Sociology comes from the Latin word ‘socius’, which means people and the Greek word ‘logos’, which means the study of. Macaronis and Plummer (cited in Cree 2001:1) describe sociology as “the systematic, sceptical study of human sociology.” By studying sociology we can gain an insight into why people have social problems and make sense of them by not necessarily blaming the individual. We can achieve this by looking at the societies that people live in and the roles that they play in that community.
I will briefly describe the three main sociological perspectives and some more recent contemporary ones. I will also evaluate the significance of sociology to social work practice, in particular to older people and discuss ageism as a social problem.
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Sociology covers many subjects such as religion, class, ethnicity, sex, race, education and crime to name but a few. Society is made up of social institutions such as the family, law and peer groups. These institutions are made up of different and diverse cultures that may share common values. Cultures are made up of values, norms, customs and each having its role and status in society. People are born into society and go through a process called socialisation. This is where cultures are taught and norms and values learned and become internalised, or taken for granted. Primary socialisation is the early years of learning, normally taught by parents or older siblings. Secondary socialisation is learned at school, through media, and peer groups and continues throughout life. Secondary socialisation is the process through which people develop their social identity and learn the roles they play in society. These roles are forever changing throughout life, such as daughter to wife and worker to retiree.
There are many sociological perspectives, the main three being the functionalist perspective, the Marxist perspective and the social action theory. Each theory or perspective is a different way of viewing society and individuals within a society. However, a social worker needs to be aware that in some cases one generic theory cannot always be applied. I will explain briefly the three main classic perspectives and how each views society, I am aware that each perspective has its criticisms but due to a limited word count, it is not an area I can discuss in detail.
“Functionalism is a structuralist theory. This means that it sees the individual as less important than the social structure or organisations of society.” Moore et al (2001:6) Functionalists study society at the macro level. They view society as a system whose parts are interrelated and form a whole and that the individual is a product of society.
People are influenced by social institutions, such as their family and peer groups and usually act accordingly to established norms and rules. Order and stability are essential for the survival of the social system as a whole. Social systems have their functions- hence functionalism that maintains the stability of the whole system. Cree (2000)
Emile Durkheim, Auguste Comte, who first termed the word sociology and Talcott Parsons were the most influential functionalists. Parsons thought that “socialisation is the key to understanding human behaviour patterns” Moore et al (2001:7) and is understood by the process of socialisation. Durkheim’s aim was to “create a new understanding of society” (Cree 200:11) and thought that behaviour may be comprehended by the social structures and not by the individual’s personal preferences. For instance, we are heavily influenced to act in certain ways due to laws, policies and religion. Therefore our behaviour is governed by the rules of society and the roles that we assume throughout our lives. Parsons viewed the nuclear family as the ideal for children to be socialised into, with one instrumental leader, which was the male breadwinner for the family and an expressive leader, which was the term he used for the role of the housewife and mother. The family was the main instrument to socialisation and not just to maintain the health of the family but “met “the needs of society and industrial economy for a mobile and adaptable workforce”. Moore et al (2001:41) argument was that whilst the division of labour was split, family decisions are solved easier, without disagreement as each member of the family had their specific role in the structure of society.
Marxism is based on the ideas of Karl Marx. It is a perspective that is based on a class system, split into two categories, the worker, which he called the proletariat, and the bosses, or employers as the bourgeoisie. He called the bourgeoisie the ruling class. Marxism, like functionalism, is a structuralist theory and concentrates on the macro level. Marxism sees the economic organisation of societies as responsible for the behaviour of individuals. This is because Marxism claims that individuals are the products of class relationships that characterise economic life”. Moore et al (2001:10). The Bourgeoisie were the owners of the means of production, therefore, controlling the major institutions of society. Marxists believe that the proletariats did not challenge the capitalist system as the ruling class governed the economy and institutions such as the family, religion and the education system, which all are responsible for the process of socialisation.
Marxists believe that society has unequal class systems and the bourgeoisie exploit the working class by pocketing the profits made by the proletariat and that society is a meritocratic society, however, Karl Marx believed that in the future “the economic system will come under communal ownership and a more equal society than we know at present will be established.” Giddens (1997:10)
The social action theory has the opposing view from functionalists and Marxists in that it focuses on the individual in society and it looks at how people react to one another and have a more involved role in shaping social life. The social action theory studies society at the micro-level. “If a structuralist theory is a ‘top-down’ theory, then the social action theory is a ‘bottom-up’ as it starts with people, rather than society.” Moore et al (2001:14) Max Weber is one of the most famous sociologists in this field. He thought that individuals were free to choose their actions and roles. He suggested that they were also able to step out from one role to another and change them if they wanted and were not restricted by others in society into acting roles as directed by others in society. “In Weber’s view, cultural ideas and values help shape society and shape our individual actions” (Giddens (1997:11).
