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are amongst the main advocates of methodological

individualism. They oppose holistic forms

of explanation, which refer to systemic or societal

needs. Some methodological individualists use rational

explanations. These are intentional explanations

but with the added assumption that people

act rationally. People act rationally if they have a

clear preference ordering and make choices consistent

with that preference ordering. In addition,

they have rational beliefs about how to get what

they want and about the costs and benefits involved.

Rational choice theory (or rational action

theory as some prefer to call it) advocates rational

explanations. Within this theory, there are differences

as to the universality and applicability of

rational explanations. There is also disagreement

as to whether people make conscious calculations.

Externalists like Gary Becker simply argue that

people act as if they are rational. They do not

assume that people necessarily go through a conscious

decision process. Sometimes they might,

sometimes they might not.

In opposition to methodological individualism,

some sociologists are drawn to holistic forms

of explanation. Most holistic explanations are

functional. Functional explanations account for

the persistence of certain social phenomena by

referring to their (often unintended) effects for

the cohesion and stability of the broader social

system in which they are embedded. For example,

some sociologists explain the persistence of religious

rites by referring to the solidarity and cohesion

they create. Most sociologists occasionally

use functional explanations, but functionalism is

a sociological school that primarily and selfconsciously

uses functional explanations. Robert

K. Merton and Talcott Parsons are well-known

self-proclaimed functionalists. Within this theoretical

framework, there are many differences.

Earlier functionalists, like A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

(1881–1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski, assumed

that most, if not all, practices are functional and

indispensable. Later functionalists relaxed this


Evolutionary explanations rest on a combination

of causality and selection, and evolutionary

theory is a school that promotes such explanations.

There are two types of evolutionary explanation.

First, sociobiology uses biological factors to

explain social phenomena. For instance, it tries

to demonstrate that biological differences between

sexes manifest themselves in social differences.

Second, some theorists account for social

processes by drawing on analogies with biological

evolution. For instance, it might be argued that,

through time, institutions and even whole societies

undergo evolutionary selection. Or it might

be asserted that certain practices or ideas are

eventually selected out, while others replicate

more easily. Some sociologists combine evolutionary

analogies with methodological individualism.

This was the case for Herbert Spencer, one of the

first sociologists to employ evolutionary reasoning.

Others use evolutionary analogies in conjunction

with a more holistic approach. E´mile

Durkheim was one of the first to do this. Since

the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish

Gene (1976), evolutionary analogies have regained

popularity in the social sciences. Examples are

Walter Garrison Runciman’s two-volume Treatise

on Social Theory (1983, 1989) and Rom Harre´’s Social

Being (1993).

While there are many types of explanation, there

is also disagreement as to how to evaluate explanations.

Many philosophers argue that explanations

need to have some empirical content. This led logical

positivists to call for verifiability: explanations

ought to be formulated so that it is

possible to find empirical evidence that supports

them. Popper suggested falsifiability: explanations

ought to be stated so that they can be refuted

on the basis of empirical evidence. Highly falsifiable

explanations are preferred over cautious explanations:

they are more informative and more

precise. The school of critical realism focuses on

the difference between explanations and descriptions.

For a statement to be explanatory, it ought to

include precise information about the mechanisms,

structures, or powers at work. These mechanisms

might not be immediately accessible to


Finally, there are also different views as to how

to arrive at explanations. The inductivist tradition

insisted on the primacy of theory-independent

empirical observations. It employs induction,

whereby one generalizes from observational

explanation explanation


statements to arrive at universal statements.

Deductivists like Popper and Carl Gustav Hempel

(1905–97) insist on the value of deduction,

whereby one starts with theoretical assumptions

and initial conditions to infer empirical hypotheses.

