Key perspectives: Sociology

SociologyKey perspectives

Sociologists analyse social phenomena at different levels and from different perspectives. Sociologists study everything from specific events (the micro level of analysis of small social patterns) to organisational and group structures (meso) to the “big picture” (the macro level of analysis of large social patterns). All developing into key perspectives.

Over the past 150 years or so sociologists have developed the ideas of the original European thinkers who gave us the conceptualisation of Sociology. But those original thinkers did give us the basis from which to see the world. Sociologists today still employ the three key perspectives:  the functionalist perspective, the conflict perspective and the symbolic interactionist perspective,.

These key perspectives offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society influences people, and vice versa. Each perspective uniquely conceptualizes society, social forces, and human behaviour.

Functionalism

First emerging in Europe throughout the 19th century the key perspective of Functionalism cemented itself at the pinnacle of sociological theory. French Sociologist Emile Durkheim led the charge and is considered the most influential of the functionalists. Into the 20th century American sociologist expanded the work most notably Talcott Parsons leading it to dominate through the post second world war era.

According to the functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole. The government, or state, provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. That is, the family is dependent upon the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law‐abiding, taxpaying citizens, who in turn support the state. If all goes well, the parts of society produce order, stability, and productivity. If all does not go well, the parts of society then must adapt to recapture a new order, stability, and productivity.

Conflict

There are many conflict perspectives which get lumped under this same banner all looking differently at the nature, cause and extent of conflict (Haralambos and Holborn, 2013). However, the basis of the key perspective, which originated primarily out of Karl Marx’s writings on Class Struggles and Max Weber’s on Social Stratification, presents society in a different light than do the functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives. While these other perspectives focus on the positive aspects of society that contribute to its stability, the conflict perspective focuses on the negative, conflicted, and ever‐changing nature of society. Unlike functionalists who defend the status quo, avoid social change, and believe people cooperate to effect social order, conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and/or powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak.

Key perspectivesMarxism and Feminism are the most widely recognisable conflict theories in the 21st century. These perspectives see conflict as a common and persistent feature of society, and not a temporary aberration. Marxism sees conflict in an economic real where the means of production are owned by the powerful, the Bourgeois and the Proletariate are oppressed because they lack access to their own means of production. Feminists argue that the world is Patriarchal and the power in the world, whether financial, legal, physically or other is in the hands of men. This leads to the oppression of women as a subgroup in society with limited access to their own means.

Symbolic Interaction

Postmodernism has given rise to many key perspectives in sociological thought. One of the biggest concepts is that of symbolic interactionism. The symbolic interactionist perspective, also known as symbolic interactionism, directs sociologists to consider the symbols and details of everyday life, what these symbols mean, and how people interact with each other. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George H. Mead (1863–1931) introduced this key perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.

This meta-theory birthed within a post modernist framework has changed the way we view reality since the mid twentieth century. In a nutshell, “Post modernists reject the idea of universal truths about the world, instead suggesting that reality is a social construction. Therefore, all knowledge is merely a claim to truth, reflecting the subjectivity of those involved. Postmodernists focus on how truth-claims about the world are socially constructed. Thus there is no single reality or ultimate truth, only versions or interpretations of what is ‘real’, ‘true’, ‘normal’, ‘right’, or ‘wrong’” (Germov & Poole, 2015, 50-51).

Social Construction

Social Constructionism became a core theoretical framework with Austrian-American Sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann purport that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday reality, is derived from and maintained by our social interactions. When people interact with each other, they do so with the understanding that their respective perceptions of reality are related, and as they act upon this understanding their common knowledge of reality becomes reinforced.

According to Australian Sociology academics Germov and Poole (2015) social constructionism, “refers to the socially created characteristics of human life, based on the idea that people actively construct reality, meaning it is neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. therefore, notions of normality/abnormality, right/wrong, and health/illness are subjective human creations that should not be taken for granted” (Germov & Poole, 2015, 549),

UltimateYouthWorker

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe and son Ezra.

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Podcast 010: The Sociological imagination

Sociological Imagination

In todays Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast “the sociological imagination”, Aaron gets us thinking about the need for youth workers to see more than just the individual young person. We look at the work of Sociologist C. Wright Mills and how it relates to youth work. Here are the shownotes.


