The purpose of this sociology dictionary article is for beginners and non-sociology students to start learning or begin their learning in sociology. These are the common sociological definitions that we see repeatedly in our readings. This article helps the reader understand common definitions along with their current examples.
50 Imp Definitions of Sociological Concepts and Their Examples from Sociology Dictionary
1. Achieved and Ascribed Status
It is referred to as “ascribed status” when a status is assigned to an individual at birth solely on the basis of the person’s background and location. This type of status remains with the individual throughout their life. On the other hand, if a person earns a status through their own abilities and efforts, it is called achieved status. This type of status is attained by individuals throughout the course of their lives. Caste, gender, age, race, etc., are some forms of ascribed statuses, while statuses earned due to educational qualifications, social mobility, etc., are forms of achieved status. For example, a doctor’s achieved status is their education and their professional recognition as a doctor, while their ascribed status is whether they have green or blue or brown eyes..
2. Proletariat and Bourgeoisie
These two concepts were first introduced by Marx and played an important part in his work. According to Marx, people in a capitalist society are essentially divided into two categories: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Those who own the means of production and control the entire production process as well as the largest part of society’s wealth are known as the bourgeoisie, while those who sell their own labor to earn a living and become means of production in the capitalist mode of production and form the working class of people are known as the proletariat. In Marxist theory, the proletariat is exploited by the bourgeoisie, as the latter controls the economic means, and therefore social power. For example, in a company setting (ignoring the other complexities), the CEO or the company owner would be considered the bourgeoisie while the working staff can be considered the proletariat.
When a group of people with a shared culture lives in a particular territory, and believes that they are a distinct entity that is relatively autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, they are said to constitute a society. For example, a particular tribal group that has a common culture, lives within a particular territory, and is allowed to govern their affairs within the contours of the Constitution would constitute a society.
As the term suggests, “Westernization” refers to the process by which non-Western societies adopt the customs, habits, behaviors, and culture of Western societies, either through coercion or as a result of influence. For example, in the Indian education system, bachelor’s degrees used to be for 3 years. However, with the new 2020 National Education Policy, bachelor’s degrees are now four years long, as is the norm in most Western countries, reflecting the Westernization of the Indian education system.
5. Collective Consciousness
Also known as “collective conscience,” it is a concept introduced by classical sociologist Durkheim. It is defined as the “totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society that forms a determinate system that has its own life” (Durkheim, 1893). In other words, the shared set of values, beliefs, morals, actions, and ideologies that bring individuals together in a society and unify them One of the most relevant examples of collective consciousness in society is the moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. Take, for example, defining an activity as a crime: there is a specific set of values and beliefs that is common to individuals and groups in a society based on which an action is considered a criminal activity. Taking another living person’s life is considered a breach of the collective morality of people, which values human life, therefore making murder a crime.
6. Agents of Socialization
The process of socialization requires certain agents through which behavior, norms, roles, values, beliefs, and practices are learned and then internalized. There are several layers of agents of socialization throughout a person’s life, which can be imagined in the form of concentric circles. The first and most primary layer is formed by family–parents, siblings, grandparents—and other close relatives as well as friends. Then the other layers are formed by neighbors, peer groups, and so on. Even the media is an agent of socialization as it influences our behaviors, perspectives, ideologies, beliefs, and values. All the people, individual or group, that a person associates with or is influenced by throughout their lives become that individual’s agents of socialization. For example, parents are the biggest agents of socialization in the process of an individual getting socialized into being a “woman” after being born a female, as they are the primary decision-makers of an infant’s life.
7. Mode of Production
A Marxist concept in sociology, “mode of production” refers to the type of structure that dictates the production of goods and services or determines the economic system in a society. The productive forces and production relations are the two most important components of the mode of production. For example, capitalism is the current mode of production dominating the production system of human society. Other examples of modes of production in human history are feudalism and socialism.