Hempel’s view of science is known as

the hypothetico-deductive method. Different

again is the “retroduction” or “abduction” of

Charles Peirce (1839–1914) referring to the process

by which one makes sense of a new phenomenon

through drawing analogies with something


expressive revolution

– see Talcott Parsons.

extended family

– see family.

explanation extended family



face-to-face group

– see group(s).

face work

– see Erving Goffman.

factor analysis

One of the most widely used, and misused, of the

complex multivariate statistics that have become

more accessible since the spread of computing

power, this can reduce a larger number of measured

variables into a smaller number of latent

variables, or “factors.” It is thus a “data reduction”

technique, aimed at simplifying data while

retaining its important features.

Factor analyses take as their input a number

of different variables, usually all measuring similar

related constructs (such as items in a standard

personality questionnaire). The correlations

between these measures are computed, and the

number of dimensions (in a multi-dimensional

space) that one needs to extract to describe the

important variance, while screening out the error

variance, is estimated. These factors are then constructed,

and rotated to facilitate their interpretation.

Finally, each case can be given a score on

the newly created factors, for instance to describe

respondents’ personality along each dimension of

the model.

Factor analysis was critical to the conceptualization

and development of research into intelligence

and personality in early and mid-twentiethcentury

psychology. For instance, R. B. Cattell, in

The Scientific Analysis of Personality (1965), started

by extracting all of the words in the English language

to describe personality. Even after removing

synonyms, there were still thousands of words. So

Cattell used factor analysis to reduce this down to

a list of fourteen personality scales, which became

a standard model for many years in personnel

selection and social research. H. J. Eysenck, in The

Scientific Study of Personality (1982), went a stage

further, and produced a model with just two dimensions,

extraversion–introversion and neurotic–

stable (and later a third dimension, psychoticism).

The initial appeal of factor analysis is that it

would provide a scientific basis for answering

some fundamental questions, such as how many

dimensions there are to human personality or

intelligence. Unfortunately, this promise to provide

a scientific objectivity has not materialized,

and in many cases different researchers, each

using factor analyses, have arrived at very different

conclusions. This is largely because there are a

number of ways in which the computation of any

particular model can be influenced by fairly arbitrary

decisions by the researcher. At each stage,

the number of factors extracted, the method of

rotation, and the method of separating error from

true variance are often matters of judgment by

the researcher, rather than being given by the

model. And, probably, the most contentious decision

of all is how one chooses which variables to

include in the factor analysis. For instance, if one

is attempting to create a model of intelligence, we

would all agree that we should include mathematical,

logical, and linguistic skills, but what about

musical ability, creativity, or coordination?

Two forms of factor analysis are currently

employed by sociologists. Exploratory factor analysis

is the more common variety, typically used

(as the name suggests) to investigate the way in

which variables can be simplified into their underlying

dimensions. As long as no grand claims are

made about determining the true nature of reality,

researchers can avoid the controversy associated

with the early uses of factor analysis, and can

pragmatically simplify the analysis of complex

datasets. The second form, confirmatory factor

analysis, works to a different philosophy, and determines

how well a set of data conforms to a

theoretical model. BRENDAN J . BURCHELL


What makes a theory scientific was a question

that haunted Karl Popper, and, more particularly,

how we could distinguish a scientific theory from

a non-scientific one. He argued that traditional

explanations of what made a scientific theory scientific

– that it was based on careful observation


and then the formulation of laws regarding the

relationships discovered, that is induction – were

wrong. This is because, while events might regularly

occur together, there is no way to establish

that they cause each other: the problem of causality.

The bigger question at hand for Popper was

how to distinguish pseudo-science from science,

and in particular to demonstrate why it was, as he

thought, that Marxism and the works of Sigmund

Freud were “pseudo-sciences.” The answer was

that no evidence could disconfirm either Marxism

or psychoanalysis: if the proletariat did not rise up

in rebellion today as predicted, then they would

one day. The observation was modified to protect

the hypothesis. If the patient did not resolve their

anxiety neurosis, then it was not because their

psychoanalysis failed, but because the patient

was repressed. Thus the theories could explain

everything that did (or did not happen) and

appeared to be constantly verified. Given this,

they could continue to claim to be scientific and

no evidence could satisfactorily challenge them.

