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A Sociologists Perspective

In this essay I will discuss the various perspectives of some of the twentieth centuries leading academic minds within the fields of sociology and anthropology. I will looking closely at the working styles, processes and influences of Howard Becker, Margaret Mead and Leslie White.

The essay will begin by discussing the main theoretical concerns for each of the academics, discussing briefly what their work was, what it meant and how they achieved what they did with it, before moving to discuss who they were and where they fit into the sociological grid, discussing how their work was viewed and subsequently how their work made others view them, for the two things are not always complimentary of one another.

I will provide support for the work by including information discussing how they reached their respective conclusions and which data they recorded and or sampled in order to get to their various conclusions.

I will summarise the essay not by reflecting on how they are regarded now in modern times, in a world that is more than a century older than when they were born, but by discussing how they used their own personal experiences and values to create their work, pointing out any possibly influences it had on the outcome, before finally addressing their impact on the world of sociology, what legacies they have left behind and how their research and findings have influenced or continue to influence the academic sociological world today.

The overall aim of the project it not to criticise, attack or defend the work of these individuals, as their observations and studies may now be things that we take for granted every day, but I intend to merely advise others on their work and ensure that we do not forget the footwork that was laid down for all sociological students the world over by these great men and women.

Howard Becker, born in 1928 became a leading American sociologist, with his work primarily addressing the Sociology of deviancy, which as his thoughts and opinions developed, broke away and formed what is now know as labelling theory. This theory addresses the way in which the population of a majority will easily and simply label the minority, than then discusses how the minority develop based upon the label that they have been burdened with. It talks about how by labelling people in a certain way simply because they are different from the accepted ‘norm’ in that area, an irreversible effect is had on them which control how they develop and what they become. Becker is the man responsible for the creating of the highly regarded phrase of ‘The hierarchy of credibility.’

Margaret Mead was an American Social Anthropologist who conducted many studies within foreign cultures over the years, including the native people of New Guinea. She was also a prominent voice in the developing field of psychiatry, which led her to conduct research into the Cultural perceptions of Schizophrenia.

The majority of Mead’s work was based within the boundaries of cultural evolution, with her thoughts being directed towards how we mature. She was keen to note that the rate of maturation and also the figure a person becomes is influenced not by the person themselves but by their cultural conditioning and also the external expectations that were being placed one that person; whether it be a positive pressure or a negative one. Leslie White is another social anthropologist, who much like Mead devoted most of his time with the concern of cultural evolution. Focusing on how cultural developments are directly related to the technological advancements of that nation in question. Eventually creating the theory of  P = ET. P  P is regarded as the cultural development, while E stands for the energy consumed per capita and T is the efficiency of use regarding said energy. White himself stated that culture can be viewed as consisting of three separate layers, the bottom layer is technology, while the top is philosophical. This middle ground therefore is composed of sociological components. Technology is the primary diving force behind culture and its evolution. White reasoned this by further stating that Society is a functioning of different technologies; philosophies express the previously mentioned technologies while reflecting the society as a whole. It is technology the decides the shape of the social systems it is part of, which then, when coupled together create the philosophical realm

White believed that culture was not separate between countries, but rather one complete thing, which differed from place to place. His research and subsequent views into the evolution of culture across the globe and its link to the technological prowess of the nation would certainly place White within the boundaries of Macro-Sociology. He preferred to look at the larger picture rather than merely addressing topical issues. He made links between everything and with the creation of what is now known as Whites Law, which poses that societies are merely separated by the levels of energy they product and the efficiency at which is it used.. He further stated, “Increased energy allowed for greater social differentiation.” (Leslie White. Sociocultural Evolution. Unknown Author. 2009.

Unlike White, both Becker and Mead would be classified as plying their sociological trade within the worlds of Micro-Sociology because they address not entire nations but the way individuals are addressed and affected by the sociological factors of their culture or those around them.  Becker is famous for his approach to the way people are labelled or how those who have a higher level of affluence are more prone to having judgements of fact turned in their favour since they have the means to gather the information. It was Becker’s view that the scholars of the world are responsible for helping the less wealthy gather facts to help their cases.  

While working from a similar perspective, Mead’s work was directed more to the evolution of individuals with cultures and how those cultures influence a person’s rate and destination in terms of maturity.

Within the world of sociology there are three main realms of theory, the more abstract of them is grand theory. This is particularly applicable when discussing the concerns of Leslie White, whose work was specifically linked to the world as a whole, emphasized by his singular use of the word culture. . Especially when looking at his work regarding the evolution of society and his theory surrounding the link of energy resources and technology levels with the evolution of culture.

