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One interpretation of the sociological imagination is that it’s just about telling us that we’re not really free,
that we’re entirely determined by the society around us.
But this is an overly simplified way of putting it, and it’s useful to get a more nuanced sense of the concepts most frequently used in sociology.
It is true that the idea that we all, as individuals, control and steer our own lives in a purely individual way, is an illusion.
Our sense of who we are comes from the people around us, we always have to operate within existing social institutions, like a university,
or an organisation, and the opportunities that we have to shape the social world are actually quite limited.
My own view has always been that the only way social change ever takes place is on a collective basis: if you get a social movement where lots of
people get together to argue a particular kind of change, that’s when you get social change, but not if it’s only a selection of individuals,
no matter how supposedly powerful and influential they are.
In reality no individual exists in a vacuum, people are always part of a group or a social institution.
Examples of social institutions include the family – there are a range of rules and principles running through family life that have a continuity to them,
they exist over time, people acquire them from their parents, and pass them on to their own children.
Even if they change those rules and principles, there’s still a degree of stability and continuity to the way in which family life is organised.
The concept being applied here is that of social structure, but it’s important to keep in mind another concept that you need to use
alongside that, of agency or action.
Despite the arguments against ‘freedom’, sociologists do still see human beings as active, even if they are social shaped and formed.
The response to the arguments against freedom is to say, well, it might be an illusion to think that we’re all absolutely free, or that we can change
world events single-handed, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t play some kind of active role in society.
So instead of the word ‘freedom’, sociologists will talk about agency, and work out the relationhip between that agency
and the constraints of social structure.
This is one account how the problem should be approached, by Peter Berger:
The important part here is the part after 'but then we grasp...'
The first part of the quote is describing a very structuralist approach, and then adds ‘but’: the fact that we can see how the puppet theatre
works, how the strings are attached, is important.
It has the effect of softening the idea that we’re simply a product of the world around us, it gives us an active relationship to that world.
There are some points in history where it becomes possible for people to cut those strings, or change puppetmasters.
For sociologists the most interesting case studies involve looking at points where society changes a lot, where there’s a break in that continuity, and
people start thinking and acting in quite different kinds of ways.
The word culture is also very important. It draws your attention to the role that beliefs, values and norms play in social life.
It’s an aspect of what makes sociology different from economics, because economics tend to think of people as
behaving in entirely rational ways.
They have a certain model of human behaviour that assumes that everyone makes rational choices in their lives.
What sociologists and anthropologists will emphasise is that often people’s reasons for doing things are much more complicated than a
rational calculation of what the costs and benefits are.
People will often behave on the basis of their commitments to certain kinds of values that aren’t necessarily rational.
People do things because they think they’re important, not just because they’ve worked out that the benefits outweigh the costs.
An extreme counter example is the argument that it might be a good idea to buy and sell children, because then being a parent would be linked to
your wealth and what that implies for your ability to provide the ‘best’ upbringing for a child.
If you ask what is wrong with that idea, it’s only possible to answer the question in terms of non-economic, non-rational ideas.
We think it’s a bad idea just because we think it’s a bad idea, because we think there’s something important about the relationship between a parent
and a child that shouldn’t be subjected to the mechanisms of the market, that shouldn’t be influenced by money.
Another important concept is socialisation, which fleshes out the idea of structure.
When you start by observing that we’re not really free, the next step is to notice that there’s a
process we all go through from infancy onwards, that we aren’t born social beings.
We are born as a ‘bundle of instincts’ without very few social capacities – the most important ones, when you observe young infants,
appear to be crying and smiling.
It’s the process by which we learn to become members of society that’s important to understand,
and that’s what the term ‘socialisation’ refers to.
The concept of modernity is also central to the way sociologists analyse social life,
particularly in the sense that modernity is contrasted with tradition.
The development of the society we live in today is understood as having gone through a process of transformation from
traditional social forms to increasingly modern ones.