Popper argued that it was too easy to search for

verifications of theories and that a new way of

putting the question had to be formulated. Rather

than look for evidence to support it, a scientific

theory had to pose questions that could prove it

wrong, that is falsify it. So the criterion of a scientific

theory for Popper is that it be falsifiable by

empirical observations. The example that Popper

uses is Albert Einstein’s prediction that light

would be attracted towards a heavy body, that is,

that it could be seen to bend as it neared the

gravitational pull of say, the sun. This was, as

Popper put it, a risky hypothesis since, if it was

not confirmed, then Einstein’s theory would be

falsified (which was not in itself a problem, since

the hallmark of good science is that it can be

falsified). However, Einstein’s theory of gravitation

was confirmed in 1919 by A. S. Eddington’s

observations of the transit of Venus. So Einstein’s

theory survived a challenge that could have falsified

it. While we cannot conclude that it is true,

we can now proceed to work with it as a scientific

theory. Until Marxism or psychoanalysis, like science,

makes predictions that are falsifiable by evidence,

then we can conclude that, whether they

are true or not, they are not scientific. However,

Popper is still left with the problem of what is to

count as an independent observation that could

falsify a prediction. As work by later historians and

philosophers of science was to show, particularly

that of Thomas Samuel Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific

Revolutions, 1970) on paradigms, scientific theories

are self-contained, largely self-confirming,

sets of statements, sustained by specific scientific

communities. They establish what questions can

be asked, what will count as an observation,

and disregard non-confirming evidence. On this

ground, no theory can be scientific in Popper’s


families of choice

– see Family.


There are many sociological explanations and accounts

of families, from those that concentrate

on grand theories and relate family structure to

industrial society, capitalism, and/or patriarchy,

through to those that are derived from more

ethnographic studies of everyday family interactions

and negotiations. Families can be, and

have been, studied at all levels of analysis. At

times families have been seen as homogeneous

unities of people who co-reside, often with a sole

head of household, clearly defined social roles,

and a distinct division of labor. At other times

families are understood to be real or imagined

networks based on obligations and affections of

an interpersonal nature rather than being structurally

determined. These differences reflect, to

a large extent, changing fashions in sociological

theorizing and enquiry. At certain times particular

modes of explanation are seen as especially

insightful (for example. functionalist approaches),

while at others different issues seem more important,

particularly if they have been previously

ignored or rendered invisible (for example domestic

labor in the household). In more recent times,

the very prospect of a sociology of the family has

been deemed to be uninteresting and theoretically

arid, and the subject has been described as

slipping into the doldrums. Indeed Ulrich Beck

and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, in The Normal Chaos

of Love (1990 [trans. 1995]), suggest that it has

only recently become interesting again: “Family

research is only gradually waking up from its

drowsy fixation on the nucleus of the family.”

The core issue that all sociologies of family

life and relationships have had in common, however,

has been the problem of turning the sociological

gaze onto areas of life which are routine,

commonplace, and part of almost everyone’s

everyday experience. The family is a naturalized

concept, by which it is meant that it is taken-forgranted

as natural – notwithstanding how much

families differ and change. The sociological task

is therefore to de-naturalize the family in order

falsification family


that it may become the focus of social analysis.

It is this project of de-naturalization that links

otherwise disparate sociological approaches.

It is almost inevitable that any synopsis of

sociological work on families should start with

Talcott Parsons and Robert Bales (Family, Socialization

and Interaction Process (1955). Not only did their

functionalist approach set the tone of much work

on families for generations in the United States

and the United Kingdom, but it became the standard

against which more critical work later pitted

itself. Parsons and Bales broadly argued that a

sociological approach to families should construe

them, not simply as natural collectivities, but as

a social system.

There arose the tendency among functionalists

to speak of the family, because “it” was theorized

as one institution amongst several core social institutions

(such as the church and the state). The

institution of the family was however, in this

schema, a relatively junior player, because its

structure and functioning was deemed to serve

the needs of other (more significant) institutions.

