CONTRIBUTIONS OF GEORGE HERBERT MEAD TO SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
George Herbert Mead is the founder of the approach to the study of society called symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is a social action approach. This micro approach argues that "society" and "social institutions" are made up of the countless interactions between individuals. Therefore sociologists should focus on social action rather than on social structure. Symbolic interactionism together with phenomenology and ethnomethodology make up the Interpretivist or Anti-Positivist school of thought.
Mead sees human communication as being a process involving the exchange of symbols. The most important of these is language. If both the speaker and the listener understand the language being spoken, this would allow them to arrive at a common definition of the situation. Language also serves as a "cement" of social order.(Other examples of symbols which are exchanged during communication include gestures and "body language").
Mead's most famous work is "Mind, Self and Society". This book was compiled from his lecture notes by his admirers. Mead argued that individual identity is socially created, i.e., it arises from social interaction (between the individual and other people) and social experience. Our self-image is socially derived and is based on what others think of us. We human beings are able to view ourselves as how others view us (the self as object) and we can adjust our behaviour accordingly. Charles Horton Cooley calls this ability to imagine how we look to others "the looking glass self" (looking glass means a mirror). Mead calls this "taking the role of the other", i.e., imagine the situation from the other person's point of view. According to Mead, this ability is acquired during childhood when children engage in role playing. Children often pretend to be "Mummy" or "Daddy". In Malaysia, children often play games like "Masak-Masak". All these imaginative, role-playing games lead to the development of a sense of self. Mead defines the "mind" as the ability to think, weigh and consider alternative ways to act
Mead also talked about the "generalized other", i.e., cultural norms and values which we use to evaluate ourselves. For example, in a country like America where being rich is being a "successful person", this would mean that people who are poor may consider themselves (and be considered by others) as "failures".
A major criticism of Mead and the symbolic interactionists such as Erving Goffman is that they lack a theory of causation and social structure. By focusing on interactions between individuals, they tend to ignore how the actions of individuals are subjected to social control, e.g., norms and values of the society which limit individual behaviour. Symbolic interactionists also lack a theory of social change.
"Positivism" is a philosophical approach in social science which argues that empirical knowledge is the only valid form of knowledge. ("Empirical" means things which can be experienced or observed). Positivist sociologists believe that the social world is essentially the same as the physical world and therefore, the methods of the physical sciences should be used to study society. In other words, in order for sociology to be a "science" (or sociology to be "the science of society"), sociologists should adopt the research methods and approach of the sciences.
What this means is that positivist sociologists believe that subjective matter and value judgments should be avoided so as to have "value free" research. In other words, positivists believe that it is possible to separate facts ("what is") from values ("what ought to be"). (Whereas Marxist sociologists believe that value-free social research is not possible). For example, positivists would avoid issues such as "social justice", "truth" etc. which all involve value judgments. When positivists study controversial topics like abortion, they would just concentrate on the facts e.g. what is the rate of abortion, which groups of women are more likely to undergo abortions and avoid discussing whether easy access to abortion is a positive thing or a negative thing. Positivists favour quantitative research methods, e.g., they like to use survey research to collect data which would later be analysed using computers. Positivists also like to use statistical or mathematical models in their research.
Early positivists such as August Comte believed in the existence of "laws" of social behaviour and that "laws" of social change could be discovered. Modern positivists continue to search for cause-and-effect relationships and law-like relationships when studying social phenomena. In economics, there are the "laws" of supply and demand. In sociology, there is the relationship between increasing educational achievement of women leading to greater labour force participation by women, delayed marriage and childbearing, women having fewer children etc.
CRITICISMS OF POSITIVISM
Sociologists who belong to the Anti-Positivist or Interpretivist school of thought are highly critical of positivism. They believe that social phenomena are NOT essentially the same as physical phenomena. For example, human behaviour is guided by norms and values which can change over time whereas physical objects are subjected to physical laws which do not change. What is considered "appropriate behaviour" for Malaysian women today is often very different from what was considered appropriate behaviour one or two generations ago. Also, different societies can have very different definitions of appropriate female behaviour at the same period in time. On the other hand, physical laws never change. The laws of gravity are the same a thousand years ago and they will be the same a thousand years from today.
As mentioned earlier, Marxist sociologists believe that it is not possible to separate facts from values in social reaserch. In fact, Marxists believe that it is not desirable to do so even if this is possible. Marxist sociologists argue that positivist sociologists who claim to be doing value-free research are actually doing research which supports the capitalist system.