Weber thought that different forms of action could understand behaviour.
- Traditional action occurs, when actors choose to do things because they’ve always done so.
- Effective actions occur when actors cannot help but do something or other for emotional reasons.
- Value-orientated action occurs when one principle or purpose overrides all others.
- Rational action occurs when actors weigh up or “calculate”, the most efficient ways of achieving specific ends.
Bilton et al. (1996:89)
Weber disagreed with the Marxist view that class conflict was the greatest influence on social change but values are of equal influence.
Functionalism, Marxism and social action theory are the three main sociological perspectives, however, more contemporary perspectives were developed in the latter half of the 20th Century, feminism, anti-racist and postmodern perspectives, each like the other perspectives have their own view of explaining behaviour, individuals and society.
Feminists believed that men and women are treated unequally in nearly every aspect of social institutions, including work and the home. There are several variations of feminism such as Marxist feminists, black feminists, liberal feminists and radical feminists, each having a slightly different perspective however each challenges conventional sociology and that women have been and are unfairly treated. A key term for most feminists is gender. Moore et al (2001:27) define gender as “the expectations society places on males and females. Gender expectations are transmitted to the next generation through gender role socialisation”. He goes on to explain that gender is a result of social construction, however, there is a big difference in experiences between the sexes and the roles we play in society. For instance, women are still expected to be the homemakers and the division of labour within the home is still very unequal.
Anti-racist or ‘black’ perspectives are concerned with the racist assumptions and experiences of ethnic minorities in Britain. The term ‘black feminism’ is concerned with the oppression that ‘black’ women face through sexism and racism. This is often termed as double jeopardy as ‘black’ women may be oppressed for being ‘black’ as well as being a woman.
“Postmodernists believe that we are living in a vastly different society that was predicted by the early sociological writers (Cree 2000) as we live in a multi-racial and cultural society and believe that many sociological ideas are becoming irrelevant. “Postmodern culture is also about mixing and matching seemingly contradicting style” Moore et al (2001:19).
Each sociological perspective has its uses in understanding behaviour and explaining social problems, however, each has its criticisms. Functionalists have been criticised for failing to explain conflicts and diversity and overemphasising social order. They have also been criticised for ignoring the freedom of individual choices. Functionalists view the process of socialisation as never failing, which of course it can do. Some Marxists also ignore people’s freedom of choices and put too much importance and emphasis on conflict. Social action theory is criticised, as the theory does not explain in detail who is responsible for demonstrating norms and power.
A social problem is a problem in society that affects many people rather than individuals. A social workers role is to work in partnership with other organisations to alleviate these problems. The worker alone can’t solve social problems. By using the term our sociological imagination, we can see that individual’s problems; such as poverty are not necessarily that individuals’ fault, but a problem in society. This includes taking a holistic approach and looking at the issues as a whole to aid people to improve the quality of their lives. This also involves recognising individuals cultural and lifestyle differences and addressing discrimination and helping people who are marginalized by intervening to achieve change.
“Social workers must be able to understand the connections between individuals problems and society, between personal troubles and the public issues of social structure (Mills 1959:8 cited in Cree 2000:5).
It is also helpful to the client to be aware that their problem is not a result of their own misfortune or bad planning but a social problem, for instance, housing or poverty issues. Sociology provides an underpinning that enables social workers to look beyond the immediate problems and a quick solution and to see the broader picture from others’ viewpoint. Social workers need to understand and be clear why they are following the actions they are taking and to be aware of what assumptions may underline these actions as social structures do not treat people individually or equally.
In the client group that I work with, which is older people, there are many sociological problems such as housing. Grouping people together in sheltered housing, tending to be in areas with no access to shops, public transport, public amenities and the community in general, often marginalizes people. In this instance, they become more dependent on services and are unable to do things for themselves because there is often no one around to assist, such as neighbours. Services are just too far away to access. However, the local authority that I work for has a scheme that has been established for some years. It is sheltered housing that is situated right in a town centre with ‘in house’ homecare. It is close to the shops, bus routes and is next door to the local community centre. People are able to remain members of society and the community without being excluded due to disabilities. It is also common for older people not to have a voice to express their problems through strokes or illness. It is the social worker’s role to assist the client to communicate their needs and overcome their exclusion. Advocacy is a way of communicating and engaging with the client as well as promoting enabling clients to have their say.
