media concern. Select a theoretical
perspective, and describe how it would explain this.

15. Would you characterize yourself as a technophile or a Luddite? Explain, and use examples.

Further Research
8.1 Technology Today

To learn more about the digital divide and why it matters, check out this website with research on the digital
divide (http://openstax.org/l/Digital_Divide) .

To find out more about Internet privacy and security, check out this website on privacy rights
(http://openstax.org/l/2EPrivacy) .

8.2 Media and Technology in Society

To get a sense of the timeline of technology. Check out this website with a technology timeline.

To learn more about new media, check out the New Media Institute (http://openstax.org/l/new_media)

To understand how independent media coverage differs from major corporate affiliated news outlets, review
material from the Democracy Now! website (http://openstax.org/l/2EDemoNow) .

8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology

Check out more in this article about the global digital divide (http://openstax.org/l/Global_Digital_Divide) .

8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

To learn more about cyberfeminism, check out the interdisciplinary artist collective, subRosa
(http://openstax.org/l/cyberfeminism) .

To explore the implications of panoptic surveillance, review some surveillance studies at the free, open source
Surveillance and Society site (http://openstax.org/l/Surveillance) .

Read an example of socialist media from Jacobin magazine (http://openstax.org/l/2EJacobin) .


Haskell, Rob. 2017. “Selena Gomez on Instagram Fatigue, Good Mental Health, and Stepping Back From the
Limelight.” Vogue. (https://www.vogue.com/article/selena-gomez-april-cover-interview-mental-health-

Kirkpatrick, Emily. 2020. “Lorde Explains Why She Stepped Back from Social Media in 2018.” Vanity Fair.

8.1 Technology Today

Abbott, Tyler. 2020. “America’s Love Affair With Their Phones.” Reviews.org. (https://www.reviews.org/mobile/

8 • Further Research 229

Allchin, Josie. 2012. “New guidance for brands using child ambassadors.” Marketing Week.

American Press Institute. 2015. “Race and ethnicity, device usage, and connectivity.”

Auxier, Brooke and Rainie, Lee. 2019. “Americans and Privacy.” Pew Research Center.

Guillén, M.F., and S.L. Suárez. 2005. “Explaining the Global Digital Divide: Economic, Political and Sociological
Drivers of Cross-National Internet Use.” Social Forces 84:681–708.

Hall, J. A., & Baym, N. K. (2012). “Calling and texting (too much): Mobile maintenance expectations, (over)
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Kooser, Amanda. 2015. “Sleep with your smartphone in hand? You’re not alone.” CNET. (https://www.cnet.com/

Levy, Sara. 2019. “No, I Won’t Post A Picture of My Kid on Social Media.” Glamour. (https://www.glamour.com/

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Liff, Sondra, and Adrian Shepherd. 2004. “An Evolving Gender Digital Divide.” Oxford Internet Institute,
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Perrin, Andrew and Turner, Erica. 2019. “Smartphones help blacks, Hispanics bridge some – but not all –
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234 8 • References

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FIGURE 9.1 This house, formerly owned by the famous television producer, Aaron Spelling, sold in 2019 for $119
million, which set the record for the highest individual home sale in California history. It is the largest private home
in Los Angeles, and is considered one of the most extravagant homes in the United States. (Credit: Atwater Village


9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

Jarrett grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, left home to serve in the Army, and returned a few
years later to take over the family farm. He moved into his family house, and eighteen months later married
Eric, with whom he had maintained a long-distance relationship for several years. Eric had two children from a
previous marriage. They quickly realized the income from the farm was no longer sufficient to meet their
needs. Jarrett, with little experience beyond the farm, took on a job at a grocery store to supplement his
income. This part-time job shifted the direction of their family’s life.

One of the managers at the store liked Jarrett, his attitude, and his work ethic. He began to groom Jarrett for
advancement at the store, and encouraged him to take a few classes at a local college. Despite knowing he’d
receive financial support from the military, this was the first time Jarrett had seriously thought about college.
Could he be successful, Jarrett wondered? Could he actually become the first in his family to earn a degree?
Fortunately, Eric also believed in him. Jarrett kept his college enrollment a secret from his mother, his
brothers, and his friends. He did not want others to know about it, in case he failed.

Jarrett was nervous on his first day of class. He was older than the other students, and he had never considered

9Social Stratification in the United

himself college material. When he earned only a C- on his first test, he thought his fears were being realized,
and that it was perhaps not a fit for him. But his instructor strongly recommended that Jarrett pay a visit to the
academic success center. After a few sessions, he utilized a better study schedule and got a B- on the next
exam. He was successful in that class, and enrolled in two more the next semester.

Unfortunately, life took a difficult turn when Jarrett’s and Eric’s daughter became ill; he couldn’t focus on his
studies and he dropped all of his classes. With his momentum slowed, Jarrett wasn’t sure he was ready to
resume after his daughter recovered. His daughter, though, set him straight. One day after telling her to start
her homework, she was reluctant and said, “You’re not doing your homework anymore; I shouldn’t have to do
mine.” A bit annoyed, Jarrett and Eric explained the difference between being an adult with work and family
obligations and being a child in middle school. But Jarrett realized he was most upset at himself for using her
illness as an excuse. He thought he wasn’t living up to the example he wanted to set for her. The next day, he
called his academic advisor and re-enrolled.

Just under two years later, Jarrett was walking across the stage to receive a Bachelor’s degree with a special
certificate for peer support. The ceremony seemed surreal to Jarrett. He’d earned medals and other
recognition in the military, but he always felt those accomplishments were shared among his team. While he’d
had a lot of help with college, he felt that graduating was a milestone that was more closely tied to himself.

Stories like this permeate American society and may sound familiar, yet this quest to achieve the American
Dream is often hard for many Americans to achieve, even with hard work. After all, nearly one in three first-
year college students is a first-generation college student and many are not as successful as Jarrett. According
to the Center for Student Opportunity, a national nonprofit, 89% of first-generation students will not earn an
undergraduate degree within six years of starting their studies. In fact, these students “drop out of college at
four times the rate of peers whose parents have postsecondary degrees” (Center for Student Opportunity
quoted in Huot 2014).

Why do students with parents who have completed college tend to graduate more often than those students
whose parents do not hold degrees? That question and many others will be answered as we explore social

9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate between open and closed stratification systems
• Distinguish between caste and class systems
• Explain why meritocracy is considered an ideal system of stratification

236 9 • Social Stratification in the United States

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FIGURE 9.2 In the upper echelons of the working world, people with the most power reach the top. These people
make the decisions and earn the most money. The majority of Americans will never see the view from the top.
(Credit: Alex Proimos/flickr)

Sociologists use the term social stratification to describe the system of social standing. Social stratification
refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings based on factors like wealth, income, education,
family background, and power.

Geologists also use the word “stratification” to describe the distinct vertical layers found in rock. Typically,
society’s layers, made of people, represent the uneven distribution of society’s resources. Society views the
people with more resources as the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people,
with fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers. An individual’s place within this stratification is
called socioeconomic status (SES).

9.1 • What Is Social Stratification? 237

FIGURE 9.3 Strata in rock illustrate social stratification. People are sorted, or layered, into social categories. Many
factors determine a person’s social standing, such as wealth, income, education, family background, and power.
(Credit: Just a Prairie Boy/flickr)

Most people and institutions in the United States indicate that they value equality, a belief that everyone has an
equal chance at success. In other words, hard work and talent—not inherited wealth, prejudicial treatment,
institutional racism, or societal values—determine social mobility. This emphasis on choice, motivation, and
self-effort perpetuates the American belief that people control their own social standing.

However, sociologists recognize social stratification as a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent.
While inequalities exist between individuals, sociologists are interested in larger social patterns. Sociologists
look to see if individuals with similar backgrounds, group memberships, identities, and location in the country
share the same social stratification. No individual, rich or poor, can be blamed for social inequalities, but
instead all participate in a system where some rise and others fall. Most Americans believe the rising and
falling is based on individual choices. But sociologists see how the structure of society affects a person’s social
standing and therefore is created and supported by society.

238 9 • Social Stratification in the United States

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FIGURE 9.4 The people who live in these houses most likely share similar levels of income and education.
Neighborhoods often house people of the same social standing. Wealthy families do not typically live next door to
poorer families, though this varies depending on the particular city and country. (Credit: Orin Zebest/flickr)

Factors that define stratification vary in different societies. In most societies, stratification is an economic
system, based on wealth, the net value of money and assets a person has, and income, a person’s wages or
investment dividends. While people are regularly categorized based on how rich or poor they are, other
important factors influence social standing. For example, in some cultures, prestige is valued, and people who
have them are revered more than those who don’t. In some cultures, the elderly are esteemed, while in others,
the elderly are disparaged or overlooked. Societies’ cultural beliefs often reinforce stratification.

One key determinant of social standing is our parents. Parents tend to pass their social position on to their
children. People inherit not only social standing but also the cultural norms, values, and beliefs that
accompany a certain lifestyle. They share these with a network of friends and family members that provide
resources and support. This is one of the reasons first-generation college students do not fare as well as other
students. They lack access to the resources and support commonly provided to those whose parents have gone
to college.

Other determinants are found in a society’s occupational structure. Teachers, for example, often have high
levels of education but receive relatively low pay. Many believe that teaching is a noble profession, so teachers
should do their jobs for love of their profession and the good of their students—not for money. Yet, the same
attitude is not applied to professional athletes, executives, or those working in corporate world. Cultural
attitudes and beliefs like these support and perpetuate social and economic inequalities.

Systems of Stratification

Sociologists distinguish between two types of systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little
change in social position. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relationships
between levels. Closed systems include estate, slavery, and caste systems. Open systems are based on
achievement and allow for movement and interaction between layers and classes. How different systems
operate reflect, emphasize, and foster specific cultural values, shaping individual beliefs. In this section, we’ll
review class and caste stratification systems, plus discuss the ideal system of meritocracy.

9.1 • What Is Social Stratification? 239

The Caste System

FIGURE 9.5 India used to have a rigid caste system. The people in the lowest caste suffered from extreme poverty
and were shunned by society. Some aspects of India’s defunct caste system remain socially relevant. (Credit:

Caste systems are closed stratification systems where people can do little or nothing to change the social
standing of their birth. The caste system determines all aspects of an individual’s life: occupations, marriage
partners, and housing. Individual talents, interests, or potential do not provide opportunities to improve a
person’s social position.

In the Hindu caste tradition, people expect to work in an occupation and to enter into a marriage based on
their caste. Accepting this social standing is considered a moral duty and people are socialized to accept their
social standing. Cultural values reinforced the system. Caste systems promote beliefs in fate, destiny, and the
will of a higher power, rather than promoting individual freedom as a value. This belief system is an ideology.
Every culture has an ideology that supports its system of stratification.

The caste system in India has been officially dismantled, but is still deeply embedded in Indian society,
particularly in rural areas. In India’s larger cities, people now have more opportunities to choose their own
career paths and marriage partners. As a global center of employment, corporations have introduced merit-
based hiring and employment to the nation shifting the cultural expectations of the caste system.

The Class System

A class system is based on both social factors and individual achievement. A class consists of a set of people
who share similar status based on factors like wealth, income, education, family background, and occupation.
Unlike caste systems, class systems are open. People may move to a different level (vertical movement) of
education or employment status than their parents. Though family and other societal models help guide a
person toward a career, personal choice and opportunity play a role.

They can also socialize with and marry members of other classes. People have the option to form an
exogamous marriage, a union of spouses from different social categories. Exogamous marriages often focus
on values such as love and compatibility. Though social conformities still exist that encourage people to choose
partners within their own class, called an endogamous marriage, people are not as pressured to choose

240 9 • Social Stratification in the United States

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marriage partners based solely on their social location.


Meritocracy is a hypothetical system in which social stratification is determined by personal effort and merit.
The concept of meritocracy is an ideal because no society has ever existed where social standing was based
entirely on merit. Rather, multiple factors influence social standing, including processes like socialization and
the realities of inequality within economic systems. While a meritocracy has never existed, sociologists see
aspects of meritocracies in modern societies when they study the role of academic and job performance and
the systems in place for evaluating and rewarding achievement in these areas.

The differences between an open and closed system are explored further in the example below.

Status Consistency

Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s
rank across the factors that determine social stratification within a lifetime. Caste systems correlate with high
status consistency, due to the inability to move out of a class, whereas the more flexible class system
demonstrates lower status consistency.

To illustrate, let’s consider Serena. Serena earned her high school diploma but did not go to college.
Completing high school but not college is a trait more common to the lower-middle class. After high school,
she began landscaping, which, as manual labor, tracks with lower-middle class or even lower class. However,
over time, Serena started her own company. She hired employees. She won larger contracts. Serena became a
business owner and earned more money. Those traits represent the upper-middle class. Inconsistencies
between Serena’s educational level, her occupation, and income show Serena’s flexibility in her social status,
giving her low status consistency. In a class system, hard work, new opportunities, coupled with a lower
education status still allow a person movement into middle or upper class, whereas in a caste system, that
would not be possible. In a class system, low status consistency correlates with having more choices and


FIGURE 9.6 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with other members of the Royal family, in 2017. One year later, the
couple would wed and the American-born actress and fashion-designer would immediately become Her Royal
Highness The Duchess of Sussex, a position and title that bestows significant benefits of social class (Credit: Mark


9.1 • What Is Social Stratification? 241

Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

Meghan Markle, who married a member of the British royal family, for years endured unceasing negative media
attention, invasion of privacy, and racially abusive comments. She and her husband–Prince Harry, grandson to
Queen Elizabeth–undertook a series of legal actions to push back against overly aggressive media outlets. But
because of the continued harassment and disagreements with others in the royal family, Meghan and Harry decided
to step down from their royal obligations and begin a disassociation from the British monarchy. In doing so, they
gave up honorary positions, titles, and financial support. For Meghan, who had been born in the U.S. and had earned
her wealth through a successful career, these changes may not be so jarring. Prince Harry, however, had been “His
Royal Highness” since he was born; by nature of his ancestry he was entitled to vast sums of money, property, and
cultural-political positions such as Honorary Air Commandant, Commodore-in-Chief, and President of the Queen’s
Commonwealth Trust. Harry would also lose the military rank he had earned through almost ten years of military
service, including two combat deployments to Afghanistan. Would Megxit work for him? What gave him those honors
in the first place?

Britain’s monarchy arose during the Middle Ages. Its social hierarchy placed royalty at the top and commoners on
the bottom. This was generally a closed system, with people born into positions of nobility. Wealth was passed from
generation to generation through primogeniture, a law stating that all property would be inherited by the firstborn
son. If the family had no son, the land went to the next closest male relation. Women could not inherit property, and
their social standing was primarily determined through marriage.

The arrival of the Industrial Revolution changed Britain’s social structure. Commoners moved to cities, got jobs, and
made better livings. Gradually, people found new opportunities to increase their wealth and power. Today, the
government is a constitutional monarchy with the prime minister and other ministers elected to their positions, and
with the royal family’s role being largely ceremonial. The long-ago differences between nobility and commoners
have blurred, and the modern class system in Britain is similar to that of the United States (McKee 1996).

Today, the royal family still commands wealth, power, and a great deal of attention. When Queen Elizabeth II retires
or passes away, Prince Charles will be first in line to ascend the throne. If he abdicates (chooses not to become king)
or dies, the position will go to Prince William, Prince Harry’s older brother.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, meanwhile, moved to Los Angeles and signed a voiceover deal with Disney while
also joining Netflix in a series production. They founded an organization focusing on non-profit activities and media
ventures. Living in LA and working to some extent in entertainment, they will likely be considered a different type of

9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the U.S. class structure
• Describe several types of social mobility
• Recognize characteristics that define and identify class

How does social stratification affect your ability to move up or down the social classes? What is a standard of
living? What factors matter in rising up or becoming more successful in the eyes of those around you? Does
being in a social class dictate your style, behavior, or opportunities?

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Social Classes in the United States

FIGURE 9.7 Does taste or fashion sense indicate class? Is there any way to tell if these people come from an upper-
, middle-, or lower-class background? (Credit: Kelly Bailey/flickr)

For sociologists, categorizing social class is a fluid science. Sociologists generally identify three levels of class
in the United States: upper, middle, and lower class. Within each class, there are many subcategories. Wealth is
the most significant way of distinguishing classes, because wealth can be transferred to one’s children and
perpetuate the class structure. One economist, J.D. Foster, defines the 20 percent of U.S. citizens’ highest
earners as “upper income,” and the lower 20 percent as “lower income.” The remaining 60 percent of the
population make up the middle class (Mason 2010). With that distinction, economists can describe the range
in annual household incomes for the middle-class, but they cannot show how the range of all incomes vary and
how they change over time. For this reason, the Pew Center defines classes based on the median household
income. The lower class includes those whose income is two-thirds of the national median, the middle class
includes those whose income falls between two-thirds and twice the median, and the upper class includes
those whose income is above twice the national median (Kochhar 2015). Though median income levels vary
from state to state, at the national level you would be considered in the middle-class if you earned between
$48,500 to $145,500 in 2018 U.S. dollars (Bennett 2000).

One sociological perspective distinguishes the classes, in part, according to their relative power and control
over their lives. Members of the upper class not only have power and control over their own lives, but their
social status gives them power and control over others’ lives. The middle class doesn’t generally control other
strata of society, but its members do exert control over their own lives. In contrast, the lower class has little
control over their work or lives. Below, we will explore the major divisions of U.S. social class and their key

9.2 • Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States 243

Upper Class

FIGURE 9.8 Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places, such as country clubs
and gated communities, designed for luxury, safety, and comfort. (Credit: PrimeImageMedia.com/flickr)

The upper class is considered the top, and only the powerful elite get to see the view from there. In the United
States, people with extreme wealth make up one percent of the population, and they own roughly one-third of
the country’s wealth (Beeghley 2008).

Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to a lot of power. As corporate leaders,
members of the upper class make decisions that affect the job status of millions of people. As media owners,
they influence the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio
broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and sports franchises. As board members of the most
influential colleges and universities, they influence cultural attitudes and values. As philanthropists, they
establish foundations to support social causes they believe in. As campaign contributors and legislation
drivers, they fund political campaigns to sway policymakers, sometimes to protect their own economic
interests and at other times to support or promote a cause. (The methods, effectiveness, and impact of these
political efforts are discussed in the Politics and Government chapter.)

U.S. society has historically distinguished between “old money” (inherited wealth passed from one generation
to the next) and “new money” (wealth you have earned and built yourself). While both types may have equal
net worth, they have traditionally held different social standings. People of old money, firmly situated in the
upper class for generations, have held high prestige. Their families have socialized them to know the customs,
norms, and expectations that come with wealth. Often, the very wealthy don’t work for wages. Some study
business or become lawyers in order to manage the family fortune. Others, such as Paris Hilton and Kim
Kardashian, capitalize on being a rich socialite and transform that into celebrity status, flaunting a wealthy

However, new-money members of the upper class are not oriented to the customs and mores of the elite. They
haven’t gone to the most exclusive schools. They have not established old-money social ties. People with new
money might flaunt their wealth, buying sports cars and mansions, but they might still exhibit behaviors
attributed to the middle and lower classes.

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The Middle Class

FIGURE 9.9 These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class, as do many Americans. (Credit:
United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/flickr)

Many people consider themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People
with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That
helps explain why, in the United States, the middle class is broken into upper and lower subcategories.

Lower-middle class members tend to complete a two-year associate’s degrees from community or technical
colleges or a four-year bachelor’s degree. Upper-middle class people tend to continue on to postgraduate
degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine.

Middle-class people work hard and live fairly comfortable lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue
careers, own their homes, and travel on vacation. Their children receive high-quality education and healthcare
(Gilbert 2010). Parents can support more specialized needs and interests of their children, such as more
extensive tutoring, arts lessons, and athletic efforts, which can lead to more social mobility for the next
generation. Families within the middle class may have access to some wealth, but also must work for an
income to maintain this lifestyle.

In the lower middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill
technical, lower- level management or administrative support positions. Compared to lower-class work, lower-
middle-class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paychecks. With these incomes, people
can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but they struggle to maintain it. They generally don’t have enough
income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than those in the
upper tiers of the class system. When companies need to save money, lower-middle class people are often the
ones to lose their jobs.

9.2 • Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States 245

The Lower Class

FIGURE 9.10 Bike messengers and bike delivery people are often considered members of the working class. They
endure difficult and dangerous conditions to do their work, and they are not always well represented by government
agencies and in regulations designed for safety or fairness. (Credit: edwardhblake/flickr)

The lower class is also referred to as the working class. Just like the middle and upper classes, the lower class
can be divided into subsets: the working class, the working poor, and the underclass. Compared to the lower
middle class, people from the lower economic class have less formal education and earn smaller incomes.
They work jobs that require less training or experience than middle-class occupations and often do routine
tasks under close supervision.

