‘A sociological perspective enables social workers to step back from taken for granted assumptions about social life and encourages them to critically unpack these assumptions, to develop skills which enable them to link issues in their own lives (and in the lives of service users) to the ‘bigger picture’ (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008:7).
With reference to this statement, outline how sociological theories and concepts may be useful to social workers?
Human society consists of many complex and interconnecting systems. Individuals, through the process of socialization, learn the rules and norms of society and adopt a way of life through cultural and environmental factors which instil perception and behaviour (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Culture varies among different societies and is often unconsciously taken for granted but its impact determines the learning process, behaviour, thoughts, feelings and values based on pre-existing inbuilt guidelines (Haralambos, 2000). Sociologists aim to explain how a person’s life can be shaped by institutions and other social influences. Sociology was described by Charles Wright Mills as “the study of public issues that derive from the private troubles of people” (Brewer, 2004). Key theories emerged from varying perspectives most predominantly structural: consensus or conflict and agency: social action/interpretation. Structural theories focus on the institutions and structures which emerged from the process of industrialisation whereas agency theory is based on individual interaction to the social world.
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Traditional consensus theory of functionalism, derives from its principal figure Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), viewing society as a system of interlinking parts and institutions working together to achieve stability and solidarity (Cree, 2000). Social order and control are maintained through shared values and collective ways of thinking resulting in mutual agreement and social harmony. Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) believed, like Durkheim, that socialisation through institutions such as the family develops the normative framework of social and cultural beliefs which ensures social stability (Cree, 2000). Inequality is deemed inevitable in society and necessary to maintain equilibrium as through social stratification individuals strive, performing different roles according to their ability enabling an effective society (Llewellyn, 2008). The influence of main institutions and social roles allow regulated and predictable behaviour ensuring social order (Haralambos, 2000). Critics of this approach, particularly conflict perspective originating from Karl Marx (1818-1883) which also examines the structures in society, but point out that functionalists only consider the consensus in society and dispute the idea of shared morals and values in society arguing these are defined by those with power and people are expected to conform accordingly. Marxists claim society is divided by the class system of bourgeoisie and proletariat, which, following industrial capitalism resulted in social exploitation and alienation of the proletariat, creating inequality and struggle (Llewellyn, 2008). Those with the means of ownership and production are able to access all parts of society whereas those without are restricted, having less opportunity for advancement together with variations in life expectancy, health and education. Marxism emphasises how social structures and institutions produce divisions of power creating domination and control over others. Unequal power is deemed responsible for disadvantage and fewer life chances for some members of society (Giddens, 2001). Individual problems are blamed on social institutions and class status, unlike Functionalists who believe people can be educated to fit in with the mechanics of society (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008).
Feminist perspective of society is similar to Marxist; society is divided through exploitation, but highlight the division is gendered; women are dominated and controlled by men. Institutions are patriarchal, powered and ruled by men which oppresses all areas of a woman’s life: family, economic, professional (Haralambos, 2000).
Whereas the aforementioned perspectives emphasise structures in society, agency perspectives centre on how an individual is free to act upon the environment, therefore society is not wholly responsible for individual choices (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Social action perspectives, derived from the thinking of Max Weber (1864-1920), concentrate on individual choices within the social setting. Symbolic interactionism bases theory on members of social structures and how language, meaning and symbols are interpreted and understood, which in turn influences interaction and behaviour within society (Giddens, 2001). G H Mead (1934) claimed “individuals give meaning to the world by defining and interpreting it in certain ways” these meanings are constantly changing throughout the life-course (Cree, 2000:14). Mead believed even unintentional communication and information received from others allows an individual to become self aware, more able to develop and refine their social identity, thus able to adapt in different social situations. Cooley (1902) previously described this in his description of the ‘looking glass self’, constantly developing in accordance with the perception received from others, the social self is constantly being refined (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Reflection on reaction of others allows development of self concept which in turn influences action, people act in terms of their definition of self (Haralombos, 2000). The focus of social action approaches is based at micro level: individual encounters, rather than macro level, which critics argue overlooks the bigger picture including the larger issues of power which underpins oppression and inequality (Jones, 2003).
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There are multiple views on the social world, more recent developments such as postmodernism theory highlights how society has moved on and advanced therefore traditional universal theory is no longer relevant in a diverse and cultured society. However combining insights and different aspects from the varying perspectives develops what is termed a ‘sociological imagination’ which, as Giddens (1984) identified, having an informed approach is necessary to allow an understanding of how both micro and macro factors impact individual lives and behaviour (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Recognising how social settings and institutions influence human action together with self perception built on the reaction from interaction with others, helps to provide explanations and reasons as to why people behave differently (Jones, 2003). C Wright Mills believed the sociological imagination allows understanding of how personal troubles are derived from public issues, having a broader outlook of the social world provides enlightenment of viewpoints other than our own and heightened awareness of how others live and the problems encountered (Giddens, 2001).
Developing a ‘sociological imagination’ is essential for those in the social work profession to perceive problems of vulnerable groups and individuals. Issues of disadvantage and inequality are at the centre of practice with service users being of the most impoverished people in society faced with issues of poverty, unemployment, ill health, crime and social exclusion thus awareness of how social processes can lead to marginalisation and isolation is vital to develop empathy and understanding (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Social work aims to empower others therefore it is important to recognise that personal problems may not be self made but due to social practices and influencing structures, to assess strengths and weaknesses of individuals the wider context of ecological, environmental and social factors must be considered due to the impact they have (Cree, 2000). Berger (1963) claimed that in order to see the world differently it is necessary to deconstruct the familiar taken for granted assumptions allowing a more comprehensive view which for social workers better equips understanding of the lives of others when intervention is required (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008).
Another important aspect to consider for the social work profession is the issue of power and how it can perpetuate social problems. Social workers hold powerful roles both legally and working as agents of institutions, as theory suggests power in itself underpins inequality, being conscious of this enables an anti-oppressive approach to practice which is crucial. Social work practice needs to be based on an empowering approach rather than control therefore practitioners must have a clear understanding of the dynamics of power and its ability to exercise control over others (Smith, 2010). Those with positions of power are also capable of assigning labels through pre-existing stereotypical views which can result in marginalisation of individuals who may internalise these attached labels through social processes and interpretation and behave according to the perceived role (Cunningham & Cunningham, 2008). Theory is essential for practitioners when formulating strategies for service users as social work intervenes at the points people interact with society therefore unless the underlying reasons for disadvantage, inequality, discrimination and oppression are known, appropriate and effective intervention is not possible (Thompson, 2006).
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