Sociological Theory

The Basics of Sociology. Editor: Kathy S Stolley. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Sociologists depend on theories to help them explain the social world and organize their ideas about how it operates. A theory is the analysis and statement of how and why a set of facts relates to each other. In sociology, theories help us understand how social phenomena relate to each other.

Theories help sociologists explain why and how society works. Through the use of theory, they work to answer such questions as “why are things as they are, what conditions produce them, and what conditions change them into something else? If we have such a theory, we will at last be in a position to know what we really can do about the shape of our society” (Collins 1988, 119). By understanding the real causes of how and why things operate as they do, we can find ways to address the things that need improvement.

Sociologists use scientific research methods to test these theories. Theories can then be refined or rejected after they are evaluated. Chapter 10 discusses how sociologists do research in more detail.

Sociological Paradigms

Like scientists in all disciplines, sociologists develop theories based on paradigms, broad assumptions about how the world works. These paradigms guide the way social scientists develop theories, conduct research, and evaluate evidence. An important work in understanding paradigms is Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). Kuhn was able to show that scientific assumptions come in and out of favor at different times. Since these paradigms encompass assumptions about how various parts of the world are connected, they guide responses to perceived situations and solutions to any problems that are identified.

An example from the field of medicine illustrates this concept (Weiss and Lonnquist 1994, 19-40). Very early theories of disease causation were based on the supernatural. Ancient peoples believed diseases were caused by deities or magic. Based on this theory, their treatments often involved rituals designed to remove the evil spirits from the body such as bloodletting (draining blood from the body) or a procedure called trephination in which holes were made in the skull using sharp stones.

Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) popularized the theoretical paradigm that disease was a natural process. He developed a humoral theory of disease that explained illness as an imbalance of four humors (hot, cold, dry, and wet) within the body. Based on his theory, treatments were designed to rebalance these humors (e.g., cool someone with a heat-related illness). This remained the dominant theory for centuries.

The germ theory of disease that guides today’s medical paradigm was not developed until French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-95) turned his attention to human diseases in the late 1800s. After his research, treatments began to focus on fighting bacteria. Sometimes all of these treatments worked, regardless of whether evil spirits were actually released, humors were rebalanced, germs were killed, or some other mechanism was the actual cause of the recovery. Results, however, tend to be interpreted according to the prevailing paradigm of the time.

In sociology, theoretical paradigms differ in how much of society or what aspects of society they focus on at one time. In other words, they differ on how “big” their look at society is. Macro perspectives are ”big” perspectives that look at social processes throughout society. Social theorists who take macro perspectives examine the interrelationships of large-scale social structures and interrelationships (e.g., the economy, the government, and the health-care system). They look at how these facets of society fit together and any troubles or stress within these interrelationships. They are also interested in why and how society changes as a result of these relationships.

Conversely, micro perspectives focus on patterns of individual interactions. Social theorists who take a micro perspective focus on the daily interactions we have on an individual level. They are interested in why and how individuals relate to each other, how our day-to-day interactions with each other are shaped by larger society, and how these day-to-day interactions can, in turn, shape larger society.

Major Sociological Perspectives

There is no clearly identifiable date when sociological theory began. However, the mid-to-late 1800s marks the period when social thought turned to what we today call sociology (Ritzer 1988, 4).

There are currently three major theoretical paradigms in sociology: the structural-functionalist paradigm, the social-conflict paradigm, and the symbolic-interactionist paradigm (Babbie 1994). No one of these three perspectives is singularly “right” or “wrong.” Each provides a different way to view and analyze society. They can reveal different issues and suggest different answers to tackling any problems they identify. Two of the major paradigms, the structural-functionalist and the social-conflict perspective, take a macro perspective on society. The third perspective, symbolic-interactionism, takes a micro perspective.


Structural-functionalism is the earliest sociological paradigm. It is rooted in the scientific advances of the physical sciences occurring in the nineteenth century. Based on these advances, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) approached the study of social structures through an “organic analogy” that emphasized evolutionary laws (Spencer 1898). In this model, Spencer viewed society as being similar to a body. In the most simplistic terms, just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society (the economy, the polity, health care, education, etc.) work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated. Spencer also saw similarities in the way physical bodies and societies evolve. Spencer actually coined the term survival of the fittest, which is often incorrectly attributed to evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

Spencer influenced early French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), who is profiled in chapter 10. Durkheim took this organic analogy and refined it into a perspective that would become structural-functionalism. The perspective is also called functionalism, or the functionalist paradigm. This paradigm views society as a complex system of interrelated parts working together to maintain stability (Parsons 1951; Turner and Maryanski 1979). According to this perspective; (1) a social system’s parts are interdependent; (2) the system has a “normal” healthy state of equilibrium, analogous to a healthy body; and (3) when disturbed, the system parts reorganize and readjust to bring the system back to a state of equilibrium (Wallace and Wolf 1999, 18). Any changes in society occur in structured, evolutionary ways.