Working-class people, the highest subcategory of the lower class, often land steady jobs. The work is hands-on
and often physically demanding, such as landscaping, cooking, cleaning, or building.

Beneath the working class is the working poor. They have unskilled, low-paying employment. However, their
jobs rarely offer benefits such as healthcare or retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or
temporary. They work as migrant farm workers, housecleaners, and day laborers. Education is limited. Some
lack a high school diploma.

How can people work full-time and still be poor? Even working full-time, millions of the working poor earn
incomes too meager to support a family. The government requires employers pay a minimum wage that varies
from state to state, and often leave individuals and families below the poverty line. In addition to low wages, the
value of the wage has not kept pace with inflation. “The real value of the federal minimum wage has dropped
17% since 2009 and 31% since 1968 (Cooper, Gould, & Zipperer, 2019). Furthermore, the living wage, the
amount necessary to meet minimum standards, differs across the country because the cost of living differs.
Therefore, the amount of income necessary to survive in an area such as New York City differs dramatically
from small town in Oklahoma (Glasmeier, 2020).

The underclass is the United States’ lowest tier. The term itself and its classification of people have been
questioned, and some prominent sociologists (including a former president of the American Sociological
Association), believe its use is either overgeneralizing or incorrect (Gans 1991). But many economists,
sociologists government agencies, and advocacy groups recognize the growth of the underclass. Members of
the underclass live mainly in inner cities. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs
typically perform menial tasks for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. Many rely on welfare
systems to provide food, medical care, and housing assistance, which often does not cover all their basic
needs. The underclass have more stress, poorer health, and suffer crises fairly regularly.

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Class Traits

Does a person’s appearance indicate class? Can you tell a person’s education level based on their clothing? Do
you know a person’s income by the car they drive? Class traits, also called class markers, are the typical
behaviors, customs, and norms that define each class. Class traits indicate the level of exposure a person has to
a wide range of cultures. Class traits also indicate the amount of resources a person has to spend on items like
hobbies, vacations, and leisure activities.

People may associate the upper class with enjoyment of costly, refined, or highly cultivated tastes—expensive
clothing, luxury cars, high-end fund-raisers, and frequent or expensive vacations. People may also believe that
the middle and lower classes are more likely to enjoy camping, fishing, or hunting, shopping at large retailers,
and participating in community activities. While these descriptions may identify class traits, they are
stereotypes. Moreover, just as class distinctions have blurred in recent decades, so too have class traits. A
factory worker could be a skilled French cook. A billionaire might dress in ripped jeans, and a low-income
student might own designer shoes.

For famous wealthy people, making choices that do not seem to align with their economic status can often lead
to public commentary. Jennifer Lopez being spotted in a dress that cost less than $30 and Zac Efron shopping
at thrift stores have made the news. Others, like Halle Berry and Keanu Reeves, are known for frequent use of
public transportation and relatively modest living (at least when considering to their net worth). When
questioned, most point to nothing more than practicality. Lady Gaga tweeted ” why do people look at me like
I’m crazy when i use coupons at grocery or try bargaining at retail…” (2012). And in dense, crowded cities such
as Washington, Chicago, and New York, riding the trains is often faster and easier than taking a car.

Social Mobility

People are often inspired and amazed at people’s ability to overcome extremely difficult upbringings. Mariano
Rivera, acknowledged to be the best relief pitcher in history, made a baseball glove out of cardboard and tape
because his family could not afford a real one. Alice Coachman grew up with few resources and was denied
access to training facilities because of her race; she ran barefoot and built her own high jump equipment
before becoming the first Black athlete (and one of the first American track and field athletes) to win an
Olympic Gold. Pelé, perhaps the most transformative figure in soccer, learned the game while using a rag-
stuffed sock for a ball. These are some of the stories told in documentaries or biographies meant to inspire and
share the challenges of unequal upbringings. Relative to the overall population, the number of people who rise
from poverty to become very successful is small, and the number that become wealthy is even smaller.
Systemic barriers like unequal education, discrimination, and lack of opportunity can slow or diminish one’s
ability to move up. Still, people who earn a college degree, get a job promotion, or marry someone with a good
income may move up socially.

Social mobility refers to the ability of individuals to change positions within a social stratification system.
When people improve or diminish their economic status in a way that affects social class, they experience
social mobility. Individuals can experience upward or downward social mobility for a variety of reasons.
Upward mobility refers to an increase—or upward shift—when they move from a lower to a higher
socioeconomical class. In contrast, individuals experience downward mobility when they move from higher
socioeconomic class to a lower one. Some people move downward because of business setbacks,
unemployment, or illness. Dropping out of school, losing a job, or getting a divorce may result in a loss of
income or status and, therefore, downward social mobility.

It is not uncommon for different generations of a family to belong to varying social classes. This is known as
intergenerational mobility. For example, an upper-class executive may have parents who belonged to the
middle class. In turn, those parents may have been raised in the lower class. Patterns of intergenerational
mobility can reflect long-term societal changes.

On the other hand, intragenerational mobility refers to changes in a person’s social mobility over the course

9.2 • Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States 247

of their lifetime. For example, the wealth and prestige experienced by one person may be quite different from
that of their siblings.

Structural mobility happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the
social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole. In the first half of the
twentieth century, industrialization expanded the U.S. economy, raising the standard of living and leading to
upward structural mobility for almost everyone. In the decade and a half of the twenty-first century, recessions
and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to the withdrawal of Americans from the workforce (BLS
2021). Many people experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility.

When analyzing the trends and movements in social mobility, sociologists consider all modes of mobility.
Scholars recognize that mobility is not as common or easy to achieve as many people think.

Stratification of Socioeconomic Classes

In the last century, the United States has seen a steady rise in its standard of living, the level of wealth
available to acquire the material necessities and comforts to maintain a specific lifestyle. The country’s
standard of living is based on factors such as income, employment, class, literacy rates, mortality rates,
poverty rates, and housing affordability. A country with a high standard of living will often reflect a high quality
of life, which in the United States means residents can afford a home, own a car, and take vacations. Ultimately,
standard of living is shaped by the wealth and distribution of wealth in a country and the expectations its
citizens have for their lifestyle.

Wealth is not evenly distributed in most countries. In the United States, a small portion of the population has
the means to the highest standard of living. The wealthiest one percent of the population holds one-third of our
nation’s wealth while the bottom 50 percent of Americans hold only 2 percent. Those in-between, the top 50 to
90 percent hold almost two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (The Federal Reserve, 2021).

Many people think of the United States as a “middle-class society.” They think a few people are rich, a few are
poor, and most are fairly well off, existing in the middle of the social strata. Rising from lower classes into the
middle-class is to achieve the American Dream. For this reason, scholars are particularly worried by the
shrinking of the middle class. Although the middle class is still significantly larger than the lower and upper
classes, it shrank from 69 percen in 1971 to 51 percent in 2020. argue the most significant threat to the U.S.’s
relatively high standard of living is the decline of the middle class. The wealth of the middle class has also been
declining in recent decades. Its share of the wealth fell from 32 percent in 1983 to 16 percent in 2016
(Horowitz, Igielnik, & Kochhar 2020).

People with wealth often receive the most and best schooling, access better health care, and consume the most
goods and services. In addition, wealthy people also wield decision-making power over their daily life because
money gives them access to better resources. By contrasts, many lower-income individuals receive less
education and inadequate health care and have less influence over the circumstances of their everyday lives.

Additionally, tens of millions of women and men struggle to pay rent, buy food, find work, and afford basic
medical care. Women who are single heads of household tend to have a lower income and lower standard of
living than their married or single male counterparts. This is a worldwide phenomenon known as the
“feminization of poverty”—which acknowledges that women disproportionately make up the majority of
individuals in poverty across the globe and have a lower standard of living. In the United States, women make
up approximately 56 percent of Americans living in poverty. One reason for this difference is the struggle of
single mothers to provide for their children. One in four unmarried mother lives in poverty (Bleiweis, 2020).
The wage gap, discussed extensively in the Work and the Economy chapter, also contributes to the gender-
disparity in poverty.

In the United States, poverty is most often referred to as a relative rather than absolute measurement.
Absolute poverty is an economic condition in which a family or individual cannot afford basic necessities,

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such as food and shelter, so that day-to-day survival is in jeopardy. Relative poverty is an economic condition
in which a family or individuals have 50% income less than the average median income. This income is
sometimes called the poverty level or the poverty line. In 2021, for example, the poverty for a single individual
was set at $12,880 for one individual, $17,420 for a couple, and $26,500 for a family of four (ASPE 2021).

As a wealthy developed country, the United States invests in resources to provide the basic necessities to those
in need through a series of federal and state social welfare programs. These programs provide food, medical,
and cash assistance. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides cash assistance. The goal of
TANF is to help families with children achieve economic self-sufficiency. Adults who receive assistance must
fall under a specific income level, usually half the poverty level, set by the state. TANF funding goes to
childcare, support for parents who are working or training a required number of hours a week, and other
services. TANF is time-limited. Most states only provide assistance for a maximum of 5 years (CBPP).

One of the best-known programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by
the United States Department of Agriculture and formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. This program
began in the Great Depression, when unmarketable or surplus food was distributed to the hungry. It was not
formalized until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy initiated a food stamp pilot program. His successor
Lyndon B. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964. In 1965, more than
500,000 individuals received food assistance. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, participation
reached 43 million people.

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Define global stratification
• Describe different sociological models for understanding global stratification
• Explain the ways that studies of global stratification enable social scientists to identify worldwide inequalities

FIGURE 9.11 A family lives in this grass hut in Ethiopia. Another family lives in a single-wide trailer in the United
States. Both families are considered poor, or lower class. With such differences in global stratification, what
constitutes poverty? (Credit: (a) Canned Muffins/flickr; Photo (b) Herb Neufeld/flickr)

Global stratification compares the wealth, status, power, and economic stability of countries across the world.
Global stratification highlights worldwide patterns of social inequality.

In the early years of civilization, hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies lived off the earth and rarely
interacted with other societies. When explorers began traveling, societies began trading goods, as well as ideas
and customs.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution created unprecedented wealth in Western Europe and
North America. Due to mechanical inventions and new means of production, people began working in

9.3 • Global Stratification and Inequality 249

factories—not only men, but women and children as well. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
industrial technology had gradually raised the standard of living for many people in the United States and

The Industrial Revolution also saw the rise of vast inequalities between countries that were industrialized and
those that were not. As some nations embraced technology and saw increased wealth and goods, the non-
industrialized nations fell behind economically, and the gap widened.

Sociologists studying global stratification analyze economic comparisons between nations. Income,
purchasing power, and wealth are used to calculate global stratification. Global stratification also compares the
quality of life that a country’s population can have. Poverty levels have been shown to vary greatly across
countries. Yet all countries struggle to support the lower classes.

Models of Global Stratification

FIGURE 9.12 Luxury vacation resorts can contribute to a poorer country’s economy. This one, in Jamaica, attracts
middle and upper-middle class people from wealthier nations. The resort is a source of income and provides jobs for
local people. Just outside its borders, however, are poverty-stricken neighborhoods. (Credit, both photos: Gail

In order to determine the stratification or ranking of a country, economists created various models of global
stratification. All of these models have one thing in common: they rank countries according to their economic
status, often ranked by gross national product (GNP). The GNP is the value of goods and services produced by a
nation’s citizens both within its boarders and abroad.

Another system of global classification defines countries based on the gross domestic product (GDP), a
country’s national wealth. The GDP calculated annually either totals the income of all people living within its
borders or the value of all goods and services produced in the country during the year. It also includes
government spending. Because the GDP indicates a country’s productivity and performance, comparing GDP
rates helps establish a country’s economic health in relation to other countries, with some countries rising to
the top and others falling to the bottom. The chapter on Work and the Economy (specifically the section on
Globalization and the Economy) shows the differences in GDP among various countries.

Traditional models, now considered outdated, used labels, such as “first world”, “second world,” and “third
world” to describe the stratification of the different areas of the world. First and second world described
industrialized nations, while third world referred to “undeveloped” countries (Henslin 2004). When
researching existing historical sources, you may still encounter these terms, and even today people still refer
to some nations as the “third world.” This model, however, is outdated because it lumps countries together that
are quite different in terms of wealth, power, prestige, and economic stability.

Another model separates countries into two groups: more developed and less developed. More-developed
nations have higher wealth, such as Canada, Japan, and Australia. Less-developed nations have less wealth to
distribute among populations, including many countries in central Africa, South America, and some island

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GNP and GDP are used to gain insight into global stratification based on a country’s standard of living.
According to this analysis, a GDP standard of a middle-income nation represents a global average. In low-
income countries, most people are poor relative to people in other countries. Citizens have little access to
amenities such as electricity, plumbing, and clean water. People in low-income countries are not guaranteed
education, and many are illiterate. The life expectancy of citizens is lower than in high-income countries.
Therefore, the different expectations in lifestyle and access to resources varies.

The Big Picture: Calculating Global Stratification
A few organizations take on the job of comparing the wealth of nations. The Population Reference Bureau (PRB)
is one of them. Besides a focus on population data, the PRB publishes an annual report that measures the
relativeeconomic well-being of all the world’s countries using the Gross National Income (GNI) and Purchasing
Power Parity (PPP).

The GNI measures the current value of goods and services produced by a country. The PPP measures the relative
power a country has to purchase those same goods and services. So, GNI refers to productive output and PPP
refers to buying power.

Because costs of goods and services vary from one country to the next, the PPP is used to convert the GNI into a
relative international unit. This value is then divided by the number of residents living in a country to establish the
average relative income of a resident of that country. This measure is called the GNI PPI. Calculating GNI PPP
figures helps researchers accurately compare countries’ standard of living. They allow the United Nations and
Population Reference Bureau to compare and rank the wealth of all countries and consider international
stratification issues (nationsonline.org).

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Apply functionalist, conflict theory, and interactionist perspectives on social stratification

Basketball is one of the highest-paying professional sports and stratification exists even among teams in the
NBA. For example, the Toronto Raptors hands out the lowest annual payroll, while the New York Knicks
reportedly pays the highest. Stephen Curry, a Golden State Warriors guard, is one of the highest paid athletes
in the NBA, earning around $43 million a year (Sports Illustrated 2020), whereas the lowest paid player earns
just over $200,000 (ESPN 2021). Even within specific fields, layers are stratified, members are ranked, and
inequality exists.

In sociology, even an issue such as NBA salaries can be seen from various points of view. Functionalists will
examine the purpose of such high salaries, conflict theorists will study the exorbitant salaries as an unfair
distribution of money, and symbolic interactionists will describe how players display that wealth. Social
stratification takes on new meanings when it is examined from different sociological
perspectives—functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.


In sociology, the functionalist perspective examines how society’s parts operate. According to functionalism,
different aspects of society exist because they serve a vital purpose. What is the function of social

In 1945, sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore published the Davis-Moore thesis, which argued that


9.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification 251

the greater the functional importance of a social role, the greater must be the reward. The theory posits that
social stratification represents the inherently unequal value of different work. Certain tasks in society are
more valuable than others (for example, doctors or lawyers). Qualified people who fill those positions are
rewarded more than others.

According to Davis and Moore, a firefighter’s job is more important than, for instance, a grocery store cashier’s
job. The cashier position does not require similar skill and training level as firefighting. Without the incentive
of higher pay, better benefits, and increased respect, why would someone be willing to rush into burning
buildings? If pay levels were the same, the firefighter might as well work as a grocery store cashier and avoid
the risk of firefighting. Davis and Moore believed that rewarding more important work with higher levels of
income, prestige, and power encourages people to work harder and longer.

Davis and Moore stated that, in most cases, the degree of skill required for a job determines that job’s
importance. They noted that the more skill required for a job, the fewer qualified people there would be to do
that job. Certain jobs, such as cleaning hallways or answering phones, do not require much skill. Therefore,
most people would be qualified for these positions. Other work, like designing a highway system or delivering a
baby, requires immense skill limiting the number of people qualified to take on this type of work.

Many scholars have criticized the Davis-Moore thesis. In 1953, Melvin Tumin argued that it does not explain
inequalities in the education system or inequalities due to race or gender. Tumin believed social stratification
prevented qualified people from attempting to fill roles (Tumin 1953).

Conflict Theory

FIGURE 9.13 These people are protesting a decision made by Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville,
Tennessee, to lay off custodians and outsource the jobs to a private firm to avoid paying employee benefits. Private
job agencies often pay lower hourly wages. Is the decision fair? (Credit: Brian Stansberry/Wikimedia Commons)

Conflict theorists are deeply critical of social stratification, asserting that it benefits only some people, not all of
society. For instance, to a conflict theorist, it seems wrong that a basketball player is paid millions for an
annual contract while a public school teacher may earn $35,000 a year. Stratification, conflict theorists believe,
perpetuates inequality. Conflict theorists try to bring awareness to inequalities, such as how a rich society can
have so many poor members.

Many conflict theorists draw on the work of Karl Marx. During the nineteenth-century era of industrialization,

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Marx believed social stratification resulted from people’s relationship to production. People were divided into
two main groups: they either owned factories or worked in them. In Marx’s time, bourgeois capitalists owned
high-producing businesses, factories, and land, as they still do today. Proletariats were the workers who
performed the manual labor to produce goods. Upper-class capitalists raked in profits and got rich, while
working-class proletariats earned skimpy wages and struggled to survive. With such opposing interests, the
two groups were divided by differences of wealth and power. Marx believed workers experience deep
alienation, isolation and misery resulting from powerless status levels (Marx 1848). Marx argued that
proletariats were oppressed by the bourgeoisie.

Today, while working conditions have improved, conflict theorists believe that the strained working
relationship between employers and employees still exists. Capitalists own the means of production, and a
system is in place to make business owners rich and keep workers poor. According to conflict theorists, the
resulting stratification creates class conflict.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism uses everyday interactions of individuals to explain society as a whole. Symbolic
interactionism examines stratification from a micro-level perspective. This analysis strives to explain how
people’s social standing affects their everyday interactions.

In most communities, people interact primarily with others who share the same social standing. It is precisely
because of social stratification that people tend to live, work, and associate with others like themselves, people
who share their same income level, educational background, class traits and even tastes in food, music, and
clothing. The built-in system of social stratification groups people together. This is one of the reasons why it
was rare for a royal prince like England’s Prince William to marry a commoner.

Symbolic interactionists also note that people’s appearance reflects their perceived social standing. As
discussed above, class traits seen through housing, clothing, and transportation indicate social status, as do
hairstyles, taste in accessories, and personal style. Symbolic interactionists also analyze how individuals think
of themselves or others interpretation of themselves based on these class traits.

FIGURE 9.14 (a) A group of construction workers on the job site, and (b) businesspeople in a meeting. What
categories of stratification do these construction workers share? How do construction workers differ from
executives or custodians? Who is more skilled? Who has greater prestige in society? (Credit: (a) Wikimedia
Commons; Photo (b) Chun Kit/flickr)

To symbolically communicate social standing, people often engage in conspicuous consumption, which is the
purchase and use of certain products to make a social statement about status. Carrying pricey but eco-friendly
water bottles could indicate a person’s social standing, or what they would like others to believe their social
standing is. Some people buy expensive trendy sneakers even though they will never wear them to jog or play
sports. A $17,000 car provides transportation as easily as a $100,000 vehicle, but the luxury car makes a social

9.4 • Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification 253

statement that the less expensive car can’t live up to. All these symbols of stratification are worthy of
examination by an interactionist.

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Key Terms
absolute poverty deprivation so severe that it puts day-to-day survival in jeopardy.
caste system a system in which people are born into a social standing that they will retain their entire lives
class a group who shares a common social status based on factors like wealth, income, education, and

class system social standing based on social factors and individual accomplishments
class traits the typical behaviors, customs, and norms that define each class (also called class markers)
closed system a system of stratification that accommodates little change in social position.
conspicuous consumption the act of buying and using products to make a statement about one’s social

Davis-Moore thesis a thesis that argues some social stratification is a social necessity and is functional
downward mobility a lowering of one’s social class
endogamous marriages unions of people within the same social category
exogamous unions unions of spouses from different social categories
global stratification a comparison of the wealth, status, power, and economic stability of countries as a

ideology the cultural belief system that justifies a society’s system of stratification
income the money a person earns from work or investments
intergenerational mobility a difference in social class between different generations of a family
intragenerational mobility changes in a person’s social mobility over the course of their lifetime.
meritocracy an ideal system in which personal effort—or merit—determines social standing
open system a system of stratification, based on achievement, that allows some movement and interaction

between layers and classes.
primogeniture a law stating that all property passes to the firstborn son
relative poverty is not having the means to live the lifestyle of the average person in your country
social mobility the ability to change positions within a social stratification system
social stratification a socioeconomic system that divides society’s members into categories ranking from

high to low, based on things like wealth, power, and prestige. Also called inequality.
socioeconomic status (SES) an individual’s level of wealth, power, and prestige
standard of living the level of wealth available to acquire material goods and comforts to maintain a

particular socioeconomic lifestyle
status consistency the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across social categories like

wealth, power, and prestige
structural mobility a societal change that enables a whole group of people to move up or down the class

upward mobility an increase—or upward shift—in social class
wealth the value of money and assets a person has from, for example, inheritance or salary.