Interpretivist sociologists prefer to use qualitative research methods such as participant observation because they believe that much important social phenomena are difficuly to quantify. For example, values, attitudes and beliefs play an important role in affecting behaviour. However, it is difficult to measure things like racial prejudice and religiosity to determine how these are related to actual behaviour. "Power" is an important concept in political sociology. However it is difficult to come up with an indicator to measure or operationalise this concept.
Anti-positivists also argue that it is often difficult to separate cause from effect and determine "what causes what". For example, the relationship between poverty and ill health. Poverty can lead to ill health but ill health can also lead to poverty. If someone is poor, he or she may not be able to afford proper food and may therefore suffer from malnutrition and bad health. On the other hand, a healthy person who becomes ill (serious physical illness or serious mental illness) or who loses an arm or leg in a work-related accident may not be able to work anymore and may fall into poverty. These may also reinforce each other in a process of "cumulative causation", i.e., a poor person may fall sick. Being sick may then make the poor person even poorer.
There is also the possibility of multiple causation, i.e., an effect may have multiple causes. For example, the effect of "poor school performance" may have multiple causes including poor nutrition, having to work to help support the family, a home environment which is not conducive to learning, family stress and so on.
FURTHER COMMENTS ON STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM
Since Talcott Parsons is the major influence on the development of structural functionalism, you should refer to my essay on the "Contributions of Talcott Parsons to Sociological Theory". Structural functionalism was further developed by the followers of Parsons such as Robert K. Merton, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore and so on.
Robert K. Merton, a student of Parsons, added to the concept of social function. Merton said that there is not only manifest function, but there are also what he called latent function and dysfunction. A manifest function is an obvious function while a latent function is a function which is not obvious. For example, the rain dance of the Hopi people of North America. The manifest function of the Hopi rain dance is to get rain to fall from the skies. But this ritual also serves a latent function, i.e., by taking part in the ritual either as a participant or an observer, social solidarity is strengthened among the Hopi people. Religion and religious ceremonies often serve manifest functions (to enable its believers to worship their deity or "God") as well as latent functions (they strengthen solidarity among believers, e.g., Christians are "Brothers and sisters in Christ" and Muslims are members of the "Ummah"). However, religion can also bring about social dysfunction in the sense that different groups of people may engage in bitter conflict because of religious differences. One can think of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Christian-Muslim conflict in the Southern Philippines and even conflict between different groups of Christians (Catholics and Protestants) in Europe in the past.
Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore came up with the Davis-Moore hypothesis which claims that social stratification or social inequality is functional for society. According to this hypothesis, in every society, some jobs/positions are more important for the survival of the society than other jobs and positions. Therefore, these jobs should be held by the "best" and most talented people. In order to attract such people, these jobs should pay better and enjoy higher prestige. Therefore, this will result in social inequality. In other words, the Davis-Moore hypothesis claims that social inequality is not only inevitable, it is necessary in order for a society to function properly. The criticism of this view is that often, there are jobs which are important but which do not pay well and which do not enjoy much prestige. A good example would be nursing which is important but which does not pay well or enjoy high prestige compared to the profession of "medical doctor". There are also jobs which are not essential to the survival of the society but which pay very well. One can think of star athletes and other entertainers such as movie stars, popular musicians and so on.
FURTHER COMMENTS ON SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM
Mead is the founder of symbolic interactionism. You should consult my essay on the "Contributions of George Herbert Mead to Sociological Theory". Another major theorist of symbolic interaction is Erving Goffman. One of Goffman's most famous and interesting books is called "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life".
In this book, Goffman uses the analogy of the stage and acting to describe how people behave in everyday life. In acting for the stage, there is frontstage behaviour and backstage behaviour. Frontstage behaviour is when the actor/performer appears in front of an audience and performs certain roles and acts in a certain way. Backstage behaviour is when the actor or performer is behind the curtain or in the dressing room and he or she can be her real self. Similarly, in everyday life, we sometimes engage in frontstage behaviour, e.g., especially when we are in formal situations such as job interviews or when we need to project a certain image to others such as during a first date. When we are alone or with our relatives and close friends, we can relax and engage in backstage behaviour.
Props are used in stage performances. Similarly, people use "props" in everyday behaviour to project a certain image or to impress others. Examples of such props would be expensive cars, designer clothes and so on. Goffman said that therefore, people engage in "dramaturgy" and "impression management".
