Key Sociological Concepts
Absolute monarchy – A political system under which a king or queen has complete control of a country.
Achieved status – A status that we either earn or choose and that is not subject to where or to whom we were born.
Agents of socialization – People, groups, and experiences that influence our behavior and self-image.
Aggregate – A collection of people who happen to be at the same place at the same time but have no other connection to one another.
Agricultural or agrarian society – A society that raises crops by using animal-drawn plows.
Alienation – The feeling of workers in a bureaucracy that they are being treated as objects rather than people.
American Dream – The belief that all Americans, regardless of the conditions of their birth, have an equal chance to achieve success.
Anomie – According to strain theory, the feeling of being disconnected from society that can occur when people aren’t provided with the institutionalized means to achieve their goals. The term was coined by Émile Durkheim.
Anticipatory socialization – The learning of new norms and values in anticipation of a future role.
Apartheid – A social system in which there is total separation of the races.
Appearance – The way we look physically to other people.
Ascribed status – A trait or characteristic people possess as a result of the circumstances of birth.
Assimilation – The process whereby members of a group give up parts of their own culture in order to blend in to a new culture.
Authoritarianism – A political system that does not allow citizens to participate in government.
Belief – A specific idea that people feel to be true.
Blue-collar – Another term for the working class.
Body language – The ways in which we use our bodies consciously and unconsciously to communicate.
Bourgeoisie – Karl Marx’s term for the owners of the means of production—factories, businesses, and equipment needed to produce wealth.
Bureaucracy – According to Weber, a type of formal organization in which a rational approach is used for the handling of large tasks.
Capitalism – The economic system in which the means of production are owned privately and individuals are free to keep the profits they make.
Capitalist class – In industrialized societies, the rich and powerful and the owners of the means of production. It is also called the elite.
Caste system – A system of stratification based on ascribed statuses.
Category – A collection of people who share a particular characteristic but have nothing else in common.
Charismatic authority – Authority that depends on the personal magnetism of one person, according to Weber’s power theory.
Church – A religious group integrated with society.
Class system – A system of stratification based on achieved statuses.
Clergy – The middle stratum of the estate system of stratification, composed of Roman Catholic priests.
Clique – An internal cluster or faction within a group.
Colonialism – The tendency for a powerful country to invade a weaker country in order to exploit its resources by making it a colony.
Commoners – The lowest stratum of the estate system of stratification, composed of the masses of people who spent their lives engaged in hard physical labor.
Communism – An economic system similar to socialism in which all the means of production would be owned by everyone and all profits would be shared equally by everyone.
Conflict theory – This is a Marxist-based social theory which argues that individuals and groups (social classes) within society have differing amounts of material and non-material resources (such as the wealthy vs. the poor) and that upper class groups use their power to exploit groups with less power to gain access to these resources. Marx’s original theory states that in any capitalist society there is eternal conflict between the owners of the means of production and the workers. Other sociologists have focused on the conflict perspective to develop similar theories.
Conflict view of deviance – The view that purports that equality in a capitalist society is an illusion. The owners of the means of production have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo by keeping the working class in a disadvantaged position.
Conformists – According to Merton’s theory of goals and means, those who accept cultural goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them.
Constitutional monarchy – A monarchy in which the reigning member of the royal family is the symbolic head of state but elected officials actually do the governing.
Control theory – Walter Reckless’s theory that posits that when a person is tempted to engage in deviance, inner controls and outer controls can prevent him or her from doing so.
Counterculture – A way of living that opposes the dominant culture.
Crime – The violation of a written law.
Crime against the person – An act of violence either threatened or perpetrated against a person.
Crime against property – The theft of property or certain forms of damage against the property of another person.
Cult – A religious group that is outside standard cultural norms.
Cultural diffusion – The process whereby an aspect of culture spreads throughout a culture or from one culture to another.
Cultural relativism – The attitude that in order to understand the traits of another culture, one must view them within the context of that culture.
Culture – Everything made, learned, and shared by the members of a society.
Culture lag – The tendency for changes in material culture to occur at a more rapid rate than changes in nonmaterial culture.
Culture of poverty – The phrase that Oscar Lewis used to describe the idea that poor people do not learn the norms and values that can help them improve their circumstances and hence get trapped in a repeated pattern of poverty.
Culture shock – The surprise, disorientation, and fear people can experience upon encountering a different culture.
Degradation ceremony – Garfinkel’s term for the process whereby an individual with a spoiled identity is expelled from a group and stripped of his or her group membership.
Democracy – A political system in which citizens periodically choose officials to run their government.
Deviance – The violation of a norm.
Deviant subculture – A way of living that differs from the dominant culture, in which members share a particular form of deviance.
Differential association – Edwin Sutherland’s theory that posits that deviance is learned behavior.
