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College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
Types of Sociology

Types of Sociology

Over my career, I have given much thought to sociology as a field of study. Courses in theory and methods exposes sociology students, like myself, to a wide range of paradigms. Very early on, the sociological imagination of Mills (1959) and the conflict perspective resonated with me, largely because of my own personal biography. In this way, the determinative social forces came to life in my own experiences.

As I delved more deeply into theory and sociological paradigms, my own understanding of the potential of sociological perspectives began to crystalize. Attending professional conferences also solidified my perspective. While some researchers in the Marxist discipline focus nearly exclusively on the global level to the exclusion of people’s lived experience, Marxists tend engage in research to change society for the better. Presentations at professional conferences reflected this orientation. I also would stumble into other panels, and to my amazement, I may find an example from the functionalist perspective - the coelacanth of the sociology world, long thought extinct, but still surviving in isolated environs.  I also found that there was a predominance of what I refer to as “whoopie cushion
sociology”  (Sethuraju, Prew, Abdi, and Pipkins 2013:9) - so-called “deviant” subcultures meticulously studied and explained through extended quotes to document their uniqueness with absolutely no connection to broader social forces or theory.

For some time, I thought my pigeonholing of sociology paradigms was my own solitary assessment until I recently came upon a sociology text by Albert Szymanski and Ted Goertzel (1979). In it, they outline three types of sociology: Conservative, Liberal, and Radical. The conservative paradigm is the Parsonian functionalism that assumes all is well with the world except those that are not sufficiently socialized into the dominant social values. The liberal paradigm is characterized by its absence of broader social forces and its “colorful anecdotal material that makes for interesting reading” (Szymanski and Goertzel, 1979:24), i.e. whoopie cushion sociology. The radical perspective is focused on historical comparative studies aimed at the transformation of society and liberation of the oppressed. Below are extended quotes from their text (Szymanski and Goertzel, 1979) highlighting the differences in sociology I have come to know over the years.

Conservative Sociology

Perhaps the most basic assumption in conservative sociology is that society is an essentially orderly and harmonious entity, a single organism. While the conservative sociologists recognize that there are many diverse individuals and groups in society, their main concern is how these can be made to fit together in a smoothly operating social system. While some conservatives assume that people are basically evil for biological reasons, [Talcott] Parsons and most sociological conservatives tend to view people as receptive to whatever influences society places upon them. Parsons’ most central assumption is that the system of values or beliefs holds societies together. The nature of a society, and any problems that occur within it, are to be explained in terms of values held by the people in the society. Growth in a society means the development of values that better enable the society to adapt to its environment (15).
The conservative paradigm is more concerned with legitimation than it is with actual scientific research.... It is a paradigm that is highly conservative in its value implications. The highly abstract terminology used by Parsons generally makes the paradigm seem more objective and scientific than it really is. Use of this terminology makes it difficult to deal with issues such as basic conflicts of interests between groups in society, since the very terminology would lead one to think of these conflicts in terms of mere differences in values (18).

Liberal Sociology

Liberal sociology differs from conservative sociology in its political implications, but this difference is not obvious or straightforward. Liberal sociologists do not generally offer a liberal model of how societies function that could be compared with the models offered by conservative or radical sociology. Rather, they tend to avoid the question of the larger structure of society, focusing instead on limited problems within one particular part of society. Or, frequently, they focus on social-psychological problems that can be dealt with on the level of individual interactions without examining how these personal problems fit into the larger societal context.
Liberal sociologists generally take the larger structure of the society for granted, and work on resolving specific problems or answering specific questions within it. This approach fits into liberalism as a political ideology. Liberals generally do not question the basic organization of the American society but the do work to reform specific aspects of it.... When problems such as crime in the streets or worker dissatisfaction with their jobs or working conditions occur, liberals generally assume they can be resolved without major changes in the society or without compromising the interests of either group in the dispute (19).
While liberal sociology is weak in social theory, it is much stronger in its emphasis on research methodology. Indeed, liberal sociologists are often accused of stressing methods at the expense of theory or even of empirical description (22).
There are three main methodological traditions within the liberal paradigm. The first is the experimental method. By experimentation is meant a method in which the research actively manipulates people in order to control the variables [the researcher] is studying.... The laboratory situation is inherently artificial, and there is considerable controversy about how much behavior in the laboratory is actually the same as behavior in the real world (23).
The second method, which has been developed into a fine art by liberal sociologists is the sample survey.... There are significant advantages to the survey method. It is fairly objective, in the sense that any two researchers who ask the same questions to samples selected in the same way should get approximately the same results. It makes it possible to study large segments of the population fairly economically.... It is limited, however, to studying phenomena that are formed in the conscious minds of the respondents and that they are willing and able to tell the interviewer about. It is difficult to use surveys to study historical change since one cannot go back into history and ask survey questions (although one can sometimes find relevant surveys done by someone else in the past) (23-24).