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY
The term "social construction of reality" comes from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. What is the nature of "reality"? According to sociologists who believe that reality is socially constructed, reality is subjective and derives from the interactions between people. Reality also depends on the perception of the individual. Perception is affected by the upbringing, values, educational level, personality etc. of the individual. For example, to a conservative Christian, abortion is the "murder of innocent babies". But to a feminist, access to abortion means that "women are able to control their own bodies". A highly educated person often perceives the world very differently from a person with a low level of education. Similarly, a person who is trained in art or music will perceive a work of art or a piece of music very differently from others. Perception of reality can also be very different depending on our social characteristics. Men and women can perceive reality (as well as experience life) very differently. So do rich people and poor people. And so do members of dominant ethnic groups as compared to members of subordinate ethnic groups.
APPLYING THE CONCEPT: THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF ETHNICITY
We can apply the concept of social construction of reality to ethnicity ("race"). Most people believe that ethnicity derives from biology and genes, i.e., we are "Malay" or "Chinese" or "Indian" because we were born "Malay" or "Chinese" or "Indian". Most social scientists, on the other hand, would argue that ethnic identity is socially derived (or "man-made"). Therefore, ethnic identity can come into being, change over time and even disappear! In the past, some of the "Chinese" dialect groups regarded each other with great hostility. The Hakka and the Cantonese were not on good terms and "inter-marriages" between Hakka and Cantonese were strongly discouraged. The Cantonese-based Ghee Hin and the Hokkien-based Hai San fought each other for control of the rich tin-mining areas of Perak.
Again, in the past, there were ethnic groups such as the "Bugis", "Achenese", Minangkabau" etc. However, the descendants of all these groups have assimilated and become "Malay". (Nevertheless, the Malays of Negri Sembilan continue to retain some of the old Minangkabau customs such as adat perpatih).
The "Indians" of Malaysia are a very diverse group of people. They speak Bengali, Tamil, Sinhala, Telugu, Malayalee, Hindi, Punjabi etc. Although the majority are Hindu, others are Muslim, Sikh, Christian and so on. Nevertheless, Malaysian society has chosen to lump all these people into the "Indian" ethnic group.
A good example of ethnic identity which has changed over time (and is likely to disappear) is that of the Peranakan Chinese or Babas and Nyonyas of Penang and Melaka. During the colonial period, the Peranakan had a distinct identity and regarded themselves as being different from (and superior to) the other immigrant Chinese. Today, the Peranakan have undergone re-ethnicisation and become more and more "Chinese".
In South Africa, there is an ethnic group called the "Coloureds". They are the descendants of relationships between blacks and whites in the past. The Coloureds speak Afrikaans, follow Christianity and do not identify with the black African majority. However, in the United States, there is no such equivalent group. The products of black-white relationships are considered to be "black". In actual fact, many black Americans have white or Native American ("American Indian") ancestors.
APPLYING THE CONCEPT - THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF OFFICIAL STATISTICS
"Official statistics" mean numerical data which have been collected and prepared by government ministries or by private organisations.
Official statistics are socially constructed in the sense that they can be affected by how the data is defined, by under-reporting and by maipulation or "massaging" of the data.
If the definition of the data is changed, the nature of the data can also change. For example, the definition of "poverty". If the Malaysian government defines the level of poverty for an urban family of four as monthly income below RM350, the poverty rate would seem lower than if the government sets the poverty level at RM500 per month.
Sensitive things like child abuse, spouse abuse, rape, abuse of old people tend to be under-reported. In the case of child abuse, neighbours are often reluctant to report such cases to the police. The child victim himself or herself may be too young to know that abuse has occurred. In the case of spouse abuse, the abused person is often reluctant to press charges against the abuser.
As for rape, in some societies, the rape victim is stigmatised and other people are reluctant to marry them. Therefore, in such societies, we can expect rape victims to bear their suffering in silence.
Governments may manipulate official statistics to make things look better. For example, during the rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain, the definition of unemployment was changed many times. Critics said that this was done in order to make the rate of unemployment appear to be lower that it really was.
There may also be systematic bias in the recording of data. For example, white collar or financial crime tends to be under-reported and punished more lightly. Often, crimes commited by rich and powerful people are ignored or given lighter sentences. In countries like Britain and the United States, the police have been accused of treating blacks and whites who break the law differently.
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