Durkheim realized that society influences our human actions but that society is also something that exists beyond individuals. He felt that society must be studied and understood in terms of what he called social facts. These social facts include laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and the myriad cultural and social rules governing social life. Durkheim (1964b) saw this system of social facts as making up the structure of society.

He was interested in how these social facts are related to each other. He was also interested in the function each of the parts of a social system fulfill as well as how societies manage to remain stable or change. In other words, how do social facts fit together? What needs do the various parts of society serve? What part does each segment of society play in keeping the system operating and balanced? How and why do systems change?

Functionalism has been very influential in sociology. It was especially popular in the United States when championed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-79) during the 1940s and 1950s. Parsons, profiled below, is known for his grand theory, an abstract level of theorizing that tried to explain the entire social structure at once and was difficult, if not impossible, to test through research.

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), Parsons’s student, who is also profiled below, turned away from these grand theories in favor of what he called theories of the middle-range. These middle-range theories are theories that are more limited and can be tested through research. They explain, for example, deviant behavior (further discussed in chapter 6), public opinion, or how power is transmitted between generations.

He also showed that social patterns are complex, with the various parts of society fulfilling different types of functions. Some functions, which Merton called manifest functions, are obvious and intended. Other functions, called latent functions, are less recognized and unintended. These functions may be either beneficial or neutral. However, some functions may be undesirable. These are called social dysfunctions.

A simple illustration of these concepts is the widespread use of cars in America and many other countries (Macionis 1995, 17). Cars provide transportation and status. Both are manifest functions. Cars also provide personal autonomy, allowing drivers to come and go as they please, on their own schedules. This is a latent function of the vehicular transportation system as it currently exists. However, cars also pollute the environment. Thus, relying on cars as a major means of transportation is also dysfunctional in that regard.

Structural-functionalists also recognize that as one part of the system changes, other parts of the system have to readjust to accommodate the change that has taken place elsewhere. A change in one part of the system may have manifest, latent, and dysfunctional consequences. An example of a change that has had a number of consequences is the addition of lighting at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Wrigley Field is the home stadium of the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team. All games at Wrigley Field traditionally had to be played during daylight hours because the field did not have lighting for nighttime games. In 1988, lights were added to the field as a result of a lengthy and contentious process aimed at generating income and reviving the economy in the immediate area of the field.

Examining the Lake View neighborhood around Wrigley Field as a social system allows application of a functionalist perspective to this situation. Nighttime games can now be played at the field. This one change resulted in a number of other complicated neighborhood effects (Spirou and Bennett 2002). The Cubs have a more flexible schedule and can take economic advantage of televised evening programming, thus achieving the manifest function of lighting the field. A number of other manifest and latent functions can also be noted. For example, the nighttime games have resulted in needed new investments in the surrounding area, population growth, and an acceleration of residential investments by affluent buyers. Sports-oriented businesses catering to a younger crowd, such as sports bars, have flourished. However, dysfunctions have also occurred. Some smaller businesses not catering to the baseball trade have suffered. For example, pharmacies, bookstores, dry cleaners, and restaurants have seen business decline as bar business increased. Automobile traffic around the ballpark has also increased, and area residents and businesses have been faced with more elaborate parking restrictions.

According to its critics, the functionalist focus on social order cannot adequately explain social change. They also argue that this focus on order discounts the conflicts and tensions that exist within society and downplays the impact of factors such as race, class, and gender that impact our lives and social positions. Some critics feel that the perspective also ignores the importance of small-scale, micro-level interactions. Structural-functionalism is also criticized as being tautological, meaning that it makes circular arguments. This criticism says functionalists argue that, because something exists, it serves a function for the system, and thus it exists. Such a view fails to satisfactorily explain how social structures arise in the first place.

Functionalism lost favor in American sociology during the social upheavals of the 1960s. During the mid-1980s, there was resurgence in interest in Parsons’s work. Theorists, including Jeffrey C. Alexander (1998) and Neil Smelser (e.g., 1985) (profiled in chapter 9) in the United States and Niklas Luhmann (1982) in Germany, who is profiled below, revisited Parson’s perspectives on social systems. Their work became classified as neofunctionalism. This new twist on the old theory draws on Parsons’ basic premises. Neofunctionalism expands the perspective by trying to respond to critics in such ways as incorporating some of the ideas of conflict theorists and also recognizing the importance of the micro perspective. Neofunctionalists argued that by rethinking some of the basics of functionalism and focusing on how it links with micro perspectives, much of this criticism can be overcome (e.g., Turner 2001). Structural-functionalism is also still widely used in sociological studies of the family (Mann et al. 1997, 340).

Social-Conflict Theory

The other major macro-sociological theoretical framework in sociological theory is the social-conflict paradigm, also referred to as the conflict perspective. Social-conflict theory focuses on competition between groups. Whereas functionalists focus on balance and stability within a social system, conflict theorists view society as comprised of social relations characterized by inequality and change.