According to Ball & Dagger (2019), communism is a “political and economic doctrine that aims to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of at least the major means of production (e.g., mines, mills, and factories) and the natural resources of a society.” Pure forms of communism are almost absent today. However, an important example from the 20th century is the Soviet Union, which is no longer in existence, and China, which continues but has also incorporated capitalism to a certain extent. Another example is North Korea, which also serves as an important critique of communism becoming anti-humanitarian in nature due to corruption.
9. Gender Socialization
Also known as “gendering,” gender socialization is the process by which gender roles, norms, practices, and beliefs are inculcated into the lives of people, beginning at birth and continuing throughout life. It involves separating genders into the binary of man and woman, determining which behaviors and attributes should be considered appropriate for each of them, and teaching them to people throughout their lives through various means. The gender identity of a person is determined through the process of “gendering” or gender socialization.” Gender roles and norms are frequently based on stereotypical ideas. For example, one stereotypical gender attribute is that women are “natural caregivers,” while men are considered “naturally aggressive,” and it is through socialization into these gender ideas that one becomes a man or a woman. Such gender stereotypes often lead to negative consequences, such as boys and men becoming more prone to showing violent behaviors because they are taught that it is “natural” or “normal” for their gender to do so.
10. Cultural Hegemony
Cultural hegemony is the maintenance of one culture’s dominance or power over another through the use of ideological and/or cultural means, not through coercion, but through the so-called “willing” acceptance of the dominator’s superiority by those being dominated. For example, in an urban space, say a metropolitan city, where large commercial food chains such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut have taken over the restaurant business and are preferred more by people than local restaurants that serve freshly cooked food and offer more personalized services. These fast food chains have become culturally hegemonic in the sense that they dominate the food business in a city and are preferred by people over the local or regional food due to their popularity.
11. Race and Ethnicity
Often misused as interchangeable terms, race and ethnicity are two different sociological terms. Race can be defined as a socially constructed category of differentiation used to distinguish between groups on the basis of inherited characteristics that are observably different from one another. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is the categorization of individuals into a group on the basis of a perceived common historical and cultural background. Both races and ethnicities are arranged in a hierarchical arrangement in human society, such that there is a power inequality between people belonging to different races and ethnicities. For example, skin color—”Blacks” and “Whites”—is a racial feature.
12. Sociological Imagination
A concept introduced and developed by sociologist C. Wright Mills, sociological imagination refers to the viewpoint or perspective that allows us to view everyday things around us through a critical sociological lens, keeping the social factors in mind rather than accepting them for what they are, and to understand how everything in society interacts with and impacts one another. Having a sociological imagination does not imply distancing oneself from society and then examining it; rather, it entails understanding one’s own place in society through a critical lens. For example, imagine watching a TV show. Without a sociological imagination, it would be just an act of consuming a form of media for the purpose of entertaining oneself for a period of time. However, when a sociological imagination is employed, the act of watching the show can give rise to several questions: Why watch that particular show? What is that show trying to convey? Does everyone in society have equal access to media and instruments such as televisions? What about the nature of your work that allows you to have leisure time during that time period to watch that show? How are your TV show preferences developed? and so on.
13. Social Class
Social class is a type of social categorization that refers to the hierarchical grouping of individuals based on similarity in power, wealth, income, and prestige in society. Education, occupations, and the type of social network a person is associated with are also factors in such categorization. Examples of social class are the upper, middle, and lower classes, the proletariat and bourgeoisie in Marxist terms, and the occupation-based blue collar and white collar.
A common, widespread notion or belief about a particular group or individual having a certain set of characteristics that are particular and intrinsic to them and/or their identity. Such notions are usually oversimplified and superficial in nature, and they are based on largely held assumptions about groups of people that are usually fictitious and discriminatory. In social terms, the most common stereotypes include those about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class position, caste, and so on. For example, if a woman identifies herself as a lesbian, the often-held stereotype is that she has to display “masculine” behavior. Similarly, another stereotype is that “masculine” men cannot be gay.