Section Summary
9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

Stratification systems, where people are ranked based on their wealth, power, and status within society, are
either closed, meaning they allow little change in social position, or open, meaning they allow movement and
interaction between the layers. A caste system is one in which social standing is based on ascribed status or
birth. Class systems are open, with achievement playing a role in social position. People fall into classes based
on factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. A meritocracy is an ideal system of social
stratification that confers standing based on solely on personal worth, rewarding effort. A pure meritocracy
has never existed. Stratification is reinforced and shaped by cultural beliefs and values, called an ideology.

9 • Key Terms 255

9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States

The United States has a high standard of living, where individuals expect to own property and have the ability
to travel. Even so, the United States struggles with economic inequality, with a small number of citizens with a
large amount of wealth and a larger number of people falling into relative poverty. There are three main
classes in the United States: upper, middle, and lower class. Social mobility describes a shift from one social
class to another. Class traits, also called class markers, are the typical behaviors, customs, and norms that
define each class, but have become less definitive in assigning class to a specific individual.

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality

Global stratification compares the wealth, status, power, and economic stability, of countries and ranks the
countries. By comparing income and productivity between nations, researchers can better identify global
financial and econommic leaders as well as inequalities within and among nations.

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

Social stratification can be examined from different sociological perspectives—functionalism, conflict theory,
and symbolic interactionism. The functionalist perspective states that systems exist in society for good
reasons, such as incentives and rewards for those who demonstrate high skill and complete a high-level of
education or training. Conflict theorists observe that stratification promotes inequality, such as different
opportunities and success of rich business owners and their lower paid workers. Symbolic interactionists
examine stratification from a micro-level perspective. They observe how social standing affects people’s
everyday interactions and how the concept of “social class” is constructed and maintained through everyday

Section Quiz
9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

1. What factor makes caste systems closed?
a. They are run by secretive governments.
b. People cannot change their social standing.
c. Most have been outlawed.
d. They exist only in rural areas.

2. Which of these systems allows for the most social mobility?
a. Caste
b. Monarchy
c. Meritocracy
d. Class

3. Which person best illustrates opportunities for upward social mobility in the United States?
a. First-shift factory worker
b. First-generation college student
c. Firstborn son who inherits the family business
d. First-time interviewee who is hired for a job

4. Which statement illustrates low status consistency?
a. A suburban family lives in a modest ranch home and enjoys a nice vacation each summer.
b. A single mother receives food stamps and struggles to find adequate employment.
c. A college dropout launches an online company that earns millions in its first year.
d. A celebrity actor owns homes in three countries.

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5. Based on meritocracy, a physician’s assistant would:
a. receive the same pay as all the other physician’s assistants
b. be considered a member of the upper class
c. most likely marry a professional at the same level
d. earn a pay raise for doing excellent work

9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States

6. In the United States, most people define themselves as:
a. middle class
b. upper class
c. lower class
d. no specific class

7. The behaviors, customs, and norms associated with a class are known as:
a. class traits
b. power
c. prestige
d. underclass

8. Which of the following scenarios is an example of intragenerational mobility?
a. A janitor belongs to the same social class as his grandmother did.
b. An executive belongs to a different class than her parents.
c. An editor shares the same social class as his cousin.
d. A lawyer belongs to a different class than her sister.

9. Occupational prestige means that jobs are:
a. all equal in status
b. not equally valued
c. assigned to a person for life
d. not part of a person’s self-identity

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality

10. How do traditional models of global stratification breakdown different categories of countries?
a. They analyze the degree of industrialization.
b. They evaluate cultural norms and social goals.
c. They measure social mobility between classes.
d. They use measures to assess the economic power each nation.

11. Which event created a significant divide between Western Europe/America and the rest of the world?
a. The Industrial Revolution
b. The American Revolution
c. The Reformation
d. World War I

12. The GNI PPP figure represents:
a. a country’s total accumulated wealth
b. annual government spending
c. the average annual income of a country’s citizens
d. a country’s debt

9 • Section Quiz 257

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

13. The basic premise of the Davis-Moore thesis is that the unequal distribution of rewards in social
a. is an outdated mode of societal organization
b. is an artificial reflection of society
c. serves a purpose in society
d. cannot be justified

14. Unlike Davis and Moore, Melvin Tumin believed that, because of social stratification, some qualified
people were _______ higher-level job positions.
a. denied the opportunity to obtain
b. encouraged to train for
c. often fired from
d. forced into

15. Which statement represents stratification from the perspective of symbolic interactionism?
a. Men often earn more than women, even working the same job.
b. After work, Pat, a janitor, feels more comfortable eating in a truck stop than a French restaurant.
c. Doctors earn more money because their job is more highly valued.
d. Teachers continue to struggle to keep benefits such as health insurance.

16. When Karl Marx said workers experience alienation, he meant that workers:
a. must labor alone, without companionship
b. do not feel connected to their work or to one another
c. move from one geographical location to another
d. have to put forth self-effort to get ahead

17. Conflict theorists view capitalists as those who:
a. are ambitious
b. fund social services
c. spend money wisely
d. get rich while workers stay poor

Short Answer
9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

1. Track the social stratification of your family tree. Did the social standing of your parents differ from the
social standing of your grandparents and great-grandparents? Are there any exogamous marriages in your
history? Does your family exhibit status consistencies or inconsistencies?

2. Review the concept of stratification. Does your family have wealth? What is the overall family income? What
kind of employment do your caregivers/parents/guardians have? Where would you guess you fall within the
social classes (low, middle, or high)?

3. Where did your family grow up? What is their understanding of the American Dream and how you can
achieve it? Does your family share the same understanding of stratification?

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9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States

4. Which social class do you and your family belong to? Are you in a different or same social class than your
grandparents and great-grandparents? Why are you in the class you are? What changed? What stayed the
same? Marriages? Acquisition of property? Education? Career changes? Reflect on your family’s journey
within the classes.

5. What class traits define your peer group? For example, what speech patterns or clothing trends do you and
your friends share? What cultural elements, such as taste in music or hobbies, define your peer group? How
do you see this set of class traits as different from other classes either above or below yours?

6. Write a list of ten to twenty class traits that describe the environment of your upbringing. Which of these
seem like true class traits, and which seem like stereotypes? What items might fall into both categories?
How do you imagine a sociologist might address the conflation of class traits and stereotypes?

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality

7. 7. What does it mean for a country to be seen as “underdeveloped”? What about “developed”? How does
this shape our perception of the citizens within those countries?

8. Why is it important to understand and be aware of global stratification? Make a list of specific issues that
are related to global stratification. For inspiration, turn on a news channel or read the newspaper. Next,
choose a topic from your list, and look at it more closely. Who is affected by this issue? How is the issue
specifically related to global stratification?

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

9. Analyze the Davis-Moore thesis. Do you agree with Davis and Moore? Does social stratification have an
important function in society? What examples can you think of that support the thesis? What examples can
you think of that refute the thesis?

10. Consider social stratification from the symbolic interactionist perspective. How does social stratification
influence the daily interactions of individuals? How do systems of class, based on factors such as prestige,
power, income, and wealth, influence your own daily routines, as well as your beliefs and attitudes?
Illustrate your ideas with specific examples and anecdotes from your own life and the lives of people in
your community.

Further Research
9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

The New Press provides an interactive helpful in exploring social stratification (http://openstax.org/l/
NY_Times_how_class_works) . Within the relatively straightforward graphic activity, you can select two
demographic categories and illustrate the quantity those populations by income level.

9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States

The Pew Research Center Created an income calculator (http://openstax.org/l/social_class_in_America) to
determine people’s socioeconomic classification according to state and income.

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality

Our World in Data’s Global Economic Inequality page (http://openstax.org/l/Nations_Online) a wide range of
data sources, narratives, and charts. While the sources should be verified before citing them in papers, the
presentation offers a multifaceted picture of global inequality : .

9 • Further Research 259


Huot, Anne E. 2014. “A Commitment to Making College Accessible to First-Generation College Students.”
Huffington Post. Retrieved March 25, 2021 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/first-generation-college-
students_b_6081958. -s.

9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

Köhler, Nicholas. 2010. “An Uncommon Princess.” Maclean’s, November 22. Retrieved March 25, 2021 from

McKee, Victoria. 1996. “Blue Blood and the Color of Money.” New York Times, June 9.

Marquand, Robert. 2011. “What Kate Middleton’s Wedding to Prince William Could Do for Britain.” Christian
Science Monitor, April 15. Retrieved January 9, 2012 (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2011/0415/

Wong, Grace. 2011. “Kate Middleton: A Family Business That Built a Princess.” CNN Money. Retrieved
December 22, 2014 (http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/14/smallbusiness/kate-middleton-party-pieces/).

9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States

Civilian labor force participation rate, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/charts/employment-
situation/civilian-labor-force-participation-rate.htm accessed March 15, 2021.

Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989. (n.d.) The Federal Reserve. Retrieved March 21, 2021
from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/

Policy Basics: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (February 6, 2020). Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities (CBPP). https://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/temporary-assistance-for-needy-

HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2021. (January 13, 2021). Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and
Evaluation (ASPE). https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines.

Beeghley, Leonard. 2008. The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall.

Bennett, J.; Fry, R.; and Kochhar, R. (July 23, 2000). Are you in the American middle class? Find out with our
income calculator. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/23/are-you-in-

Bleiweis, R; Boesch, D.; & Gaines, A. C. (August 3, 2020). The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty. Center for
American Progress. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/

Cooper, Gould, & Zipperer, 2019. Low-wage workers are suffering from a decline in the real value of the federal
minimum wage. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved November 22, 2020. https://files.epi.org/pdf/

DeVine, Christine. 2005. Class in Turn-of-the-Century Novels of Gissing, James, Hardy and Wells. London:
Ashgate Publishing Co.

Gilbert, Dennis. 2010. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Newbury Park, CA: Pine
Forge Press.

Glasmeier, Amy K. Living Wage Calculator. 2020. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. livingwage.mit.edu.

260 9 • References

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Horowitz, J. M.; Igielnik, R.; and Kochhar, R. (2020, January 9). Trends in income and wealth inequality. Pew
Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-

Kochhar, R. and Fry, R. (December 10, 2015). 5 takeaways about the American middle class. Pew Research
Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/10/5-takeaways-about-the-american-middle-

Popken, Ben. “CEO Pay Up 298%, Average Worker’s? 4.3% (1995-2005),” 2007, The Consumerist. Retrieved on
December 31, 2014 (http://consumerist.com/2007/04/09/ceo-pay-up-298-average-workers-43-1995-2005/)

United States Department of Labor. 2014. “Wage and Hour Division: Minimum Wage Laws in the
States—September 1, 2014.” Retrieved January 10, 2012 (http://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/america.htm).

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (November, 2020). Food and Nutrition Service Research and
Data. Retrieved March 21, 2021 from https://www.fns.usda.gov/data-research.

Williams, Raymond. 1984 [1976]. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University

9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality

Nationsonline.org. “Countries by Gross National Income (GNI).” Retrieved January 9, 2012

PRB.org. “GNI PPP Per Capita (US$).” PRB 2011 World Population Data Sheet. 2011 Population Reference
Bureau. Retrieved January 10, 2012 (http://www.prb.org/DataFinder/Topic/Rankings.aspx?ind=61).

Rostow, Walt W. 1960. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press.

Landler, Mark, and David E. Sanger. 2009. “World Leaders Pledge $1.1 Trillion for Crisis.” New York Times,
April 3. Retrieved January 9, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/03/world/europe/03summit.html).

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

NBA Player Salaries – 2020-2021. ESPN. Retrieved March 23, 2021 from http://www.espn.com/nba/

Davis, Kingsley, and Wilbert E. Moore. “Some Principles of Stratification.” American Sociological Review
10(2):242–249. Retrieved January 9, 2012 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2085643).

Marx, Karl. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Retrieved January 9, 2012 (http://www.marxists.org/

Sports Illustrated 2020 SI.com LLC. 2020. “Here Are The Five NBA Players Whose 2019-2020 Salaries Top
LeBron James”. Retrieved November 13, 020. (https://www.si.com/nba/lakers/news/here-are-the-five-nba-

Tumin, M. (1953). Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis. American Sociological Review, 18(4),
387-394. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2087551

9 • References 261

262 9 • References

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FIGURE 10.1 Contemporary economic development often follows a similar pattern around the world, best
described as a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. (Credit: Alicia Nijdam/Wikimedia Commons)


10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

The April 24, 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed over 1,100
people, was the deadliest garment factory accident in history, and it was preventable (International Labour
Organization, Department of Communication 2014).

In addition to garment factories employing about 5,000 people, the building contained a bank, apartments,
childcare facilities, and a variety of shops. Many of these closed the day before the collapse when cracks were
discovered in the building walls. When some of the garment workers refused to enter the building, they were
threatened with the loss of a month’s pay. Most were young women, aged twenty or younger. They typically
worked over thirteen hours a day, with two days off each month. For this work, they took home between twelve
and twenty-two cents an hour, or $10.56 to $12.48 a week. Without that pay, most would have been unable to
feed their children. In contrast, the U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and workers receive wages at
time-and-a-half rates for work in excess of forty hours a week.

32 percent of the clothing made in the collapsed Rana Plaza building was intended for U.S., Canadian, and
European stores. Walmart jeans were made on the fifth floor. Clothing for The Children’s Place was produced in
the building, as well. Afterward, Walmart and The Children’s Place pledged $1 million and $450,000

10Global Inequality

(respectively) to the Rana Plaza Trust Fund, but fifteen other companies with clothing made in the building
chose not to (Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights 2014).

While you read this chapter, think about the global system that allows U.S. companies to outsource their
manufacturing to peripheral nations, where many women and children work in conditions that some
characterize as slave labor. Do people in the United States have a responsibility to foreign workers? Should U.S.
corporations be held accountable for what happens to garment factory workers who make their clothing? What
can you do as a consumer to help such workers?

10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe global stratification
• Differentiate the development history of various classification systems
• Use terminology from Wallerstein’s world systems approach
• Explain the World Bank’s classification of economies

Just as the United States’ wealth is increasingly concentrated among its richest citizens, global inequality
concentrates resources within certain nations and among certain people.

Measuring the financial resource of the world’s richest people is generally easier than measuring the resources
of people living in poverty (Matthews 2019), but researchers and advocates have created some tools to evaluate
and understand economic conditions and outcomes.

One straightforward method is to compare the ratio of income of the richest 10 percent to the income of the
poorest 10 percent. (The same method is sometime used with the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20
percent.) This method does not always provide a full picture of income inequality (it literally leaves out the
middle), but it can certain provide insight.

The Human Development Index expresses the capabilities of people’s potential achievement. The index is
calculated using data regarding people’s lifespan, education, and income. By using both financial and non-
financial factors, it paints a deeper picture of the lives and issues in a region. For example, a nation with high
income but low education will still have difficulty in overall opportunity. This approach was developed by
Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, who produced the first annual Human Development report, which
captures and illustrates development issues and changes each year.

FIGURE 10.2 The Human Development Index and its derivative, and extensions like the Inequality-adjusted Human
Development Index (IHDI), were developed to center people—not just finances—as the core determinants of a
nation’s or region’s discussions about economic opportunities, support, and policies. The index considers three
main dimension (categories)—which are health, knowledge, and standard of living (income)—to calculate an
individual value for each dimension, which is then averaged to produce the final value. (Under decent standard of
living, GNI stands for gross national income, and PPP stands for purchasing power parity, both of which are key
indicators of income and relative wealth.) (Credit: United Nations Development Programme)

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Another measure of inequality is Gini Coefficient, named after the Italian sociologist and statistician Corrado
Gini. (Be sure not to confuse this with GNI, which is the gross national income.) It is is calculated using a
number of financial indicators, and is expressed as either a decimal or a percentage. A country in which every
resident has the same income would have a Gini coefficient of 0 (or 0 percent). A country in which one resident
earned all the income, while everyone else earned nothing, would have an income Gini coefficient of 1 (or 100
percent). Thus, the higher the number (the closer to that one person having all the income or wealth), the more
inequality there is.

Other gauges are a bit more direct: To indicate the level of poverty within a nation or region, researchers
calculate the percentage of the population living beneath various poverty thresholds. A common measure is to
consider the percentage of a nation’s population living on less than $1.90 per day, which is commonly known
as the International Poverty Line. (Note that United States dollars are often used as a global standard in these
types of measurement.) The table in the next sub-section uses this method.

These are just a few of the ways that sociologists, economists, governments, and others try to understand levels
of income inequality and poverty. Changes in these indicators would alert policymakers that something is
affecting the population. No changes might tell people that, for example, a new financial assistance program
for the poor is not working.

With these analytical elements in mind, let’s consider how the three major sociological perspectives might
contribute to our understanding of global inequality.

The functionalist perspective is a macroanalytical view that focuses on the way that all aspects of society are
integral to the continued health and viability of the whole. A functionalist might focus on why we have global
inequality and what social purposes it serves. This view might assert, for example, that we have global
inequality because some nations are better than others at adapting to new technologies and profiting from a
globalized economy, and that when core nation companies locate in peripheral nations, they expand the local
economy and benefit the workers.

Conflict theory focuses on the creation and reproduction of inequality. A conflict theorist would likely address
the systematic inequality created when core nations exploit the resources of peripheral nations. For example,
how many U.S. companies take advantage of overseas workers who lack the constitutional protection and
guaranteed minimum wages that exist in the United States? Doing so allows them to maximize profits, but at
what cost?

The symbolic interaction perspective studies the day-to-day impact of global inequality, the meanings
individuals attach to global stratification, and the subjective nature of poverty. Someone applying this view to
global inequality would probably focus on understanding the difference between what someone living in a core
nation defines as poverty (relative poverty, defined as being unable to live the lifestyle of the average person in
your country) and what someone living in a peripheral nation defines as poverty (extreme poverty, defined as
being barely able, or unable, to afford basic necessities, such as food).

Global Stratification

While stratification in the United States refers to the unequal distribution of resources among individuals,
global stratification refers to this unequal distribution among nations. There are two dimensions to this
stratification: gaps between nations and gaps within nations. When it comes to global inequality, both
economic inequality and social inequality may concentrate the burden of poverty among certain segments of
the earth’s population (Myrdal 1970).

As mentioned earlier, one way to evaluate stratification is to consider how many people are living in poverty,
and particularly extreme poverty, which is often defined as needing to survive on less than $1.90 per day.
Fortunately, until the COVID-19 pandemic impacted economies in 2020, the extreme poverty rate had been on
a 20-year decline. In 2015, 10.1 percent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty; in 2017, that

10.1 • Global Stratification and Classification 265

number had dropped an entire percentage point to 9.2 percent. While a positive, that 9.2 percent is equivalent
to 689 million people living on less than $1.90 a day. The same year, 24.1 percent of the world lived on less
than $3.20 per day and 43.6 percent on less than $5.50 per day in 2017 (World Bank 2020). The table below
makes the differences in poverty very clear.

Percentage of people living

on less than $1.90
Percentage of people living

on less than $3.90
Percentage of people living

on less than $5.50

Colombia 4.1 10.9 27.8

Costa Rica 1.4 3.6 10.9

Georgia 4.5 15.7 42.9

Kyrgyzstan 0.9 15.5 61.3


40.1 74.4 92.1

Angola 51.8 73.2 89.3

Lithuania 0.7 1.0 3.8

Ukraine 0.0 0.4 4.0

Vietnam 1.9 7.0 23.6

Indonesia 3.6 9.6 53.2

TABLE 10.1 The differences among countries is clear when considering their extreme poverty rates. For the most
part, the selected countries show disparities even within countries from the same regions. All data is from 2018.
(World Bank 2020)

Most of us are accustomed to thinking of global stratification as economic inequality. For example, we can
compare the United States’ average worker’s wage to America’s average wage. Social inequality, however, is just
as harmful as economic discrepancies. Prejudice and discrimination—whether against a certain race,
ethnicity, religion, or the like—can create and aggravate conditions of economic equality, both within and
between nations. Think about the inequity that existed for decades within the nation of South Africa.
Apartheid, one of the most extreme cases of institutionalized and legal racism, created a social inequality that
earned it the world’s condemnation.

