Excerpt from The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

Introduction: About This Book

Every discipline has its own vocabulary, the words it uses to label and draw attention to what it takes to be worth understanding. In biology, for example, ‘life,’ ‘cell,’ and ‘organism’ are essential for knowing what biology is about, just as ‘sharp,’ ‘flat,’ and ‘tempo’ are essential in music, and ‘culture,’ ‘interaction,’ and ‘structure’ are essential in sociology.

For beginning students, vocabulary often appears as just a daunting collection of definitions to be memorized for the next quiz. What students often miss is that such words are far more than mental hurdles to clear, far more than jargon invented by professionals to distinguish themselves. Taken as a whole, the language of a discipline is a map that identifies a territory of study and provides points of view from which to look at it. Learning a new discipline is like traveling to a foreign land, and technical language is a guide to significant sights to look for and how to pay attention to them.

As such, language plays a key role in drawing attention to different aspects of reality, and in the process it shapes the reality that we perceive and experience. The first time you walk through a field of wildflowers, for example, and you may see only a soft sea of colors blending into an undifferentiated whole. But take along someone who knows one flower from another, who bends you down to see the details of each, and strolling through country fields will never be the same again. Now you will know the distinct individuality of each variety of flower and how they come together to make this thing you experience as a field. You will find yourself saying, “I never saw that flower before,” when in fact, of course, you saw it a thousand times; what you never did before was to notice it.

Noticing is a great deal of what language is about. When we learn the word for a concept such as ‘system’ it allows us to think about that concept in relation to other concepts such as ‘family’ and thereby understand both in a different way than before. In many ways, this is what thinking is about noticing and making connections. Whether word labels refer to colors, types of flowers, types of political systems, or theories of social change, they are essential for noticing, connecting, thinking, and understanding.

The language of sociology is what sociologists use to study social life in all its diversity and complexity to see how this system works differently from that or how one pattern of small group interaction differs from another. We need it to take us beyond merely seeing what is all around us, to noticing, to paying attention in ways that enable us to understand social life in a more systematic way. The word ‘culture,’ for example, points to a collection of things, symbols, ideas, and practices that shape life in a social system such as a society. Culture includes the languages people speak, the foods they prefer, the rules they live by, and the values that shape their choices. Once >culture= becomes part of our active vocabulary, we are more likely to notice the distinction between an individual’s personality and the culture in which they participate. We can become more aware that there is something larger than ourselves that we and other people participate in, and “it” to be understood in its own right. From here we can realize that we cannot understand people’s behavior without paying attention to the culture of the society in which they live. Instead of merely seeing destructive individual personalities as the cause of social problems, for example, we also notice the many ways in which a society can reward or otherwise promote destructive behavior. In short, we start to notice that everything individuals experience or do always takes place in and is shaped by a cultural context.

Inventing words to label social reality is not a straightforward kind of work, but is itself full of controversy. Sociologists may disagree, for example, on how to define a particular concept such as ‘family’ or ‘culture’ or ‘power,’ in part because each stands for something so complex and varied in form that it is difficult to come up with a single neat definition. This means that the same word may be used in several different ways. Any reader of this book therefore should be aware that although for reasons of space I may not go into such complications in great detail, they often exist.

There is also disagreement over the process of naming itself. Some argue, for example, that the social world does not exist in a fixed, concrete way waiting for us to name it. Instead, naming is a creative act in which we construct what we then experience as ‘real.’ The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, argued that there is no such thing as “sexuality” existing as a fixed “thing” for us to discover. Rather, there exist a variety of sexualities that have been (and continue to be) socially constructed through cultural ideas about sexuality. The word ‘homosexual,’ for example, has only during the last century or so been used as a noun to identify a type of person, rather than as an adjective to describe a kind of behavior. Once we start labeling people rather than behavior, it fundamentally alters how we experience the ‘reality’ of both them and what they do.

This book is a dictionary of sociological language, but saying that really does not convey what this book is about or how you might use it. There are many terms that refer in some way to social life, but which are not included here because they are not part of the language that sociologists use to describe and analysis social life. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, is an organization that has had an important impact on race relations in the U.S., but that alone doesn’t make it part of sociological language. You will find ‘social movement’ in this dictionary, however, because this is a concept that sociologists use to make sense of organizations such as the Klan.