15. Manifest and Latent Functions
An important concept in functionalism is that, according to sociologist Robert K. Merton, functions can be either manifest or latent. Manifest functions are those that are anticipated from an action, whereas latent functions are those that are not expected but have an effect, whether positive or negative. For example, the manifest function of social media is to connect people from all over the world together. However, the latent function of collecting a huge amount of data about all the users and using that for marketing purposes is the latent function of social media.
In sociological terms, religion can be described as a set of ideas, norms, and practices based on existing social values about a perceived spiritual world developed in an attempt to discern and possibly have some control over aspects of the world and life that are otherwise not explainable or beyond the comprehension or grip of humans. Religion is systematic and unified in nature, and in sociology, it is considered a belief system as well as an institution that impacts and is impacted by society. Religions usually differ on the basis of various parameters, for instance, according to the supernatural being(s) that are considered to be at the center of practice. Examples of mainstream religions include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, while Animism and Animatism are also considered religious practices.
A concept introduced by sociologist George Ritzer, “McDonaldization” refers to “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world” (Ritzer, 2000). In other words, the production and consumption practices of human society have become akin to the way a fast food chain works—giving out identical products and having a certain degree of certainty and reliability, increased productivity and work efficiency, and conceivability. For example, the news media has undergone a large-scale McDonaldization in recent years. Take for instance, the fact that certain “news shows” are fixed at particular times, providing a sense of predictability to the viewers. In certain news segments, such as late night “bullet news,” a certain number of news headlines are provided to viewers, allowing them to increase the efficiency of their time spent watching TV. The news media also largely focuses on the amount of news that is shown to viewers rather than the quality of the news.
A research methodology employed mainly in the field of social sciences, ethnography is the method by which a particular community or subject of the study is examined through the meticulous process of long-term field immersion and systematic recording of observable data about that community. Both the process of study as well as the final, extensively descriptive document that is the outcome of such study are known as “ethnography.” For example, if a researcher wants to study a particular culture and their daily activities, practices, beliefs, and norms, then the research will have to be long-term, as observing these in the short term is difficult and would not produce an unbiased, comprehensive dataset, and therefore ethnography would have to be used.
The concept of bureaucracy in sociology was pioneered by classical theorist Max Weber. Bureaucracy refers to a particular type of organization that is complex and hierarchical in arrangement, is marked by division of labour, professionalism, and a multi-level, legal form of authority. Both public and private entities can be bureaucracies. For example, the Parliament can be a form of bureaucracy, as can tech companies such as Google.
20. Class Consciousness
An important Marxist concept, “class consciousness” refers to the knowledge one has about the socio-economic class one belongs to and about their class in relation to others. For Marx (and consequently Marxists), class consciousness was a way of overcoming the false consciousness that the proletariat was living with and had been conditioned into by the overarching ideas of the ruling class or the bourgeoisie. Labour unions are an example of class consciousness because they recognize and bring together individuals belonging to the same working class under a common organization and work towards their rights.
21. Cultural Capital
A concept introduced by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “cultural capital” refers to the values, behaviors, preferences, and knowledge accumulated within individuals as a result of their generational inheritance, which provides an advantage to that individual within society. The more social capital one has, the greater their social position and chances of social mobility, which indicates a hierarchical distribution of cultural capital among people. Cultural capital can exist in three forms: embodied within the person intangibly, objectified in tangible possessions, and institutionalized as academic and professional achievements. For example, it is easier for an individual whose family has a history of being associated with the arts to get into the arts because they will be inculcated with knowledge about the arts from childhood because their first circle is associated with it (embodied cultural capital), will have access to the necessary equipment required for the arts – say musical instruments, art supplies (objectified cultural capital), and through the previous achievements of family members, will have access to important people in the art industry to learn and take suggestions from (institutionalized cultural capital).
22. Division of Labour
While Adam Smith is best known for the development of the concept of division of labour, it is Durkheim’s work on division of labor that is most important in the subject matter of sociology. Regardless, the meaning of the concept does not change with disciplines. Division of labour refers to the task-based segregation of work such that each task is accomplished by individuals or groups that specialize in them. This reduces the time required to complete the entire work and increases the efficiency of the workers. For example, to get a good/commodity to the consumer, there are different sections in the entire process, such as the production or manufacturing line, the packaging section, the distributors, and the retailers, which indicates division of labour as otherwise one group or person would have had to do all this by themselves. The artisans’ profession is still largely devoid of division of labor.
