Being Sociological

Second edition

by Steve Matthewman, Catherine Lane West-Newman and Bruce Curtis

Tutorial topics and discussion/essay suggestions

Back to additional teaching materials


  1. What do you think a ‘sociologist’ does?
  2. When sociological theory states that ‘everything is a construction’, what does it mean? Try to think of examples.
  3. Look at the list of questions which Theodor Adorno thought sociology should ask and place them in order of importance. Justify your choices.
  4. What does sociology mean when it refers to ‘ghosts’ and ‘silences’?
  5. What is ‘the sociological imagination’?
  6. Try to define the difference between ‘good’ sociology and ‘bad’ sociology.
  7. What is the importance of theory for sociology?
  8. Explain what Max Weber and Georg Simmel mean by ‘sympathetic interpretive understanding’.
  9. What role does ‘the ethical dimension’ play in sociological studies? Give an example where ethics have played a key role in a sociological issue.
  10. Sociology sees the understanding of society as an ongoing process. Try to think of an example of an issue or topic where this would apply.


  1. What are the two forms of research methodology commonly used by sociology, and what differentiates them? Try to think of two kinds of research projects which would make effective use of either or both of these methodologies.
  2. Consider the difference between ‘case-centric’ and ‘variable-centric’ research, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type of research. Try to come up with at least four advantages/disadvantages.
  3. What sociological questions would be best served by inductive strategies, and what would be best served by deductive strategies? Think about the differences between these two approaches.
  4. Think of a question which sociologists might want to research, then apply ‘fixed’ and ‘fluid’ framing to it. What difference do these two approaches make?
  5. Sociological research has, according to Savage and Burrows, relied primarily on survey and in-depth interviews for data. What problems does this create and what limitations do these methods have?
  6. Devise a sociological question, and then construct a research project to answer it. Consider the strategy and methods you would use, and justify why these would obtain the best data for your particular research question.
  7. You have been asked to undertake a project by your university exploring the extent to which students feel ‘safe’ on university property, what anxieties they have, and how the university can address these anxieties. What methodology/methodologies would you use, and why?
  8. You have been asked to conduct a sociological research project in schools to find out what encourages school-age students to apply to university. What ethical issues would you have to solve (if any), and what would be your most effective method of research to get the best data?
  9. You have been asked to conduct a sociological study into how students with disabilities and/or special needs feel in the university environment. What research methodology would you use, and how would you resolve any ethical issues which may arise?
  10. Consider the following piece of sociological research (tutor/lecturer should supply a press release or report on a recent piece of sociological research). Identify the methods used, and critique the way in which the research was conducted. What could have been improved, do you think?


  1. What do you understand ‘modernizing’ to mean in a sociological sense?
  2. Consider the three different ‘bonds’ which people have to each other and think of examples of each from your own lives or experiences.
  3. What did Adam Smith mean by using the term ‘socius’? What is important about this term?
  4. Suggest at least three reasons as to why the French Revolution was so important in the emergence of sociology as a discipline.
  5. Suggest at least three reasons as to why the Industrial Revolution was so important in the emergence of sociology as a discipline.
  6. What is the difference between socialism/communism and economic individualism, and why are these relevant to sociology?
  7. Discuss Karl Marx’s contribution to the emergence of sociology as a discipline. How relevant do you think Marx’s ideas are today?
  8. As it developed, sociology increasingly focussed on what is described as the ‘impersonality’ of society. Do you think this issue remains important today? Justify your response.
  9. How did Tonnies differentiate between community and society, and where do you think these terms are applicable today?
  10. How can sociology help us to understand changes in societies and how those changes impact upon our lives now?


  1. How do sociologists define power? Give examples.
  2. Consider each of the three theoretical approaches to the sociology of power, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Consider where you can see power in operation in contemporary society. Does this power use persuasion, coercion, or force?
  4. How can sociology help us to understand the role of power in the continuing problem of national and global poverty?
  5. What were Weber’s three legitimate types of power? Try to find an example of each.
  6. How can sociology help us to understand the interaction of power and crime, and its effect on the most vulnerable sectors of society?
  7. Try to think of examples where the boundaries between ‘legitimate’ and illegitimate’ power have become, or are becoming, blurred. Why do you think this is happening?
  8. Using Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power, try to think of at least three examples (apart from prisons) where his model of ‘panopticism’ is in operation.
  9. Try to summarise Foucault’s theory on ‘technologies of power’, and apply it to a contemporary example.
  10. Do we live in a ‘surveillance’ society, and if so, is this a good or bad thing? Give reasons for your response.