Gender inequity is another global concern. Consider the controversy surrounding female genital mutilation.
Nations that practice this female circumcision procedure defend it as a longstanding cultural tradition in
certain tribes and argue that the West shouldn’t interfere. Western nations, however, decry the practice and are
working to stop it.

Inequalities based on sexual orientation and gender identity exist around the globe. According to Amnesty
International, a number of crimes are committed against individuals who do not conform to traditional gender
roles or sexual orientations (however those are culturally defined). From culturally sanctioned rape to state-
sanctioned executions, the abuses are serious. These legalized and culturally accepted forms of prejudice and
discrimination exist everywhere—from the United States to Somalia to Tibet—restricting the freedom of

266 10 • Global Inequality

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individuals and often putting their lives at risk (Amnesty International 2012).

Global Classification

A major concern when discussing global inequality is how to avoid an ethnocentric bias implying that less-
developed nations want to be like those who’ve attained post-industrial global power. Terms such as
developing (nonindustrialized) and developed (industrialized) imply that unindustrialized countries are
somehow inferior, and must improve to participate successfully in the global economy, a label indicating that
all aspects of the economy cross national borders. We must take care how we delineate different countries.
Over time, terminology has shifted to make way for a more inclusive view of the world.

Global classification methods are not only important in understanding economic differences among countries,
but also in providing ways to classify countries and identify trends in other areas. The classifications discussed
below will be used in other chapters, such as the chapter on health and medicine.

Cold War Terminology

Cold War terminology was developed during the Cold War era (1945–1980). Familiar and still used by many, it
classifies countries into first world, second world, and third world nations based on their respective economic
development and standards of living. When this nomenclature was developed, capitalistic democracies such
as the United States and Japan were considered part of the first world. The poorest, most undeveloped
countries were referred to as the third world and included most of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and
Asia. The second world was the in-between category: nations not as limited in development as the third world,
but not as well off as the first world, having moderate economies and standard of living, such as China or Cuba.
Later, sociologist Manual Castells (1998) added the term fourth world to refer to stigmatized minority groups
that were denied a political voice all over the globe (indigenous minority populations, prisoners, and the
homeless, for example).

Also during the Cold War, global inequality was described in terms of economic development. Along with
developing and developed nations, the terms less-developed nation and underdeveloped nation were used.
This was the era when the idea of noblesse oblige (first-world responsibility) took root, suggesting that the so-
termed developed nations should provide foreign aid to the less-developed and underdeveloped nations in
order to raise their standard of living.

Immanuel Wallerstein: World Systems Approach

Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1979) world systems approach uses an economic basis to understand global
inequality. Wallerstein conceived of the global economy as a complex system that supports an economic
hierarchy that placed some nations in positions of power with numerous resources and other nations in a state
of economic subordination. Those that were in a state of subordination faced significant obstacles to

Core nations are dominant capitalist countries, highly industrialized, technological, and urbanized. For
example, Wallerstein contends that the United States is an economic powerhouse that can support or deny
support to important economic legislation with far-reaching implications, thus exerting control over every
aspect of the global economy and exploiting both semi-peripheral and peripheral nations. We can look at free
trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as an example of how a core
nation is able to leverage its power to gain the most advantageous position in the matter of global trade.

Peripheral nations have very little industrialization; what they do have often represents the outdated castoffs
of core nations or the factories and means of production owned by core nations. They typically have unstable
governments, inadequate social programs, and are economically dependent on core nations for jobs and aid.
There are abundant examples of countries in this category, such as Vietnam and Cuba. We can be sure the
workers in a Cuban cigar factory, for example, which are owned or leased by global core nation companies, are
not enjoying the same privileges and rights as U.S. workers.

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Semi-peripheral nations are in-between nations, not powerful enough to dictate policy but nevertheless
acting as a major source for raw material and an expanding middle-class marketplace for core nations, while
also exploiting peripheral nations. Mexico is an example, providing abundant cheap agricultural labor to the
U.S., and supplying goods to the United States market at a rate dictated by the U.S. without the constitutional
protections offered to United States workers.

World Bank Economic Classification by Income

While the World Bank is often criticized, both for its policies and its method of calculating data, it is still a
common source for global economic data. Along with tracking the economy, the World Bank tracks
demographics and environmental health to provide a complete picture of whether a nation is high income,
middle income, or low income.

FIGURE 10.3 This world map shows advanced, transitioning, less, and least developed countries. Note that the
data in this map is one year older than the data presented in the text below. (Credit: Sbw01f, data obtained from the
CIA World Factbook/Wikimedia Commons)

High-Income Nations

The World Bank defines high-income nations as having a gross national income of at least $12,536 per capita.
in 2019 (World Bank 2021). (Note that the classifications will always lag by a couple of years so that analysts
can evaluate the true income of the nations.) Examples include Belgium, Canada, Japan, Oman, Puerto Rico,
and the United States.

High-income countries face two major issues: capital flight and deindustrialization. Capital flight refers to the
movement (flight) of capital from one nation to another, as when General Motors automotive company closed
U.S. factories in Michigan and opened factories in Mexico.

Deindustrialization, a related issue, occurs as a consequence of capital flight, as no new companies open to
replace jobs lost to foreign nations. As expected, global companies move their industrial processes to the

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places where they can get the most production with the least cost, including the building of infrastructure,
training of workers, shipping of goods, and, of course, paying employee wages. This means that as emerging
economies create their own industrial zones, global companies see the opportunity for existing infrastructure
and much lower costs. Those opportunities lead to businesses closing the factories that provide jobs to the
middle class within core nations and moving their industrial production to peripheral and semi-peripheral

Capital Flight, Outsourcing, and Jobs in the United States

FIGURE 10.4 Factories and stores in places like the Detroit metro area have been closed and abandoned as
companies go out of business. (Credit: Joe Nuxoll/flickr)

Capital flight describes jobs and infrastructure moving from one nation to another. Look at the U.S. automobile
industry. In the early twentieth century, the cars driven in the United States were made here, employing
thousands of workers in Detroit and in the companies that produced everything that made building cars possible.
However, once the fuel crisis of the 1970s hit and people in the United States increasingly looked to imported
cars with better gas mileage, U.S. auto manufacturing began to decline. During the 2007–2009 recession, the
U.S. government provided emergency funding (usually called a “bail out”) for the three main auto companies,
which is evidence of those companies’ vulnerability. At the same time, Japanese-owned Toyota and Honda and
South Korean Kia maintained stable sales levels.

Capital flight also occurs when services (as opposed to manufacturing) are relocated. Chances are if you have
called the tech support line for your cell phone or Internet provider, you’ve spoken to someone halfway across
the globe. This professional might tell you her name is Susan or Joan, but her accent makes it clear that her real
name might be Parvati or Indira. It might be the middle of the night in that country, yet these service providers
pick up the line saying, “Good morning,” as though they are in the next town over. They know everything about
your phone or your modem, often using a remote server to log in to your home computer to accomplish what is


10.1 • Global Stratification and Classification 269

needed. These are the workers of the twenty-first century. They are not on factory floors or in traditional
sweatshops; they are educated, speak at least two languages, and usually have significant technology skills.
They are skilled workers, but they are paid a fraction of what similar workers are paid in the United States. For
U.S. and multinational companies, the equation makes sense. India and other semi-peripheral countries have
emerging infrastructures and education systems to fill their needs, without core nation costs.

As services are relocated, so are jobs. In the United States, unemployment is high. Many college-educated
people are unable to find work, and those with only a high school diploma are in even worse shape. We have, as a
country, outsourced ourselves out of jobs, and not just menial jobs, but white-collar work as well. But before we
complain too bitterly, we must look at the culture of consumerism that we embrace. A flat screen television that
might have cost $1,000 a few years ago is now $250. That cost savings has to come from somewhere. When
consumers seek the lowest possible price, shop at big box stores for the biggest discount they can get, and
generally ignore other factors in exchange for low cost, they are building the market for outsourcing. And as the
demand is built, the market will ensure it is met, even at the expense of the people who wanted it in the first

FIGURE 10.5 Outsourcing was initially a practice for manufacturing and related work. But as more technically
skilled people become more available in other countries, customer service and other services are being moved
out of the United States as well? (Credit: Carlos Ebert/flickr)

Middle-Income Nations

The World Bank divides middle-income economies into two categories. Lower middle income areas are those
with a GNI per capita of more than $1,036 but less than $4,045. Upper middle income areas are those with A
GNI per capita between $4,046 and $12,535. Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia, Philippines, El Salvador,
and Nepal are are examples of lower-middle-income countries. And Argentina, Mexico, China, Iran, Turkey,
and Namibia are examples of upper-middle-income nations (World Bank 2021).

Perhaps the most pressing issue for middle-income nations is the problem of debt accumulation. As the name
suggests, debt accumulation is the buildup of external debt, wherein countries borrow money from other
nations to fund their expansion or growth goals. As the uncertainties of the global economy make repaying

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these debts, or even paying the interest on them, more challenging, nations can find themselves in trouble.
Once global markets have reduced the value of a country’s goods, it can be very difficult to ever manage the
debt burden. Such issues have plagued middle-income countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well
as East Asian and Pacific nations (Dogruel and Dogruel 2007).

Low-Income Nations

The World Bank defines low-income countries as nations whose per capita GNI was $1,035 per capita or less in
2019. For example, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen are considered low-income countries. Low-income
economies are primarily found in Asia and Africa (World Bank 2021), where most of the world’s population
lives. There are two major challenges that these countries face: women are disproportionately affected by
poverty (in a trend toward a global feminization of poverty) and much of the population lives in absolute

Nations’ classifications often change as their economies evolve and, sometimes, when their political positions
change. Nepal, Indonesia, and Romania all moved up to a higher status based on improved economies. While
Sudan, Algeria, and Sri Lanka moved down a level. A few years ago, Myanmar was a low-income nation, but
now it has moved into the middle-income area. With Myanmar’s 2021 coup, the massive citizen response, and
the military’s killing of protesters, its economy may go through a downturn again, returning it to the low-
income nation status.

10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Differentiate relative, extreme, and subjective poverty
• Describe the economic situation of some of the world’s most impoverished areas
• Explain the cyclical impact of the consequences of poverty

FIGURE 10.6 This young girl was begging for food in the street in Vietnam, holding a younger child as she was doing
so. (Credit: Augapfel/flickr)

What does it mean to be poor? Does it mean being a single mother with two kids in New York City, waiting for
the next paycheck in order to buy groceries? Does it mean living with almost no furniture in your apartment
because your income doesn’t allow for extras like beds or chairs? Or does it mean having to live with the
distended bellies of the chronically malnourished throughout the peripheral nations of Sub-Saharan Africa
and South Asia? Poverty has a thousand faces and a thousand gradations; there is no single definition that
pulls together every part of the spectrum. You might feel you are poor if you can’t afford cable television or buy
your own car. Every time you see a fellow student with a new laptop and smartphone you might feel that you,

10.2 • Global Wealth and Poverty 271

with your ten-year-old desktop computer, are barely keeping up. However, someone else might look at the
clothes you wear and the calories you consume and consider you rich.

Types of Poverty

Social scientists define global poverty in different ways and take into account the complexities and the issues
of relativism described above. Relative poverty is a state of living where people can afford necessities but are
unable to meet their society’s average standard of living. People often disparage “keeping up with the
Joneses”—the idea that you must keep up with the neighbors’ standard of living to not feel deprived. But it is
true that you might feel ”poor” if you are living without a car to drive to and from work, without any money for
a safety net should a family member fall ill, and without any “extras” beyond just making ends meet.

Contrary to relative poverty, people who live in extreme poverty lack even the basic necessities, which
typically include adequate food, clean water, safe housing, and access to healthcare. Extreme poverty occurs
when someone lives on less than 1.90 U.S dollars per day.

In prior years, the World Bank—the primary organization analyzing these trends––focused heavily on the
number of people under that extreme poverty level of $1.90 per day. (The previous term was “absolute
poverty.”) In 2018, the World Bank added two more measures to consider: people living on less than $3.20 and
people living on less than $5.50. As the number of people in that extreme category continues to decline, these
two new categories will be important to recognize the population that lives above the $1.90 line, but still
remains vulnerable to extreme poverty. Someone who begins to earn enough to live on more than $1.90 is still
in severe poverty and should be considered as such (Schoch 2020).

If you were forced to live on $1.90 a day, or even $5.50, how would you do it? What would you deem worthy of
spending money on, and what could you do without? How would you manage the necessities—and how would
you make up the gap between what you need to live and what you can afford?

FIGURE 10.7 Slums in many countries illustrate absolute poverty all too well. (Credit: Ninara/flickr)

Subjective poverty describes poverty that is composed of many dimensions; it is subjectively present when
your actual income does not meet your expectations and perceptions. With the concept of subjective poverty,

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the poor themselves have a greater say in recognizing when it is present. In short, subjective poverty has more
to do with how a person or a family defines themselves. This means that a family subsisting on a few dollars a
day in Nepal might think of themselves as doing well, within their perception of normal. However, a westerner
traveling to Nepal might visit the same family and see extreme need.

The Underground Economy Around the World
What do the driver of an unlicensed hack cab in New York, a piecework seamstress working from her home in
Mumbai, and a street tortilla vendor in Mexico City have in common? They are all members of the underground
economy, a loosely defined unregulated market unhindered by taxes, government permits, or human
protections. Official statistics before the worldwide recession posit that the underground economy accounted for
over 50 percent of nonagricultural work in Latin America; the figure went as high as 80 percent in parts of Asia
and Africa (Chen 2001). A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the challenges, parameters, and
surprising benefits of this informal marketplace. The wages earned in most underground economy jobs,
especially in peripheral nations, are a pittance––a few rupees for a handmade bracelet at a market, or maybe
250 rupees ($5 U.S.) for a day’s worth of fruit and vegetable sales (Barta 2009). But these tiny sums mark the
difference between survival and extinction for the world’s poor.

The underground economy has never been viewed very positively by global economists. After all, its members
don’t pay taxes, don’t take out loans to grow their businesses, and rarely earn enough to put money back into the
economy in the form of consumer spending. But according to the International Labor Organization (an agency of
the United Nations), some 52 million people worldwide will lose their jobs due to the ongoing worldwide
recession. And while those in core nations know that high unemployment rates and limited government safety
nets can be frightening, their situation is nothing compared to the loss of a job for those barely eking out an
existence. Once that job disappears, the chance of staying afloat is very slim.

Within the context of this recession, some see the underground economy as a key player in keeping people alive.
Indeed, an economist at the World Bank credits jobs created by the informal economy as a primary reason why
peripheral nations are not in worse shape during this recession. Women in particular benefit from the informal
sector. The majority of economically active women in peripheral nations are engaged in the informal sector,
which is somewhat buffered from the economic downturn. The flip side, of course, is that it is equally buffered
from the possibility of economic growth.

Even in the United States, the informal economy exists, although not on the same scale as in peripheral and
semi-peripheral nations. It might include under-the-table nannies, gardeners, and housecleaners, as well as
unlicensed street vendors and taxi drivers. There are also those who run informal businesses, like daycares or
salons, from their houses. Analysts estimate that this type of labor may make up 10 percent of the overall U.S.
economy, a number that will likely grow as companies reduce head counts, leaving more workers to seek other
options. In the end, the article suggests that, whether selling medicinal wines in Thailand or woven bracelets in
India, the workers of the underground economy at least have what most people want most of all: a chance to
stay afloat (Barta 2009).

Who Are the Impoverished?

Who are the impoverished? Who is living in absolute poverty? The truth that most of us would guess is that the
richest countries are often those with the least people. Compare the United States, which possesses a relatively
small slice of the population pie and owns by far the largest slice of the wealth pie, with India. These disparities
have the expected consequence. The poorest people in the world are women and those in peripheral and semi-
peripheral nations. For women, the rate of poverty is particularly worsened by the pressure on their time. In
general, time is one of the few luxuries the very poor have, but study after study has shown that women in


10.2 • Global Wealth and Poverty 273

poverty, who are responsible for all family comforts as well as any earnings they can make, have less of it. The
result is that while men and women may have the same rate of economic poverty, women are suffering more in
terms of overall wellbeing (Buvinic 1997). It is harder for females to get credit to expand businesses, to take the
time to learn a new skill, or to spend extra hours improving their craft so as to be able to earn at a higher rate.

Global Feminization of Poverty

In almost all societies, women have higher rates of poverty than men. More women and girls live in poor
conditions, receive inadequate healthcare, bear the brunt of malnutrition and inadequate drinking water, and
so on. This situation goes back decades, and led University of Michigan sociologist Diana Pearce to coin the
term “feminization of poverty” in 1978. Throughout the 1990s, data indicated that while overall poverty rates
were rising, especially in peripheral nations, the rates of impoverishment increased for women nearly 20
percent more than for men (Mogadham 2005). More recently, as extreme poverty rates continue to fall, women
still make up a disproportionate amount of the world’s poor. Gender differences are sometimes difficult to
discern in international poverty data, but researchers have undertaken efforts to define the makeup of those
affected by poverty. Of people aged 25-34, the world has 122 women living in poverty for every 100 men living
in poverty. The world’s elderly below the poverty line are also more likely to be women (World Bank 2018).

Why is this happening? While myriad variables affect women’s poverty, research specializing in this issue
identifies three causes (Mogadham 2005):

1. The expansion in the number of female-headed households
2. The persistence and consequences of intra-household inequalities and biases against women
3. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies around the world

While women are living longer and healthier lives today compared to ten years ago, around the world many
women are denied basic rights, particularly in the workplace. In peripheral nations, they accumulate fewer
assets, farm less land, make less money, and face restricted civil rights and liberties. Women can stimulate the
economic growth of peripheral nations, but they are often undereducated and lack access to credit needed to
start small businesses. When women are able to attain higher levels of education, they account for significant
economic growth within their nations (OECD 2012).

A wide range of organizations undertake programs or provide support in order to improve opportunity, safety,
education, equality, and financial outcomes for women. Some of these efforts involve diplomacy, such as one
government (or a coalition) working to secure greater rights and improve circumstances of women in other
countries. Key areas of focus are reducing institutional and cultural discrimination, ending domestic violence,
providing women more agency in decision making, and increasing education for children (Scott 2012). Other
programs focus on more immediate needs and opportunities. Microcredit and women’s collective savings
accounts are ways to provide financial resources for women and families to make important investments, such
as building a well at their home to improve health and reduce time spent obtaining clean water. Other uses
may involve starting a business, paying a debt, or buying an important appliance or equipment. Unfortunately,
these microfinance programs don’t have a track record of alleviating poverty, and in some cases they can lead
to negative outcomes such as trapping women in a cycle of debt, or increasing domestic violence. Collective
savings programs—where local people pool their resources and extend credit within their group—have shown
some more positive outcomes (Aizenman 2016 and Niner 2018). The UN has emphasized that microfinance
and cultural empowerment would both be more successful if they were used in concert with each other (Scott


The majority of the poorest countries in the world are in Africa. That is not to say there is not diversity within
the countries of that continent; countries like South Africa and Egypt have much lower rates of poverty than
Angola and Ethiopia, for instance. Overall, African income levels have been dropping relative to the rest of the
world, meaning that Africa as a whole is getting relatively poorer. Making the problem worse, 2014 saw an

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outbreak of the Ebola virus in western Africa, leading to a public health crisis and an economic downturn due
to loss of workers and tourist dollars.

Why is Africa in such dire straits? Much of the continent’s poverty can be traced to the availability of land,
especially arable land (land that can be farmed). Centuries of struggle over land ownership have meant that
much useable land has been ruined or left unfarmed, while many countries with inadequate rainfall have
never set up an infrastructure to irrigate. Many of Africa’s natural resources were long ago taken by colonial
forces, leaving little agricultural and mineral wealth on the continent.

