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5 essential focuses in Sociology

Sociology is a rather new discipline; while its founding theorists lived during the Enlightenment, seminal figures like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber shaped the field amid the rise of industrialization and modernity. The scientific and political upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries brought about a new understanding of how society worked. It is truly a crucial field of study in today’s interconnected world.

From the concept of intersectionality to the social impacts of the welfare state and the ubiquity of mass media, we’ve gathered excerpts from five critical avenues of sociological thought.

What is intersectionality?

Individuals are shaped by the multiple categories to which they are perceived to belong and the social structures that undergird systems of categorization. Systems of social categorization are virtually always associated with differential, unequal resources. Intersectionality is a concept fundamental to understanding these societal inequalities; the key assertion of intersectionality is that the various systems of societal oppression do not act independently of each other. Different systems of inequality are transformed in their intersections, the fundamental principle of intersectionality. The phrase “race, class, and gender,” still in use, is a precursor of the concept of intersectionality. The preferred use of the latter term reflects in part the awareness that there are more than three intersecting systems of societal inequalities. Further, some identities may be privileged categories, others marginalized. Thus oppression and privilege may be experienced simultaneously, complicating the analysis of inequality. Intersectionality crosses levels of analysis, from the micro-level experiences of individual actors to the macro-level structural, organizational, and institutional contexts in which human interactions and experiences are formed. Intersectionality is an analytic approach, a way of thinking about social categories that articulates similarity and difference, always inflected by relations of power.  – Judith A. Howard

What is the modern welfare state?

Modern welfare states aim to implement social policies to remedy the suffering caused by ruthless market mechanisms. They provide insurances to allow citizens to prepare for the vicissitudes of life, such as aging, illness, injuries, retirement, and unemployment. In cases in which citizens do not have employment and income to sustain insurance schemes due to those same difficulties, welfare states still provide a certain degree of safety to this less capable population. However, the generosity and spending patterns of welfare states vary widely depending upon their inherent structures, goals, commitments, and capacities. The late 20th century saw the beginning of ongoing neoliberal trends of market fundamentalism linked with increasing economic globalization in trade, investment, and finance; postindustrial structural transformations of labor market; increasing immigration; rapid aging of the population; and dissolution of traditional family structures. In the face of these structural transformations and pressures, how have different welfare regimes reacted to help stressed populations, especially the poor? Furthermore, how do welfare states in developing countries protect their less capable populations under the pressures of globalization and postindustrial economic transformation? – Cheol-Sung Lee and In-Hoe Koo

What constitutes “mass media?”

Germany Under Allied Occupation 1945/Scene of destruction in a Berlin street just off the Unter den Linden. No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes A (Sergeant). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While the “mass media” have long been an object of research, scholarly emphasis has shifted in recent decades from the first word of that term to the second. In the 1920s and 1930s, as the sociology of mass media began to assert itself as an academic subdiscipline, social scientists, media industry researchers, and other critics were concentrated most intently on aggregate, society-wide “mass” effects. In the contemporary moment, the focus has shifted to “media” as plural in every sense: as technologies, as niche circuits of cultural production and reception, and as distinctive multinational, national, or subnational institutional fields. How far this fragmentation of media goes, to what extent it is really something new, and the degree to which it also means a dispersal of power continue to be at the center of debate in sociology and related disciplines. There is also ample evidence of increases in the scale of media infrastructures along with new kinds of global connections. – Rodney Benson and Tim Wood

How can war be studied sociologically?

Wars are no longer confined to the battlefield context, with well-defined military forces facing similarly organized opponents engaged in mutual destruction within a confined space and limited duration. Any sociologically informed understanding recognizes that war was never thus, but rather always situated in social, economic, and political dynamics that went far beyond the battlefield, being influenced by and having implications for social transformation. The international political sociologist would start with the premise that practices of war and peace are situated in wider discursive and institutional continuities and are implicated in societal change. Equally significant from the outset is a rejection of perspectives that assume a clear-cut dividing line between the domestic and the international. The practice of war might be used to draw and redraw boundaries: how these are drawn, where and whence they are manifest, how they impact on trajectories of power and political authority, and how these, in turn, are, in late modernity, articulated in global terms. We might, therefore, appreciate sociological writings that focus on war and the state. – Vivienne Jabri

What are moral panics?

Comparing the processual model of Stan Cohen with the attributional model of Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda reveals three basic similarities and three significant differences. The first similarity is their shared view that moral panics are an extreme form of more general processes by which social problems are constructed in public arenas. The second similarity is that they both observe that moral panics are recurrent features of modern society that have identifiable consequences on the law and state institutions. The third similarity is the perceived sociological function of moral panics as reaffirming the core values of society. On the other hand, the first difference lies in how they assess the role of the media. In the processual version, the media are strategic in the formation of moral panics. They may be the prime movers or endorse others already campaigning, but they are always actively involved. In the attributional model, despite their greater prominence in Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s second edition, the media play a much more passive role. They provide an arena where different versions can compete. – Chas Critcher

Featured image credit: “The witch no. 1” lithograph by Joseph E. Baker, depicting the Salem Witch trials, an example of a moral panic, 29 February 1892.  Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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