You also will not find here every concept and term invented by sociologists to describe social life and how it works. That kind of dictionary could never fit handily between two covers and even if it did, would be much too large to carry about and read from in a spare moment, which I hope you will do. The accumulated store of sociological terms is not only enormous, but growing at such a rate that any attempt to cover it all would be out of date before it ever appeared in print. Social life includes an extraordinary range of social phenomena, from why married couples divorce to the workings of the world economic system. This means that any systematic attempt to understand social life inevitably involves the invention of an ever-growing collection of concepts and language that refers to them. In light of this, I have not tried to cover the length and breadth of this diverse discipline or to keep up with all the latest additions to it. I have tried to represent the classical conceptual core of the discipline along with a representative sampling of diverse areas within sociology and a few fundamentally important concepts from related disciplines such as philosophy. I have also provided brief biographical sketches of major figures – both historical and, to a lesser degree, contemporary – in the development and practice of sociology.

Neither is this an encyclopedia providing in-depth discussions of each concept’s various shades of meaning. Any student of social life will encounter those complexities soon enough and in contexts that allow for the kind of full discussion that does them justice. A single-volume, portable dictionary must work within a limited length to strike a balance between depth on the one hand and accessibility on the other. In general, the deeper it goes, the more it must assume its readers already know not only of sociology but of related disciplines such as philosophy. This is a particularly weak assumption with beginning undergraduates and even with graduate students who may lack undergraduate training in sociology. As a teacher and writer, I place a premium on being understood: I would rather attempt less and be understood than attempt too much in the name of sophistication and leave the average intelligent reader feeling lost and without a clue as to what I am saying.

If, then, this is neither exhaustive dictionary nor expansive encyclopedia, what is it? The answer lies in my reasons for writing this book in the first place. I have been asked more than once why I chose to write a dictionary of sociology since most dictionaries are compilations of entries written by scores of authors. The writer in me replies that I was attracted to the idea of writing a dictionary with a single author’s voice that would give it a greater sense of continuity and wholeness. The sociologist and teacher replies that this is interesting and important work, in part because I have had to learn a great deal in order to do it, but also because it provides yet another way to promote clear understandings of what sociological thinking is about.

Like all sociologists, I am committed to the goal of systematically understanding social life. Like many of my colleagues, I also believe in the importance of making what we know more accessible to students and other intelligent and curious readers. Although the world suffers from a multitude of social problems, outside of academia there is little understanding of sociology or how to use it. This means that making clear the conceptual underpinnings of what sociologists do is itself serious sociological work. It requires formal training in sociology and a commitment to clear writing and effective teaching, all which have shaped my professional life. Hence, this book.

In an important sense, this is a dictionary like any other, meant to be consulted from time to time as the need arises to make sense of unfamiliar terms encountered elsewhere. But in a larger sense this is a book in its own right with the simple purpose of conveying a sense of what it means to look at the world in a sociological way. As such, it can be read in its own right, although in not quite the same way as most books. You might begin with core concepts such as sociology, social system, culture, social structure, and interaction, and then go on to theoretical perspectives. The first batch defines the basics of what sociologists pay attention to, while the second describes major ways to pay attention within sociology.

From here, there are any number of ways to proceed. You could, for example, simply start at the beginning and read your way through, with side excursions suggested in the lists of concepts cross-referenced at the end of each entry. Or, you could identify areas of particular interest such as social stratification or knowledge or the family and go from there. As you read, you will find yourself doing far more than acquiring a list of terms and definitions, but building a sense of an entire way of noticing and thinking about both the world and your place in it.

Regardless of how you use this book, you will not find here the last word about anything. What I hope you will find is a clear, engaging, and useful resource, a guidebook to ease the way towards a deeper understanding of social life and of the only discipline dedicated to making sense of it in all its diverse and wondrous complexity.

Sample Entries

Note: words in SMALL CAPS refer to other entries in the dictionary

capitalism: Capitalism is an economic system that emerged in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the perspective developed by Karl Marx, capitalism is organized around the concept of capital – the ownership and control of the means of production by those who employ workers to produce goods and services in exchange for wages. The key to capitalism as a social system is a set of three relationships among workers, the means of production (factories, machines tools, and so on), and those who own or control the means of production. Members of the capitalist class own or control means of production but do not actually use them to produce wealth; members of the working class neither own nor control means of production but use them to produce; and the capitalist class employs the working class by buying LABOR POWER (time) in exchange for wages.