Further, African poverty is worsened by civil wars and inadequate governance that are the result of a continent
re-imagined with artificial colonial borders and leaders. Consider the example of Rwanda. There, two ethnic
groups cohabitated with their own system of hierarchy and management until Belgians took control of the
country in 1915 and rigidly confined members of the population into two unequal ethnic groups. While,
historically, members of the Tutsi group held positions of power, the involvement of Belgians led to the Hutu
seizing power during a 1960s revolt. This ultimately led to a repressive government and genocide against
Tutsis that left hundreds of thousands of Rwandans dead or living in diaspora (U.S. Department of State
2011c). The painful rebirth of a self-ruled Africa has meant many countries bear ongoing scars as they try to
see their way towards the future (World Poverty 2012a). In 2020, armed conflicts were underway in regions of
nations including the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, the Kamwina Nsapo rebellion in Democratic Republic of
Congo, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and neighboring countries, and several more. While most of the
ongoing conflicts are considered minor, they are both dangerous and disruptive to the people living in those
regions, and several have included ethnic cleansing, mass kidnapping, extensive sexual violence, and use of
child soldiers.


FIGURE 10.8 For children who have homes in slums like this one in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, survival and safety are
often the primary and immediate concerns. Longer-term goals, such as education and social mobility, may not be
available options. (Credit: ND Strupler)

While the majority of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa, the majority of the world’s poorest people are
in Asia. As in Africa, Asia finds itself with disparity in the distribution of poverty, with Japan and South Korea
holding much more wealth than India and Cambodia. In fact, most poverty is concentrated in South Asia. One
of the most pressing causes of poverty in Asia is simply the pressure that the size of the population puts on its
resources. Unlike Africa, many people living in poverty reside in urban areas, often in crowded, unhygenic
conditions with limited access to water and resources. Estimates indicate that Asia has 60 percent of the
world’s people who live in slums (WorldVision 2019). Those who find work often do so in garment factories or
other manufacturing facilities, where pay is very low and the demands are incredibly high. (See the feature
below on sweatshop labor.) Children are sent to work in these conditions as well.

10.2 • Global Wealth and Poverty 275

Asia is also frequently impacted by natural disasters. Countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, and
the Philippines experience frequent typhoons (hurricanes) and flooding. For those living in insecure
structures —often constructed from various leftover materials and not subject to any type of building
codes—such events can leave entire swaths of the population homeless and vulnerable to disease or injury
(WorldVision 2019).


The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) includes oil-rich countries in the Gulf, such as Iran, Iraq, and
Kuwait, but also countries that are relatively resource-poor in relationship to their populations, such as
Morocco and Yemen. These countries are predominately Islamic. For the last quarter-century, economic
growth was slower in MENA than in other developing economies, and almost a quarter of the 300 million
people who make up the population live on less than $2.00 a day (World Bank 2013).

The International Labour Organization tracks the way income inequality influences social unrest. The two
regions with the highest risk of social unrest are Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East-North Africa region
(International Labour Organization 2012). Increasing unemployment and high socioeconomic inequality in
MENA were major factors in the Arab Spring, which—beginning in 2010—toppled dictatorships throughout the
Middle East in favor of democratically elected government. Unemployment and income inequalities are still
being blamed on immigrants, foreign nationals, and ethnic/religious minorities.

Sweatshops and Student Protests: Who’s Making Your Team Spirit?

FIGURE 10.9 These protesters seek to bring attention to the issue of sweatshop labor in producing clothing. (Credit:
Jo Guldi/flickr)

Most of us don’t pay too much attention to where our favorite products are made. And certainly when you’re
shopping for a college sweatshirt or ball cap to wear to a school football game, you probably don’t turn over the
label, check who produced the item, and then research whether or not the company has fair labor practices. But for
the members of USAS—United Students Against Sweatshops—that’s exactly what they do. The organization, which


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was founded in 1997, has waged countless battles against both apparel makers and other multinational
corporations that do not meet what USAS considers fair working conditions and wages. USAS also focuses on
ensuring safe and non-exploitative conditions as well as improved pay and benefits for campus workers, including
dining hall staff, security guards, and adjuncts (USAS 2021).

How do clothes get made, and why are garment workers among the most commonly mistreated? In many cases,
large apparel companies—including Nike, Lululemon, H&M, Urban Outfitters (owner of Anthropologie and Free
People), Zara, and most other major brands—outsource their manufacturing to factories around the world. The
apparel companies negotiate prices and schedules with the local manufacturers, and often push for the lowest
possible manufacturing cost and the fastest schedule. In order to keep up with demand and manufacture the
clothing at the required cost, the factories may pay their employees less, force them to work longer hours, and may
maintain unsafe conditions. All of those tactics are associated with sweatshop practices (Chan 2019). In response
to action from organizations like USAS, many apparel companies have undertaken steps to ensure that the factories
they use are treating workers properly, but in reality, it is very difficult to know for sure. Often, the brands work
through subcontractors and subsidiaries, and may not know exactly which factories are producing their products.

Members of USAS helped form the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors working conditions for a wide
array of companies and their affiliated factories. WRC conducts regular reviews of worldwide manufacturing
facilities and publishes the results. The WRC also studies and reports on overall economic conditions and their
effect on employment. For example, in 2020, as the global economy went through a rapid downturn, apparel
companies demanded lower prices while they also reduced their orders, which put workers at risk of exploitation or
job loss (Karim 2020).

Consequences of Poverty

FIGURE 10.10 For this child, who is being assessed for malnutrition at a clinic in Kenya, risks associated with
poverty and lack of food were exacerbated by a massive drought that hit the region. (Credit: DFID – UK Department
for International Development/flickr)

Not surprisingly, the consequences of poverty are often also causes. The poor often experience inadequate
healthcare, limited education, and the inaccessibility of birth control. But those born into these conditions are
incredibly challenged in their efforts to break out since these consequences of poverty are also causes of
poverty, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage.

According to sociologists Neckerman and Torche (2007) in their analysis of global inequality studies, the

10.2 • Global Wealth and Poverty 277

consequences of poverty are many. Neckerman and Torche have divided them into three areas. The first,
termed “the sedimentation of global inequality,” relates to the fact that once poverty becomes entrenched in an
area, it is typically very difficult to reverse. As mentioned above, poverty exists in a cycle where the
consequences and causes are intertwined. The second consequence of poverty is its effect on physical and
mental health. Poor people face physical health challenges, including malnutrition and high infant mortality
rates. Mental health is also detrimentally affected by the emotional stresses of poverty, with relative
deprivation carrying the most robust effect. Again, as with the ongoing inequality, the effects of poverty on
mental and physical health become more entrenched as time goes on. Neckerman and Torche’s third
consequence of poverty is the prevalence of crime. Cross-nationally, crime rates are higher, particularly for
violent crime, in countries with higher levels of income inequality (Fajnzylber 2002).


While most of us are accustomed to thinking of slavery in terms of the antebellum South, modern day slavery
goes hand-in-hand with global inequality. In short, slavery refers to any situation in which people are sold,
treated as property, or forced to work for little or no pay. Just as in the pre-Civil War United States, these
humans are at the mercy of their employers. Chattel slavery, the form of slavery once practiced in the
American South, occurs when one person owns another as property. Child slavery, which may include child
prostitution, is a form of chattel slavery. In debt bondage, or bonded labor, the poor pledge themselves as
servants in exchange for the cost of basic necessities like transportation, room, and board. In this scenario,
people are paid less than they are charged for room and board. When travel is required, they can arrive in debt
for their travel expenses and be unable to work their way free, since their wages do not allow them to ever get

The global watchdog group Anti-Slavery International recognizes other forms of slavery: human trafficking (in
which people are moved away from their communities and forced to work against their will), child domestic
work and child labor, and certain forms of servile marriage, in which women are little more than enslaved
people (Anti-Slavery International 2012).

10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe the modernization and dependency theory perspectives on global stratification

As with any social issue, global or otherwise, scholars have developed a variety of theories to study global
stratification. The two most widely applied perspectives are modernization theory and dependency theory.

Modernization Theory

According to modernization theory, low-income countries are affected by their lack of industrialization and
can improve their global economic standing through (Armer and Katsillis 2010):

1. an adjustment of cultural values and attitudes to work
2. industrialization and other forms of economic growth

Critics point out the inherent ethnocentric bias of this theory. It supposes all countries have the same
resources and are capable of following the same path. In addition, it assumes that the goal of all countries is to
be as “developed” as possible. There is no room within this theory for the possibility that industrialization and
technology are not the best goals.

There is, of course, some basis for this assumption. Data show that core nations tend to have lower maternal
and child mortality rates, longer life spans, and less absolute poverty. It is also true that in the poorest
countries, millions of people die from the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, which are
benefits most of us take for granted. At the same time, the issue is more complex than the numbers might
suggest. Cultural equality, history, community, and local traditions are all at risk as modernization pushes into

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peripheral countries. The challenge, then, is to allow the benefits of modernization while maintaining a
cultural sensitivity to what already exists.

Dependency Theory

Dependency theory was created in part as a response to the Western-centric mindset of modernization
theory. It states that global inequality is primarily caused by core nations (or high-income nations) exploiting
semi-peripheral and peripheral nations (or middle-income and low-income nations), which creates a cycle of
dependence (Hendricks 2010). As long as peripheral nations are dependent on core nations for economic
stimulus and access to a larger piece of the global economy, they will never achieve stable and consistent
economic growth. Further, the theory states that since core nations, as well as the World Bank, choose which
countries to make loans to, and for what they will loan funds, they are creating highly segmented labor markets
that are built to benefit the dominant market countries.

At first glance, it seems this theory ignores the formerly low-income nations that are now considered middle-
income nations and are on their way to becoming high-income nations and major players in the global
economy, such as China. But some dependency theorists would state that it is in the best interests of core
nations to ensure the long-term usefulness of their peripheral and semi-peripheral partners. Following that
theory, sociologists have found that entities are more likely to outsource a significant portion of a company’s
work if they are the dominant player in the equation; in other words, companies want to see their partner
countries healthy enough to provide work, but not so healthy as to establish a threat (Caniels and Roeleveld

Factory Girls
We’ve examined functionalist and conflict theorist perspectives on global inequality, as well as modernization
and dependency theories. How might a symbolic interactionist approach this topic?

The book Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang, provides this opportunity.
Chang follows two young women (Min and Chunming) employed at a handbag plant. They help manufacture
coveted purses and bags for the global market. As part of the growing population of young people who are
leaving behind the homesteads and farms of rural China, these female factory workers are ready to enter the
urban fray and pursue an ambitious income.

Although Chang’s study is based in a town many have never heard of (Dongguan), this city produces one-third of
all shoes on the planet (Nike and Reebok are major manufacturers here) and 30 percent of the world’s computer
disk drives, in addition to an abundance of apparel (Chang 2008).

But Chang’s focus is centered less on this global phenomenon on a large scale, than on how it affects these two
women. As a symbolic interactionist would do, Chang examines the daily lives and interactions of Min and
Chunming—their workplace friendships, family relationships, gadgets and goods—in this evolving global space
where young women can leave tradition behind and fashion their own futures. Their story is one that all people,
not just scholars, can learn from as we contemplate sociological issues like global economies, cultural traditions
and innovations, and opportunities for women in the workforce.


10.3 • Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification 279

Key Terms
capital flight the movement (flight) of capital from one nation to another, via jobs and resources
chattel slavery a form of slavery in which one person owns another
core nations dominant capitalist countries
debt accumulation the buildup of external debt, wherein countries borrow money from other nations to

fund their expansion or growth goals
debt bondage the act of people pledging themselves as servants in exchange for money for passage, and are

subsequently paid too little to regain their freedom
deindustrialization the loss of industrial production, usually to peripheral and semi-peripheral nations

where the costs are lower
dependency theory a theory which states that global inequity is due to the exploitation of peripheral and

semi-peripheral nations by core nations
extreme poverty the state where one is barely able, or unable, to afford basic necessities
first world a term from the Cold War era that is used to describe industrialized capitalist democracies
fourth world a term that describes stigmatized minority groups who have no voice or representation on the

world stage
GINI coefficient a measure of income inequality between countries using a 100-point scale, in which 1

represents complete equality and 100 represents the highest possible inequality
global feminization of poverty a pattern that occurs when women bear a disproportionate percentage of

the burden of poverty
global inequality the concentration of resources in core nations and in the hands of a wealthy minority
global stratification the unequal distribution of resources between countries
gross national income (GNI) the income of a nation calculated based on goods and services produced, plus

income earned by citizens and corporations headquartered in that country
modernization theory a theory that low-income countries can improve their global economic standing by

industrialization of infrastructure and a shift in cultural attitudes towards work
peripheral nations nations on the fringes of the global economy, dominated by core nations, with very little

relative poverty the state of poverty where one is unable to live the lifestyle of the average person in the

second world a term from the Cold War era that describes nations with moderate economies and standards

of living
semi-peripheral nations in-between nations, not powerful enough to dictate policy but acting as a major

source of raw materials and an expanding middle class marketplace
subjective poverty a state of poverty composed of many dimensions, subjectively present when one’s actual

income does not meet one’s expectations
third world a term from the Cold War era that refers to poor, unindustrialized countries
underground economy an unregulated economy of labor and goods that operates outside of governance,

regulatory systems, or human protections

Section Summary
10.1 Global Stratification and Classification

Stratification refers to the gaps in resources both between nations and within nations. While economic
equality is of great concern, so is social equality, like the discrimination stemming from race, ethnicity, gender,
religion, and/or sexual orientation. While global inequality is nothing new, several factors make it more
relevant than ever, like the global marketplace and the pace of information sharing. Researchers try to
understand global inequality by classifying it according to factors such as how industrialized a nation is,
whether a country serves as a means of production or as an owner, and what income a nation produces.

280 10 • Key Terms

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10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty

When looking at the world’s poor, we first have to define the difference between relative poverty, absolute
poverty, and subjective poverty. While those in relative poverty might not have enough to live at their country’s
standard of living, those in absolute poverty do not have, or barely have, basic necessities such as food.
Subjective poverty has more to do with one’s perception of one’s situation. North America and Europe are
home to fewer of the world’s poor than Africa, which has most poor countries, or Asia, which has the most
people living in poverty. Poverty has numerous negative consequences, from increased crime rates to a
detrimental impact on physical and mental health.

10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

Modernization theory and dependency theory are two of the most common lenses sociologists use when
looking at the issues of global inequality. Modernization theory posits that countries go through evolutionary
stages and that industrialization and improved technology are the keys to forward movement. Dependency
theory, on the other hand, sees modernization theory as Eurocentric and patronizing. With this theory, global
inequality is the result of core nations creating a cycle of dependence by exploiting resources and labor in
peripheral and semi-peripheral countries.

Section Quiz
10.1 Global Stratification and Classification

1. A sociologist who focuses on the way that multinational corporations headquartered in core nations exploit
the local workers in their peripheral nation factories is using a _________ perspective to understand the
global economy.
a. functional
b. conflict theory
c. feminist
d. symbolic interactionist

2. A ____________ perspective theorist might find it particularly noteworthy that wealthy corporations
improve the quality of life in peripheral nations by providing workers with jobs, pumping money into the
local economy, and improving transportation infrastructure.
a. functional
b. conflict
c. feminist
d. symbolic interactionist

3. A sociologist working from a symbolic interaction perspective would:
a. study how inequality is created and reproduced
b. study how corporations can improve the lives of their low-income workers
c. try to understand how companies provide an advantage to high-income nations compared to low-

income nations
d. want to interview women working in factories to understand how they manage the expectations of their

supervisors, make ends meet, and support their households on a day-to-day basis

4. France might be classified as which kind of nation?
a. Global
b. Core
c. Semi-peripheral
d. Peripheral

10 • Section Quiz 281

5. In the past, the United States manufactured clothes. Many clothing corporations have shut down their U.S.
factories and relocated to China. This is an example of:
a. conflict theory
b. automation
c. global inequality
d. capital flight

10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty

6. Slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S. South most closely resembled
a. chattel slavery
b. debt bondage
c. relative poverty
d. peonage

7. Maya is a twelve-year-old girl living in Thailand. She is homeless, and often does not know where she will
sleep or when she will eat. We might say that Maya lives in _________ poverty.
a. subjective
b. absolute
c. relative
d. global

8. Mike, a college student, rents a studio apartment. He cannot afford a television and lives on cheap groceries
like dried beans and ramen noodles. Since he does not have a regular job, he does not own a car. Mike is
living in:
a. global poverty
b. extreme poverty
c. subjective poverty
d. relative poverty

9. Faith has a full-time job and two children. She has enough money for the basics and can pay her rent each
month, but she feels that, with her education and experience, her income should be enough for her family
to live much better than they do. Faith is experiencing:
a. global poverty
b. subjective poverty
c. extreme poverty
d. relative poverty

10. In a U.S. town, a mining company owns all the stores and most of the houses. It sells goods to the workers
at inflated prices, offers house rentals for twice what a mortgage would be, and makes sure to always pay
the workers less than needed to cover food and rent. Once the workers are in debt, they have no choice but
to continue working for the company, since their skills will not transfer to a new position. This situation
most closely resembles:
a. child slavery
b. chattel slavery
c. debt slavery
d. servile marriage

282 10 • Section Quiz

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10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

11. One flaw in dependency theory is the unwillingness to recognize _______.
a. that previously low-income nations such as China have successfully developed their economies and

can no longer be classified as dependent on core nations
b. that previously high-income nations such as China have been economically overpowered by low-

income nations entering the global marketplace
c. that countries such as China are growing more dependent on core nations
d. that countries such as China do not necessarily want to be more like core nations

12. One flaw in modernization theory is the unwillingness to recognize _________.
a. that semi-peripheral nations are incapable of industrializing
b. that peripheral nations prevent semi-peripheral nations from entering the global market
c. its inherent ethnocentric bias
d. the importance of semi-peripheral nations industrializing

13. If a sociologist says that nations evolve toward more advanced technology and more complex industry as
their citizens learn cultural values that celebrate hard work and success, she is using _______ theory to
study the global economy.
a. modernization theory
b. dependency theory
c. modern dependency theory
d. evolutionary dependency theory

14. If a sociologist points out that core nations dominate the global economy, in part by creating global
interest rates and international tariffs that will inevitably favor high-income nations over low-income
nations, he is a:
a. functionalist
b. dependency theorist
c. modernization theorist
d. symbolic interactionist

15. Dependency theorists explain global inequality and global stratification by focusing on the way that:
a. core nations and peripheral nations exploit semi-peripheral nations
b. semi-peripheral nations exploit core nations
c. peripheral nations exploit core nations
d. core nations exploit peripheral nations

Short Answer
10.1 Global Stratification and Classification

1. Consider the matter of rock-bottom prices at Walmart. What would a functionalist think of Walmart’s model
of squeezing vendors to get the absolute lowest prices so it can pass them along to core nation consumers?

2. Why do you think some scholars find Cold War terminology (“first world” and so on) objectionable?

3. Give an example of the feminization of poverty in core nations. How is it the same or different in peripheral

4. Pretend you are a sociologist studying global inequality by looking at child labor manufacturing Barbie
dolls in China. What do you focus on? How will you find this information? What theoretical perspective
might you use?

10 • Short Answer 283

10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty

5. Consider the concept of subjective poverty. Does it make sense that poverty is in the eye of the beholder?
When you see a homeless person, is your reaction different if he or she is seemingly content versus
begging? Why?

6. Think of people among your family, your friends, or your classmates who are relatively unequal in terms of
wealth. What is their relationship like? What factors come into play?

7. Go to your campus bookstore or visit its web site. Find out who manufactures apparel and novelty items
with your school’s insignias. In what countries are these produced? Conduct some research to determine
how well your school adheres to the principles advocated by USAS.

10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

8. There is much criticism that modernization theory is Eurocentric. Do you think dependency theory is also
biased? Why, or why not?

9. Compare and contrast modernization theory and dependency theory. Which do you think is more useful for
explaining global inequality? Explain, using examples.

Further Research
10.1 Global Stratification and Classification

To learn more about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, look here (http://openstax.org/l/
UN_development_goals) .

To learn more about the existence and impact of global poverty, peruse the poverty and equity data portal here
(http://openstax.org/l/poverty_data) .

10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty

Students often think that the United States is immune to the atrocity of human trafficking. Check out this
website to learn more about trafficking in the United States (http://openstax.org/l/
human_trafficking_in_US) .

For more information about the ongoing practices of slavery in the modern world take a look at the Anti-
Slavery International website (http://openstax.org/l/anti-slavery) .

10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

For more information about economic modernization, check out the Hudson Institute (http://openstax.org/l/
Hudson_Institute) .

Learn more about economic dependency at the University of Texas Inequality Project (http://openstax.org/l/
Texas_inequality_project) .