The third method often used by liberal sociologists to simply observe group life. Sometimes the sociologist participates as a member of a group and writes about his or her observations and experiences (this is known as “participant observation”)....
Observational methods have certain advantages. They enable the sociologist to get close to social life and perhaps to observe things that he or she did not anticipate and thus could not have put into a survey or questionnaire. They often generate colorful anecdotal material that makes for interesting reading.... The disadvantage is that observational methods are very restricted in scope. Only relatively small groups can be observed directly, and there is no guarantee that what one observes in a given group is the same as what happens in other groups. Furthermore, not all groups are accessible to observation, and observational sociologists tend to emphasize groups that are deviant or interesting in some way. They rarely if ever study powerful groups, although these groups actually have a much greater ability to shape social reality than the more ordinary groups that are available for study....
Through limitations in assumptions about what is important, liberal sociologists generally avoid serious or fundamental analysis of larger societal issues, focusing instead on smaller questions that can be dealt with within the confines of the existing social system (24).

Radical Sociology

Rather than seeing societies as stable and integrated, Marxism sees societies as divided into social classes that have conflicting economic interests. It assumes that the dominant classes use both persuasion and coercion to dominate the lower classes and that the conflict growing out of the exploitative relations eventually leads to revolutionary change in the social system (25).
Marxist concepts are less accessible than those of liberal sociology, since liberal sociology deals largely with phenomena on the level of individual behavior that are familiar to most people. Marxist concepts are useful only when one recognizes the necessity of understanding the dynamics of social systems as a whole (26).
The Marxist paradigm encompasses all societies at all times, but most of Marx’s work deals with capitalist societies. Much more than the other two paradigms, the Marxist paradigm is comparative and historical.... Different theories within the Marxist paradigm are not of merely academic interest. One of the central tenets of Marxism is that theories are important insofar as they provide a guide to action. Political parties and groups that accept a general Marxist approach differ on questions of tactics strategy, and policy. They each advance theories and attempt to [support] them both by research and by practical action (27).

Marxists use a fairly wide range of methods to answer questions raised by their theories. Since Marxism stresses historical changes on the societal level, historical methods of research are often used. Marx himself relied upon government documents for much of his data, particularly for statistical information on economic trends. Marxists can also learn from participation in social activities and movements, and from interviews with informed participants in political struggles. Survey methods are also amenable to answering some of the questions raised by Marxists, especially questions about consciousness or political ideologies. However, survey methods are limited in their ability to tap highly controversial opinions and attitudes that interest Marxists, and they play a much less central role than in liberal sociology (28).

While these paradigms are a “simplified version” (Szymanski and Goertzel, 1979:15), I cannot help but feel that little has changed since Szymanski and Goertzel wrote these words. In fact, little changed in the time since Mills wrote his “autopsy” (Dandaneau 2009:13) twenty years earlier. Mills railed against psychologism: “‘Psychologism’ refers to the attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of facts and theories about the make-up of individuals.  Historically, as a doctrine, it rests upon an explicit metaphysical denial of the reality of social structure.” (Mills 1959:67) and abstracted empiricism: “The policy for progress of abstracted empiricists is very specific and quite hopeful: Let us accumulate many microscopic studies; slowly and minutely, like ants dragging many small crumbs into a great pile, we shall ‘build up a science’” (Mills 1959:127).