23. Social Stratification
Social stratification refers to the hierarchical categorization of individuals and groups in society on the basis of different factors, such as economic factors, educational factors, birth and family background, and power. Regardless of the basis of segregation, social stratification is and has historically been a reality in human society. Examples of categories of social stratification include gender, class, caste, race, and ethnicity.
Both a movement and a socio-political ideology, feminism refers to the advocacy of social, political, and economic equality for all sexes, both in the public and private spheres. Feminism recognizes that the human social world is largely patriarchal and that it is women who are systemically exploited and subjugated, and it therefore tries to promote gender and gender equality by identifying women as the disadvantaged group and empowering them. A historically important example of feminism is the movement’s advocacy for women’s right to vote, which removed the barrier to women’s voting autonomy.
In simple terms, “deviance” refers to the behaviors that go against socio-cultural norms. In sociology, deviance has different connotations in the three main sociological perspectives. For instance, from the functionalist point of view of Durkheim, deviance serves the function of challenging the present social norms as well as reaffirming them when deviance is punished. Conflict theory highlights how crimes are largely connected with the minorities and underprivileged sections of society not because there is a higher occurrence of deviance in these sections but because those from higher social classes easily defer punishments and sanctions. Examples of deviance can include any criminal activity, such as robbery or murder, which causes harm to another human and deprives them of something, and is therefore considered immoral and against social norms.
26. Incest Taboo
The cultural norms and rules that prohibit the existence of sexual relations between two or more members who are related to each other are called incest taboos. The degree of relationship varies by culture, and most cultures with an incest taboo prohibit sexual relations with immediate relatives such as parents and siblings. For example, some cultures are extremely strict with incest taboo laws, such that sexual relations between distant cousins are also forbidden and considered a cultural crime.
The sociological framework that recognizes the complexity of human identity and proposes that an individual’s identity is not unidimensional but rather formed of multiple socio-cultural aspects that intersect each other is called intersectionality. This theoretical perspective allows different aspects of human society, especially discrimination and exploitation, to be examined through a lens that identifies the multidimensional, intricate nature of people’s identities and helps identify an individual’s exact social location and point of disadvantage. For example, intersectionality shows how Dalit women in India are doubly disadvantaged because they are both women and so-called “lower” caste people and are therefore subjected to double the discrimination that an “upper-caste” woman would have to face.
28. Social Movement
Social movements are groups of people who come together with a common goal or objective to address a specific social issue. They are one of the most important activities for fostering social change. Social movements are either directed towards bringing about change in society, opposing a social change, or for the empowerment of the socially, politically, economically, and culturally disadvantaged. Examples of social movements include the civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, veganism, and so on.
29. Endogamy and Exogamy
Endogamy refers to the practice of marrying within the immediate social group that one belongs to, while exogamy refers to the opposite, that is, the practice of marrying outside one’s own social or cultural group. For example, in a caste-based society like India, marrying someone who shares the same caste as you is endogamy, whereas marrying someone from another caste is exogamy. Caste usually has a strict norm of endogamy, as exogamy leads to “social impurity.”
Ethnocentrism is the practice of applying negative value judgements to the norms, behaviors, practices, values, and beliefs of other individuals, groups, and cultures by perceiving one’s own culture from a superior position. A person’s own attitudes and beliefs become the standard against which others are perceived, and this usually leads to the generation of a negative outlook towards other cultures and people. For example, for people who don’t wear Hijabs, it is often perceived as a symbol of a so-called ‘lesser’ or ‘inferior’ culture, which is a discriminatory perception.
Kinship refers to the social relationship between individuals that arise out of blood ties or through marriage. The relationship that a person would have with his mother-in-law after marriage would be an example of kinship, Check kinship key concepts.