Butler, Sarah. 2013. “Bangladeshi Factory Deaths Spark Action among High-Street Clothing Chains.” The
Guardian. Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/23/rana-plaza-

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. 2014. “Rana Plaza: A Look Back and Forward.” Global Labour
Rights. Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns/factory-collapse-in-

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International Labour Organization, Department of Communication. 2014. “Post Rana Plaza: A Vision for the
Future.” Working Conditions: International Labour Organization. Retrieved November 7, 2014

Korzeniewicz, Robert, and Timothy Patrick Moran. 2009. Unveiling Inequality: A World Historical Perspective.
New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

10.1 Global Stratification and Classification

Amnesty International. 2012. “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” Retrieved January 3, 2012

Castells, Manuel. 1998. End of Millennium. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Central Intelligence Agency. 2012. “The World Factbook.” Retrieved January 5, 2012 (https://www.cia.gov/

Central Intelligence Agency. 2014. “Country Comparison: Infant Mortality Rate.” Retrieved November 7, 2014

Dogruel, Fatma, and A. Suut Dogruel. 2007. “Foreign Debt Dynamics in Middle Income Countries.” Paper
presented January 4, 2007 at Middle East Economic Association Meeting, Allied Social Science Associations,
Chicago, IL.

Moghadam, Valentine M. 2005. “The Feminization of Poverty and Women’s Human Rights.” Gender Equality
and Development Section UNESCO, July. Paris, France.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1970. The Challenge of World Poverty: A World Anti-Poverty Program in Outline. New York:

Oxfam. 2014. “Working for the Few: Political Capture and Economic Inequality.” Oxfam.org. Retrieved
November 7, 2014 (http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp-working-for-few-political-capture-

United Nations. 2013. “Millennium Development Goals.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://www.un.org/

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1979. The Capitalist World Economy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge World Press.

World Bank. 2014a. “Gender Overview.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/

World Bank. 2014b. “High Income: OECD: Data.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://data.worldbank.org/

World Bank. 2014c. “Low Income: Data.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://data.worldbank.org/income-

World Bank. 2014d. “Upper Middle Income: Data.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://data.worldbank.org/

World Bank. 2020. “Understanding Poverty: Poverty Overview.” Retrieved April 3 2021.

World Bank. 2021. “World Bank Country and Lending Groups.” Retrieved April 3 2021.

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10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty

Aizenman, Nurith. 2016. “You Asked, We Answer: Can Microloans Lift Women Out of Poverty?” NPR. November
1 2016. (https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/11/01/500093608/you-asked-we-answer-can-

Anti-Slavery International. 2012. “What Is Modern Slavery?” Retrieved January 1, 2012

Barta, Patrick. 2009. “The Rise of the Underground.” Wall Street Journal, March 14. Retrieved January 1, 2012

Buvinić, M. 1997. “Women in Poverty: A New Global Underclass.” Foreign Policy, Fall (108):1–7.

Chan, Emily. “Why Do We Still Know So Little About How Our Clothes Are Made?” Vogue. December 18 2019.

Chen, Martha. 2001. “Women in the Informal Sector: A Global Picture, the Global Movement.” The SAIS Review

Chronicle of Higher Education. 2006. “Nearly Nude Penn State Students Protest Sweatshop Labor.” March 26.
Retrieved January 4, 2012 (http://chronicle.com/article/Nearly-Nude-Penn-Staters/36772).

Fajnzylber, Pablo, Daniel Lederman, and Norman Loayza. 2002. “Inequality and Violent Crime.” Journal of Law
and Economics 45:1–40.

International Labour Organization. 2012. “High Unemployment and Growing Inequality Fuel Social Unrest
around the World.” Retrieved November 7, 2014 (http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/

Karim, Naimul. 2020. “Fashion brands accused of exploiting workers at risk of layoffs.” Thomson Reuters
Foundation News. October 16 2020. (https://news.trust.org/item/20201015230800-amzjn

Neckerman, Kathryn, and Florencia Torche. 2007. “Inequality: Causes and Consequences.” Annual Review of
Sociology 33:335–357.

Niner, Sara. 2018. “Why microfinance as aid isn’t enugh to empower women.” The Conversation. May 23, 2018.

OECD. 2012. “Gender equality in education, employment and entrepreneurship.” Meeting of the OECD Council
at Ministerial Level, Paris: 1–252.

Schoch, Marta and Lakner, Christopher and Freije-Rodrigues, Samuel. 2020. ” Monitoring poverty at the
US$3.20 and US$5.50 lines: differences and similarities with extreme poverty trends.” World Bank Blogs.
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Scott, Lucy. 2012. “Female Empowerment and Extreme Poverty Reduction.” United Nations University. June 6
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Shah, Anup. 2011. “Poverty around the World.” Global Issues. Retrieved January 17, 2012

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U.S. Department of State. 2011c. “Background Note: Rwanda.” Retrieved January 3, 2012 (http://www.state.gov/

USAS. 2021. “What is USAS.” August. Retrieved April 3, 2021 (http://usas.org/about).

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World Bank. 2018 “Gender difference in poverty and household composition through the life- cycle: a global
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10 • References 287

288 10 • References

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FIGURE 11.1 The juxtaposition of anger and hope. Over a window broken during protests in Richmond, Virginia, the
business owner placed a sign that reads “Did You Know That You Matter. You are beautiful. You have purpose. You
can do anything. You matter,” and is accompanied with bible verses. (Credit: I threw a guitar a him/flickr)


11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
11.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity
11.3 Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism
11.4 Intergroup Relationships
11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old Black teenager. On the evening of February 26,
2012, he was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancée in the Sanford, Florida multi-ethnic gated
community where his father’s fiancée lived. Trayvon went on foot to buy a snack from a nearby convenience
store. As he was returning, George Zimmerman, a White Hispanic man and the community’s neighborhood
watch program coordinator, noticed him. In light of a recent rash of break-ins, Zimmerman called the police to
report a person acting suspiciously, which he had done on many other occasions. During the call, Zimmerman
said in reference to suspicious people, “[expletive] punks. Those [expletive], they always get away.” The 911
operator told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, as was also stated in the police neighborhood watch
guidelines that had been provided to Zimmerman. But Zimmerman did follow the teen, and, soon after, they
had a physical confrontation. Several people in the community heard yelling, cries for help, and saw two

11Race and Ethnicity

people on the ground. According to Zimmerman, Martin attacked him, and in the ensuing scuffle, Zimmerman
shot and killed Martin (CNN Library 2021).

A public outcry followed Martin’s death. There were allegations of racial profiling—the use of race alone to
determine whether detain or investigate someone. As part of the initial investigation, Zimmerman was
extensively interviewed by police, but was released under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law, which indicated
police could not arrest him for his actions. About six weeks later, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with
second-degree murder by a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, who had been appointed by Florida’s governor. In
the ensuing trial, he was found not guilty (CNN Library 2021).

The shooting, the public response, and the trial that followed offer a snapshot of the sociology of race. Do you
think race played a role in Martin’s death? Do you think race had an influence on the initial decision not to
arrest Zimmerman, or on his later acquittal? Does society fear Black men, leading to racial profiling at an
institutional level?

11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Understand the difference between race and ethnicity
• Define a majority group (dominant group)
• Define a minority group (subordinate group)

While many students first entering a sociology classroom are accustomed to conflating the terms “race,”
“ethnicity,” and “minority group,” these three terms have distinct meanings for sociologists. The idea of race
refers to superficial physical differences that a particular society considers significant, while ethnicity
describes shared culture. And the term “minority groups” describe groups that are subordinate, or that lack
power in society regardless of skin color or country of origin. For example, in modern U.S. history, the elderly
might be considered a minority group due to a diminished status that results from popular prejudice and
discrimination against them. Ten percent of nursing home staff admitted to physically abusing an elderly
person in the past year, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse (World Health
Organization 2011). In this chapter we focus on racial and ethnic minorities.

What Is Race?

A human race is a grouping of humankind based on shared physical or social qualities that can vary from one
society to another.

Historically, the concept of race has changed across cultures and eras, and has eventually become less
connected with ancestral and familial ties, and more concerned with superficial physical characteristics. In the
past, theorists developed categories of race based on various geographic regions, ethnicities, skin colors, and
more. Their labels for racial groups have connoted regions or skin tones, for example.

German physician, zoologist, and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) introduced one of
the famous groupings by studying human skulls. Blumenbach divided humans into five races (MacCord 2014):

• Caucasian or White race: people of European, Middle Eastern, and North African origin
• Ethiopian or Black race: people of sub-Saharan Africans origin (sometimes spelled Aethiopian)
• Malayan or Brown race: people of Southeast Asian origin and Pacific Islanders
• Mongolian or Yellow race: people of all East Asian and some Central Asian origin
• American or Red race: people of North American origin or American Indians

Over time, descriptions of race like Blumenbach’s have fallen into disuse, and the social construction of race
is a more accepted way of understanding racial categories. Social science organizations including the
American Association of Anthropologists, the American Sociological Association, and the American
Psychological Association have all officially rejected explanations of race like those listed above. Research in

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this school of thought suggests that race is not biologically identifiable and that previous racial categories were
based on pseudoscience; they were often used to justify racist practices (Omi and Winant 1994; Graves 2003).
For example, some people used to think that genetics of race determined intelligence. While this idea was
mostly put to rest in the later 20th Century, it resurged several times in the past 50 years, including the widely
read and cited 1994 book, The Bell Curve. Researchers have since provided substantial evidence that refutes a
biological-racial basis for intelligence, including the widespread closing of IQ gaps as Black people gained
more access to education (Dickens 2006). This research and other confirming studies indicate that any
generally lower IQ among a racial group was more about nurture than nature, to put it into the terms of the
Socialization chapter.

While many of the historical considerations of race have been corrected in favor of more accurate and sensitive
descriptions, some of the older terms remain. For example, it is generally unacceptable and insulting to refer
to Asian people or Native American people with color-based terminology, but it is acceptable to refer to White
and Black people in that way. In 2020, a number of publications announced that they would begin capitalizing
the names of races, though not everyone used the same approach (Seipel 2020). This practice comes nearly a
hundred years after sociologist and leader W.E.B. Du Bois drove newsrooms to capitalize “Negro,” the widely
used term at the time. And, finally, some members of racial groups (or ethnic groups, which are described
below) “reclaim” terms previously used to insult them (Rao 2018). These examples are more evidence of the
social construction of race, and our evolving relationships among people and groups.

What Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity is sometimes used interchangeably with race, but they are very different concepts. Ethnicity is based
on shared culture—the practices, norms, values, and beliefs of a group that might include shared language,
religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. Like race, the term ethnicity is difficult to describe and
its meaning has changed over time. And as with race, individuals may be identified or self-identify with
ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian American,
Russian, Jewish, and Serbian might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the “White”
racial category. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions
use today—whether through the census, diversity initiatives, nondiscrimination laws, or simply in personal
day-to-day relations.

In some cases, ethnicity is incorrectly used as a synonym for national origin, but those constructions are
technically different. National origin (itself sometimes confused with nationality) has to do with the geographic
and political associations with a person’s birthplace or residence. But people from a nation can be of a wide
range of ethnicities, often unknown to people outside of the region, which leads to misconceptions. For
example, someone in the United States may, with no ill-intent, refer to all Vietnamese people as an ethnic
group. But Vietnam is home to 54 formally recognized ethnic groups.

Adding to the complexity: Sometimes, either to build bridges between ethnic groups, promote civil rights, gain
recognition, or other reasons, diverse but closely associated ethnic groups may develop a “pan-ethnic” group.
For example, the various ethnic groups and national origins of people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and
adjoining nations, who may share cultural, linguistic, or other values, may group themselves together in a
collective identity. If they do so, they may not seek to erase their individual ethnicities, but finding the correct
description and association can be challenging and depend on context. The large number of people who make
up the Asian American community may embrace their collective identity in the context of the United States.
However, that embrace may depend on people’s ages, and may be expressed differently when speaking to
different populations (Park 2008). For example, someone who identifies as Asian American while at home in
Houston may not refer to themselves as such when they visit extended family in Japan. In a similar manner, a
grouping of people from Mexico, Central America and South America—often referred to as Latinx, Latina, or
Latino—may be embraced by some and rejected by others in the group (Martinez 2019).

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What Are Minority Groups?

Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a minority group as “any group of people who, because of their physical
or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and
unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” The term
minority connotes discrimination, and in its sociological use, the term subordinate group can be used
interchangeably with the term minority group, while the term dominant group is often substituted for the
group that represents rulers or is in the majority who can access power and privilege in a given society. These
definitions correlate to the concept that the dominant group is that which holds the most power in a given
society, while subordinate groups are those who lack power compared to the dominant group.

Note that being a numerical minority is not a characteristic of being a minority group; sometimes larger
groups can be considered minority groups due to their lack of power. It is the lack of power that is the
predominant characteristic of a minority, or subordinate group. For example, consider apartheid in South
Africa, in which a numerical majority (the Black inhabitants of the country) were exploited and oppressed by
the White minority.

According to Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris (1958), a minority group is distinguished by five
characteristics: (1) unequal treatment and less power over their lives, (2) distinguishing physical or cultural
traits like skin color or language, (3) involuntary membership in the group, (4) awareness of subordination,
and (5) high rate of in-group marriage. Additional examples of minority groups might include the LGBTQ
community, religious practitioners whose faith is not widely practiced where they live, and people with

Scapegoat theory, developed initially from Dollard’s (1939) Frustration-Aggression theory, suggests that the
dominant group will displace its unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group. History has shown us many
examples of the scapegoating of a subordinate group. An example from the last century is the way Adolf Hitler
blamed the Jewish population for Germany’s social and economic problems. In the United States, recent
immigrants have frequently been the scapegoat for the nation’s—or an individual’s—woes. Many states have
enacted laws to disenfranchise immigrants; these laws are popular because they let the dominant group
scapegoat a subordinate group.

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Multiple Identities

FIGURE 11.2 Golfer Tiger Woods has Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage.
Individuals with multiple ethnic backgrounds are becoming more common. (Credit: familymwr/flickr)

Prior to the twentieth century, racial intermarriage (referred to as miscegenation) was extremely rare, and in
many places, illegal. While the sexual subordination of enslaved people did result in children of mixed race,
these children were usually considered Black, and therefore, property. There was no concept of multiple racial
identities with the possible exception of the Creole. Creole society developed in the port city of New Orleans,
where a mixed-race culture grew from French and African inhabitants. Unlike in other parts of the country,
“Creoles of color” had greater social, economic, and educational opportunities than most African Americans.

Increasingly during the modern era, the removal of miscegenation laws and a trend toward equal rights and
legal protection against racism have steadily reduced the social stigma attached to racial exogamy (exogamy
refers to marriage outside a person’s core social unit). It is now common for the children of racially mixed
parents to acknowledge and celebrate their various ethnic identities. Golfer Tiger Woods, for instance, has
Chinese, Thai, African American, Native American, and Dutch heritage; he jokingly refers to his ethnicity as
“Cablinasian,” a term he coined to combine several of his ethnic backgrounds. While this is the trend, it is not
yet evident in all aspects of our society. For example, the U.S. Census only recently added additional categories
for people to identify themselves, such as non-White Hispanic. A growing number of people chose multiple
races to describe themselves on the 2020 Census, indicating that individuals have multiple identities.

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11.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Describe how major sociological perspectives view race and ethnicity
• Identify examples of culture of prejudice

Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity

We can examine race and ethnicity through three major sociological perspectives: functionalism, conflict
theory, and symbolic interactionism. As you read through these theories, ask yourself which one makes the
most sense and why.


Functionalism emphasizes that all the elements of society have functions that promote solidarity and maintain
order and stability in society. Hence, we can observe people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds
interacting harmoniously in a state of social balance. Problems arise when one or more racial or ethnic groups
experience inequalities and discriminations. This creates tension and conflict resulting in temporary
dysfunction of the social system. For example, the killing of a Black man George Floyd by a White police officer
in 2020 stirred up protests demanding racial justice and changes in policing in the United States. To restore
the society’s pre-disturbed state or to seek a new equilibrium, the police department and various parts of the
system require changes and compensatory adjustments.

Another way to apply the functionalist perspective to race and ethnicity is to discuss the way racism can
contribute positively to the functioning of society by strengthening bonds between in-group members through
the ostracism of out-group members. Consider how a community might increase solidarity by refusing to allow
outsiders access. On the other hand, Rose (1951) suggested that dysfunctions associated with racism include
the failure to take advantage of talent in the subjugated group, and that society must divert from other
purposes the time and effort needed to maintain artificially constructed racial boundaries. Consider how
much money, time, and effort went toward maintaining separate and unequal educational systems prior to the
civil rights movement.

In the view of functionalism, racial and ethnic inequalities must have served an important function in order to
exist as long as they have. This concept, sometimes, can be problematic. How can racism and discrimination
contribute positively to society? Nash (1964) focused his argument on the way racism is functional for the
dominant group, for example, suggesting that racism morally justifies a racially unequal society. Consider the
way slave owners justified slavery in the antebellum South, by suggesting Black people were fundamentally
inferior to White and preferred slavery to freedom.


For symbolic interactionists, race and ethnicity provide strong symbols as sources of identity. In fact, some
interactionists propose that the symbols of race, not race itself, are what lead to racism. Famed Interactionist
Herbert Blumer (1958) suggested that racial prejudice is formed through interactions between members of the
dominant group: Without these interactions, individuals in the dominant group would not hold racist views.
These interactions contribute to an abstract picture of the subordinate group that allows the dominant group
to support its view of the subordinate group, and thus maintains the status quo. An example of this might be an
individual whose beliefs about a particular group are based on images conveyed in popular media, and those
are unquestionably believed because the individual has never personally met a member of that group.

Another way to apply the interactionist perspective is to look at how people define their races and the race of
others. Some people who claim a White identity have a greater amount of skin pigmentation than some people
who claim a Black identity; how did they come to define themselves as Black or White?

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Conflict Theory

Conflict theories are often applied to inequalities of gender, social class, education, race, and ethnicity. A
conflict theory perspective of U.S. history would examine the numerous past and current struggles between
the White ruling class and racial and ethnic minorities, noting specific conflicts that have arisen when the
dominant group perceived a threat from the minority group. In the late nineteenth century, the rising power of
Black Americans after the Civil War resulted in draconian Jim Crow laws that severely limited Black political
and social power. For example, Vivien Thomas (1910–1985), the Black surgical technician who helped develop
the groundbreaking surgical technique that saves the lives of “blue babies” was classified as a janitor for many
years, and paid as such, despite the fact that he was conducting complicated surgical experiments. The years
since the Civil War have showed a pattern of attempted disenfranchisement, with gerrymandering and voter
suppression efforts aimed at predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Intersection Theory

Feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1990) further developed intersection theory, originally articulated in
1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which suggests we cannot separate the effects of race, class, gender, sexual
orientation, and other attributes (Figure 11.4). When we examine race and how it can bring us both advantages
and disadvantages, it is important to acknowledge that the way we experience race is shaped, for example, by
our gender and class. Multiple layers of disadvantage intersect to create the way we experience race. For
example, if we want to understand prejudice, we must understand that the prejudice focused on a White
woman because of her gender is very different from the layered prejudice focused on an Asian woman in
poverty, who is affected by stereotypes related to being poor, being a woman, and her ethnic status.

FIGURE 11.3 Our identities are formed by dozens of factors, sometimes represented in intersection wheels.

11.2 • Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity 295

Consider the subset of identity elements represented here. Generally, the outer ring contains elements that may
change relatively often, while the elements in the inner circle are often considered more permanent. (There are
certainly exceptions.) How does each contribute to who you are, and how would possible change alter your self-
defined identity?

Culture of Prejudice

Culture of prejudice refers to the theory that prejudice is embedded in our culture. We grow up surrounded by
images of stereotypes and casual expressions of racism and prejudice. Consider the casually racist imagery on
grocery store shelves or the stereotypes that fill popular movies and advertisements. It is easy to see how
someone living in the Northeastern United States, who may know no Mexican Americans personally, might
gain a stereotyped impression from such sources as Speedy Gonzalez or Taco Bell’s talking Chihuahua.
Because we are all exposed to these images and thoughts, it is impossible to know to what extent they have
influenced our thought processes.

11.3 Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain the difference between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and racism
• Identify different types of discrimination
• View racial tension through a sociological lens

It is important to learn about stereotypes before discussing the terms prejudice, discrimination, and racism
that are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations
about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation—almost
any characteristic. They may be positive (usually about one’s own group) but are often negative (usually toward
other groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinate racial group is
stupid or lazy). In either case, the stereotype is a generalization that doesn’t take individual differences into

Where do stereotypes come from? In fact, new stereotypes are rarely created; rather, they are recycled from
subordinate groups that have assimilated into society and are reused to describe newly subordinate groups.
For example, many stereotypes that are currently used to characterize new immigrants were used earlier in
American history to characterize Irish and Eastern European immigrants.


Prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is
not based on personal experience; instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience. Recall
from the chapter on Crime and Deviance that the criminalization of marijuana was based on anti-immigrant
sentiment; proponents used fictional, fear-instilling stories of “reefer madness” and rampant immoral and
illegal activities among Spanish-speaking people to justify new laws and harsh treatment of marijuana users.
Many people who supported criminalizing marijuana had never met any of the new immigrants who were
rumored to use it; the ideas were based in prejudice.

While prejudice is based in beliefs outside of experience, experience can lead people to feel that their
prejudice is confirmed or justified. This is a type of confirmation bias. For example, if someone is taught to
believe that a certain ethnic group has negative attributes, every negative act committed someone in that
group can be seen as confirming the prejudice. Even a minor social offense committed by a member of the
ethnic group, like crossing the street outside the crosswalk or talking too loudly on a bus, could confirm the

While prejudice often originates outside experience, it isn’t instinctive. Prejudice—as well as the stereotypes
that lead to it and the discrimination that stems from it—is most often taught and learned. The teaching arrives

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in many forms, from direct instruction or indoctrination, to observation and socialization. Movies, books,
charismatic speakers, and even a desire to impress others can all support the development of prejudices.

FIGURE 11.4 Stereotypes and prejudices are persistent and apply to almost every category of people. They are also
subject to confirmation bias, in which any bit of supporting evidence gives a person more confidence in their belief.
For example, if you think older people are bad drivers, every time you see an accident involving an older driver, it’s
likely to increase your confidence in your stereotype. Even if you hear the statistics that younger drivers cause more
accidents than older drivers, the fulfillment of your stereotype is difficult to overcome. (Credit: Chris Freser/flickr)


While prejudice refers to biased thinking, discrimination consists of actions against a group of people.
Discrimination can be based on race, ethnicity, age, religion, health, and other categories. For example,
discrimination based on race or ethnicity can take many forms, from unfair housing practices such as
redlining to biased hiring systems. Overt discrimination has long been part of U.S. history. In the late
nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for business owners to hang signs that read, “Help Wanted: No Irish
Need Apply.” And southern Jim Crow laws, with their “Whites Only” signs, exemplified overt discrimination
that is not tolerated today.

Discrimination also manifests in different ways. The scenarios above are examples of individual
discrimination, but other types exist. Institutional discrimination occurs when a societal system has developed
with embedded disenfranchisement of a group, such as the U.S. military’s historical nonacceptance of
minority sexualities (the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy reflected this norm).

While the form and severity of discrimination vary significantly, they are considered forms of oppression.
Institutional discrimination can also include the promotion of a group’s status, such in the case of privilege,
which is the benefits people receive simply by being part of the dominant group.

Most people have some level of privilege, whether it has to do with health, ability, race, or gender. When
discussing race, the focus is often on White privilege, which are the benefits people receive by being a White
person or being perceived to be a White person. Most White people are willing to admit that non-White people
live with a set of disadvantages due to the color of their skin. But until they gain a good degree of self-
awareness, few people are willing to acknowledge the benefits they themselves receive by being a part of the
dominant group. Why not? Some may feel it lessens their accomplishments, others may feel a degree of guilt,
and still others may feel that admitting to privilege makes them seem like a bad or mean person. But White (or
other dominant) privilege is an institutional condition, not a personal one. It exists whether the person asks for
it or not. In fact, a pioneering thinker on the topic, Peggy McIntosh, noted that she didn’t recognize privilege

11.3 • Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism 297

because, in fact, it was not based in meanness. Instead, it was an “invisible weightless knapsack full of special
provisions” that she didn’t ask for, yet from which she still benefitted (McIntosh 1989). As the reference
indicates, McIntosh’s first major publication about White privilege was released in 1989; many people have
only become familiar with the term in recent years.

Prejudice and discrimination can overlap and intersect in many ways. To illustrate, here are four examples of
how prejudice and discrimination can occur. Unprejudiced nondiscriminators are open-minded, tolerant, and
accepting individuals. Unprejudiced discriminators might be those who unthinkingly practice sexism in their
workplace by not considering women or gender nonconforming people for certain positions that have
traditionally been held by men. Prejudiced nondiscriminators are those who hold racist beliefs but don’t act on
them, such as a racist store owner who serves minority customers. Prejudiced discriminators include those
who actively make disparaging remarks about others or who perpetuate hate crimes.


Racism is a stronger type of prejudice and discrimination used to justify inequalities against individuals by
maintaining that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others; it is a set of practices used by a
racial dominant group to maximize advantages for itself by disadvantaging racial minority groups. Such
practices have affected wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance,
incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, infant mortality and much more (Race Forward 2021).

Broadly, individuals belonging to minority groups experience both individual racism and systemic racism
during their lifetime. While reading the following some of the common forms of racism, ask yourself, “Am I a
part of this racism?” “How can I contribute to stop racism?”

• Individual or Interpersonal Racism refers to prejudice and discrimination executed by individuals
consciously and unconsciously that occurs between individuals. Examples include telling a racist joke and
believing in the superiority of White people.

• Systemic Racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, is systems and structures that
have procedures or processes that disadvantages racial minority groups. Systemic racism occurs in
organizations as discriminatory treatments and unfair policies based on race that result in inequitable
outcomes for White people over people of color. For example, a school system where students of color are
distributed into underfunded schools and out of the higher-resourced schools.

• Racial Profiling is a type of systemic racism that involves the singling out of racial minorities for
differential treatment, usually harsher treatment. The disparate treatment of racial minorities by law
enforcement officials is a common example of racial profiling in the United States. For example, a study on
the Driver’s License Privilege to All Minnesota Residents from 2008 to 2010 found that the percentage of
Latinos arrested was disproportionally high (Feist 2013). Similarly, the disproportionate number of Black
men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes reflect racial profiling.

• Historical Racism is economic inequality or social disparity caused by past racism. For example, African-
Americans have had their opportunities in wealth, education and employment adversely affected due to
the mistreatment of their ancestors during the slavery and post-slavery period (Wilson 2012).

• Cultural Racism occurs when the assumption of inferiority of one or more races is built into the culture of
a society. For example, the European culture is considered supposedly more mature, evolved and rational
than other cultures (Blaut 1992). A study showed that White and Asian American students with high GPAs
experience greater social acceptance while Black and Native American students with high GPAs are
rejected by their peers (Fuller-Rowell and Doan 2010).

• Colorism is a form of racism, in which someone believes one type of skin tone is superior or inferior to
another within a racial group. For example, if an employer believes a Black employee with a darker skin
tone is less capable than a Black employee with lighter skin tone, that is colorism. Studies suggest that
darker skinned African Americans experience more discrimination than lighter skinned African
Americans (Herring, Keith, and Horton 2004; Klonoff and Landrine 2000).

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• Color-Avoidance Racism (sometimes referred to as “colorblind racism”) is an avoidance of racial language
by European-Americans that the racism is no longer an issue. The U.S. cultural narrative that typically
focuses on individual racism fails to recognize systemic racism. It has arisen since the post-Civil Rights
era and supports racism while avoiding any reference to race (Bonilla-Silva (2015).

How to Be an Antiracist

Almost all mainstream voices in the United States oppose racism. Despite this, racism is prevalent in several
forms. For example, when a newspaper uses people’s race to identify individuals accused of a crime, it may
enhance stereotypes of a certain minority. Another example of racist practices is racial steering, in which real
estate agents direct prospective homeowners toward or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race.

Racist attitudes and beliefs are often more insidious and harder to pin down than specific racist practices.
They become more complex due to implicit bias (also referred to as unconscious bias) which is the process of
associating stereotypes or attitudes towards categories of people without conscious awareness – which can
result in unfair actions and decisions that are at odds with one’s conscious beliefs about fairness and equality
(Osta and Vasquez 2021). For example, in schools we often see “honors” and “gifted” classes quickly filled with
White students while the majority of Black and Latino students are placed in the lower track classes. As a
result, our mind consciously and unconsciously starts to associate Black and Latino students with being less
intelligent, less capable. Osta and Vasquez (2021) argue that placing the student of color into a lower and less
rigorous track, we reproduce the inequity and the vicious cycle of structural racism and implicit bias

FIGURE 11.5 Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization (Osta and Vasquez 2021)

If everyone becomes antiracist, breaking the vicious cycle of structural racism and implicit bias may not be far
away. To be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our
consciousness (Kendi 2019). Proponents of anti-racism indicate that we must work collaboratively within

11.3 • Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism 299

ourselves, our institutions, and our networks to challenge racism at local, national and global levels. The
practice of anti-racism is everyone’s ongoing work that everyone should pursue at least the following (Carter
and Snyder 2020):

• Understand and own the racist ideas in which we have been socialized and the racist biases that these
ideas have created within each of us.

• Identify racist policies, practices, and procedures and replace them with antiracist policies, practices, and

Anti-racism need not be confrontational in the sense of engaging in direct arguments with people, feeling
terrible about your privilege, or denying your own needs or success. In fact, many people who are a part of a
minority acknowledge the need for allies from the dominant group (Melaku 2020). Understanding and owning
the racist ideas, and recognizing your own privilege, is a good and brave thing.

We cannot erase racism simply by enacting laws to abolish it, because it is embedded in our complex reality
that relates to educational, economic, criminal, political, and other social systems. Importantly, everyone can
become antiracist by making conscious choices daily. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is
about what you do (Carter and Snyder 2020).

What does it mean to you to be an “anti-racist”? How do see the recent events or protests in your community,
country or somewhere else? Are they making any desired changes?

Racial Tensions in the United States
The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 illustrates racial tensions in the United
States as well as the overlap between prejudice, discrimination, and institutional racism. On that day, Brown, a
young unarmed Black man, was killed by a White police officer named Darren Wilson. During the incident, Wilson
directed Brown and his friend to walk on the sidewalk instead of in the street. While eyewitness accounts vary,
they agree that an altercation occurred between Wilson and Brown. Wilson’s version has him shooting Brown in
self-defense after Brown assaulted him, while Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown also present at the time,
claimed that Brown first ran away, then turned with his hands in the air to surrender, after which Wilson shot him
repeatedly (Nobles and Bosman 2014). Three autopsies independently confirmed that Brown was shot six times
(Lowery and Fears 2014).

The shooting focused attention on a number of race-related tensions in the United States. First, members of the
predominantly Black community viewed Brown’s death as the result of a White police officer racially profiling a
Black man (Nobles and Bosman 2014). In the days after, it was revealed that only three members of the town’s
fifty-three-member police force were Black (Nobles and Bosman 2014). The national dialogue shifted during the
next few weeks, with some commentators pointing to a nationwide sedimentation of racial inequality and
identifying redlining in Ferguson as a cause of the unbalanced racial composition in the community, in local
political establishments, and in the police force (Bouie 2014). Redlining is the practice of routinely refusing
mortgages for households and businesses located in predominately minority communities, while sedimentation
of racial inequality describes the intergenerational impact of both practical and legalized racism that limits the
abilities of Black people to accumulate wealth.

Ferguson’s racial imbalance may explain in part why, even though in 2010 only about 63 percent of its population
was Black, in 2013 Black people were detained in 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of
arrests (Missouri Attorney General’s Office 2014). In addition, de facto segregation in Ferguson’s schools, a
race-based wealth gap, urban sprawl, and a Black unemployment rate three times that of the White
unemployment rate worsened existing racial tensions in Ferguson while also reflecting nationwide racial
inequalities (Bouie 2014).


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This situation has not much changed in the United States. After Michael Brown, dozens of unarmed Black people
have been shot and killed by police. Studies find no change to the racial disparity in the use of deadly force by
police (Belli 2020). Do you think that racial tension can be reduced by stopping police action against racial
minorities? What types of policies and practices are important to reduce racial tension? Who are responsible?

11.4 Intergroup Relationships
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Explain different intergroup relations in terms of their relative levels of tolerance
• Give historical and/or contemporary examples of each type of intergroup relation

Intergroup relations (relationships between different groups of people) range along a spectrum between
tolerance and intolerance. The most tolerant form of intergroup relations is pluralism, in which no distinction
is made between minority and majority groups, but instead there’s equal standing. At the other end of the
continuum are amalgamation, expulsion, and even genocide—stark examples of intolerant intergroup


Pluralism is represented by the ideal of the United States as a “salad bowl”: a great mixture of different
cultures where each culture retains its own identity and yet adds to the flavor of the whole. True pluralism is
characterized by mutual respect on the part of all cultures, both dominant and subordinate, creating a
multicultural environment of acceptance. In reality, true pluralism is a difficult goal to reach. In the United
States, the mutual respect required by pluralism is often missing, and the nation’s past model of a melting pot
posits a society where cultural differences aren’t embraced as much as erased.


Assimilation describes the process by which a minority individual or group gives up its own identity by taking
on the characteristics of the dominant culture. In the United States, which has a history of welcoming and
absorbing immigrants from different lands, assimilation has been a function of immigration.

11.4 • Intergroup Relationships 301

FIGURE 11.6 For many immigrants to the United States, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and a new life.
Unfortunately, they often encounter prejudice and discrimination. (Credit: Mark Heard/flickr)

Most people in the United States have immigrant ancestors. In relatively recent history, between 1890 and
1920, the United States became home to around 24 million immigrants. In the decades since then, further
waves of immigrants have come to these shores and have eventually been absorbed into U.S. culture,
sometimes after facing extended periods of prejudice and discrimination. Assimilation may lead to the loss of
the minority group’s cultural identity as they become absorbed into the dominant culture, but assimilation has
minimal to no impact on the majority group’s cultural identity.

Some groups may keep only symbolic gestures of their original ethnicity. For instance, many Irish Americans
may celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, many Hindu Americans enjoy a Diwali festival, and many Mexican
Americans may celebrate Cinco de Mayo (a May 5 acknowledgment of the Mexican victory over the French
Empire at the Battle of Puebla). However, for the rest of the year, other aspects of their originating culture may
be forgotten.

Assimilation is antithetical to the “salad bowl” created by pluralism; rather than maintaining their own
cultural flavor, subordinate cultures give up their own traditions in order to conform to their new environment.
Sociologists measure the degree to which immigrants have assimilated to a new culture with four benchmarks:
socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language assimilation, and intermarriage. When faced with racial
and ethnic discrimination, it can be difficult for new immigrants to fully assimilate. Language assimilation, in
particular, can be a formidable barrier, limiting employment and educational options and therefore
constraining growth in socioeconomic status.

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Amalgamation is the process by which a minority group and a majority group combine to form a new group.
Amalgamation creates the classic “melting pot” analogy; unlike the “salad bowl,” in which each culture retains
its individuality, the “melting pot” ideal sees the combination of cultures that results in a new culture entirely.

Amalgamationin the form of miscegenation is achieved through intermarriage between races. In the United
States, antimiscegenation laws, which criminalized interracial marriage, flourished in the South during the
Jim Crow era. It wasn’t until 1967’s Loving v. Virginia that the last antimiscegenation law was struck from the
books, making these laws unconstitutional.


Genocide, the deliberate annihilation of a targeted (usually subordinate) group, is the most toxic intergroup
relationship. Historically, we can see that genocide has included both the intent to exterminate a group and the
function of exterminating of a group, intentional or not.

Possibly the most well-known case of genocide is Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in the first
part of the twentieth century. Also known as the Holocaust, the explicit goal of Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the
eradication of European Jewry, as well as the destruction of other minority groups such as Catholics, people
with disabilities, and LGBTQ people. With forced emigration, concentration camps, and mass executions in gas
chambers, Hitler’s Nazi regime was responsible for the deaths of 12 million people, 6 million of whom were
Jewish. Hitler’s intent was clear, and the high Jewish death toll certainly indicates that Hitler and his regime
committed genocide. But how do we understand genocide that is not so overt and deliberate?

The treatment of the Native Americans by the European colonizers is an example of genocide committed
against indigenous people. Some historians estimate that Native American populations dwindled from
approximately 12 million people in the year 1500 to barely 237,000 by the year 1900 (Lewy 2004). European
settlers coerced American Indians off their own lands, often causing thousands of deaths in forced removals,
such as occurred in the Cherokee or Potawatomi Trail of Tears. Settlers also enslaved Native Americans and
forced them to give up their religious and cultural practices. But the major cause of Native American death was
neither slavery nor war nor forced removal: it was the introduction of European diseases and Indians’ lack of
immunity to them. Smallpox, diphtheria, and measles flourished among indigenous American tribes who had
no exposure to the diseases and no ability to fight them. Quite simply, these diseases decimated the tribes.
How planned this genocide was remains a topic of contention. Some argue that the spread of disease was an
unintended effect of conquest, while others believe it was intentional, citing rumors of smallpox-infected
blankets being distributed as “gifts” to tribes.

Genocide is not a just a historical concept; it is practiced even in the twenty- first century. For example, ethnic
and geographic conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. As part of
an ongoing land conflict, the Sudanese government and their state-sponsored Janjaweed militia have led a
campaign of killing, forced displacement, and systematic rape of Darfuri people. Although a treaty was signed
in 2011, the peace is fragile.


Expulsion refers to a subordinate group being forced, by a dominant group, to leave a certain area or country.
As seen in the examples of the Trail of Tears and the Holocaust, expulsion can be a factor in genocide.
However, it can also stand on its own as a destructive group interaction. Expulsion has often occurred
historically with an ethnic or racial basis. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued
Executive Order 9066 in 1942, after the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Order authorized
the establishment of internment camps for anyone with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry (i.e., one
great-grandparent who was Japanese). Over 120,000 legal Japanese residents and Japanese U.S. citizens,
many of them children, were held in these camps for up to four years, despite the fact that there was never any

11.4 • Intergroup Relationships 303

evidence of collusion or espionage. (In fact, many Japanese Americans continued to demonstrate their loyalty
to the United States by serving in the U.S. military during the War.) In the 1990s, the U.S. executive branch
issued a formal apology for this expulsion; reparation efforts continue today.


Segregation refers to the physical separation of two groups, particularly in residence, but also in workplace
and social functions. It is important to distinguish between de jure segregation (segregation that is enforced by
law) and de facto segregation (segregation that occurs without laws but because of other factors). A stark
example of de jure segregation is the apartheid movement of South Africa, which existed from 1948 to 1994.
Under apartheid, Black South Africans were stripped of their civil rights and forcibly relocated to areas that
segregated them physically from their White compatriots. Only after decades of degradation, violent uprisings,
and international advocacy was apartheid finally abolished.

De jure segregation occurred in the United States for many years after the Civil War. During this time, many
former Confederate states passed Jim Crow laws that required segregated facilities for Black and White people.
These laws were codified in 1896’s landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that
“separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. For the next five decades, Black people were subjected to
legalized discrimination, forced to live, work, and go to school in separate—but unequal—facilities. It wasn’t
until 1954 and the Brown v. Board of Education case that the Supreme Court declared that “separate
educational facilities are inherently unequal,” thus ending de jure segregation in the United States.

FIGURE 11.7 In the “Jim Crow” South, it was legal to have “separate but equal” facilities for Black people and
White people. (Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

De facto segregation, however, cannot be abolished by any court mandate. Few institutions desegregated as a
result of Brown; in fact, government and even military intervention was necessary to enforce the ruling, and it
took the Civil Rights Act and other laws to formalize the equality. Segregation is still alive and well in the United
States, with different racial or ethnic groups often segregated by neighborhood, borough, or parish.
Sociologists use segregation indices to measure racial segregation of different races in different areas. The
indices employ a scale from zero to 100, where zero is the most integrated and 100 is the least. In the New York
metropolitan area, for instance, the Black-White segregation index was seventy-nine for the years 2005–2009.
This means that 79 percent of either Black or White people would have to move in order for each neighborhood
to have the same racial balance as the whole metro region (Population Studies Center 2010).

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11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States
By the end of this section, you should be able to:

• Compare and contrast the different experiences of various ethnic groups in the United States
• Apply theories of intergroup relations, race, and ethnicity to different subordinate groups

When colonists came to the New World, they found a land that did not need “discovering” since it was already
inhabited. While the first wave of immigrants came from Western Europe, eventually the bulk of people
entering North America were from Northern Europe, then Eastern Europe, then Latin America and Asia. And
let us not forget the forced immigration of enslaved Africans. Most of these groups underwent a period of
disenfranchisement in which they were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy before they managed
(for those who could) to achieve social mobility. Because of this achievement, the U.S. is still a “dream
destination” for millions of people living in other countries. Many thousands of people, including children,
arrive here every year both documented and undocumented. Most Americans welcome and support new
immigrants wholeheartedly. For example, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM)
Act introduced in 2001 provides a means for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to
gain a pathway to permanent legal status. Similarly, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
introduced in 2012 gives young undocumented immigrants a work permit and protection from deportation
(Georgetown Law 2021). Today, the U.S. society is multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic that is composed
of people from several national origins.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects racial data in accordance with guidelines provided by the U.S. Office of
Management and Budget (OMB 2016). These data are based on self-identification; generally reflect a social
definition of race recognized in this country that include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups.
People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian”
and “White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race. OMB requires
five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The U.S. Census Bureau’s QuickFacts as of July 1, 2019 showed that
over 328 million people representing various racial groups were living in the U.S. (Table 11.1).