Welcome back to the Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast for 2017. We are stoked to have you with us and we hope that your youth work journey is inspiring you to great things. We know its not easy to be a youth worker in the current climate and to all of you who are struggling to keep your jobs and defend the practices of youth work we salute you.

The struggles that we are facing currently in youth work are ideologically driven. We are seeing the tightening grip of neoliberalism on the social sector as a whole. We are hearing the ongoing rhetoric that youth work is not professional. We are also seeing the challenges of public perception of our practice. Amongst all of this we need to remember that we have a strong foundation from which to stand and leverage our work.

Youth work as we know it across the globe sprung forth from diverse fields which has led to contentious issues of our knowledge frameworks ever since. One of the underpinning theoretical frameworks which guides the practices of youth work is that of Sociology. It helps us to look more deeply at the world our young people live, work and play within. One of the key thoughts within Sociology is the sociological imagination. The ability to look at an issue from an individual and social perspective. So let’s find out more about this key framework and how it fits within youth work.

C. Wright MILLS

American Philosopher and Sociologist, Charles Wright Mills was a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962, aged 45. Mills, a native Texan, was published widely throughout his career in popular and intellectual journals, and is a proponent of the conflict perspective within sociological thought. Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War Two society, and advocated public and political engagement over disinterested observation.

Mills sociological work was heavily influenced by eminent German conflict theorists and fathers of sociology Karl Marx and Max Weber.

Mills is remembered for several books, among them ‘The Power Elite’, which introduced that term and describes the relationships and class alliances among the U.S. political, military, and economic elites; ‘White Collar’, on the American middle class; and ‘The Sociological Imagination’, where Mills presents a model of analysis for the interdependence of subjective experiences within a person’s biography, the general social structure and historical development.

Overview of the sociological imagination

In 1959 one of the most important texts in sociological work was published by Oxford University Press. The book by American Sociologist C. Wright Mills “The Sociological Imagination” changed the landscape of sociological thought and research forever.

Mills conveyed that the core undertaking for sociology as a discipline and sociologists particularly was to discover and express the connections between the particular social environments of individuals (also known as “milieu”) and the wider social and historical forces in which they are embroiled. This approach challenges the structural functionalist approach to Sociology, as it opens new positions for the individual to occupy with regard to the larger social structure. Individual function that reproduces larger social structure is only one of many possible roles, and is not necessarily the most important. In Mills own words, “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That’s its task and its promise”.

In ‘The Sociological Imagination’, Mills endeavoured to reconcile two abstract conceptions of social reality—the “individual” and “society”—and thereby confronted the dominant sociological discourse of functionalism. In essence he asked where the convergence point is between an individual’s ‘personal troubles’ and societies ‘public issues’.

Private issues

Mill work on the sociological imagination looked at the dominant discourse of individuality which had grown since the second world war and sought to understand the framework of an individual’s ‘personal troubles’. These private issues which are said to have nothing to do with the rest of society such as what you eat, who you vote for, which religion you follow or what type of job you have. For Mills these private issues were not just the sole purview of the individual, but a complex system of interweaving thought and ideas from everywhere.

Public issues

This interweaving system is what Mills coined as public issues. Why is it that individuals in poor communities seem to have children who follow in the same footsteps as their parents? Mills argues that it has little to do with the individual’s choices and much more to do with the systems and the power of the elites which guide the forces around the individual. There is an intricate relationship between the individual and society.

Example

An individual person becoming unemployed is a personal trouble, one million people becoming unemployed is a public issue. But what makes them personal or public? If the issue affects an individual or a small group that is a personal trouble. If it affects a significant proportion of society it is a public issue.

Family violence had historically been seen as a private issue. It was seen as only affecting that family. However we know that family violence is visited on a significant proportion of the population so it is really a public issue.

What does this mean for youth workers?

Well first and foremost it gives us a lens to look at what our clients need. Do they require individual support of wider advocacy? In the case of family violence probably both. In the case of unemployment an individual may need retraining and support around interviewing. If it is a larger issues such as the slow death of manufacturing then advocacy and innovative redistribution may be needed. The sociological imagination asks us to recognise where the problem lies.

The second thing is that we need to be skilled in personal support and as change makers. We need to know how to support our individual clients in the space where they are at. We also must become fluent in community development and activism. Currently, the youth sector in the Uk is being squeezed. The issues are personal for the young people losing support, and the youth workers losing jobs. They are also public issues as millions of dollars are pulled from a sector designed to help the most vulnerable and generalist youth work is under siege.

