How does sociological theory create ways to understand the social world?
Sociological theories exist to aid understanding of the sociological world. Sociology is the “scientific study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human [behaviour]” (Sage 2013, p. 6). According to Sage (2012, p. 4), “humans are innately social creatures”. Even when people are alone, they are all part of a society and influenced by it (Sage, 2012, p. 4).
Max Weber theorised that all systems of domination must be legitimised (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, pp. 180). This means that those who are in power seek to legitimise their power as “authority” (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, pp. 180-181). Weber’s term for this theory, herrschaft, means both “authority” and “domination” (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 180).
In the past, as stated by philosopher Jean Bodin, the monarch was [believed to be] a representative of God (Fleiner and Basta Fleiner, 2009, p. 340). Monarchy is a political system legitimised by tradition (Macionis and Plummer, 2012, p. 541). Herrschaft is more apparent when power is seized rather than inherited (as in monarchy) or given through the democratic process.
Modern dictators feel the need to stage “free and fair” elections in order to retain some semblance of respectability. In 2013, Robert Mugabe won a seventh term in office as President of Zimbabwe (BBC, 2013). His main rival alleged widespread electoral fraud and petitioned the constitutional court while the British Home Secretary had “grave concerns” about the election (BBC, 2013).
Weber’s theory of charismatic domination describes people with powerful personalities who communicate with others in such a way that they are inspired and led in new directions. They are what we today call “charismatic leaders”, today Weber’s theory is invoked when discussing Christian Evangelical preachers as well as modern politicians.
The success of charismatic preachers has caused the style of preaching to spread to Africa. Comparing American charismatic preachers to their African counterparts, priest Conrad Mbewe said:
“I think that you could turn to your own television channels with celebrity Charismatic preachers, and I could say: Just change the skin color and it could be what we have back home, apart from, of course, the nice buildings you have here. But largely that’s what you have. Nice phrases, perhaps a quotation from the Bible here or there often tortured out of what it’s really saying. And then, the height of the preaching is really the preacher looking like he’s now demon-possessed, looking crazy.” (Riccardi, 2013)
This correlates with what Weber wrote: “every charismatic leader implicitly argues ‘it is written… but I say unto you…’” (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 181). Charismatic leaders of all kinds are known for their energy and lack of substance.
According to Weber, charismatic leaders derived their legitimacy from their supposed special insight and accomplishment (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 181). Weber believed this was an unstable form of power over extended periods because success may elude the leader for a long period of time and crises may not be resolved to the satisfaction of his followers, leading to rejection of the leader by the masses (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 181).
Weber’s second type of domination was called “traditional”. “Traditional domination is justified by the belief that is ancient and embodies an inherent (often religiously sanctified) state of affairs that cannot be challenged by reason.” (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 182) Patriarchalism, a form of traditional domination, occurs in households and other small groups where the need for staff to enforce commands is unnecessary (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 182). Patrimonialism, another form of tradition domination, occurs in larger social structures which do require staff to enforce commands (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 182).
In a patrimonialist structure, decisions by officials are based on self-interest and what the leader wants (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 183). Weber believed this to be inhibiting to the development of capitalism (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 183). Modern capitalism requires logic, knowledge and procedure and Weber believed that in the patrimonialist structure, officials have too much leeway for making decisions arbitrarily (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 183).
Rational-legal domination, Weber’s third type of domination, encompasses democracy. Political parties exist to fight for domination under the control of statutory regulation (Turner, Beeghley and Powers, 2007, p. 184). Elections in which the general population decides who will govern them and their land and democratic inaugurations which make a ritual of the transfer of power ensure that legitimacy is sustained (Back et al., 2012, p. 110).
Through this theory, cultural sociology has helped us to understand planned public rituals such as political inaugurations (Back et al., 2012, p. 110). While “power” refers to the ability to carry out one’s will regardless of resistance, authoritative power is sustained through respect rather than coercion (Weber, 1958 cited in Back et al., 2012, p. 110).
Symbolic interactionism is one of the best-known action theories (Jones, 2003, p. 102).
Its proponents consider it necessary to concentrate on this form of human activity in order to understand social life (Jones, 2003, pp. 102-103). They study:
1.) The way in which people, in order to communicate with each other, incorporate symbols of what they mean (Jones, 2003, p. 103).
2.) The effects that the interpretation of the symbols have on people’s behaviour during social interactions (Jones, 2003, p. 103).
A person’s self-image, their sense of identity, is a result of the way others think of that person (Jones, 2003, p. 103). Naturally, it is impossible for one to know precisely what everyone else thinks about oneself. Consequently, this is in effect “a case of ‘I am what I think you think I am’” (Jones, 2003, p. 103). Symbolic interactionism “argues that often what matters is not whether the interpretations are correct, but the impact they can have on their recipients” (Jones, 2003, p. 104).
According to the theory, because a person quickly learns that others judge them on their behaviour, a person’s own interpretive capabilities allow them to manipulate these interpretations according to the person’s vision of themselves (Jones, 2003, pp. 104-105). People orchestrate the responses of others by presenting them an image of themselves that they wish them to have (Jones, 2003, p. 105), which is one of the ways societies regulate behaviour: through judgement and the fear of judgement.
The way people walk, talk and dress; their habits and the customs they follow; the place they live in and the way they furnish it; their vehicles; the work they do or conspicuously do not do; the status symbols of their spouses and the social level of their friends; and the ways they spend their spare time are all used to tell others what kind of person they are. According to Erving Goffman (1969, cited in Jones, 2003, p. 105), very few possessions, activities or human attributes are not used in this way.
C. Wright Mills (1959, cited in Plummer, 2010) in his noted book, The Sociological Imagination wrote that “the sociological imagination helps us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society”. Sociological theory not only creates ways of understanding the world, but also changes the world due to people modifying their behaviour as a result of their greater understanding of it.
Back, L., Bennett, A., Edles, L.D., Gibson, M., Inglis, D., Jacobs, R. and Woodward, I., 2012. Cultural sociology : An introduction. [eBook] Available at: <http://SWIN.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=836639> [Accessed 13 January 2014].
B.B.C. [British Broadcasting Corporation], 2013. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe sworn in as president. [online] Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23790745> [Accessed 11 January 2014].
Fleiner, T. and Basta Fleiner, L.R., 2009. Constitutional democracy in a multicultural and globalised world. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.
Jones, P., 2003. Introducing social theory. 6th ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Macionis, J.J. and Plummer, K., 2012. Sociology: A global introduction. 5th ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.
Plummer, K., 2010. Sociology: The basics. [eBook] Available at: <http://SWIN.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=557316> [Accessed 16 January 2014].
Riccardi, M., 2013. Strange fire – Are we preachers or witchdoctors? – Conrad Mbewe. [online] Available at: <http://thecripplegate.com/strange-fire-are-we-preachers-or-witchdoctors-conrad-mbewe> [Accessed 10 January 2014].
Sage, 2012. “Understanding our social world” [pdf] Sage Publications. Available at: <http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/45620_1.pdf > [Accessed 8 January 2014].
Turner, J.H., Beeghley, L. and Powers, C.H., 2007. The emergence of sociological theory. 6th ed. Australia: Thomson Wadsworth.