Another social problem that older people often experience is finding themselves not able to integrate into society because of social structures or their networks. In a town that is by the sea, older people retire to an area that they may have spent happier times whilst on holiday. They leave their families behind and live in properties that they plan to spend the rest of their lives in. When and if it comes to a time that they become ‘incapacitated’ it is common that they are often left isolated from their communities with no support from families. Before the Care, In The Community Act, 1990 one of the solutions would be for the client to admit themselves into residential care. According to the Griffiths Report, it is the social worker’s responsibility to view moving to permanent residential care as a positive move and not as a last resort. They must intervene and provide long term care packages to prevent the admission to residential care and to enable the client to be interdependent, rather than dependent.
Some clients are state dependent on the retirement pension and income support, barely able to pay for the private services that are not provided by social services due to the eligibility criteria, as the retirement pension is about one-third of the average income. “The key to ‘successful ageing’ is limited by the low level of resources available to many older people” Gilleard & Higgs (2000:15). However, it must not be assumed that all older people live on the bread line.
There is very little literature from the traditional functionalist and Marxist perspective on ageing as older people were in a minority, however, the percentage of older people in Britain today has increased from the beginning of the 20th Century, due to quality of life and healthcare. “Now, for the very first time, the European population contains as many people over 60 as it does under 15” Talcott Parsons saw retirement as a “loss of role and therefore of integration into society.” Gilleard & Higgs (2000:12) There are many sociological changes that older people have to go through in the latter part of their life. The role of husband or wife may change from that to widow or widower and independent to dependent or interdependent. Some larger companies are introducing courses for people reaching retirement age as a way of making the transition a less stressful and manageable experience, however, it is very common for people to retire at an earlier age due to private pension schemes and investments. “In the last two decades, income from occupational pensions has risen by more than 150 per cent for recently retired people.” Gilleard & Higgs (2000:37)
All these role changes may cause major upheaval, not just to the individual, but to the family also. “Structured dependency theorists view retirement as a key element in the transition towards a less socially valued identity” Gilleard & Higgs (2000:32), which disadvantages older people.
Older people are often viewed as a burden and have a negative image. As an assistant care manager, I experience ageism even from other professionals. For instance, it is very common for an older person to visit their G.P. with a health problem to be told that the problem is “just their age” and nothing can be done for them. Another example is if an older person has had a stroke and is waiting for a bed on a rehabilitation unit when a bed comes up, priority may go to a younger person. Of course, older people also experience positive discrimination such as enjoying discounts for bus passes and entry to certain attractions.
Ageing is still seen as a negative experience in British society, whereas in some other cultures, older often equal wiser. Elders are respected and are authoritative figures. Service providers and social services also can add to the negative images by labelling people into categories such as disabled or frail. These terms are often used to determine what services the client is eligible for. The social worker should challenge marginalising by being cautious not to reinforce these negative labels by careful use of language and by concentrating on strengths, not just the client’s needs. Workers will often have to work on clients’ self-esteem if they have been marginalized.
Older people services are also often allocated lower budgets, therefore social workers may have to put their case to a panel to gain access to services that the clients need and deserve. Older people are tagged onto the same policies that are used generically for all adult social services clients, having little policy to protect from abuse.
Neil Thompson (2001) describes how discrimination and marginalizing of clients affect the circumstances of clients. He uses the PCS model. “P refers to the personal or Psychological.” Thompson (2001:21) This is personal feelings and emotions, he also refers the P to practice. “Individual workers interacting with individual clients” (Ibid) C refers to the “cultural level of shared ways of seeing, thinking and doing.” (Ibid) These sis our social norms and values of the society we live in. S refers to the structural level, the network of social divisions and the power relations that are so closely associated with the” Thompson (2001:22) It is also the way that discrimination is normalised in our society. This model can be used with all types of discrimination to illustrate the effects of discrimination not just on the individual but also on society.
It can work back the other way as societies views and actions can affect the individual. As mentioned earlier, the social worker needs to be aware that their actions can add to marginalizing and discrimination and how others actions affects individuals and the community as a whole. “PCS analysis shows the different levels at which discrimination operates and how these reinforce each other. Thompson (2001:24)
In conclusion, I have described the three main sociological perspectives and also briefly explained the more contemporary perspectives developed in the 20th century. I have demonstrated why applying theory is important to social work practice and discussed ageism as a social problem. I have outlined how discrimination affects individuals and society as a whole and how social workers can assist to alleviate the problem.
Bilton T., Bonnett K., Jones P., Skinner D., Stanworth M., Webster A. (1996) Introductory Sociology 3rd Edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.
Cree V.(2000) Sociology For Social Workers and Probation Officers. London: Routledge.
Giddens A.(1997) Sociology 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Blackwell.
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