According to conflict theorists, groups are constantly competing for unequally distributed resources, such as wealth and power, with each group seeking to benefit their own interests. In this scenario, one or a few groups control these resources at the expense of others. Thus, these theorists look at social structures and ask, “Who benefits?” This constant conflict between groups also results in social change.

Conflict theories did not arise with sociology. As Randall Collins points out, much of the history of the world is a history of conflict. This perspective has appeared repeatedly when social thinkers have written about what happened in society and the “whys” behind those events (Collins 1994, 48-49). In this tradition, conflict sociologists look at historical material and patterns of long-term change. They also now look at the world globally, for example, through the world-systems perspective discussed in chapter 7 on stratification.

The works of Karl Marx (1818-83) are often credited with providing the sociological roots of the conflict perspective. Marx (profiled below) was born in Prussia, now Germany, during the stormy period in which western Europe was transitioning from feudalism to capitalism. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Marx observed inequality throughout the growing capitalist society. The economics of capitalism, he felt, resulted in social classes that were constantly in competition for society’s limited resources. Marx saw rich factory owners who obtained their wealth from the labor of factory workers who were paid little, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions, and frequently lived in crowded and unhealthy spaces. Society, as Marx saw it, was an ongoing struggle between the classes: the “haves” (illustrated by the factory owners) and the “have nots” (illustrated by the workers). The result was social conflict and change as those without resources challenged those holding the resources for a piece of the proverbial pie.

Later conflict theorists have extended and adapted this idea of continuous tension between groups. They have moved well beyond Marx’s emphasis on class and economics, focusing on other areas such as inequality between races or sexes. This wider look at social inequalities has provided the basis for feminist theory. To be a feminist theory, “a theory must recognize gender as a system of inequality, assume that it is a mutable rather than constant or necessary feature of human societies, and [support] a commitment to a gender equitable system” (Chafetz 2001, 613). In other words, feminist theories argue that social systems oppress women and that this oppression can and should be eliminated.

Feminists, however, differ greatly in their views on why inequality occurs and how to overcome it (Andersen 1993). Drawing from Marx’s emphasis on economics, Marxist feminism argues that capitalist economic structures favor men—for example, with higher paying jobs. Solutions rely on eliminating capitalism as the source of the problem. Liberal feminism argues that inequality lies in a lack of opportunity and education for women as well as traditional views of gender that limit women’s roles. Liberal feminists feel that if women are allowed to compete equally with men in all areas of society, they will do so successfully (Lorber 1998). Radical feminism argues that, regardless of economic system and other inequalities women face in their lives (e.g., racism), male domination is the most fundamental and violence is one key method of controlling women. Solutions lie in eliminating all forms of sexual violence and enhancing women’s culture and lives.

In the United States, feminism evolved as women sought the right to an education and joined the abolitionist movements of the 1800s. Many early female sociologists, including Jane Addams (profiled in chapter 11), Harriet Martineau (profiled in chapter 1), and Ida Wells-Barnett (also profiled in chapter 1) participated in this “first wave” of the women’s movement, as did some male sociologists. The second wave of feminism was established amid the social movements of the 1960s, when conflict theory overall was gaining popularity. Many changes were occurring in women’s lives (e.g., increasing women’s labor-force participation, the development of the birth-control pill) during that decade with sociologists such as Jessie Bernard (profiled below) embracing the movement.

An additional dimension has also been added to feminist perspectives. Many feminists from the 1960s were educated, white, and middle class. Today, feminist writings have expanded to encompass women of diverse backgrounds (e.g., Collins 2000) as well as the concerns of globalization and the circumstances of women in less developed countries. A multicultural global feminism has developed that recognizes the need to include the diversity of women’s voices by other characteristics such as race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness. Sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins (profiled below) and Dorothy Smith (profiled in chapter 10) focus on what feminism brings to sociological theory and our understanding of society.

Critics have charged that the conflict perspective has become too politicized by its association with Marx and by its widespread use by advocates in numerous causes and movements. The women’s movement and feminist theory provides one example of its co-optation for political use. Critics also argue that the conflict perspective downplays the unity that exists in society and takes a negative view of society by overemphasizing conflicts, tensions, and coercion.

At this writing, conflict theory is widely used in American sociology. It began to unseat functionalism as the dominant sociological paradigm with challenges C. Wright Mills (profiled in chapter 1) and others made to Parsons’s theory in the late 1950s, and grew in popularity during the social turmoil of the 1960s. The social-conflict perspective is sometimes combined with elements of micro-level theories to offer a more robust view of social life.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is the prevailing micro-theoretical framework in sociological theory. As a micro-level perspective, symbolic interactionism focuses on patterns of individual interactions. Although sociologists working in this tradition recognize that larger social structures exist and are important in shaping our lives, they point out that society is actually created by people interacting together on a daily basis. It is these smaller interactions that actually make up the larger social structures that are of the focus of functionalists and conflict theorists.