The more common definition of capitalism – the mere private ownership of the means of production – overlooks the fact that people have been making goods with privately owned tools for thousands of years, long before the emergence of capitalism. Under capitalism, therefore, the ownership of the means of production is not simply private; it is also exclusionary and forms the basis for SOCIAL CLASS and exploitation in the interests of profit and the accumulation of still more means of production. As such, the common identification of capitalism with “free enterprise” is somewhat misleading since the trio of relations between the means of production, workers, and capitalists is not a necessary condition for free enterprise and in many ways may hinder it. Since competition threatens the success of every capitalist enterprise (however it may contribute to the system as a whole), corporations generally deal with competition by trying to increase their control over labor, production, and markets, with the result that the economy is increasingly dominated by a relatively few large organizations. In this sense, the actual exercise of freedom in free market capitalism becomes possible only at larger and larger levels of social organization. As the myriad of small competing enterprises is replaced by huge CONGLOMERATES (many of them multinational), so, too, is the freedom of “free enterprise” exercised by a steadily diminishing number of economic players.

The idea of a free market is probably most appropriately associated with what might be called “early capitalism,” referring to that period before the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION when capitalism took the form profit-seeking through the buying and selling of goods. The forerunners of modern capitalism did not themselves own or control means of production but, as merchants, profited by taking advantage of market conditions such as buying goods and transporting them for sale in a market in which they were unavailable. Merchants contributed to the emergence of capitalism by developing the idea of profit – of using goods as vehicles for turning money into more money. Only later did capitalism emerge as a system whose primary basis for power and profit was control over the production process itself. In its most advanced form found in modern capitalist industrialist societies, it has moved away from competitive capitalism involving a diverse collection of relatively small firms towards what Marx called monopoly (or advanced) capitalism. In this form of – capitalism, corporations merge and form ever larger global centers of economic power that have the potential to rival nation states in their influence over resources, production, and through these, over the terms on which social life is lived in the broadest sense. As the strains and contradictions within the system grow more severe, governments intervene to control markets, finance, labor, and other capitalist interests with increasing frequency and severity. Marx saw this as the final stage leading to socialist revolution.



Edwards, Richard C., Reich, Michael, and Weisskopf, Thomas E. (Eds.). 1986. The Capitalist System, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mandel, Ernest. 1971. Marxist Economic Theory (2 Vols.). New York: Monthly Review Press.

__________. 1975. Late Capitalism. London: New Left Books.

Marx, Karl. [1867] 1975. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: International


Smith, Adam. [1776] 1982. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Penguin.

ideology: An ideology is a set of cultural BELIEFS, VALUES, and ATTITUDES that underlie and thereby to some degree justify and legitimate the status quo. From a Marxist perspective, most ideology reflects the interests of dominant groups as a way to perpetuate their domination and privilege. This is especially true with oppressive systems that require elaborate justifications in order to keep going. White racism, for example, includes ideas about racial differences used to justify and defend white privilege. Similar ideologies exist in support of gender, class, ethnic, and religious oppression.

In a more general sense, every social system’s culture includes an ideology that serves to explain and justify its own existence as a way of life, whether it be a family ideology that defines the nature and purpose of family life or religious ideology that anchors and affirms a way of life in relation to sacred forces.

Ideological ideas also can underlie movements for social change. From the environmental Green movement to RADICAL FEMINISM, SOCIAL MOVEMENTS rely on sets of ideas that explain and justify their purpose and methods.



Apter, David E. (Ed.). 1964. Ideology and Discontent. New York: Free Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1952. Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. [1846] 1976. The German Ideology. In Collected
Works of Marx and Engels
, Vol.5. New York: International.

power: Power is a key sociological concept with several meanings around which there is considerable disagreement. The most common approach follows Max Weber’s definition of power as the ability to control others, events, or resources – to make happen what one wants to happen in spite of obstacles, resistance, or opposition. Some – especially feminists – have referred to this as power-over. In addition to its use to control people or events, power can also be used in more subtle and indirect ways. These include the ability to not act (as when a parent withholds love from a child or a government withholds financial support from the poor) as well as the ability to shape people’s beliefs and values, as through control over MASS MEDIA or educational institutions.

Power defined as power-over reflects social systems organized hierarchically and views power as a substance or resource that individuals or social systems can possess. Power is a thing that can be held, coveted, seized, taken away, lost, or stolen; and it is used in what are essentially adversarial relationships involving conflict between those with power and those without. This kind of power takes several different forms. AUTHORITY is power associated with the occupancy of a particular social status, such as the power exercised by parents over children, officers over troops, or teachers over students. Authority is a form of power that is socially defined as legitimate, which means it tends to be supported by those who are subject to it. In contrast, coercive power lacks social legitimacy and is based instead on fear and the use of force. It is the power exercised by conquering nations over those they conquer, or by schoolyard bullies over their classmates. Unlike authority, coercive power is particularly unstable, which is why even the most authoritarian government cannot last for long without some degree of legitimacy in the eyes of those they govern.