Population estimates, July 1, 2019, (V2019) 328,239,523

Race and Hispanic Origin Percentage (%)

White alone 76.3

Black or African American alone 13.4

American Indian and Alaska Native alone 1.3

Asian alone 5.9

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone 0.2

Two or More Races 2.8

Hispanic or Latino 18.5

TABLE 11.1 Percentage of Race and Hispanic Origin Population 2019
(Table courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau)

11.5 • Race and Ethnicity in the United States 305

White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 60.1

TABLE 11.1 Percentage of Race and Hispanic Origin Population 2019
(Table courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau)

To clarify the terminology in the table, note that the U.S. Census Bureau defines racial groups as follows:

• White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
• Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.
• American Indian or Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and

South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
• Asian – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian

subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the
Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.

• Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of
Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions,
particularly for civil rights including racial justice. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting
principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities
in health and environmental risks that demonstrates the extent to which this multiculturality is embraced. The
many manifestations of multiculturalism carry significant political repercussions. The sections below will
describe how several groups became part of U.S. society, discuss the history of intergroup relations for each
faction, and assess each group’s status today.

Native Americans

Native Americans are Indigenous peoples, the only nonimmigrant people in the United States. According to the
National Congress of American Indians, Native Americans are “All Native people of the United States and its
trust territories (i.e., American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, and American
Samoans), as well as persons from Canadian First Nations and Indigenous communities in Mexico and Central
and South America who are U.S. residents (NCAI 2020, p. 11).” Native Americans once numbered in the
millions but by 2010 made up only 0.9 percent of U.S. populace; see above (U.S. Census 2010). Currently, about
2.9 million people identify themselves as Native American alone, while an additional 2.3 million identify
themselves as Native American mixed with another ethnic group (Norris, Vines, and Hoeffel 2012).

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Sports Teams with Native American Names

FIGURE 11.8 Many Native Americans (and others) believe sports teams with names like the Indians, Braves, and
Warriors perpetuate unwelcome stereotypes. The Not Your Mascot protest was one of many directed at the then
Washington Redskins, which eventually changed its name. (Credit: Fibonacci Blue/fickr)

The sports world abounds with team names like the Indians, the Warriors, the Braves, and even the Savages and
Redskins. These names arise from historically prejudiced views of Native Americans as fierce, brave, and strong:
attributes that would be beneficial to a sports team, but are not necessarily beneficial to people in the United States
who should be seen as more than that.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been
campaigning against the use of such mascots, asserting that the “warrior savage myth . . . reinforces the racist view
that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated and it has been used to justify policies of forced assimilation and
destruction of Indian culture” (NCAI Resolution #TUL-05-087 2005). The campaign has met with limited success.
While some teams have changed their names, hundreds of professional, college, and K–12 school teams still have
names derived from this stereotype. Another group, American Indian Cultural Support (AICS), is especially
concerned with the use of such names at K–12 schools, influencing children when they should be gaining a fuller
and more realistic understanding of Native Americans than such stereotypes supply.

After years of pressure and with a wider sense of social justice and cultural sensitivity, the Washington Football
Team removed their offensive name before the 2020 season, and the Cleveland Major League Baseball team
announced it would change its name after the 2021 season.

What do you think about such names? Should they be allowed or banned? What argument would a symbolic
interactionist make on this topic?

History of Intergroup Relations

Native American culture prior to European settlement is referred to as Pre-Columbian: that is, prior to the
coming of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Mistakenly believing that he had landed in the East Indies,
Columbus named the indigenous people “Indians,” a name that has persisted for centuries despite being a


11.5 • Race and Ethnicity in the United States 307

geographical misnomer and one used to blanket hundreds of sovereign tribal nations (NCAI 2020).

The history of intergroup relations between European colonists and Native Americans is a brutal one. As
discussed in the section on genocide, the effect of European settlement of the Americans was to nearly destroy
the indigenous population. And although Native Americans’ lack of immunity to European diseases caused the
most deaths, overt mistreatment and massacres of Native Americans by Europeans were devastating as well.

From the first Spanish colonists to the French, English, and Dutch who followed, European settlers took what
land they wanted and expanded across the continent at will. If indigenous people tried to retain their
stewardship of the land, Europeans fought them off with superior weapons. Europeans’ domination of the
Americas was indeed a conquest; one scholar points out that Native Americans are the only minority group in
the United States whose subordination occurred purely through conquest by the dominant group (Marger

After the establishment of the United States government, discrimination against Native Americans was
codified and formalized in a series of laws intended to subjugate them and keep them from gaining any power.
Some of the most impactful laws are as follows:

• The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the relocation of any Native tribes east of the Mississippi River to
lands west of the river.

• The Indian Appropriation Acts funded further removals and declared that no Indian tribe could be
recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with which the U.S. government would have to make
treaties. This made it even easier for the U.S. government to take land it wanted.

• The Dawes Act of 1887 reversed the policy of isolating Native Americans on reservations, instead forcing
them onto individual properties that were intermingled with White settlers, thereby reducing their
capacity for power as a group.

Native American culture was further eroded by the establishment of boarding schools in the late nineteenth
century. These schools, run by both Christian missionaries and the United States government, had the express
purpose of “civilizing” Native American children and assimilating them into White society. The boarding
schools were located off-reservation to ensure that children were separated from their families and culture.
Schools forced children to cut their hair, speak English, and practice Christianity. Physical and sexual abuses
were rampant for decades; only in 1987 did the Bureau of Indian Affairs issue a policy on sexual abuse in
boarding schools. Some scholars argue that many of the problems that Native Americans face today result
from almost a century of mistreatment at these boarding schools.

Current Status

The eradication of Native American culture continued until the 1960s, when Native Americans were able to
participate in and benefit from the civil rights movement. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 guaranteed
Indian tribes most of the rights of the United States Bill of Rights. New laws like the Indian Self-Determination
Act of 1975 and the Education Assistance Act of the same year recognized tribal governments and gave them
more power. Indian boarding schools have dwindled to only a few, and Native American cultural groups are
striving to preserve and maintain old traditions to keep them from being lost forever. Today, Native Americans
are citizens of three sovereigns: their tribal nations, the United States, and the state in which they reside (NCAI

However, Native Americans (some of whom wish to be called American Indians so as to avoid the “savage”
connotations of the term “native”) still suffer the effects of centuries of degradation. Long-term poverty,
inadequate education, cultural dislocation, and high rates of unemployment contribute to Native American
populations falling to the bottom of the economic spectrum. Native Americans also suffer disproportionately
with lower life expectancies than most groups in the United States.

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African Americans

As discussed in the section on race, the term African American can be a misnomer for many individuals. Many
people with dark skin may have their more recent roots in Europe or the Caribbean, seeing themselves as
Dominican American or Dutch American, for example. Further, actual immigrants from Africa may feel that
they have more of a claim to the term African American than those who are many generations removed from
ancestors who originally came to this country.

The U.S. Census Bureau (2019) estimates that at least 13.4 percent of the United States’ population is Black.

How and Why They Came

African Americans are the exemplar minority group in the United States whose ancestors did not come here by
choice. A Dutch sea captain brought the first Africans to the Virginia colony of Jamestown in 1619 and sold
them as indentured servants. (Indentured servants are people who are committed to work for a certain period
of time, typically without formal pay). This was not an uncommon practice for either Black or White people,
and indentured servants were in high demand. For the next century, Black and White indentured servants
worked side by side. But the growing agricultural economy demanded greater and cheaper labor, and by 1705,
Virginia passed the slave codes declaring that any foreign-born non-Christian could be enslaved, and that
enslaved people were considered property.

The next 150 years saw the rise of U.S. slavery, with Black Africans being kidnapped from their own lands and
shipped to the New World on the trans-Atlantic journey known as the Middle Passage. Once in the Americas,
the Black population grew until U.S.-born Black people outnumbered those born in Africa. But colonial (and
later, U.S.) slave codes declared that the child of an enslaved person was also an enslaved person, so the slave
class was created. By 1808, the slave trade was internal in the United States, with enslaved people being
bought and sold across state lines like livestock.

History of Intergroup Relations

There is no starker illustration of the dominant-subordinate group relationship than that of slavery. In order to
justify their severely discriminatory behavior, slaveholders and their supporters viewed Black people as
innately inferior. Enslaved people were denied even the most basic rights of citizenship, a crucial factor for
slaveholders and their supporters. Slavery poses an excellent example of conflict theory’s perspective on race
relations; the dominant group needed complete control over the subordinate group in order to maintain its
power. Whippings, executions, rapes, and denial of schooling and health care were widely practiced.

Slavery eventually became an issue over which the nation divided into geographically and ideologically
distinct factions, leading to the Civil War. And while the abolition of slavery on moral grounds was certainly a
catalyst to war, it was not the only driving force. Students of U.S. history will know that the institution of slavery
was crucial to the Southern economy, whose production of crops like rice, cotton, and tobacco relied on the
virtually limitless and cheap labor that slavery provided. In contrast, the North didn’t benefit economically
from slavery, resulting in an economic disparity tied to racial/political issues.

A century later, the civil rights movement was characterized by boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides:
demonstrations by a subordinate group and their supporters that would no longer willingly submit to
domination. The major blow to America’s formally institutionalized racism was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This Act, which is still important today, banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national

Current Status

Although government-sponsored, formalized discrimination against African Americans has been outlawed,
true equality does not yet exist. The National Urban League’s 2020 Equality Index reports that Black people’s
overall equality level with White people has been generally improving. Measuring standards of civic
engagement, economics, education, and others, Black people had an equality level of 71 percent in 2010 and

11.5 • Race and Ethnicity in the United States 309

had an equality level of 74 percent in 2020. The Index, which has been published since 2005, notes a growing
trend of increased inequality with White people, especially in the areas of unemployment, insurance coverage,
and incarceration. Black people also trail White people considerably in the areas of economics, health, and
education (National Urban League 2020).

To what degree do racism and prejudice contribute to this continued inequality? The answer is complex. 2008
saw the election of this country’s first African American president: Barack Obama. Despite being popularly
identified as Black, we should note that President Obama is of a mixed background that is equally White, and
although all presidents have been publicly mocked at times (Gerald Ford was depicted as a klutz, Bill Clinton
as someone who could not control his libido), a startling percentage of the critiques of Obama were based on
his race. In a number of other chapters, we discuss racial disparities in healthcare, education, incarceration,
and other areas.

Although Black people have come a long way from slavery, the echoes of centuries of disempowerment are still

Black People Are Still Seeking Racial Justice

FIGURE 11.9 This gathering at the site of George Floyd’s death took place five days after he was killed. The
location, at Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis, became a memorial. (Credit: Fibbonacci Blue/flickr)

In 2020, racial justice movements expanded their protests against incidents of police brutality and all racially
motivated violence against Black people. Black Lives Matter (BLM), an organization founded in 2013 in response to
the acquittal of George Zimmerman, was a core part of the movement to protest the killings of George Floyd,
Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police violence. Millions of people from all racial backgrounds participated
in the movement directly or indirectly, demanding justice for the victims and their families, redistributing police
department funding to drive more holistic and community-driven law enforcement, addressing systemic racism, and
introducing new laws to punish police officers who kill innocent people.

The racial justice movement has been able to achieve some these demands. For example, Minneapolis City Council
unanimously approved $27 million settlement to the family of George Floyd in March 2021, the largest pre-trial
settlement in a wrongful death case ever for the life of a Black person (Shapiro and Lloyd, 2021). $500,000 from the


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settlement amount is intended to enhance the business district in the area where Floyd died. Floyd, a 46-year-old
Black man, was arrested and murdered in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Do you think such settlement is adequate
to provide justice for the victims, their families and communities affected by the horrific racism? What else should
be done more? How can you contribute to bring desired changes?

Asian Americans

Asian Americans represent a great diversity of cultures and backgrounds. The experience of a Japanese
American whose family has been in the United States for three generations will be drastically different from a
Laotian American who has only been in the United States for a few years. This section primarily discusses
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants and shows the differences between their experiences.
The most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau (2019) suggest about 5.9 percent of the population
identify themselves as Asian.

How and Why They Came

The national and ethnic diversity of Asian American immigration history is reflected in the variety of their
experiences in joining U.S. society. Asian immigrants have come to the United States in waves, at different
times, and for different reasons.

The first Asian immigrants to come to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were Chinese. These
immigrants were primarily men whose intention was to work for several years in order to earn incomes to
support their families in China. Their main destination was the American West, where the Gold Rush was
drawing people with its lure of abundant money. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was
underway at this time, and the Central Pacific section hired thousands of migrant Chinese men to complete the
laying of rails across the rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range. Chinese men also engaged in other manual
labor like mining and agricultural work. The work was grueling and underpaid, but like many immigrants,
they persevered.

Japanese immigration began in the 1880s, on the heels of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Japanese
immigrants came to Hawaii to participate in the sugar industry; others came to the mainland, especially to
California. Unlike the Chinese, however, the Japanese had a strong government that negotiated with the U.S.
government to ensure the well-being of their immigrants. Japanese men were able to bring their wives and
families to the United States, and were thus able to produce second- and third-generation Japanese Americans
more quickly than their Chinese counterparts.

The most recent large-scale Asian immigration came from Korea and Vietnam and largely took place during
the second half of the twentieth century. While Korean immigration has been fairly gradual, Vietnamese
immigration occurred primarily post-1975, after the fall of Saigon and the establishment of restrictive
communist policies in Vietnam. Whereas many Asian immigrants came to the United States to seek better
economic opportunities, Vietnamese immigrants came as political refugees, seeking asylum from harsh
conditions in their homeland. The Refugee Act of 1980 helped them to find a place to settle in the United

11.5 • Race and Ethnicity in the United States 311

FIGURE 11.10 Thirty-five Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).
They are being rescued from a thirty-five-foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after
spending eight days at sea. (Credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

History of Intergroup Relations

Chinese immigration came to an abrupt end with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act was a result of
anti-Chinese sentiment burgeoned by a depressed economy and loss of jobs. White workers blamed Chinese
migrants for taking jobs, and the passage of the Act meant the number of Chinese workers decreased. Chinese
men did not have the funds to return to China or to bring their families to the United States, so they remained
physically and culturally segregated in the Chinatowns of large cities. Later legislation, the Immigration Act of
1924, further curtailed Chinese immigration. The Act included the race-based National Origins Act, which was
aimed at keeping U.S. ethnic stock as undiluted as possible by reducing “undesirable” immigrants. It was not
until after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Chinese immigration again increased, and many
Chinese families were reunited.

Although Japanese Americans have deep, long-reaching roots in the United States, their history here has not
always been smooth. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 was aimed at them and other Asian immigrants,
and it prohibited immigrants from owning land. An even uglier action was the Japanese internment camps of
World War II, discussed earlier as an illustration of expulsion.

Current Status

Asian Americans certainly have been subject to their share of racial prejudice, despite the seemingly positive
stereotype as the model minority. The model minority stereotype is applied to a minority group that is seen as

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reaching significant educational, professional, and socioeconomic levels without challenging the existing

This stereotype is typically applied to Asian groups in the United States, and it can result in unrealistic
expectations by putting a stigma on members of this group that do not meet the expectations. Stereotyping all
Asians as smart and capable can also lead to a lack of much-needed government assistance and to educational
and professional discrimination.

Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans

FIGURE 11.11 In response to widespread attacks against Asian people, partly linked to incorrect associations
regarding Asian people and the COVID-19 pandemic, groups around the country and world held Stop Asian Hate
rallies like this one in Canada. (Credit: GoToVan/flickr)

Asian Americans across the United States experienced a significant increase in hate crimes, harassment and
discrimination tied to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community trackers recorded more than 3,000 anti-
Asian attacks nationwide during 2020 in comparison to about 100 such incidents recorded annually in the prior
years (Abdollah 2021). Asian American leaders have been urging community members to report any criminal
incidents, demanding local law enforcement agencies for greater enforcement of existing hate-crime laws.

Many Asian Americans feel their communities have long been ignored by mainstream politics, media and
entertainment although they are considered as a “model minority.” Recently, Asian American journalists are sharing
their own stories of discrimination on social media and a growing chorus of federal lawmakers are demanding
actions. Do you think you can do something to stop violence against Asian Americans? Can any of your actions not
only help Asian Americans but also wider people in the United States?

White Americans

White Americans are the dominant racial group in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau
(2019), 76.3 percent of U.S. adults currently identify themselves as White alone. In this section, we will focus


11.5 • Race and Ethnicity in the United States 313

on German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants.

Why They Came

White ethnic Europeans formed the second and third great waves of immigration, from the early nineteenth
century to the mid-twentieth century. They joined a newly minted United States that was primarily made up of
White Protestants from England. While most immigrants came searching for a better life, their experiences
were not all the same.

The first major influx of European immigrants came from Germany and Ireland, starting in the 1820s.
Germans came both for economic opportunity and to escape political unrest and military conscription,
especially after the Revolutions of 1848. Many German immigrants of this period were political refugees:
liberals who wanted to escape from an oppressive government. They were well-off enough to make their way
inland, and they formed heavily German enclaves in the Midwest that exist to this day.

The Irish immigrants of the same time period were not always as well off financially, especially after the Irish
Potato Famine of 1845. Irish immigrants settled mainly in the cities of the East Coast, where they were
employed as laborers and where they faced significant discrimination.

German and Irish immigration continued into the late 19th century and earlier 20th century, at which point
the numbers for Southern and Eastern European immigrants started growing as well. Italians, mainly from the
Southern part of the country, began arriving in large numbers in the 1890s. Eastern European
immigrants—people from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary—started arriving around the same
time. Many of these Eastern Europeans were peasants forced into a hardscrabble existence in their native
lands; political unrest, land shortages, and crop failures drove them to seek better opportunities in the United
States. The Eastern European immigration wave also included Jewish people escaping pogroms (anti-Jewish
massacres) of Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement in what was then Poland and Russia.

History of Intergroup Relations

In a broad sense, German immigrants were not victimized to the same degree as many of the other
subordinate groups this section discusses. While they may not have been welcomed with open arms, they were
able to settle in enclaves and establish roots. A notable exception to this was during the lead up to World War I
and through World War II, when anti-German sentiment was virulent.

Irish immigrants, many of whom were very poor, were more of an underclass than the Germans. In Ireland, the
English had oppressed the Irish for centuries, eradicating their language and culture and discriminating
against their religion (Catholicism). Although the Irish had a larger population than the English, they were a
subordinate group. This dynamic reached into the New World, where Anglo-Americans saw Irish immigrants
as a race apart: dirty, lacking ambition, and suitable for only the most menial jobs. In fact, Irish immigrants
were subject to criticism identical to that with which the dominant group characterized African Americans. By
necessity, Irish immigrants formed tight communities segregated from their Anglo neighbors.

The later wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was also subject to intense discrimination
and prejudice. In particular, the dominant group—which now included second- and third-generation Germans
and Irish—saw Italian immigrants as the dregs of Europe and worried about the purity of the American race
(Myers 2007). Italian immigrants lived in segregated slums in Northeastern cities, and in some cases were
even victims of violence and lynching similar to what African Americans endured. They undertook physical
labor at lower pay than other workers, often doing the dangerous work that other laborers were reluctant to
take on, such as earth moving and construction.

Current Status

German Americans are the largest group among White ethnic Americans in the country. For many years,
German Americans endeavored to maintain a strong cultural identity, but they are now culturally assimilated
into the dominant culture.

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There are now more Irish Americans in the United States than there are Irish in Ireland. One of the country’s
largest cultural groups, Irish Americans have slowly achieved acceptance and assimilation into the dominant

Myers (2007) states that Italian Americans’ cultural assimilation is “almost complete, but with remnants of
ethnicity.” The presence of “Little Italy” neighborhoods—originally segregated slums where Italians
congregated in the nineteenth century—exist today. While tourists flock to the saints’ festivals in Little Italies,
most Italian Americans have moved to the suburbs at the same rate as other White groups. Italian Americans
also became more accepted after World War II, partly because of other, newer migrating groups and partly
because of their significant contribution to the war effort, which saw over 500,000 Italian Americans join the
military and fight against the Axis powers, which included Italy itself.

As you will see in the Religion chapter, Jewish peo