According to this perspective, society and these larger social structures must be understood through studying social interactions that are based on shared understandings, languages, and symbols. Asymbol is something that stands for, represents, or signifies something else in a particular culture. Symbols can be anything—gestures, words, objects, or events—and they can represent any number of others things, ideas, events, or emotions. (Symbols are discussed in chapter 3.) Symbolic interactionists argue that we are able to interact with others because we create symbols and learn to interpret what those symbols mean in our interactions. Thus, symbolic interactionism is sometimes referred to as interpretive theory. Social change occurs as people develop a shared understanding that a change needs to take place and interact to make that change happen.

Symbolic interactionism is based partly on the writings of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), profiled below. Unlike other sociologists who had focused only on large structural relationships, Weber was also interested in how individuals interact. The aspect of his work that influenced the symbolic-interactionist perspective was his focus on how we interpret and understand the situations we encounter and the interactions in which we participate. To Weber, the concept of verstehen, or subjective understanding, was central to explaining human behavior. Weber felt that we have to be able to take someone else’s position mentally, to stand in their shoes, so to speak, to understand their actions. From our own perspectives, we may not understand why a person acts in a certain way, what that behavior means to them, or the purposes it serves for them. For example, we may only be able to explain why an abused wife stays with her violent husband by understanding the totality of her situation from her perspective—her emotional attachment to him, her economic situation, her religious views, and so on.

Although it has German roots, symbolic interaction is a “distinctively American tradition … [and America’s] most original contribution to sociological thought” (Collins 1994, 242). The perspective was developed during the 1920s by George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). Mead (profiled in chapter 4) was a philosopher and social psychologist who was interested in how our personalities are formed through social interaction. The term symbolic interactionism was, however, not actually coined until a decade later. Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), a student of Mead profiled in chapter 9, expanded on Mead’s concepts and introduced the term in 1937. More contemporary theorists expanded symbolic interactionism in new directions. For example, labeling theory (discussed in chapter 6) analyzes how we define deviance. Other perspectives that incorporate interpretative approaches to understanding social behaviors include the concept of the social construction of reality, Erving Goffman’s (1922-82) concept of dramaturgy, and Harold Garfinkel’s (1917-) work in ethnomethodology (all discussed in chapter 4).

Sociologists have drawn from interpretative perspectives and even other disciplines to develop more complex theories. For example, rational-choice theories examine how people make choices purposely, based on their preferences and evaluation of options and opportunities (Voss and Abraham 2000). In simple terms, of all the options or courses of action a person sees as being available, they act based on a calculation of pros and cons. Related to rational choice theories, exchange theories assume that people interact and trade the resources (money, affections, etc.) that they bring to interactions in ways that maximize benefits and reduce costs to themselves (Homans 1974; Blau 1964; Cook 1987; Coleman and Fararo 1992). These theories can become complex as they examine how people weigh such factors as perceived costs and benefits, the personal resources they can rely on (money, prestige, personal connections, etc.) and other factors in making decisions and determining courses of action.

Critics of symbolic interactionism often argue that the perspective focuses on specific, small-scale situations while overlooking the effects of larger society (e.g., the impacts of class, racial or gender discrimination). The result, they say, is a disregard for the larger social forces at work shaping our lives. Critics also argue that symbolic interactionism focuses on rational and conscious interactions at the expense of considering irrational or unconscious behavior.

In American sociology, symbolic interactionism was popular in the early part of the twentieth century. It was widely developed and utilized by sociologists at the University of Chicago, the first American university to have a graduate department of sociology. Functionalism eclipsed the popularity of symbolic interactionism during the 1940s and 1950s. However, symbolic interactionism has continued to evolve and remains an important and vibrant sociological paradigm.

Applying the Paradigms

A comparison of the three major theoretical paradigms in sociology is provided in table 2.1. Sociologists use these theoretical perspectives as the basic tools for analyzing social issues. The sociologist’s perspective shows their assumptions about how the world works and how change occurs. It will guide the questions the researcher asks and, in many ways, solutions to any problems that are identified.

Drawing on the example of changing medical paradigms noted early in this chapter, a look at how sociologists apply their perspectives to medicine illustrates the different questions and criticisms each of these three paradigms raises. Looking at how these perspectives apply to medicine also demonstrates the complexity of the social issues that sociologists address.