Becker and Mead are once again classed together as belonging to the world of Middle Range theory. The work of both Becker and Mead is less general and can be empirically tested as belonging to specific locations, either through cultural differences or merely geographical locations. Mead studied a lot of different locations, particularly in the less developed countries such as New Guinea. It was there that she theorised about the affect cultural traditions and external influences have on the maturity of teenage girls.

Although it could be argued that the resulting sociological impact of Meads work could help make the jump into the realm of grand theory. Her extensive work to educate people about the emotional maturation of teenage girls, documenting their journey into womanhood, not to mention her own ultra successful career as a female in a male dominated society certainly paved the way for more likeminded women to follow in her footsteps.

Becker meanwhile was keen to stress his ‘labelling theory’, which theorises about the way in which the varying majorities in different cultures are keen to assign labels to the minorities, and Becker continued to link the influence of labelling on the growth of the minorities as both a culture and also on an individual level. This included his theories that by labelling felons as just that, felons or criminals, or any of the more crime specific names that have become more commonplace, Becker felt as though society was condemning that person to remain locked under the shadow of the label. Calling convicted persons criminals or convicts while they are still in prison serving the punishment it is serving as a simple reminder of what they did, and thus making it harder for them to hold down or even locate regular employment, and also conditioning them for a life governed by the perception other people have on them. One could even argue the direct link between precisely this form of labelling and Becker’s Hierarchy of Credibility, which he first raised in his 1967 publication. “Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems.” 

While gathering their data, each of the three scholars took a different approach, with Mead travelling to many countries over the course of her life, studying the various cultures she encountered to a deep level that created quite a storm among her sociological peers back in the United States, claiming that her views were influenced by her complete absorption within the cultures.

Alternatively, you have the work of Lewis White who not only observed the culture of the world, but also calculated a precise equation that not only proves but also explains his theory about linking energy with cultural growth. White’s Law is still apparent to this very day and is referred to frequently within many fields outside of the sociology world.

Howard Becker preferred to use existing or prevailing theoretic preoccupations focusing on race, social status, or power levels with particular attention to the Chicago region of America.

All three of these leading academics used a degree of personal values in their work, it is invariable especially when you area of expertise is the study of people and cultures. Perhaps the one who was most personally involved with their theories would be Margaret Mead, who completely enveloped herself in her work, learning many languages fluently during her studies. During her time spent in Samoa, and the small island of Tao that is part of the island cluster, she managed to learn the language fluently in as little as six weeks. Simply putting herself in the middle of the locals and communicating with them. It was actions like this that many sociologists at the time labelled as having a tarnishing effect on her resulting data. Her close personal proximity with the people made her misguided, the same way that a man in love sees the bright side of everything.

Becker used his personal values in a more subtle way, by compiling the majority of his theories using information acquired around the Chicago area of the United States, the same state where he was born and studied.

Leslie White used personal values in his work, not because of any particular reason pertaining to his life, but rather because he was constantly at rather aggressive odds with another section of sociology the Boasians, who believed in the theories set down by Frans Boas (1858-1942) This was in no part down to the way in which White viewed the world and his functions within it. Believing that the difference between all of the social sciences at the time was not down to methods but simply a matter of what the subject matter was.  It is an interesting point of note that while Leslie White was a direct opponent to the teachings and theories of Boas, with their rivalry being somewhat childish and often resorted to name calling, yet at the same time Margaret Mead, another of the famous scholars discusses in this essay was actually a devout student of Moat, who actually wrote the forward to Meads most successful publication. Coming Of Age In Samoa (1928)

All three scholars have left their mark on the world, and not just within the confines of sociology. White’s Law ( P = ET) is used in a great many fields. By relating energy production and its efficient use directly to the cultural evolution, White helped to pave the way for evolving economies the world over, by enabling them to clearly understand what they have to do to grow.

Howard Becker, who is incidentally the only surviving member of the three is responsible for a leaving a lasting impression on the sociology world, but not only for his impressive and well composed theories but also for the way he revolutionised the writing styles for sociologists. This wasn’t done without many disapproving lectures from his peers, who felt that his plain style was undermining his academic abilities. Many of his fellow academics at the time preferred to use scientific precision to explain their works, yet Becker insisted on  using a simple language which fitting with his arguments relating to the Hierarchy of Credibility made his work something that could be read by anybody who wished to read it , and not just the highly educated social elite who he felt held an unfair advantage in any area that was decided on the provision of information or fact.

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