Basic Concepts in Sociology

Everyone loves theory. Disciplines (at least those somewhat similar to Sociology) have Grand Theories Of Everything and little theories to explain specific outcomes and middle-range theories to satisfy everyone in-between. Theories for all occasions!

But beyond theories, disciplines also have basic concepts. Sometimes these concepts are so basic they defy definition in introductory textbooks. For example, economics rarely offers an explicit definition of a market or an economy – two central concepts. They do a bit better with supply and demand, two more basic concepts. These ideas are not pre-theoretical – as Kuhn reminds us, concepts are always theory-laden. But while these basic concepts bring with them certain ideas about how to see the world, they are often somewhat separate from the Big, Medium and Small theories we tend to argue about at great length. Most economists don’t quibble about whether or not it makes sense to think about markets at all, though they may argue about whether or not something “counts”.

This line of thinking led me to ask what the basic concepts of sociology are. Another way of asking this question would be, what do sociologists see the world as made up of? There are a lot of obvious answers, some of which overlap – race, class and gender, individual and society, agency and structure, social movements, states, nations, culture, norms, power, knowledge, etc. But I think there are three basic concepts that often go unremarked but are incredibly potent in contemporary (and early) sociological thinking: division of labor, definition of the situation, and taken for granted.

The Division of Labor is a concept most associated with Adam Smith, and secondarily with Durkheim. Smith’s famous theorem, “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market” connects the size of a community connected by trade and the amount of specialization possible. Specialization, in turn, makes possible enormous increases in productivity and thus material welfare. Hooray! Smith does note, however, that specialization may have one huge downside: that generalists will become narrow, and thus unable to make improvements in their lot or switch to different tasks. One remedy to this problem is public education, to make sure that even though our jobs are narrow, our skills are less so (see Wealth of Nations, Bk V, Ch 1, Pt III).

Durkheim picks up on the DoL to make claims about what organizes modern society as opposed to traditional ones. While older societies were united by everyone having the same consciousness, forged by engaging in identical tasks in identical environments (“mechanical solidarity”), modern societies are unified by their interdependence, like the organs in a body (hence “organic solidarity”). We’re all different, but we’re all in this together.

I would argue that the division of labor is a basic concept in our understanding of how societies work. It’s a starting place for our understanding of how people are brought together, and what makes a society a society. For example, Wallerstein’s world-systems theory argues that since the 1500s, most of the world has been united in a single economy, as almost the entire world exchanged necessary goods. That is, the division of labor was global, thus we should think of a single world-system rather than nations.

On a much more micro-level, theorists have focused heavily on “definitions of the situation”. Classic examples would include the Thomas theorem, quoted in Merton’s famous essay on self-fulfilling prophecies: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This concept is at the root of all sorts of social constructionist theories, radical or not. Goffman and Garfinkel are two more recent theorists who relied heavily on the analysis of definitions of the situation.

Lastly, and in a similar vein to definition of the situation, “taken for granted” is a key concept in theories of culture, hegemony, etc. For example, modern neoinstitutional theories focus on how certain practices come to be taken for granted – often a synonym for legitimate, or having a ready-made explanation.

While these basic concepts occur in lots of different sociological theories, I wonder if we pay them too little attention. Or, more snarkily, I wonder if “division of labor”, “definition of the situation” and “taken for granted” are themselves taken for granted! While I’ve read many an article attempting to provide better and more coherent definitions of class, race or gender, I’ve seen relatively few that focus on exploring these basic concepts and what they tell us about how we understand our world. I don’t know that I could give a decent definition of “taken for granted”, for example. And that can be a problem when it comes to argue that a particular idea or practice has become taken for granted. On the other hand, I also think all three are incredibly useful and productive ways to approach that world – perhaps because, rather than in spite, of their relative under-definition.

Alright enough musing. A question for the audience: What are your favorite basic concepts in sociology? What concepts should we toss out as smuggling in with them theories that we don’t necessarily want?



  1. Latour says ‘society’ is the basic concept that smuggles in an original unexamined reification (e.g. Durkheim’s ‘sui generis’). He’d be a methodological individualist except that ‘individual’ is the same kind of reification.

  2. fourcultures

     /  February 16, 2010

    It seems axiomatic in sociology that there is something ‘more’ that other approaches (eg. psychological, political, philosophical, economic) can’t reach. It may be labeled ‘society’, but very many sociologists, Durkheim notwithstanding, are suspicious of/opposed to anything like ‘social facts’. What this something more actually is – that’s what sociologists like to argue about. In fact, we could even say that the argument over society as a key concept is itself a key concept in sociology.
    My website is preoccupied with the preponderance of ‘fourfold conceptual schemes’ in the social and human sciences. I would argue that the fourfold conceptual scheme is a kind of leitmotif in the social sciences – if you haven’t got one it doesn’t sound right.

  3. Anil Muhurdaroglu

     /  March 10, 2011

    I believe in the significance of focusing on the concept of ‘society’. I think this concept can be regarded as a by-product of Scottish theorists’ critique of the contract theory. They paved the way for the emergence of a new concept (or, let’s say, attribution of a different meaning to an existing concept) which triggered the development of a new science. Pier Manent’s argument comes to my mind: “After the Revolution, the men of the nineteenth century no longer lived merely in civil society or the state, they lived in a third element that received various names, usually ‘society’ or ‘history'” (An Intellectual History of Liberalism). I’m not saying that ‘society’ became the sole object of knowledge in disciplinary sociology. But the imposition of an analytical content into this term seems to be the main source of legitimacy of the science of society. I wrote this long comment for I would like to ask your opinions about the title of the new translation of Tonnies’s ‘Gemeinschaft und Gessellschaft’. Cambridge published this new translation with the title of ‘Community and Civil Society’. Translators’ note did not give much idea about this choice -of course I might have missed a footnote. How much does this new title owe to the restoration of the political content of the ‘societal’ with the debates after 1960s?

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