32. Sacred and Profane
Important concepts in Durkheim’s sociological theory, sacred and profane refer to two contrasting terms. Anything that humans set apart from society, i.e., all the things that go beyond the daily and ‘normal’ existence of human beings, and are imparted a sense of sanctity and special status that are not inherently present in them, fall into the realm of the sacred. As long as people consider something to have a superior status, be extraordinary, be ‘pure’, and be construed as religious when religion comes into play, any object, practice, or person can be sacred. The profane, on the other hand, encompasses all those things which are not sacred, are commonplace, and considered ordinary and unremarkable. For example, most pieces of rocks are considered profane objects. However, when a certain piece of rock which, say, appears extraordinary to people is given the status of a higher being in religion that transcends humanity and enters the realm of the supernatural, it becomes a God – say for instance, the rock idols of the Hindu God Shiva.
Primarily an economic concept, capitalism refers to that form of economy in which private individuals own and manage property, work on their own interests, and in which supply and demand freely determine market prices in a way that may best benefit society. Profit-making is a key feature of capitalist economies. The relevance of the concept in sociology arises from the interlink between economic activities and human society and their everyday lives, which are largely impacted by each other. For instance, Karl Marx’s theory largely focuses on critiquing capitalism as an exploitative system in which a handful of people own and control power in the society and exploit the masses. Examples of capitalism can be found in our everyday life, as the present economic system around the world is largely capitalist in nature. The United States of America is an important example of a largely capitalist economy where private enterprises are allowed to function freely and dominate the market with limited government interference.
34. Hunting-Gathering Societies
Societies for which the activities of foraging, or gathering local items, usually from forests, and hunting animals and other insects, birds, etc., primarily for food and other purposes to support the lives of the people are called hunting-gathering, gathering-hunting, or foraging societies. While such societies have largely been replaced by those relying on activities such as agriculture, animal rearing, and other primary, secondary, and tertiary economic activities, gathering-hunting societies are considered to be the basis of the entire human society and all economic activities, especially primary ones. For example, if a society primarily relies on hunting animals for meat and gathering berries, nuts, and fruits from forests to supply its food requirements, it can be referred to as a “gathering-hunting society.”
35. Reliability and Validity
Most commonly used in sociological research and any other form of research, reliability and validity are used to assess the quality of the methods, approaches, and processes used in the research. Checking the reliability of research means determining whether the results would be the same if the same study was repeated a number of other times. A technique or design is valid if it accurately measures what the researcher actually wanted it to measure. Reliability and validity can be used in everyday life as well. For example, if a clock is set ten minutes ahead but is functional, it will show the time every time one checks it (reliability) but will not show the accurate time (validity).
36. Social Change
In sociology, society is considered to be constantly changing, and hence, social change is an inevitable phenomenon. It can be defined as the transitions that take place in the cultural, institutional, and structural aspects of society, such as in cultural norms, values, beliefs, ideologies, etc. Social change can vary in degrees, from small level changes to complete transformation of society, but these changes usually occur over a long period of time and also prevail in the long run. The change from a feudal to a predominantly capitalist society is an example of social change.
The movement of people across frontiers, either political or symbolic, is migration. Generally, migration is permanent. When people move out of a particular territory, it is called emigration. The entry of people into a territory is called immigration. For example, when an Indian goes to the United States of America to study and ultimately settles there, she is said to have emigrated from India and immigrated into the US. This global movement across borders on the whole is called migration.
LGBTQ+ is an abbreviation and an umbrella term used to refer to the community of people who go beyond the constrained binary understanding of gender and sexual orientations. LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, and the plus symbol implies the presence of other identities beyond the ones present in the abbreviation. The LGBTQ+ community is connected primarily through social movements for their rights and recognition. For example, if someone identifies as asexual – not feeling sexual attraction towards anyone – they are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
A role highlights a set of social expectations associated with a particular status or position. For example, the social status of being a student comes with the expectations of being studious, disciplined and respectful towards the teachers, amongst others.