Unlike Weber, Karl Marx used the concept of power in relation to SOCIAL CLASSES and social systems rather than individuals. Marx argued that power rests in a social class’s position in the MODE OF PRODUCTION, as in capitalist class ownership and control of the MEANS OF PRODUCTION. From this perspective, the sociological importance of power does not lie in relations among individuals, but in domination and subordination of social classes based on the RELATIONS OF PRODUCTION.

Individuals’ power that is not associated with the occupancy of a social status is personal power. This is the ability to influence or control others based on individual characteristics such as physical strength or the ability to argue persuasively. Of the various forms of power, personal power is sociologically less significant because it has less to do with social systems and their characteristics.

Functionalists such as Talcott Parsons argue that power is not a matter of social coercion and domination, but instead flows from a social system’s potential to coordinate human activity and resources in order to accomplish goals. From this perspective, for example, the power of the state rests on a consensus of values and interests in the name of which the state acts towards the greater benefit of all.

Key sociological questions about power focus on how it is distributed within social systems, from democratic small groups based on consensus to bureaucratic formal organizations to societies organized around political AUTHORITARIANISM. From this perspective, power is an important component of social STRATIFICATION, both a resource and reward that plays an important part in social inequality and conflict.

A second way of thinking about power flows most recently from the FEMINISM. The conceptualization of power as power-to views it as something based not on hierarchy or dominance and subordination but on the capacity to do things, to achieve goals, especially in collaboration with others. Whereas the power-over view tends to focus attention on competition for power and dominance, the power-to view stresses the potential of cooperation, consensus, and equality. When farmers gather to build a barn for a neighbor, for example, their collaboration generates a great deal of power (as evidenced by the result) without anyone dominating anyone else. Unlike power-over, an increase in power-to does not require that anyone lose power. Theoretically, power-to is infinitely expandable, while power-over is not.

The concept of power is controversial not only because it can take different forms, but because how we look at it profoundly affects how we think about social systems and how they work. The predominance of power-over in most contemporary thinking about power, for example, makes it difficult to work towards the development of alternatives.



French, Marilyn. 1985. Beyond Power. New York: Summit Books.

Lukes, Steven. 1974. Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan.

Weber, Max. [1925] 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wrong, Dennis H. 1980. Power: Its Forms, Bases, and Uses. New York: Harper and Row.

prejudice and discrimination: Prejudice is a positive or negative cultural ATTITUDE directed towards members of a group or social category. As an attitude, it combines beliefs and value judgments with positive or negative emotional predispositions. Racism that whites direct at blacks and other people of color, for example, includes stereotyped beliefs about racial differences in such areas as intelligence, motivation, moral character, and various abilities. These differences are then judged according to cultural values to the detriment of people of color and the enhanced standing of whites. Finally, emotional elements – such as hostility, contempt, and fear – complete the attitude to create a predisposition among whites to treat blacks in oppressive ways and to perceive their own racial category as socially superior. Since people of color in Europe and the U.S. live in the same culture as whites, racial prejudice will also to some degree affect how they perceive, evaluate, and feel about themselves.

If we judge the importance of a prejudice by its social consequences, then prejudice focusing on racial, gender, ethnic and other minorities are most interesting sociologically. Technically, for example, any prejudice with a racial basis constitutes racism, just as any based on sex is sexism and any based on ethnicity is ethnicism. This would mean that prejudice directed against men is sexist, just as prejudice directed by blacks against whites is racist. One objection to this is that the consequences of prejudice aimed at minorities are very different from prejudice aimed at dominant groups by minorities, usually in self-defense. The former supports and perpetuates SOCIAL OPPRESSION. The latter, however, has relatively trivial consequences for members of dominant groups since they are unlikely to even be aware of them. Even if they are aware, they have the security of their standing as members of the racially dominant group to fall back on for support. For this reason, some sociologists argue that while minorities can be just as prejudiced as those who dominate them, concepts such as racism and sexism should be reserved for prejudice whose ideological function is to justify social oppression.