Divine right of kings – An ideology developed by the nobility during the Middle Ages that posited that the authority of the nobility came directly from God.
Dominant culture – The culture held by the majority and/or by the most powerful group in a society.
Dramaturgy – Goffman’s theory that life is like a never-ending play in which people are actors.
Dyad – A group composed of two people.
Economy – The institution responsible for the production and distribution of goods and services.
Education – The institution responsible for preparing young people for a functional place in adult life and for transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
Ego – According to Freud, the part of the mind that resolves conflicts between the id and the superego.
Endogamy – Marriage between members of the same category, class, or group.
Estate system – The three-tiered stratification system used during the Middle Ages.
Ethnocentrism – The tendency to judge another culture by the standards of one’s own culture.
Ethnomethodology – A theoretical perspective formulated by Garfinkel that examines how people’s background assumptions help them make sense of everyday situations.
Exogamy – Marriage between members of different categories, classes, or groups.
Extended family – Several generations or branches of a family.
Family – The institution responsible for the rearing of children.
Feminization of poverty – The phrase that describes the increasing number of female-headed households living at or below the poverty level.
Folkway – A norm followed out of convenience or tradition.
Formal organization – A secondary group that is organized to achieve specific goals and tends to be large and impersonal.
Functionalism – the sociological paradigm/theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shape society as a whole, and believes that society has evolved like organisms.
Gender role – A set of behaviors, attitudes, and personality characteristics expected and encouraged of a person based on his or her sex.
Gender socialization – The tendency for boys and girls to be socialized differently.
Generalized other – George Herbert Mead’s term for the internalization of the norms and values of a culture.
Global stratification – The stratification of nations.
Globalization of capitalism – The adoption of capitalism by countries around the world.
Goal displacement – A formal organization’s displacement of one goal with another in order to continue to exist. It is also called goal replacement.
Goals and means – Robert Merton’s theory that examines how members of a society adapt their goals to the means that society provides of achieving them.
Government – The institution responsible for making and enforcing the rules of society and for regulating relations with other societies.
Group – Two or more people who interact over time, have a sense of identity or belonging, and have norms that nonmembers do not have.
Group dynamics – A term that implies that our thoughts and behavior are influenced by the groups of which we are members and, in turn, we influence the thought process and behavior of the group as a whole.
Groupthink – A term coined by Irving Janis that refers to the tendency of people in positions of power to follow the opinions of the group, to the point that there is a narrow view of the issue at hand.
Halo effect – The assumption that a physically attractive person also possesses other good qualities.
Health – The well-being of people.
Holistic medicine – A medical approach that involves learning about a patient’s physical environment and mental state.
Horticultural society – A society in which hand tools are used to grow crops.
Hunting and gathering society – A society in which people acquire food by hunting game and gathering edible plants.
Id – According to Freud, the first part of the mind to develop and the part of the self responsible for the satisfaction of physical states.
Ideal type – Max Weber’s theoretical model of how a formal organization should function.
Ideology – A set of values that people devise to rationalize a particular social custom.
Illegitimate opportunity structures – Cloward and Ohlin’s term for opportunities for crimes that are a basic part of our society.
Impression management – Goffman’s term for the tendency of individuals to manipulate the impressions that others have of them.
In-group – A group to which one belongs and to which one feels loyalty.
Indentured servitude – A system of stratification in which an individual agrees to sell his or her body or labor to another for a specified period of time.
Industrial society – A society that uses advanced sources of energy, rather than humans and animals, to run large machinery.
Industrializing nations – Countries that are in the process of becoming industrialized; includes most of the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Inner controls – According to control theory, the thought processes such as morality or a conscience that reside within people and that can prevent them from committing acts of deviance.
Innovators – According to Robert Merton’s theory of goals and means, those who accept cultural goals but reject the institutional means of achieving them.
Institution – A set of norms surrounding the carrying out of a function necessary for the survival of a society.
Institutionalized means – Legitimate, socially approved ways that societies offer their members to achieve culturally approved goals.
Labeling theory – A theory of deviance put forth by Howard Becker that claims that deviance is that which is so labeled.
Law – A norm that is written down and enforced by an official agency.
Least industrialized nations – Primarily agricultural nations that account for half of the land on Earth.
Looking-glass self – Charles Horton Cooley’s theory of socialization, which posits that we form our self-images on the basis of what we perceive to be others’ views of us.
Macrosociology – Sociological analysis focused on large-scale social forces.
Manner of interacting – The attitudes that we convey in an attempt to get others to form certain impressions about us. According to Goffman, it is one of the sign vehicles we use to present ourselves to others, along with the setting and our appearance.
Mass media – Communications media that direct messages and entertainment at a wide audience.