  1. What do you understand the term ‘social stratification’ to mean?
  2. Describe the key points of Marx’s theory of historical materialism, and discuss the extent to which this idea remains relevant today.
  3. Who are ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’? Try to apply these terms to contemporary society.
  4. Discuss the key differences between the theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Which do you think is most useful for helping us to understand modern society?
  5. How does Weber theorise the issue of ‘status’? Discuss how helpful his ideas are in understanding modern society.
  6. Examine how Weber’s theory of status intersects with his ideas about the operation of power (or ‘party’).
  7. What is ‘socioeconomic deprivation’? Discuss which areas, both nationally and internationally, you would describe as ‘socioeconomically deprived’, and why.
  8. Why and how is their often a correlation between indigenous peoples and low social stratification?
  9. Try to think of an example of stratification relevant to ethnicity, and stratification relevant to gender. Are either the theories of Marx or Weber helpful in understanding why these examples have occurred?
  10. Considering the two examples you have chosen above, are there any ways in which the concept of ‘double minorities’ could help us to understand the extent of social deprivation which these groups face?


  1. What does the phrase ‘the social construction of self’ mean to you?
  2. What does the phrase ‘A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it’ mean?
  3. Explore the key theoretical differences between Cooley and Mead’s theories of the self.
  4. In what ways does Erving Goffman’s theory of ‘the conscious management of self and identity’ develop and/or differ from the earlier ideas of Mead and Cooley?
  5. With reference to Goffman’s theories, think of areas of your own life where you ‘play out’ different ‘roles’. What influences these ‘roles’?
  6. How does Goffman identify ‘stigmatised’ identities? How relevant do you think his ideas are to modern society?
  7. What is ‘collective’ identity? What are the social and political implications of such a theory of identity?
  8. Can you describe any ways in which the process of ‘conscientization’ is occurring in modern society?
  9. What are the significant aspects of ‘the postmodern self’? To what extent do you recognise aspects of this in your own lives and/or experience?
  10. Think of at least four ways in which individuals seek to identify themselves in modern society. Would you argue that this manifests Goffman’s theory of ‘role-playing’ or that it is an index of the fragmented, postmodern condition of the self which other theorists suggest?


  1. What is the difference between sex and gender? How, therefore, is it possible to ‘construct’ gender, but not sex?
  2. Try to think of at least three examples (either cultural or historical) where the concept and understanding of ‘feminine’ and masculine’ has varied.
  3. Define the term ‘ethnocentrism’ and consider why such beliefs may be problematic. Can you think of an example of ethnocentrism in relation to gender in the modern world?
  4. List as many ways as you can think of through which we ‘learn’ gender. What are the implications of ‘incorrectly’ learning the gender rules of one’s culture/society?
  5. Explain the term ‘symbolic interactionist’ as it applies to gender, and identify its key points.
  6. What forms of ‘hegemonic masculinity/femininity’ can you identify in modern life and in your own experience? How have these hegemonic concepts been reinforced?
  7. Why is it so important for us to have a clear sense of the gender of people we meet? Consider to what extent this ‘forces’ all of us to ‘do’ gender.
  8. Identify the key points of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance and evaluate its usefulness in understanding gender in modern society.
  9. Can you think of any examples in modern society which ‘trouble’ the binary categories of male and female?
  10. Discuss ways in which gender identity has intersected with politics and the impact on society of such intersections.


  1. Why is sexuality a relevant subject for sociologists to study?
  2. Why have religious institutions sought to regulate sexuality, especially female sexuality?
  3. In what ways has the regulation of sexuality shifted from religion to the state? Give examples. What impact has this shift had?
  4. What is a ‘sexologist’? How important have the theories of early sexologists been in understanding sexual identity?
  5. Discuss Alfred Kinsey’s ‘scientific’ approach to understanding sexuality. How helpful is this methodology?
  6. What is ‘heteronormativity’? Why is it important for sociologists to interrogate this concept?
  7. What are the differences between an ‘essentialist’ and ‘social constructionist’ approach to sexual identity?
  8. What is ‘queer theory’? Why is this a significant development in sociological study?
  9. Identify at least three key areas in which the work of Michel Foucault has had an impact on understanding sexuality. What do you think are the most important effects of Foucault’s work?
  10. In what ways do sociological theories of sexuality argue that sexuality, like gender, is a ‘construct’? What do you think of this idea?