Prejudice is sociologically important because it underlies DISCRIMINATION, the unequal treatment of people who happen to belong to a particular group or category. In a sense, prejudice is the theory of racial and other forms of inequality, and discrimination is the practice. When unequal treatment takes the form of systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice, then it becomes social oppression. Not all discrimination is based on prejudice, however. In the U.S., for example, affirmative action is a government policy according to which groups such as blacks and women that are burdened by long histories of prejudice and discrimination are actively sought out as applicants for jobs, government contracts, and university admissions. Although this kind of “positive discrimination” has been quite controversial, it generally has had little effect on the distribution of men, women, blacks, and whites among occupations.



Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Memmi, Albert. 1964. Dominated Man. New York: Orion Press.

racism: Racism is most often associated with prejudice based on race. From this perspective, action based on racial prejudice and people who hold prejudiced beliefs, values, and attitudes are described as ‘racist.’

Sociologically, a more useful definition is offered by David Wellman, who argues that racism encompasses not only prejudice, but any action of characteristic of social systems that supports race privilege, regardless of whether people intend that to be the result. The key test of whether something is racist, then, lies in its consequences: if it supports race privilege, then it is by definition racist. For example, a linchpin of race privilege in the United States is segregation in housing and schools, because a vast range of social resources vary by neighborhood and community. In other words, white control over resources such as jobs, education, and political power depends on excluding people of color from white communities and neighborhoods. Many whites defend the right of people to sell their homes to whomever they like. They also argue for neighborhood schools, based on the idea that it is better for children to attend school near where they live. They argue that both these positions are based on principles that have nothing to do with race and are not, therefore, racist. The consequence of their position, however, is the continuation of race privilege and social oppression based on the exclusion of people of color from resources need to achieve equality. This, Wellman argues, makes those positions – however worth the arguments used to defend them – racist in effect, even if they are not racist in intent.

This broader way of defining racism helps to explain why race privilege and oppression persist in spite of dramatic changes in how whites describe their own racial attitudes and beliefs. As Wellman argues, systems as complex as race privilege are held in place by institutional arrangements – such as neighborhood schools and property rights – that can transcend the intentions and feelings of individuals.


Wellman, David T. 1993. Portraits of White Racism, 2e. New York: Cambridge University Press.

sociology: Sociology is the study of social life and behavior, especially in relation to SOCIAL SYSTEMS, how they work, how they change, the consequences they produce, and their complex relation to people’s lives. The term was first used by Auguste Comte.

From its beginnings, sociology has suffered from somewhat of an identity crisis reflected in its many definitions. It is, for example, often referred to as the “study of society,” but this excludes the vast majority of social life that takes place in systems that are much smaller than societies. Studies of groups, corporations, school classrooms, and family violence are all connected with society in an ultimate sense, but we can ask many sociological questions about them without ever referring to that largest of social systems in which they find themselves. At the other end of things is the objection that there are increasingly interesting problems that take place at a larger level than societies, such as world economic and political systems.

Going in the other direction, sociology is often defined as the “study of groups,” but this fails to appreciate that the concept of a GROUP is quite precise and narrow in sociology. Many important social systems – from complex organizations and communities to societies the world economic system – are not groups. In addition, the concept of a group does not include social categories such as those defined by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and age, which play an important part in social inequality, oppression, and conflict.

A third approach focuses on the “study of social behavior.” However, since there is but a small range of human behavior that cannot be construed as social to some degree, this definition confuses sociology with psychology which is far more concerned with the individual’s internal workings than with their social context and their connection with it. Although human behavior is central to sociological thinking, it is not what makes that thinking distinctly sociological.

Central to the definition of sociology as a point of view is the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole also includes the relations that bind them together, which generally cannot be derived from knowledge of the parts. It is of course true that social systems would not amount to much if there were no individual people, but it does not follow from this that social systems are therefore just a collection of individuals. Social systems are sets of arrangements in which individuals participate, much like a game that people play. This does not mean that the game is a particular group of people playing it.

To borrow from the chemists, a molecule cannot be understood solely by studying the characteristic of each element that “participates” in it. Indeed, we know next to nothing about it unless we understand the bonds that connect the elements to one another, and these are not characteristics of any of the constituent parts. In the same way, psychological profiles of workers in a corporation will not be of much use in understanding what a corporation is and how it works. It is, therefore, its combined focus on social systems and their connection to individual people’s lives that distinguishes sociology from other disciplines and provides a unique and powerful vantage point from which to pose questions about human life.



© Copyright 2000 by Allan G. Johnson. All rights reserved.