Unlearning is the process of consciously removing something from memory. It is different from forgetting as the latter occurs unconsciously. For example, a psychologist might ask a child’s parents to desist beating their child when he misbehaves. The process through which the parents stop following their traditional practice of beating the child is unlearning.
Demography is the study of the changes in the levels, composition, and distribution of human population. For example, demographers may be interested in studying the growth of population in metropolitan cities due to migration.
42. Elite Theory
According to elite theory, a small group of people in society who come from a privileged milieu possess and control the most resources, wealth and power, and exercise control over different social, political and cultural institutions. The elite theory posits that this small group of people constitute the ruling class and influence the most important social and political decisions, such as government policies. For example, news channels have largely come under the ownership of large private companies, which can influence the viewers and their decision-making to a large extent.
The process of absorbing something and making it the norm in an organization, social structures, or institutions is known as institutionalization. For example, sexism may be institutionalized in workplaces, which could be evident in a lack of women leaders or the passing of comments by male staff members on female staff members.
44. Cultural globalisation
Cultural globalization refers to the transmission of ideas, ideologies, values, ethics, meanings, symbols, and other cultural identities across borders. For example, the entry and dominance of Domino’s Pizza in foreign markets is part of cultural globalisation where food becomes transmitted across the globe.
Although emanating from an economic point of view, globalisation can nevertheless be understood in sociological terms too. Globalisation is a process of influencing social life that could be seen in every aspect of our lives, from how we dress to what we eat. The wearing of shirts and trousers by men in India is largely an impact of globalisation as almost no culture in India has had these as part of their attires.
Democracy is a socio-political system where everyone has an equal share of power. Of course, in practice, it is observed in a national setting that only parliamentarians or senators hold offices of power and not ordinary citizens. However, since these parliamentarians are elected by citizens on the basis of the universal franchise, it is still a democratic system. For example, when a decision is taken within a family where everyone has an equal say in the decision-making process, irrespective of the age, gender, or other characteristics of the family members, the family is said to behave in a democratic manner.
a political ideology in which power is saturated in a singular, central government which controls the lives of all the citizens under it. In a totalitarian regime, citizens have no democratic power, and any kind of opposition is completely disallowed and illegalised, so that power can be concentrated with the government only. Extreme levels of uncontrolled exploitation and oppression are common in totalitarian societies, and people have no rights or control over their own lives. North Korea can be considered an example of a totalitarian country today.
48. Primary and Secondary Groups
In sociology, social relations can be divided into primary and secondary groups. The group with which an individual is connected to on a personal level and which forms the basic, close-knit set of people having intimate bonds and close emotional attachment are known as the primary group. On the other hand, secondary group includes all the other people that a person forms relations with but on an impersonal level. Primary groups are smaller and have a more tight bond than secondary group. For example, primary group consists of family, friends, etc., while secondary group consists of people such as teachers, employers, etc.
A hypothesis is the beginning point and the foundation of any research. It is the initial assumption made in a research process based on some present evidence and it might or might not be proved true through the research. For example, a researcher may hypothesise that an increase in the faculty-student ratio would result in stronger satisfaction amongst students with their education. Upon doing his research, the researcher may find evidence supporting his hypothesis, or otherwise.
50. Objectivity and Subjectivity
Objectivity is freedom from bias in making observations and interpretations. Subjectivity, its antonym, is our awareness of our biases in studying something. This awareness is important as it can severely affect the way we analyze issues and test hypotheses. Mathematics is considered an objective discipline, as the solution to a problem cannot be different due to one’s personal bias. History may be considered an example of a subjective science, as the historian’s biases influence how she analyzes and writes history.
Ball, T., & Dagger, R. (2019). Communism. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism
Durkheim, É. (1893). The division of labour in society. Palgrave Macmillan. (Original work published 1893)
Ritzer, G. (2000). An introduction to McDonaldization. In The McDonaldization of Society (pp. 1–19). Pine Forge Press. https://us.corwin.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/3239_4007_ch01.pdf