  1. What is a ‘multicultural society’?
  2. Explain what is meant by the ‘imagined community’, and give an example of this concept.
  3. ‘Race or ethnicity has been transformed into a narrative about cultural practices and signifiers.’ What do you understand this to mean? Try to think of an example to which this could be applied
  4. What are the difficulties for societies who are striving to be both ethnically diverse yet unified?
  5. Give at least two examples of the ‘social construction’ of race.
  6. In what ways is national identity defined and constructed?
  7. Why is ‘naming’ or terminology important in the discourse of race and ethnicity?
  8. Consider the ways in which Marxist theory can be used to discuss race and ethnicity.
  9. How do the ideas of Marx and Weber differ in relation to the sociological analysis of race and ethnicity?
  10. Explain Robert Miles’s concept of ‘racialisation’, and how it illuminates the sociological discussion of race.


  1. Explain what sociologists mean when they refer to the ‘instability’ of the family.
  2. What purpose does the concept of ‘family’ serve in modern society?
  3. What is meant by ‘affective individualism’, and what impact has this had on the understanding of the family?
  4. Discuss the ways in which power interacts with the concept of family.
  5. What is ‘structural functionalism’ and how does it relate to sociological analysis of the family?
  6. Why has the idea of the ‘nuclear family’ become (and remained) so influential?
  7. In what ways does Marxist theory engage with the idea of the family, and how helpful are these ideas for a modern understanding of family life and power structures?
  8. Summarise the criticisms of the family made by feminist sociological theory, and evaluate the helpfulness of these arguments.
  9. What is ‘micro-sociological’ analysis of the family? Try to apply this to your own family or a family you know.
  10. Discuss the reasons why new forms of family have developed in modern society.


  1. Why is the study of feelings or emotions relevant for sociology?
  2. Name the early sociologists of emotion and identify and compare the key elements of their theories.
  3. In what ways has the growth of urban environments contributed to changes in the way human beings both experience and communicate emotions?
  4. Name Max Scheler’s four levels of emotional connection and evaluate his theory of emotion as individual rather than collective.
  5. Consider the impact on society of the requirement to ‘regulate’ emotions.
  6. Explain Kemper’s theory of ‘foundational emotions’ and ‘secondary emotions’. Try to think of examples of each.
  7. What is ‘social constructionism’ and how does it relate to sociological theory of emotions?
  8. Would you agree that we live in a ‘culture of fear’?
  9. How does sociology explain the importance of ‘love’ in relation to marriage?
  10. To what extent do you agree that modern society is experiencing a ‘crisis’ in the authenticity of emotions? Give examples to illustrate your response.


  1. What does it mean to ‘believe’?
  2. What is the difference between religion and faith?
  3. Evaluate Ninian Smart’s explanation as to why it is important for sociology to understand religion.
  4. How did Karl Marx define the ‘social function’ of religion? How relevant do you think his ideas are for modern society’s understanding of religion?
  5. How far do you agree with Durkheim that religion is an instrument for creating ‘social cohesion’ and/or ‘social control’?
  6. Examine Weber’s argument that religion can be ‘revolutionary’ rather than ‘reactionary’.
  7. What is ‘the secularisation thesis’?
  8. What did Nietzche mean by ‘the death of God’?
  9. What impact has the rise of technology had on religious belief? Give an example.
  10. Does religion retain any importance in an increasingly secular society? If so, what?


