Schools in Sociology Research Paper

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In this entry, school will be understood as referring to a group of practitioners who are identified in terms of characteristic ways of acting upon the world. Such practices are derived from some general principles (analytical, theoretical, empirical premises of interpreting and putting into practice some basic ways of viewing reality), often formulated by a central figure or figures and amplified by their students or followers. If not in terms of some defining orientation to the world, a school may receive its identity in terms of either the name of the leader who formulated the basic approach, or else the setting where the group developed its coherence and overall unity.

Schools are fairly common categorizations of groups in the humanities, such as in philosophy (e.g., American pragmatism), the arts (e.g., cubism), and even history (e.g., the Annales school of Lucien Febvre [1878-1956], Marc Bloch [1886-1944], and Fernand Braudel [19021985]). In contrast, it is uncommon to find schools in the history and development of the natural sciences, however marked they are by controversies over priorities in scientific discoveries. In between, although it is more common in presenting the history of the discipline to deal with the work of individuals rather than that of schools, in the social and behavioral sciences (social anthropology, clinical and social psychology, and particularly sociology), schools have played a major role. To pursue this topic, however, it is necessary to provide further specification of what is taken to be a school by breaking the term into a weak sense and a strong sense.

By weak sense of school is meant a grouping of figures and their research and publications that share a general orientation to reality, a general way of dealing with and interpreting social reality, irrespective of whether these individuals have known or interacted with each other; the strength of their networks is thus weak, and there is no specific locale for their training. The collective identity of such a school is heuristic in providing some organization to the diversity of empirical and research orientations present in the discipline, but it does not have a clear focus. And school in this sense may fade into a looser grouping, such as traditions that may be analytical (e.g., Collins 1994) or geographical (e.g., Genov 1989).

Perhaps the best approach to schools in the weak sense noted above is the pioneering study of then-contemporary sociological theories conducted by Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968). He proposed (1928, p. xvi) that social theories seeking scientific merit could be grouped in nine major schools (mechanistic, synthetic and geographical, geographical, biological, biosocial, biopsychological, sociologistic, psychological, and psycho-sociologistic), with some important varieties listed under several schools. The taxonomy of his study was intended to establish inductively and critically sociology as a multidimensional discipline seeking to deal factually with its subject matter and correlations between classes of social phenomena and between social and nonsocial phenomena. Fifty years later this perspective of the unity in diversity of sociology still held (as seen in Eisenstadt and Curelaru 1976).

Strong schools are those that have a recognizable central primary figure (or in some cases, figures) who elaborates the basic principles of approaching social reality in the search for valid knowledge (the ontology and episte-mology of the research enterprise)—metaphorically, who prepares the basic structure of a cookbook of recipes that may be used by students. In turn, the practices of the students add to the corpus of the initial doctrines and principles, perhaps by taking this into new vistas of research. The networking among members of the school will be strong, and will often show a high degree of citation of works of one another, with the writings of the central figures given privileged attention. While cohesion and mutual support vis-a-vis the discipline is high, for example, in obtaining resources for members and new recruits, such as publication outlets, research grants, and even academic or related positions, it is by no means assured. Yet even strong schools may weaken after one or two generations, either due to internal bickering regarding leadership or intellectual direction, or because of apparent exhaustion of research potential in the basic formulations of the school. Ultimately, the appeal of a school may wane when its central problems and modes of operation become viewed as superannuated in relating to societal reality and its changing conditions.

Some strong schools at peak strength dominate sub-fields of sociology and take on the general name of their orientation, with subgroups as offings having their own identity. In social psychology-sociology, symbolic interac-tionism (coined by Herbert Blumer [1900-1987]) has stressed the significance of establishing and interpreting how actors make sense (find meaning) in interacting with one another, even if the objective meaning of their situation is ambiguous. This school, drawing on the initial theoretical writings of the pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and the pioneering social psychological studies of William I. Thomas (1863-1947), had new dimensions introduced in the 1960s and 1970s in the ethnographic studies of Erving Goffman (1922-1982) and Harold Garfinkel (the latter, aided by Aaron Cicourel, developing the frames of ethnomethodology), and further in the 1980s in the studies of Gary Fine on subcultures. Though it is still a viable orientation at the microlevel (of interacting individuals), it has not been an overarching orientation of broader segments of society.

Also in this rubric of strong schools might be included world-system theory, which in the 1970s and 1980s had a major formulator, Immanuel Wallerstein (assisted by Terence Hopkins and Chris Chase-Dunn), a center for training (at the State University of New York-Binghamton), and a journal (Review). The comparative-historical studies of this school derive from a Marxist perspective of the exploitation of labor, before as well as after the advent of modern capitalism, and the unequal distribution of world resources operating over time in zero-sum fashion with core capitalistic countries accumulating greater shares at the expense of “peripheries.” The emergence of India and East Asia in recent decades has attenuated the appeal of this school, although it has made with its many scholars an important mark in the area of macrosociology.

