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Objectivity and Subjectivity

In Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research, which I wrote with Gayle Letherby and Malcolm Williams (Sage Publications, 2013), we set out an account of objectivity and truth in relation to the necesarilly subjective basis of social knowledge. This posting outlines a summary of the key arguments of the book.

Why are so many sociologists concerned with objectivity and the pursuit of ‘truth’ when our knowledge and understanding of the social world is so self-evidently subjective and partial? The conventional view in all the sciences has been that it is only by securing objective knowledge that we can be guaranteed that it is true and that we can therefore avoid the claims of our critics that we are biased in our viewpoint and are merely parading ideology in the guise of science. This is an important justification of the search for objectivity, but many critics, especially in the social sciences, have argued that it is unrealistic: objectivity is seen as impossible and truth as unat…
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Weber on Stratification

It is commonly held that Weber identified three dimensions of stratification: class, status, and party. This has long been the standard view and has been repeated countless times. It is not, in fact, what Weber said, or even what he implied. I have tried to counter this interpretation before, but here goes again.

Weber’s explicit remarks on power were left unfinished when he died and were published only posthumously as distinct fragments on power and stratification that are now most familiar as parts of the text known, in its English translation, as Economy and Society. In these fragments, Weber discussed the conceptualisation of power in relation to issues of social stratification through ‘class’ (Klasse) and ‘status’(Stände), seeing these social phenomena as being closely associated with each other. His earliest and longest set of notes on the distribution of power, most probably written between 1910 and 1914, first appeared in an English language translation with the title ‘The Dist…

Integration and Social Structure

In my previous post I set out a view of the relationship between the interaction order and social structure. I want now to discuss the forms of integration or malintegration that exist at each level. These issues were famously discussed by David Lockwood in an article of 1964 through his distinction between ‘social integration’ and ‘system integration’ (in Explorations in Social Change, edited by Zollschan and Hirsch). My claim is that social integration should be seen as relating to the interaction order and system integration as relating to the macro-level social structure.
A state of social integration exists when interacting individuals and groups establish shared understandings that permit a coordination of their actions. They produce a negotiated order that underpins their joint action. Where there are failures in mutual understanding and a resulting lack of coordination, there is social disorder, rather than social order, and the potential for social disintegration. This was dis…

Interaction and Social Structure

Some of the most powerful approaches in sociology are those that analyse the interactions of individuals. These are often seen as in opposition to more abstract views of social structure. I want to argue that this is not the case and that the two approaches are complementary and imply each other. I will develop this argument in this post and will take the argument further in a later post.

Interaction is the result of ongoing mutual constructions of the situation and of the attitudes and actions of its participants. Each participant constructs a representation and account and so negotiates a shared understanding that is sufficient to justify their actions as appropriate and so to ensure that the actions of the participants mesh or coordinate. Participants mutually—simultaneously and interdependently, but always imperfectly—legitimate their own actions and shape the actions of others by attempting to define limits to the options open to them. Each participant holds to an understanding of…

What are ‘British Values’?

Politicians and commentators often talk about the importance of British values and the need for migrants and refugees to respect British values. Such arguments have emerged strongly in debates over terrorism. Claims of this kind often, perhaps typically, mask a more or less deep-rooted prejudice towards outsiders and an assumption of the inherent superiority of Britons. Proponents of these views look back to an imperial past when Britannia ruled not only the waves but also much of the land and when it seemed natural to divide the people of the world into distinct ‘races’.
We are rightly sceptical of such arguments, but is any meaning to be found in the argument that a society such as Britain is indeed marked by values that are subscribed to by a majority of its members and that help to define a shared sense of identity? Under what conditions can we talk about any kinds of national values?

These ideas are best understood through the arguments that I have developed on social consciousness…

Reflections on the 2017 Election

So, the results are in (originally posted June 2017): a huge surge in Labour support—almost 40 per cent of the vote—destroyed the slim Conservative majority and the authority of the Prime Minister. What light can sociology throw on the results?

Sociological debate on British politics over the last 40 years has traced a process of ‘dealignment’ in which class-based voting decayed to be replaced by issue-voting politics and increased volatility in electoral outcomes. Class-based Labour voting had been rooted in the traditional solidarities of ethnically homogeneous working class communities, and a strong occupationally grounded and gendered trade union movement. Social change had swept away many of these communities and the forms of association linked to them. The growing importance of television and other media as means of socialisation and sources of information weakened traditional identities and commitments.

These social changes were the basis for the rise of Thatcherite Conservativis…

Structures, Subjectivity, and Virtual Reality

In an earlier posting I discussed the idea of the ‘social mind’ and the way in which such a collective consciousness’ must be understood as dispersed to and contained in the minds of the individual members of a society. This provides us with a way of understanding social structures, seen by Durkheim as external and constraining factors in social life. In my work on social structure I showed that the institutions and relations that comprise a social structure must be seen as ‘embodied structures’, but I did not properly specify how such individual phenomena relate to collective structures.
In this posting I want to try to show that the structures of everyday life—Goffman’s ‘interaction order’—and the ‘macro’ structures of specialised economic and political activities can be understood as rooted in individual subjectivity yet act as real forces in shaping individual activity.

The world of everyday life—the backdrop to all our activity—comprises the myriad locales and persons that are typi…