THE SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

Sociology is a reasoned and rigorous study of human social life, social groups, and societies. At the heart of sociology is a distinctive point of view called “the sociological perspective”. Thus sociology offers a perspective, a view of the world. For example: why do human lives seem to follow certain predictable pattern? The truth is that:

  • Our lives do not unfold according to sheer chance,
  • Nor do we decide for ourselves how to live, acting on what is called ‘free will’.

We make many important decisions every day, of course, but always within the larger arena called “society”.

The essential wisdom of sociology is that:

Our social world guides our actions and life choices just as the seasons influence our activities and clothing.

This is sociological perspective. Perspective means a view or an outlook or an approach or an imagination (of the world). Hence sociological perspective means an approach to understanding human behavior by placing it within its broader social context.

People live in a society. Society is a group of people who share a culture and a territory. People’s behavior is influenced by their society. To find out why people do what they do, sociologists look at social location, where people are located in a particular society.

For human beings the existence of society is essential. It is essential:

  • For the survival of human child at birth; and also
  • For social experience – for purposes of ‘nurturance’.

The human child is so helpless at the time of birth that without the help of other members of society (family for example) the mere survival is at stake. Then the other important aspect is to ‘nurture’ this human being into a ‘social being’ i.e. a participating member of the society. For developing the child into a regular participating ‘social being’ the role of society is crucial. The cases of isolated children (Anna,

Isabelle, and Genie) provide evidence to the fact that without the interaction with members of society the natural potentials are lost and the child may not become a normal ‘social being’. Each society nurtures the child into a ‘social being’ within its own societal perspective.

Seeing the general in the particular:

Peter Burger (1963) described the sociological perspective as seeing the general in the particular. It means identifying general patterns in the behavior of particular people. Although every individual is unique, a society shapes the lives of its members. People in the USA are much more likely to expect love to figure in marriage than, say, people living in a traditional village in rural Pakistan. Nevertheless, every society acts differently on various categories of people (children compared to adults; women compared to men, rich compared to poor).

General categories to which we belong shape our experiences. Children are different from adults, more than just biological maturity. Society attaches meaning to age, so that we experience distinct stages in our lives i.e. childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, late adulthood, and old age. In fact all these stages with respect to the lines of demarcation (years as cutting points) are determined by society. What is the position of a particular age category in the society and what are the roles and responsibilities assigned to members of that age group are all determined by that society. Therefore age is social construction.

Children are often considered as dependent, whereas adults as responsible. What about the old? What is the cutting age point for this group and what are the society’s expectations about this group in Pakistani rural society? Are these expectations in Pakistani rural society different from Pakistani urban society? [Give some thought to this issue.]

Although societies define the stages of life differently, yet there are differences by social class within the same society. Here a particular social class may be considered as a sub-society in itself and may have their own distinct definition of stages of life. For example concept of ‘childhood’ may be different in the lower class than what one finds in the middle class of Pakistani society. In the lower class, child shoulders the adult responsibilities much earlier (starts at around age 10 years) than a child from the middle or upper class. In the lower class there is a “hurried childhood” and that is how we come across the concept of “child labor”. This concept of “child labor” is not only associated with the lower class within the national boundaries but also internationally with the low-income countries compared with the high-income countries.

Gender is also a social construction

Male and female is a biological distinction but there are different role expectations attached to these two categories of human beings in different societies. Societies give them different work and different family responsibilities. The advantages and opportunities available to us differ by gender. Not going into the rationale of such differences, for the present one could simply say that it is the society that determines the image of a gender. Further to the societal variations in gender outlooks, one could see gender differences by social class in the same society.

Society affects what we do

To see the power of society to shape individual choices, consider the number of children women have. In the US the average woman has slightly fewer than two children during her lifetime. In Pakistan it is four, in India about three, in South Africa about four, in Saudi Arabia about six, and in Niger about seven. Why these striking differences? Society has much to do with decisions women and men make about childbearing.

Another illustration of power of society to shape even our most private choices comes from the study of suicide. What could be a more personal choice than taking one’s own life? Emile Durkheim showed that social forces are at work even in the apparently isolated case of self-destruction. One has to look into such individual decisions in social context. You may look at the social forces that are at work for the suicide cases in Pakistan.

Applying the sociological perspective

People should develop the ability to understand their own lives in terms of larger social forces. This is called sociological imagination, a concept given by C. Wright Mills. Sociological imagination is the strategies that can help you sort out the multiple circumstances that could be responsible for your social experiences, your life choices, and your life chances. Therefore, think sociologically, which implies to cultivating the sociological imagination.

It is easy to apply sociological perspective when we encounter people who differ from us because they remind us that society shapes individual lives. Also an introduction to sociology is an invitation to learn a new way of looking at familiar patterns of social life.

Benefits of Sociological Perspective

Applying the sociological perspectives to our daily lives benefits us in four ways:

1. The sociological perspective helps us to assess the truth of community held assumptions (call it “common sense”).

We all take many things for granted, but that does not make them true. A sociological approach encourages us to ask whether commonly held beliefs are actually true and, to the extent they are not, why they are so widely held. Consider for yourself: gender differences; ethnic differences; racial differences; and social class differences. Where do these differences come from?

2. The sociological perspective prompts us to assess both the opportunities and the constraints that characterize our lives.

What we are likely and unlikely to accomplish for ourselves and how can we pursue our our goals effectively?

3. The sociological perspective empowers us to participate actively in our society.

If we do not know how the society operates, we are likely to accept the status quo. But the greater our understanding, the more we can take an active hand in shaping our social life. Evaluating any aspect of social life – whatever your goal – requires identifying social forces at work and assessing their consequences.

4. The sociological perspective helps us recognize human variety and confront the challenges of living in a diverse world.

There is a diversity of people’s life styles, still we may consider our way of life as superior, right, and natural. All others are no good. The sociological perspective encourages us to think critically about the relative strengths and weaknesses of all ways of life, including our own.