There is perhaps a further set of very strong schools, which have practically dominated the entire field of sociology, or at least established some sort of intellectual hegemony for an entire generation or more. One might speak of the Marxist school drawing on the leadership of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), with a basic presupposition that the social order rests on the expropriation of labor and the exploitation of workers, who are temporarily kept from realizing their true conditions by the smokescreens of the dominant class, but as conditions increasingly worsen, a point will be reached where a socialist revolution will shatter the capitalist system. There have been numerous variations of Marxism claiming legitimacy as successors, but the one that in addition to world-system theory has been most recognized in the United States and Germany is the Frankfurt school, which later evolved under the second-generation leadership of Jurgen Habermas (at the University of Frankfurt) as critical theory. The major figures of the school in the 1920s sought to amalgamate a Marxist orientation critical of capitalism (historical materialism) with a Freudian orientation on psychological and cultural maladaptations of the modern world that hinder personal freedom and generate alienation. At the Institute of Social Research, they—notably Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)—pursued philosophical and historical investigations, interrupted by the Nazi regime. After World War II (1939-1945), the renovated critical theory orientation found many adepts on both sides of the Atlantic, spearheaded by Habermas, who engaged in the mass media a wide variety of topics and whose writings on communicative action considerably widened the theoretical tools by an earnest engagement with non-Marxist orientations such as American pragmatism and Parsonian action theory.

The three other “hegemonic schools” (Tiryakian 1986) to be noted may each be said to have nearly dominated the field of sociology, either in their own country or in the entire discipline. Besides all the characteristics of strong schools noted above, they emerged in periods of national reconstruction following some major crisis, and their basic theoretical and methodological orientations offered new initiatives for sociological action.

The secular government of the French Third Republic (1870-1940), which gave a high premium to public education, science, and civic morality, favored the rise of the Durkheimian school (Besnard 1983), whose intellectual leader, Emile Durkheim (1868-1917), produced foundational works for modern sociology, established the teaching of sociology at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, attracted highly gifted students— Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), Francois Simiand (18731935), Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), Marcel Granet (1884-1940), Robert Hertz (1881-1915), Henri Hubert (1872-1927)—who later found appointments in major areas of the public sector, and secured major publishing outlets (the publishing house Alcan and the world-class journal, the Annee Sociologique, which greatly contributed to advancing comparative-historical sociology and tacitly is the model for the American Annual Review ofSociologyi). The school emphasized in diverse analyses the irreducibil-ity of the social to individual causation such as economic interests, but sought to bring to light structures of social organization deeply imbedded in cognitive and ritual aspects of the collectivity itself.

In the United States, the University of Chicago became the locale of a new empirical orientation derived from (1) the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), William James (1842-1910), and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), and (2) the application of ecology in botany to the study of the dynamics of social organization of the human urban habitat, marked by competition and accommodation of various groups. With brilliant students under the analytical leadership of Robert Park (18641944) and the quantitative leadership of his lieutenant, Ernest Burgess (1886-1966), the Chicago school emerged after World War I (1914-1918) as providing outstanding training in field research and participant-observation of interaction processes (Bulmer 1984; Abbott 1999; Chapoulie 2001). It obtained research grants for its students, enjoyed a major publication outlet for doctoral monographs with the University of Chicago Press, and has been the site of the continuous publication of a world-class journal, the American Journal of Sociology.

Finally, in the post-World War II era, from the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) at Harvard University provided the prolific intellectual leadership for a new and systematic analytical perspective intended to integrate sociology, social anthropology, and social and clinical psychology. As the United States took global leadership in a pax Americana, Harvard’s Department of Social Relations provided new comparative and theoretical training that could be applied at micro- as well as macrolevels of analysis in what came to be termed structural-functional analysis. The historical development of this school and some of its major contributors—including Robert Merton (1910-2003), Kingsley Davis (1908-1997), Neil Smelser, and Robert Bellah—as related to but distinct from Parsons (whose later writings in what he saw as “action theory” went considerably beyond the initial mode of analysis he provided in the 1940s and 1950s) awaits to be written, beyond Parsons’s intellectual biography (Gerhardt 2002). Such a history would entail the many resources the school made available (such as the publishing house the Free Press, and the research grants of the Ford Foundation) and the diffusion of many of its central theoretical ideas to related disciplines such as political science and social anthropology.

This necessarily skeletal account of schools needs two final points. First, some of the most important names in the history of sociology are not associated with schools, despite their intellectual worth and significance. Such is the case, for example, with Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Max Weber (1864-1920), Georges Gurvitch (18941965), and Pitirim Sorokin. Second, schools do not flourish in sociology at all times; the contemporary period, for instance, seems to be a quiescent period bereft of a clearly recognized “hegemonic” school. Perhaps this presents an opportunity for a more objective examination of the rise and fall of schools, as well new research on their interconnecting networks.


  1. Abbott, Andrew. 1999. Department & Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Besnard, Philippe. 1983. The “Année Sociologique” Team. In The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology, ed. Philippe Besnard, 11–38. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.
  3. Bulmer, Martin. 1984. The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity and the Rise of Sociological Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Chapoulie, Jean-Michel. 2001. La Tradition sociologique de Chicago, 1892–1961. Paris: Seuil.
  5. Collins, Randall. 1994. Four Sociological Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Eisenstadt, S. N., and M. Curelaru. 1976. The Form of Sociology: Paradigms and Crises. New York: Wiley.
  7. Genov, Nikolai, ed. 1989. National Traditions in Sociology. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  8. Gerhardt, Uta. 2002. Talcott Parsons: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1928. Contemporary Sociological Theories. New York and London: Harper.
  10. Tiryakian, Edward A. 1986. Hegemonic Schools and the Development of Sociology. In Structures of Knowing: Current Studies in the Sociology of Schools, ed. Richard C. Monk, 417–441. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  11. World Institute for Development Economics Research. 2006. The World Distribution of Household Wealth. Helsinki, Finland: United Nations University.

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