Structural-Functionalist Perspective on Health Care

From a functionalist perspective, medicine is one of the interdependent parts of the social system that helps to maintain the stability of the system as a whole. According to Talcott Parsons (1951), who contributed to many early sociological studies of medicine, the function of the health-care system is to enable people to be healthy enough to do all the things they need to do to keep society functioning (Shilling 2002). They can contribute to society by being healthy workers, parents, consumers, and all the other things that healthy people do. In this view, people should want to be well. When they become ill, they should seek care from medical professionals and follow their guidance to get well. Doctors should use the skill and power derived from their training and expertise to direct the behavior of patients and cure illness. “Good” patients seek medical care and follow doctor’s orders. “Good” doctors direct and help their patients to follow their guidance. A sociologist studying health care from a functionalist perspective might be interested in how, for example, public health officials can increase rates of people getting flu shots. Solutions to any problems identified would likely focus on adjusting the workings of the system.

Critics argue that the functionalist perspective on medicine applies only to some conditions and some people. For example, it does apply to acute illness such as the measles or the common cold. However, it does not adequately address chronic illness. Current medical capabilities might slow the decline or stabilize the condition of people with diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, or Alzheimer’s disease, without the current ability to cure them. Thus, the perspective does not fit reality. No matter how much people try to get well or how much their doctors try to make them well, that outcome will not occur.

Critics also charge that the health-care system does not function optimally because of the profit motive that is sometimes at odds with the function of providing health care. Some people want to get well but cannot afford the things that are most likely to make that happen. Expensive or experimental technologies are not available to all who might benefit from them. The functionalist view also encourages the medical professional to be in charge of treatment, leading some critics to argue that it does not adequately support the growing interest and knowledge of patients who want to take an active role with their physician in directing their own health care.

Social-Conflict Perspective on Health Care

A conflict perspective on health care focuses on issues involving inequality and tension within the health-care system. Conflict theorists would not deny that modern health care can help people in maintaining or restoring their health. However, a sociologist looking at medicine from this perspective would identify a number of inequities that exist within the system. In studying medicine, they would ask the common social-conflict question “Who benefits?,” looking at such things as what groups hold power within the system and competing interests. For example, one issue on which conflict theorists have focused a great deal of attention is the role of capitalism in health care (e.g., Navarro 1993, 2000). They identify problems within the system that are related to these inequalities, such as the number of uninsured in America and the lack of physicians in poverty-ridden areas. The power relations within and among various countries also impacts health and life quality across the globe (patterns of poverty and disease, the high rate of AIDS in Africa and the relative unavailability of AIDS drugs there, etc.). Feminists might call attention to the frequent lack of inclusion of women in clinical trials for various treatments or the way that the largely male medical establishment took obstetrical care out of the hands of women (Oakley 1984). Solutions would likely focus on eliminating inequalities.

Critics of the conflict paradigm often argue that it takes a negative view of the system, citing, for example, works such as Ivan Illich’s book Medical Nemesis (1976). Illich argued that the medical establishment is more interested in perpetuating its own self-interest than curing patients. Conflict theorists are also criticized for discounting the many important advances in improving levels of health and life expectancy in recent decades as well as the contributions that medical technologies have had on our quality of life. For example, technologies such magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), although expensive and not accessible to all who could benefit, have had major impacts of the health of many people.

Symbolic-Interactionist Perspective on Health Care

Symbolic interactionists take a micro look at health care. Rather than focusing on the structure of the larger system or its interrelationships with other parts of society, these sociologists look at how people experience the healthcare system. For example, they study the experiences of people who have illnesses such as AIDS that are associated with negative perceptions of the sick person (e.g., Tewksbury and McGaughey 1997). They study issues such as self-image and personal interactions of the disabled (e.g., Zola 1982). They focus on relationships between patients and physicians such as how they interact, what they discuss, who leads that discussion, whether physicians address all of their patients’ concerns or only select ones, and the outcomes of these interactions for the patient. Solutions to any problems identified would focus at these individual levels.

Critics sometimes argue that this approach gives too much attention to individual situations rather than situations that are generalizable to others. That means symbolic interactionists have to focus on how much the individual interactions they study really reflect interactions of other people, not just that one interaction. Critics also charge that symbolic interactionists studying health issues ignore the larger social forces at work shaping health (poverty, racism, politics, etc.).

As this example shows, no one perspective can fully explain all the social aspects of medicine. Each reveals important information and different questions and solutions. Applying these three perspectives to medicine allows the sociologist to look at the structure of medical care (functionalism), any issues of power or tension (conflict), and collective definitions of the situation (interpretive). Taking into account the many ways that sociologists study medicine allows a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities and issues involved.


Jessie Bernard

Over the course of her long career, Jessie Bernard (1903-96) published “a staggering scholarly output with enormous influence on the generations of scholars following her” (Cantor 1988, 264). Her writings and influence on the field cover a number of areas. However, Bernard is perhaps best known for her feminist scholarship and contributions to the feminist movement that she joined in her 60s, after she had retired from an academic career spanning decades. One biographer says that Bernard had an “unpretentious style,” yet her life and sociological contributions “emanate reasonable, but unyielding, defiance—defiance of family tradition, life styles, occupational trajectories, sociological paradigms, and popular myths, as well as age-related patterns” (Lipman-Blumen 1979, 49).