Indeed, Parsons and Bales argued that an indication

of how “advanced” a society was lay in

whether the family was in a subsidiary status

when compared with other institutions. They

saw the decline of the significance of kinship as

indicating a cultural rise of merit over the values

of familialism. Their approach tended to suggest

that phenomena such as family size (two children

rather than ten, for example) or segregated

gender roles within the family were a result of

the needs of the economy or of industrialization,

rather than arising from the motivations or interests

of the members of families. The family

was therefore depicted as the handmaiden of

larger social forces, and its core function was to

produce socially appropriate (well socialized) citizens

of the next generation to take their place

in the economy and wider society. Men, women,

and children were seen as having different roles

and functions in the family, which had evolved

to meet the needs of society. Thus women were

inevitably unpaid housewives and child carers,

while men were the breadwinners because this

system produced the most stable outcomes for

society. Moreover, men were deemed to be heads

of the household, because the model of family

living deployed by the functionalist approach

presumed that authority and leadership could

only come from one source. Parsons and Bales

predicted (unwisely as it turns out) that this division

of labor would remain unchanged in the


There are, of course, many criticisms that can

be made of this early sociological work on the

family, and some of these will be rehearsed below.

However, it is useful to locate this work in its

own time and intellectual moment in order to

appreciate the way in which it can be given a

certain amount of credit for developing the field.

The task that Parsons and Bales set themselves

was a complex one because they saw the family

as a social system, but also as the site where individual

personality was formed. They also saw the

types of personalities that were formed there as

contributing (in an iterative fashion) to the wider

culture of a given society. They were therefore

working with three main concepts. The first was

the idea of the family as a system, the second

was the idea of the personality as a system, and

the third was the wider culture – a concept which

is ultimately underdeveloped in their work. For

the latter two concepts they drew heavily on

psychoanalysis particularly the work of Sigmund

Freud, and anthropology particularly the work of

Margaret Mead), respectively. Their work brought

together quite different disciplinary approaches

which in turn gave rise to their insistence that

the family was itself a site of production of personalities

and that its workings could not be conceptually

reduced to the impoverished idea that

families were mere microcosms of wider society.

Notwithstanding the fact that Parsons and Bales

are largely remembered for their ideas about the

way in which the family functioned to support

other social institutions and the desirability of

the gendered division of labor, they spent a great

deal of time exploring the internal dynamics

of families and even raising the issue of sexual

relationships between spouses – something that

later sociologists conspicuously avoided.

At virtually the same time that Parsons and

Bales were producing their general theoretical

analysis of the family, Michael Young and Peter

Willmott (Family and Kinship in East London, 1957)

published their micro-analysis of changing family

life based on empirical research within workingclass

communities. Young and Willmott’s study

sought not only to analyze family change but

also to allow the voices of the family members to

be heard in the text through the liberal use of

quotations from the interviews they conducted

with couples. Their approach to research and their

style of presentation was almost the complete

antithesis of Parsons and Bales’s formal and abstract

interpretations. Where Parsons and Bales

ignored the extended family, focusing almost

exclusively on the ideal of the nuclear family,

family family


Young and Willmott located families within kinship

networks and talked about the importance

of family members helping each other and sustaining

(adult) intergenerational links. The latter

did not conceptualize families as isolated from

their communities (although they did note

how things changed as neighborhoods were

demolished in the postwar era). While Parsons

and Bales’s work can now be interpreted as a

paean to the nuclear family, Young and Willmott

might be described as a hagiography of the

working-class family. Their work sought to rewrite

the working-class family as a site of warmth

and mutual support between husband and wife,

and to retrieve it from the widespread belief

(generated by the writings of early feminists,

philanthropists, and campaigners against poverty)

that it was a wretched place, dominated by

male violence, drunkenness, grime, and relentless

childbirth. Their vision was optimistic too. They

argued that there were far fewer broken homes

in Britain in the 1950s than in previous decades,

and they saw this as something continuing into

the future because they understood the main

cause of disruption as being the death of the

male head of household (usually in wars) or of

either parent (owing to disease). This optimistic

framework carried forward into their later work,

The Symmetrical Family (1973), in which they described

the emergence of a new type of family.

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