  1. Why is it important for sociologists to study education?
  2. In what ways has education been used to reinforce power elites?
  3. Why are universal assumptions about the form schooling should take problematic for colonised or indigenous peoples?
  4. What were the key points of Dewey’s theory of education? Discuss its usefulness for modern society.
  5. Why is education necessarily ‘political’?
  6. ‘There is no such thing as a neutral education process.’ How far do you agree with Freire’s statement?
  7. Consider the ways in which Krishnamurty’s theories of education could be incorporated in mainstream schools.
  8. What is ‘the knowledge society’?
  9. Compare the different configurations of thinking about the relationship between education, nation states and social relations. Which would you argue is the most useful for contemporary society?
  10. Think about your own time at school. Which sociological theory or theories help you to understand your own experience of education?


  1. Is there a difference between deviance and criminality? Who decides who/what is criminal and who/what is deviant?
  2. Explain the role played by social power structures in the defining and labelling of deviance.
  3. Identify a ‘hegemonic ritual’ and the part it plays in controlling deviant behaviour.
  4. Explain the functionalist theory of deviance and try to think of an example of deviant behaviour to which it could be applied.
  5. Why did Durkheim view deviance as ‘necessary’, and what positive functions can deviance perform?
  6. How useful are Durkheim’s and Merton’s theories of anomie in enabling us to understand and explain deviant behaviour?
  7. What is ‘strain’ theory? Evaluate its usefulness in helping us to understand deviance.
  8. Would you agree that deviance is/can be ‘learned’? How do Tarde and Sutherland argue that deviance is ‘learned’?
  9. Identify the key elements of societal reaction theory and try to think of at least three examples of deviant behaviour to which this theory could be applied.
  10. Are there any circumstances in which it could be argued that deviance has benefited societies?


  1. What do you understand the term ‘globalisation’ to mean?
  2. What is ‘the global imaginary’?
  3. Identify the four main theories of globalisation. With which of these theories do you most identify, and why?
  4. Globalisation has, according to sociological theory, five dimensions. What are they?
  5. Would you agree that globalisation is leading to ‘a homogenisation of culture’?
  6. Identify the key features of market globalism; justice globalism; religious globalism.
  7. Consider Karl Polanyi’s theory of globalism, and evaluate the usefulness of his ideas to a sociological understanding of its impact.
  8. Do you think it is possible that ‘a global new deal’ will ever be fully implemented in Western societies?
  9. What effect has globalisation had on indigenous cultures?
  10. Is globalisation a good or bad development? Give reasons both for and against the benefits of globalisation.


  1. Why is work of such important to us as individuals and as a society?
  2. Identify the key points of Marx and Engels’ theories concerning work. How useful are their ideas for evaluating the role of work in modern society?
  3. How does the ‘embourgeoisement thesis’ seek to explain the decline in working-class solidarity and identity?
  4. What is the sociological meaning and understanding of ‘the recalcitrant worker’?
  5. What are the key elements of ‘scientific management?’ Can you think of any contemporary examples of this in operation?
  6. What effect has ‘de-skilling’ had on the experience and individual value of work?
  7. What is ‘Fordism’? What examples of this can you think of in contemporary employment practice?
  8. What do you understand the word ‘McJobs’ to mean? Why is this type of work considered by many sociologists to be detrimental to individuals and society?
  9. In what ways does the idea of ‘the panopticon’ operate in modern society?
  10. What is ‘emotional labour’? Try to give examples.


  1. What are the four sociological approaches to consumption and social order? Outline their key points.
  2. How are consumers persuaded that there is no alternative to their own exploitation in a capitalist economy? Try to give some examples.
  3. What did Durkheim perceive as the problems of ‘excess egoism’?
  4. What are Weber’s ‘three basic types of authority’? Try to think of some examples of each.
  5. What is ‘the conspicuous consumer’? Can you think of any contemporary examples of conspicuous consumption?
  6. Why is it important that a sociological view of consumption is linked to relations of production and exchange?
  7. What are ‘levelling perspectives’ and liquid perspectives’ in sociological theories of consumption?
  8. Explain Bourdieu’s theory of ‘habitus’. How useful is this for understanding consumption from a sociological perspective?
  9. What is ‘cultural capital’? Why is it desirable to acquire ‘cultural capital’?
  10. What is the difference in sociological terms between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ consumption?