Bernard spent much of her academic career at Pennsylvania State University. She also taught at Princeton University in 1959-60, when she was billed as Princeton’s “first woman professor” (Bannister 1991, 144). After retiring, Bernard served as a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Education and a Scholar in Residence at the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and as visiting professor at Mills College in Oakland, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the University of Delaware.

She attended her first feminist meeting in the spring of 1968. Her well-known works that followed include The Future of Marriage (1972), which laid out Bernard’s famous concept of “his” and “hers” marriages. According to Bernard, every marriage is really two marriages, experienced differently by men and women. The partners accrue different effects from the union, with benefits falling primarily to the male. Among her points in The Female World in Global Perspective (1986), Bernard argued that concepts developed by a male-biased sociology were not adequate to explain women’s worlds. Women and the Public Interest (1971), The Sociology of Community (1972), and The Future of Motherhood (1974) were also penned during this period.

Jessie Bernard was active in forming, or holding a major office in, the American Sociological Association (ASA), Eastern Sociology Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems, and Sociologists for Women in Society. She received honorary degrees from Washington University, Northwestern, Hood College, and Radcliffe. She also received awards from the American Association of University Women, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Association of Women in Science, and the Association for Women in Psychology (Cantor 1988; Bannister 1991, 189). A 1988 edition of the journal Gender and Society honored Bernard. Awards have also been established in her name, including awards established by the District of Columbia Sociologists for Women in Society and the ASA’s annual Jessie Bernard Award, which recognizes scholarship on the role of women in society (Lipman-Blumen 1979).

Patricia Hill Collins

Patricia Hill Collins (1948-) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is Charles Phelps Taft Professor of Sociology in the African American Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati. Collins holds a doctorate from Brandeis University. Her work on the intersections of race, social class, and gender has expanded sociological and feminist analysis to show how these systems have complex and interlocking effects. To Collins, oppression is experienced and resisted at three levels: personal biography, group or community (within the cultural context created by race, class, and gender), and social institutions (2000). Her work demonstrates how acknowledging the experiences of all people gives a fuller picture of society and ways all groups can work together for mutual benefit (Andersen and Collins 2003).

In addition to her numerous journal publications, Collins has published several books. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990; rev. ed., 2000) won both the American Sociological Association’s Jessie Bernard Award and the Society for the Study of Social Problems C. Wright Mills Award. That work also brought her national attention. Collins has also published Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (1998), Black Sexual Politics (2003), and a coedited anthology of works on various aspects of race, class, and gender. (See “Collins, Patricia Hill” 1997.)

Niklas Luhmann

Before becoming a sociologist, Niklas Luhmann (1927-98) had been drafted into the German army during World War II. He was captured and held for a period as a prisoner of war. Luhmann went to law school after the war and worked as a lawyer in public administration. He also studied on scholarship for a year at Harvard University with Talcott Parsons (Bechmann and Stehr 2002, 67), who is also profiled in this chapter.

Luhmann was appointed to the faculty at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, in 1968. At that time, his university colleagues reportedly questioned him regarding what research agenda he intended to pursue. Luhmann’s response was that he intended to develop a “’theory of society’ … that would take him thirty years and not cost anything” (Lee 2000, 320). Well known in European sociology circles before becoming known in the United States, Luhmann did produce an ambitious grand theory of society over the next three decades. His theory develops the concept of social systems made up of extensive and intertwined networks of communication processes. In hundreds of publications, Luhmann developed his theory by searching for fundamental features shared by all systems, including science, art, the economy, law, sociology, love, and politics. “Not only do all social systems share similar structures, but they also operate through communication. Hence, Luhmann asserts, society is communication.”

At his death from cancer at age 70, Luhmann was a professor emeritus at Bielefeld. His two-volume work Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (The Society of Society; 1997) had just been published the year before. Among his accolades, he has been called “one of the most distinguished sociologists and scholars of our time” having achieved in his life’s work “arguably the most radical departure for the sociological classics available today” (Fuchs 1999, 118).

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-83) was born in Prussia, now part of Germany. At university, Marx briefly studied law and then turned his interests toward philosophy. He completed his doctoral dissertation in 1841, when he was only 23 years old. Marx had hoped for an academic appointment. However, because he held radical political views, he could not obtain such a position. Marx then turned to journalism. He penned articles on censorship, social issues, and commentary on governmental laws and policies for the Rheinische Zeitung, a journal that was soon banned by the Prussian government.

Marx married and moved to Paris, where he became deeply involved in socialism. He also became close friends with Friedrich Engels (1820-95), the son of a wealthy German industrialist, who is profiled in chapter 7. They began a lifelong friendship and intellectual collaboration with the publication of The Holy Family (1956, orig. 1846), a book that focused on the importance of the masses in driving social change (Appelbaum 1988, 25). Engels would even provide financial support for Marx’s work throughout his life.