Mass society – A large impersonal society in which individual achievement is valued over kinship ties and in which people often feel isolated from one another.
Master status – A status we possess that overrides all other statuses and becomes the one by which we are known to others.
Material culture – The tangible, visible items of a culture.
Matrilocality – A social custom in which married couples live in the home of the wife’s family.
Medicine – The institution responsible for defining and treating mental and physical problems among its members.
Melting pot – A term used to refer to a pluralistic society in which people who originally come from different societies blend together to form a new society.
Meritocracy – A system of stratification in which positions are given according to individual merit.
Microsociology – Sociological analysis focused on social interaction between individuals.
Middle class – The class that consists of people who earn their money by working at professional jobs, also called white-collar jobs.
Monarchy – A political system in which a representative from one family controls the government and power is passed on through that family from generation to generation.
Monogamy – Marriage between one man and one woman.
Monotheism – Belief in a single deity.
Moral reasoning – The reasons that people think the way they do about what’s right and wrong.
More – A norm based on notions of morality.
Most industrialized nations – Highly industrialized, capitalistic countries, including America, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan.
Multiculturalism – A term often used instead of “melting pot” to denote a pluralistic society in which the original cultural heritages of its citizens are recognized and respected.
Multinational corporations – Large corporations that do business in a number of different countries.
Negative sanction – A socially constructed expression of disapproval.
Neocolonialism – Michael Harrington’s term for the tendency of the most industrialized nations to exploit less developed countries politically and economically.
Neolocality – A social custom in which married couples move to a new home of their own together.
Network – A series of social ties that can be important sources of information, contacts, and assistance for its members.
New money – The class that consists of people whose wealth has been around only for a generation or two.
Nobility – The highest stratum of the estate system of stratification. Members had significant inherited wealth and did little or no discernible work.
Nonmaterial culture – The intangible, invisible parts of a culture, such as values.
Norm – A guideline or an expectation for behavior.
Nuclear family – One or both parents and their children.
Oligarchy – The rule of the many by the few.
Out-group – A group to which one does not belong and to which one does not feel loyalty.
Outer controls – According to control theory, individuals who encourage people not to stray into deviance.
Pastoral society – A society that relies on the domestication and breeding of animals for food.
Patrilocality – A social custom in which married couples live in the home of the husband’s family.
Peer group – A social group in which members are usually the same age and have interests and social position in common.
Personal space – The area immediately around one’s body that one can claim as one’s own.
Pluralistic society – A society composed of many different kinds of people.
Polyandry – Marriage between one woman and more than one man.
Polygamy – Marriage between one man and more than one woman.
Polytheism – Belief in many deities.
Positive sanction – A socially constructed expression of approval.
Postindustrial society – A society that features an economy based on services and technology, not production.
Poverty level – An estimate set by the federal government of the minimum income that a family of four needs to survive.
Power – According to Weber, the ability to achieve ends even in the face of resistance.
Power elite – A term coined by C. Wright Mills that refers to his theory that the United States is actually run by a small group representing the most wealthy, powerful, and influential people in business, government, and the military.
Primary deviance – According to Lemert, a deviant act that elicits little or no reaction from others.
Primary group – A group in which there is frequent face-to-face contact, little task orientation, and emotional intimacy among members.
Primary socialization – The learning that we experience from the people who raise us.
Primogeniture – A law stipulating that only a first-born son could inherit his father’s wealth.
Proletariat – Karl Marx’s term for the working masses.
Props – The things used to decorate a setting, according to Goffman’s theory of impression management. Props also include manner of dress.
Rational-legal authority – Authority that rests on rules and laws, according to Weber’s power theory.
Rationalization of society – Weber’s theory that bureaucracies would gain increasing power over modern life, eventually governing almost every aspect of society.
Rebels – According to Robert Merton’s theory of goals and means, those who reject both cultural goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them, but who replace them with goals and means of their own.
Recidivism – The tendency of convicted criminals to repeat offenses.
Reference group – The group to whom we compare ourselves for purposes of self-evaluation.
Reincarnation – The belief that while the physical body dies, the soul of a person is immortal and goes on to be reborn into another body.
Religion – The institution responsible for answering people’s larger questions and for explaining the seemingly inexplicable.
Resocialization – The learning of new norms and values.
Retreatists – According to Robert Merton’s theory of goals and means, those who reject cultural goals as well as the institutionalized means of achieving them.
Revolution – A violent overthrow of the government by its citizens.
Ritualists – According to Robert Merton’s theory of goals and means, those who reject cultural goals but accept the institutionalized means of achieving them.
Role – A set of norms, values, and personality characteristics expected of a person based on the setting he or she is in.
Role conflict – The conflict that can result from the competing demands of two or more roles.
Sanction – A socially constructed expression of approval or disapproval.