  1. Why has sustainability become an issue for sociological study?
  2. In what ways can the ideas of Marx and Engels be seen as early theorisations on sustainablity?
  3. How can Thorstein Veblen’s theories about consumption be used to increase a sociological understanding of sustainability?
  4. What do you understand by ‘out-sourcing’ and ‘off-shoring’, and what impact do these have? What examples of this can you think of in contemporary society?
  5. To what extent do you think that Arthur Penty’s claim in the 1920s that ‘the industrial capitalist system contained the seeds of its own destruction and was approaching a `state of disintegration’ has been shown to be accurate?
  6. What is ‘the ecology industry’? Can you think of examples of this in contemporary society?
  7. Andre Gorz has argued that `the bond between ‘more’ and ‘better’ is broken’. How far do you agree?
  8. Why has it been so difficult to obtain a binding global agreement on sustainability? What are the competing interests which have prevented this?
  9. Do you agree that ‘a more interventionist state’ is required to ensure sustainability?
  10. What would you be prepared to reduce or give up in order to promote a more sustainable world?


  1. What is the most important item of technology you possess, and why?
  2. Try to think of an example of combined technology which you use every day.
  3. What relevance does Durkheim’s theory of the ‘totem’ have to sociological theorising about technology?
  4. How does ‘conflict theory’, such as that of Karl Marx, help us to understand the role of technology in modern society?
  5. What are the key points of Actor-Network Theory?
  6. Is technology simply a neutral mediator or does it carry ideological implications? Give reasons for your response.
  7. What has been the impact of technology on work? Has it improved the experience of work, and if so, how?
  8. Would you argue that the rise of technology is increasing or decreasing isolation? Give reasons for your response.
  9. Has the development of technology made human beings ‘selectively social’? What does this mean?
  10. Are technologies such as cellphones, iPods and email liberating us or entrapping us?


  1. How many different examples of communication media can you think of? Of these, which one do you use most frequently?
  2. What did Marshall McLuhan mean when he stated that ‘the medium is the message’?
  3. Try to apply McLuhan’s theory of ‘extensions’ and ‘amputations’ to an example of media which you use regularly.
  4. Describe the ways in which functionalist theory can help us to understand the role of the media in modern society.
  5. How does conflict theory, such as that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, help to illuminate the role played by the media in contemporary society?
  6. How does conflict theory, such as that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, help to illuminate the role played by the media in contemporary society?
  7. Why does it matter when a small number of companies own a large number of media outlets?
  8. What are the key points of Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding? Try to apply this to a recent media story or example.
  9. Do you agree that violence in the media encourages people to be violent in their everyday lives?
  10. Is it possible for the media to be objective and unbiased?

General Questions

  1. In which areas of sociological study are the theories of Karl Marx most useful, and why?
  2. Consider the ways in which sociological theories about communication and about technology can be used to understand both topics.
  3. To what extent do you think topics such as ‘feeling’, ‘believing’, and ‘identity’ are relevant subjects for sociological study?
  4. Power is a key area of sociological study. Where do you think the key areas for the identification and examination of power are in sociology? Justify your choices.
  5. What role does social stratification (whether by class, race, gender or sexual orientation) play in a sociological understanding of work?
  6. What impact has globalisation had on our understanding of race and ethnicity? Has its impact been positive or negative?
  7. Sociology is described as a social science, and also as an arts subject. Is sociology a science, or an art? What is the difference between these two descriptions and why might both be relevant in thinking about sociology?
  8. Discuss the relationship between sociological theories of consumption and sustainability. How can these two strands of theory be used to illuminate each other?
  9. Identify the areas of sociological study where Max Weber has made a signficant contribution and consider why his theory has been so useful for these particular topics.
  10. What do you consider to be the most important contribution made by functionalist theory to a sociological understanding of human beings and society?
  11. Are there areas of society and/or human experience which sociology does not explore, or has explored insufficiently? Discuss what these might be and how a sociological understanding of these topics might benefit society.
  12. Are there problems in applying predominantly Western sociological theory to non-Western cultures? Consider this with particular reference to sociological theories about consuming and/or believing.
  13. How has your study of sociological theories of education enabled you to understand your own experience of school and/or university?
  14. The family has long been regarded as a key subject for sociological study, but how has theorising about the family changed and developed, and what has encouraged these changes?
  15. Which theorist do you think has made the greatest contribution to the development of sociological theory? Give justifications for your response and identify and discuss specific contributions made by your chosen theorist.