Marx’s writings attracted repeated government attention. Government officials asked him to leave Paris in 1845. He moved to Belgium, where he became the president of the Brussels chapter of the International Communist League. The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) was written as this organization’s principal statement. After being expelled from Brussels for his revolutionary activities, Marx returned to Paris for a short time at the invitation of a provisional government that had struggled against the monarchy, then shortly moved to Cologne in Prussia and took over editorship of his revived former journal. He was accused of inciting rebellion, the journal was shut down, and Marx was expelled from Prussia. In quick succession, he traveled in Germany and then back to Paris, finally settling in London in 1849, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Marx supported his family through publications of some of his writing that covered, among other social topics, economic theory, industrial society, religion, property, communism, and philosophy. For a decade, he was also a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, published by Horace Greeley. He also became involved with the London chapter of the International Communist League, advocated for German workers in London, and spent long hours in the British Museum reading British trade statistics and economic theory (Appelbaum 1988, 27).

The Marx family was very poor, often relying on Engels for funds or from pawning their possessions. They frequently lacked money for basic necessities and experienced illnesses and evictions. Three of Marx’s children died before reaching adulthood. Eventually, both Marx and his wife inherited some funds that somewhat relieved their financial distress. When Engels became a partner in his father’s textile mill, he paid off the Marx’s debts and, in 1869, set up a small pension for his friend.

Marx’s health grew progressively worse over time. Among his ailments, he suffered from painful boils, headaches, eye problems, a liver complaint, digestive and respiratory problems, and perhaps depression that made him unable to work at times. Marx died in 1883, probably of tuberculosis or pleurisy, two years after losing his wife and a daughter to cancer. Several of Marx’s works, including two volumes of Capital (1977a, orig. 1867), were completed or published posthumously by Engels (Appelbaum 1988; Feinberg 1985; Siegel 1978).

Robert K. Merton

Robert King Merton (1910-2003) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His birth name was Meyer R. Schkolnick. His name change came about when, as a teen, he became an amateur magician. He first adopted the name Merlin, then changed it to Merton when told that Merlin was “hackneyed.” “Robert” was adopted from French magician Robert Houdin, the magician from whom Harry Houdini borrowed his stage name. Upon winning a scholarship to Temple University, “he was content to let the new name become permanent” (Calhoun 2003, 1, 8).

Merton pursued his graduate studies at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1936. He taught at Harvard for the following three years. He then moved to Tulane, and later to Columbia. He became a full professor in 1947. He was later named Giddings Professor of Sociology, Special Service Professor, and University Professor Emeritus (Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin 1990).

Over the course of his long career, Merton’s work spanned a broad range of additional areas to include research methods, deviance, medicine, anomie, bureaucracy, and organizations. He received over 20 honorary degrees and international awards and was the first person to receive the Who’s Who in America Achievement Award in the Social Sciences and Social Policy (Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin 1990, 211). His numerous contributions in the area of theory include middle-range theories and the concepts of latent and manifest functions and dysfunctions. He coined a number of phrases that are now part of the sociological jargon, including self-fulfilling prophesy, unanticipated consequences, and anticipatory socialization. He also developed an interview technique that has now become the focus group, used throughout political and market research (Calhoun 2003, 8).

By many reports, Robert Merton was both an inspiring and demanding teacher (Coleman 1990). He spent much time and effort reading and commenting on other people’s manuscripts. Merton himself estimated that he had read over 200 book-length manuscripts and over 2,000 article-length manuscripts between 1930 and 1985 (Sztompka 1986, 265). He continued to be engaged in learning and writing until his death in 2003 at age 92.

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902-79) was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was the son of a congregational minister who was also an English teacher and, later, president of Marietta College in Ohio. His mother was a suffragist.

Parsons received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College, where he majored in biology. He had originally intended to study medicine, and his training in the biological sciences would impact his sociology throughout his career. After graduation, an uncle financed a year of study at the London School of Economics, where Parsons first encountered the social sciences. He was then off to Heidelberg, Germany, for an exchange fellowship and, later, a doctorate. At Heidelberg, Parsons was introduced to Max Weber’s works, and was even taught by Alfred Weber (a scholar who was also Max’s younger brother). He also became interested in the relationship between sociology and economics, an interest that, like medicine, would also occupy much of his career (Martel 1979).

Parsons took a faculty position in the economics department at Harvard University in 1927. He became increasingly drawn to sociology and translated Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) into English. This was an important contribution to disseminating Weber’s work in American sociology. He also later looked at Weber in The Structure of Social Action (1937). Parsons moved to the Department of Sociology in 1930 and remained there until retiring in 1973.

Over the course of his career, Parsons and Harvard became the center of American sociology (Trevino 2001, xix). He held visiting appointments at a number of institutions and served as President of the American Sociological Association and the Eastern Sociological Society. In person and personal relationships, Parsons has been described as being “extremely modest, unassuming, uncritical of others, reluctant to mention himself in conversation, much less to talk about his accomplishments … [yet becoming] the opposite in his writings, claiming for himself many ‘major breakthroughs’ in the development not only of his own theory but also of sociological theory more generally … [even equating] his own theory with sociological theory itself” (xviii-xix).