Secondary deviance – According to Lemert, repeated deviant behavior that is brought on by other people’s negative reactions to the original act of deviance.
Secondary group – A group in which there is infrequent or short-term contact, little task orientation, and no emotional intimacy among members.
Sect – A religious group that sets itself apart from society as a whole.
Self – The part of a person’s personality consisting of self-awareness and self-image.
Setting – The place where interaction takes place. According to Goffman, it is one of the sign vehicles we use to present ourselves to others, along with manner of interacting and appearance.
Sign vehicles – Goffman’s term for the mechanisms we use to present ourselves to others. Sign vehicles consist of setting, appearance, and manner of interacting.
Significant other – According to Charles Horton Cooley, a person in our lives whose opinions matter to us and who is in a position to influence our thinking.
Skilled worker – A worker who is literate and has experience and expertise in specific areas of production or on specific kinds of machines.
Slavery – A system of stratification in which one person owns another, usually for economic gain.
Social control – The ways a society devises to encourage conformity to norms.
Social construction of reality – A theory suggesting that the way in which we present ourselves is shaped by our life experiences, as well as by our interactions with others.
Social group – Two or more people who interact and identify with each other.
Social integration – The degree to which an individual feels connected to the other people in his or her group or community.
Social mobility – Movement up or down the social hierarchy.
Society’s rewards – The things a society holds in high esteem, such as wealth, power, and prestige.
Socialism – A system under which resources and means of production are owned by the society as a whole, rights to private property are limited, the good of the whole society is stressed more than individual profit, and the government maintains control of the economy.
Socialization – The process whereby we learn to become competent members of a group.
Society – A collection of people with territory, interaction, and a culture.
Socioeconomic status (SES) – A calculation based on a complex formula that takes into account education, occupation, and income.
Spoiled identity – Goffman’s term for an identity that has been permanently ruined because of a severe stigma.
State capitalism – A system under which resources and means of production are privately owned but closely monitored and regulated by the government.
Status – The position that a person occupies in a particular setting.
Status inconsistency – Any inconsistency between various statuses.
Status set – The collection of all of our different statuses, from every setting in which we are a member.
Status symbol – A sign or symbol that we wear or carry that represents a particular status.
Stereotype – An assumption we make about a person or a group, often on the basis of incorrect or incomplete information.
Stigma – Goffman’s term for a trait that we possess that causes us to lose prestige in the eyes of others.
Strain theory – Robert Merton’s theory that posits that people experience strain and frustration when they are prevented from achieving culturally approved goals through institutionalized means.
Stratification – A societal system in which there is an unequal distribution of society’s rewards and in which people are arranged hierarchically into layers according to how many of society’s rewards they possess.
Structural functionalist theory – A sociological view of society as a complex unit made up of interrelated parts. Sociologists who apply this theory study social structure and social function.
Subculture – A group that espouses a way of living that is different from that of the dominant culture.
Superego – According to Freud, the part of the mind that encourages conformity to societal norms and values. It is also called the conscience.
Symbolic interactionist perspective – A sociological framework that views society as a product of the everyday social interactions of individuals.
Taboo – A norm so strongly held by a society that its violation brings extreme disgust.
Terrorism – A politically motivated violent attack on civilians by an individual or group.
Thomas Theorem – The theory espousing sociologist W. I. Thomas’s idea that “if a person perceives a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.”
Total institution – According to Erving Goffman, a highly standardized institution in which all the residents’ actions are determined and monitored by authority figures.
Totalitarianism – A political system under which the government maintains tight control over nearly all aspects of citizens’ lives.
Traditional authority – Authority that rests on well-established cultural patterns, according to Weber’s power theory.
Triad – According to Georg Simmel, a group composed of three people.
Upper class – The highest social group, consisting of people with inherited wealth and a recognizable family name.
Urbanization – The process by which the majority of a population comes to live within commuting distance of a major city.
Value – A culturally approved belief about what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable.
Victimless crime – Crimes in which laws are violated but there is no identifiable victim.
Voluntary association – A group we choose to join, in which members are united by the pursuit of a common goal.
War – Armed conflict between nations or societies.
Welfare capitalism – A system that features a market-based economy coupled with an extensive social welfare system that includes free health care and education for all citizens.
White collar – Middle-class workers; so called because of the tendency of middle-class men to wear white shirts to work.
White-collar crime – Nonviolent crime committed by the capitalist class during the course of their occupations.
Working class – The class composed of people who sell their labor to a higher class. They may have had vocational or technical training and have jobs such as electrician or factory worker.
Working poor – The class composed of people whose work leaves them vulnerable to falling below the poverty level.
World system theory – Wallerstein’s theory that as societies industrialized, capitalism became the dominant economic system, leading to the globalization of capitalism.