This is partly because sociology as a discipline emerged in the period around the 18th and 19th centuries,
when rapid social changes were taking place, and the concept of ‘society’ was useful in
understanding those changes and their impact on people.
Those changes were understood as a process of ‘modernisation’, of leaving behind an old world in order to enter an unknown new one.
For example, the impact of the industrial revolution and the introduction of new types of machinery on people’s social relationships with
each other, on family life, on the way work was organized was an important aspect of the
emergence of modern, as distinct from traditional, society.
There were a range of processes at play at the same time: there was a transformation of economic structure from feudalism to capitalism.
At the same time you can see process of democratisation, where the ability of influence the
direction of politics gradually spread from rich, male landowners to the rest of the population.
That process was not uncontested, there were many arguments against the spread of democracy, and today there are parts of the
world where it’s argued that democracy as we know it in Western countries isn’t in fact the best way to organize political and economic life.
Indeed, when you look at the United States today, it’s clear that as a political system there are many aspects that don’t function very well at all, such
as the conflict between the President and a Congress and Senate dominated by the opposing political party.
Urbanisation was also very important – you see a massive movement of population from the country to the city,
and rapidly increasing population size in the larger cities throughout Western Europe.
This meant a very significant change in people’s everyday lifestyles, and in many sense a ‘modern’ society is precisely an ‘urban’ one.
The role of religion changed significantly, too: for a long time sociologists thought that what one could observe was a consistent trend towards
secularisation, and in many respects that was equated with modernisation.
Church attendance gradually dropped, the Church’s influence on society became weaker and weaker.
That secularisation thesis has been proved spectacularly wrong since the 1980s, because religion’s role on society has in fact been
reinvigorated, and it’s become apparent that the relationship between religion and modernity is much more complex.
The mechanisms of government have also changed enormously: the organisation of people into units like ‘Australia’ or ‘the United States’,
with a corresponding machinery for administering those units – let’s call it ‘the state’ – which has constantly grown in size and impact on social life.
It’s hard to speak of modernisation without also mentioning the process of rationalisation, and one useful way to capture what that’s about is the
American sociologist George Ritzer’s theory of McDonaldisation.
He uses McDonalds as a key example of how the process of rationalisation operates, and the way in which a certain kind of logic to the way we do
our work, the way we relate to each other, the way in which any workplace is organized, follows particular kinds of principles, that are
then translatable into other, quite different contexts.
He shows how the principles governing the organization of McDonalds: calculability, predictability, efficiency, and control, align with
how the rest of society is organized.
You could also look at the spread of Ikea stores, or Starbucks, as another example of this kind of process.
A process of individualisation is another important aspect of the emergence of modern society.
There’s a shift from a more collective sense of your identity and who you are – as a member of a family, a kin network, or a village –
to a much more strongly individualised one.
People will often say that developments like Facebook are simply the latest stage in that process, because it creates a whole new space
where you can express your very distinctive individuality.
The genius of Mark Zuckerberg was to work out that this technology would tap into the inclination, into that sense of people being driven towards
constructing themselves as unique individuals.
This can be seen as demonstrating what I was saying before about how we’re actually shaped by social forces: it’s precisely when we sense
how unfree we actually are, that we seek out opportunities for expressing our distinctiveness and our freedom by assembling collections of
photos that nobody else has, and so on.
Finally, the concept of colonialism is important to keep in view. If one is speaking of a process of state-formation, or modernisation, it’s crucial to
remember that it involved the exercise of force and power by some parts of the world, some groups of people, over others.
Not everyone will see modernisation in this way, indeed most accounts won’t.
But here at the University of Sydney, we make a point of arguing that the concept of colonialism, and its variations, like settler-colonialism and
postcolonialism, is central to an accurate understanding of modernisation.
Understanding how colonialism has shaped the modern world will hopefully be one of the more interesting aspects of your studies in sociology.
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The Sociological Imagination - Sociological Concepts

247 タグ追加 保存
Kelvin Wong 2016 年 12 月 12 日 に公開
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