Several of Parsons’s students, including Robert K. Merton, Kingsley Davis, Harold Garfinkel, and Neil Smelser are profiled in this book. Many of those students originally went to Harvard to study with Pitirim A. Sorokin, profiled in chapter 9, but gravitated toward Parsons instead (Hamilton 1983, 133-34; Martel 1979). Over 150 of Parsons’s former students came to his retirement, some even traveling internationally to do so.

After his retirement, Parsons continued to lecture as a visiting professor as well as publish and present his work to colleagues at professional meetings. He died in Germany, where he was attending celebrations and delivering lectures on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his doctorate.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was born in Derby, England. He was the only one of his parent’s nine children to survive into adulthood. Spencer himself was an unhealthy child, so he was educated at home by his father and, as a teen, by a clergyman uncle. This education was heavily oriented toward the sciences. In addition to sociology, Spencer influenced the development of disciplines including biology, psychology, and anthropology (Carneiro 1968, 121).

In 1837, Spencer became a railroad engineer and draftsman. He was also an inventor, but did not profit significantly from his work in that area. After his work with the railroad was completed, Spencer began to publish articles on the social and political issues of the day. Unable to make a living as a writer, he eventually returned to the railroad, continuing to invent, write, and travel. In 1848, he finally landed stable employment in an editorial position with the Economist. Spencer wrote his first book, Social Statistics (1851), while in that position. He also published a theory of evolution that predated Charles Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species (1996, orig. 1859) by several years (Coser 1977, 102-5).

Shortly after these publications, Spencer’s uncle died and left him a sizable inheritance. His newfound wealth allowed him to quit his job and live as a private scholar. He also had a nervous breakdown and developed a nervous condition at age 35 that left him unable to work long hours for the rest of his life. It also severely impaired his social interactions (Peel 1971). However, Spencer was able to continue to write prolifically on topics including biology, philosophy, and sociology. He became a renowned scientist. His writings were published in England and the United States, used as textbooks, and translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian by the turn of the century. Yet Herbert Spencer never held a university degree or university position (Coser 1977, 102-7; Peel 1971).

Max Weber

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was the oldest of seven children. He grew up with many intellectual influences. Politicians and academics were frequent houseguests (Coser 1977, 235). He was an avid reader. Even as a youngster, he studied a variety of areas on his own, especially the classics, history, religion, economics, and philosophy. The teenage Weber was already writing essays on such topics as the family tree of Constantine and the history of civilized nations and “the laws covering their development” (Weber 1975, 45-46).

Weber studied law. He published articles on many current events and was active in politics. He taught briefly at the universities of Freiburg and then Heidelberg. However, because of his health, he never held a permanent academic position (Bendix 1968, 494). Weber wore himself down with chronic overwork. In 1898, after the death of his father, Weber suffered a mental breakdown and was unable to work for several years. He and his wife traveled widely during this time, eventually touring America at the behest of a former colleague who invited him to present a paper on the social structure of Germany. The Webers’ travels included a visit to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Weber eventually returned to Heidelberg to write, but he did not teach again until much later in his life (Coser 1977, 240-41).

Weber also served in the German military as a young man. He voluntarily returned to the military as a reservist during World War I, where he was commissioned to establish and run several military hospitals. Several articles he wrote during that period that were critical of Germany’s execution of the war led the government to consider criminal prosecution (Coser 1977, 240-41). After the war, Weber returned to politics and published prolifically on current events.

The topics of Weber’s sociological works were wide-ranging. They included political development in Russia, the social psychology of industrial work and factory workers, and economics. He cofounded the German Sociological Society with Ferdinand Toennies (profiled in chapter 8) and Georg Simmel (profiled in chapter 5). He was also keenly interested in religion, studying and writing about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Arguably his most famous work was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5), which, among other emphases, tied capitalism to the tenets of Calvinist religious doctrine. Even during his war service, he found time for his studies in the sociology of religion.

As a research methodologist, Weber was concerned with the potential influences and biases that could impact research findings. He advocated verstehen, or value-free, objective research. As Marianne Weber says, he warned against “an unconscious interweaving of factual perception with value judgements” (1975, 317).

Weber’s wife, Marianne, would become a well-known sociologist in her own right and an active feminist in the women’s movement. Together, the Webers entertained young scholars at their home on Sunday afternoons. Their guests included Russian, Polish, and Jewish students shunned by other professors, as well as pacifists and political radicals. “Wherever he perceived an injustice, Weber entered the arena like a wrathful prophet castigating his fellows for their moral sloth, their lack of conviction, their sluggish sense of justice” (Coser 1977, 242). Max Weber died of pneumonia in 1920.