Finally, it gives us a useful language to speak into these situations which is clearly defined. It is a language which is hard to ignore and it is a language which is shared in the sector.

Lets recap.

C. Wright Mills coined the term sociological imagination in 1959. It seeks to understand the personal troubles and public issues which define humanity. It asks us to think about issues through the lens of both the individual and the system. It asks us to understand the effects on the person. It asks for action.

Conclusion

We hope that todays cast on the sociological imagination has given you something to think about. We believe that if youth workers remember some of our sociological roots it will help us to be the best supports for our young people that we can. If you found this cast helpful or you have any questions touch base with us on our facebook page facebook.com/ultimateyouthworker

Stay frosty, and we will see you in the next episode of the Ultimate Youth Worker Podcast.

UltimateYouthWorker

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe and son Ezra.

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Theory and practice: skills and knowledge of youth work

I had a discussion with a couple of students the other day which is a regular occurrence in my experience. The students ask some variation of “what is more important for gaining employment, experience or qualifications?” It is always a question on new graduate minds as they lack experience. But it is one of the most damaging questions our field faces at the moment. This question supposes that either knowledge or skills are better than one another. They are not.

Over the past decade I have interviewed dozens of youth workers and they inevitably fall into one of three categories. First, those who rely on their years of experience. Second, Those who rely on their qualification. Third, those with theory and practice. The third group wins hands down every time. Those with experience often tell stories of what they did in any given situation. Those with qualifications tell you why they would do something. Those with theory and practice tell you what they did and why they did it.

The best practitioners are those with both the theory and practice for the job, but this takes time. A highly qualified and experienced practitioner takes years to develop. With the average youth worker lasting between two and five years in the sector it is a struggle to get qualified and experienced staff. This is where the question is dangerous for our field. Those with the experience state that they know how to best work with young people because they have been ‘doing’ it for years. Those with qualifications counter that if you do not know why you are doing something or the theory behind it you will cause more damage than help for those young people. While this goes on the other professions laugh and pat us on the head.

For the record we believe qualifications are more important than experience, at least in the short term. After a couple of years in the sector you will have the experience. Qualification builds a foundation which you build experience on. Experience first is a very shaky foundation as it is through your experience that you will see theory. A very limited view. But there is something we seek more, attitude. We would take less qualification and experience for a more passionate teachable attitude any day. We can give you experience and we can send you to get qualified but attitude that is all on you.

Theory and practice

Theory and practice

Ultimate Youth Workers build their understanding of theory at every chance possible. They develop practice skills with every young person they meet. Most of all they have an unshakeable attitude which puts the needs of their young people first. Having an understanding of how theory relates to practice and vice-versa is integral to best practice youth work.

UltimateYouthWorker

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe and son Ezra.

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Youth work in the education system: where theory and practice collide.

Last week we spoke about the need for youth workers in the education system to have good relationships. This week we look at the need for a good understanding of theory…youth work and educational.

In youth work we study youth development, theories of participation and many others that help us to work with young people in every situation we find ourselves in. Our theories often focus on the strengths of our young people to overcome the adversities they face. We develop our working styles around the strengths of our young people to provide a solid foundation to build relationship and work towards the future. Teachers also use their theory base to work on developing young people.

Youth work in the schooling system
 
One of the most common theories that teachers use is called scaffolding. Scaffolding was developed by Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the early years of last century. Vygotsky believed that all understanding is built on the previous learnings of a person. That a process must be undertaken to build new knowledge on top of old knowledge in the same way we build a scaffold. Vygotsky also believed in the Zone of Proximal Development. A space between what a young person can do by themselves and what they could do with the help of an adult. These two theories have permeated educational systems throughout the world for over forty years.
 
Another theorist who has permeated the education system is Ivan Ilich, an Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and social commentator on areas such as medicine and education. In 1971 his book “Deschooling Society” gave a radical slap in the face to institutional education and how it has has limited the learnings of young people in society. Instead he posits self-directed learning as a better option.
 
A number of other theories permeate the education system and depending on where in the world you are will depend on the theory that is at the forefront of educational practice. Using the relationships you have made ask a teacher or principal to give you an overview of the theoretical approaches that they use. If you have an understanding of the theories which underpin their work then you can work with them to develop a model of practice in their school which works for both parties.
 
What theories do your schools use?
 

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UltimateYouthWorker

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe and son Ezra.

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