There is an interesting contradiction at the center of sociology. The majority of its members cling to the term “sociological imagination” and some consider themselves radicals (Szymanski and Goertzel, 1979:24), but the mountains of research is embarrassingly lacking in the fundamental premises that Mills (1959) puts forward in the sociological imagination: the tie of biography to social structure, the emphasis on the historical-comparative, the antagonism to psychologism, and the pursuit of social science as an expressly political project. While there is some research, specifically the radical paradigm, that does integrate the sociological imagination, the liberal paradigm has absconded with the term, sociological imagination, to cloak their naked emperor.

As a political economist, it is quite clear to me why the discipline of sociology looks the way it does. If sociology truly lived up to the sociological imagination, we would be living in quite a different world. The demands of tenure and the dictates of journal publication constrict research, in large part with notable exceptions, to easily studied phenomenon that can be summarized in 10,000 words or less. While not ultimately excluding other research, the path is clear if one wants the easy road to tenure and promotion. As Mills (1959) even comments himself, “Very little except [the researcher’s] own individual limitations stood between the individual craftsman of social science and work of the highest order” (102-3). But, Mills also is very clear that the discipline is consumed with research of the small-scale milieu.

Sociology is largely a discipline that lacks the sociological imagination and tends to cater to the liberal paradigm. While the conservative paradigm of the functionalists tends to be marginalized, so do the radical paradigms of Marxism, critical race theory, and radical feminist approaches. Liberal approaches tend to think of themselves as critical, but they are really conducting safe research that does not seriously challenge anyone or anything, such as racists or racist social structure, fundamental economic exploitation, environmental degradation, the profit motive, etc. “Scientific with a capital S–which often only means made ‘safe’ by being made trivial–for they do not want to be made the subjects of political attention” (Mills 1959:104).

Obviously, Mills, as well as Szymanski and Goertzel, have taken a clear political stance on the field of sociology. Given my own personal experience in the field, I am given to siding with their analysis. Having said so, it still begs the question, “why does it matter?” Why should we be concerned that most sociology does not live up to the sociological imagination? If it did, would sociology be even less well funded and secure than it already is? Is radical sociology even sociology, or is it really political economy that finds its way into the discipline of the sociology because there are scarcely any departments of political economy? In that way, are political economists really interlopers in the conservative field of sociology pressing our politicized criticism on the discipline unfairly?

While I cannot hope to answer all of these questions, I do think a liberal paradigm that has so eagerly coopted the sociological imagination deserves harsh rebuke for its selective appropriation of the most palatable aspects of Mills’ critique. The liberal paradigm has no defense for the reams of journal articles so painfully self-referential and obtuse as to render Mills’ call for the political task in social science
mute. We can rarely find any evidence of Mills' declaration to make the connection between the issues of social structure and the troubles of personal biography clear to the public. On this count alone, sociology, as a discipline, is guilty of gross negligence.

The predominance of liberal sociology matters precisely because of the challenges facing contemporary society. By choosing to focus on the theories of the middle range (at best) and the inane (at worst), liberal sociologists have made a conscious decision that the lives of those at risk from ecological crisis, inequality, civil conflict, etc. are of less import than understanding identity construction, sub-group behavior, organizational efficiency, etc. By excluding historical social structure from their analysis, liberal sociologists have conceded that resolving social problems is beyond their scope of concern. To be frank, Mills was very clear that the social scientist “is to combat all those forces which are destroying genuine publics and creating a mass society–or put as a positive goal, [the] aim is to help build and strengthen self-cultivating publics. Only then might society be reasonable and free” (Mills 1959:186).


Dandaneau, Steven. 2009. “Sisyphus Had It Easy: Reflections of Two Decades of Teaching the Sociological Imagination.” Teaching Sociology 37(1):8-19.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sethuraju, Nadarajan (Raj), Paul Prew, Abdihakin Abdi, and Martel Pipkins. 2013. “The Consequences of Teaching Critical Sociology on Course Evaluations.” Sage Open July-September:1-15.

Szymanski, Albert J., and Ted George Goertzel. 1979. Sociology: Class, Consciousness, and Contradictions. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.