Sociology Overview: Concepts

You see an elderly man running down the street to catch a bus, puffing painfully as he reaches the corner. In order to perceive this, you have to make use of concepts. Man is a concept. Elderly, running, street, bus, puffing, pain, corner are concepts. So is running to catch a bus and reaching the corner.

We make use of hundreds of concepts each day. A concept is a general unit of meaning. It is a generalized idea incorporating an entire class of person, objects, or processes that are presumably related to one another (Dressler, 1973, p. 22). Your concept of man derives from your observation of men, your interaction with them, your study of them, your analysis, and finally your generalization concerning what a man always is.

We said a concept is a generalized idea incorporating an entire class of person, objects, or processes that are presumably related to one another. A particular concept, as held by a given individual, may not be entirely in accord with the facts as interpreted by most others. Suppose you conceptualize newborn infant as a toothless human being. Most newborn infants do fit that conception, but there are exceptions. Some babies already have teeth when they come into the world.

Concepts, then are subject to continuous reexamination in the light of all available evidence. The more valid they are in terms of truly delimiting events, things, or ideas--that is, the more unambiguous they are--the more useful they will be as tools in scientific explanation.

We should add an additional qualification. A scientific concept is oe that, in addition to classifying certain phenomena together and excluding others, is also useful in a theoretical sense to the purposes of scientific studies. Thus, chair is a concept, but it is unlikely that chair is a concept useful in sociology. On the other hand, family and social class have been extensively used in the research and theory of sociology. Cooperation and conflict are two other well-used sociological concepts.

We think in terms of concepts. They are products of observation and experience, are perceived through mental processes, and are expressed in language. When we say "kulak," we are putting into words the concept of a well-to-do farmer in the pre-Soviet Russia who profited from the labor of peasants. When we say "white-collar worker," we are using language to express a concept that characterizes a certain class of employee. Concepts are learned through everyday observations and experiences.

Sociologists deal with many of the same concepts that are held by human beings generally. They are, additionally, concerned with concepts within the province of the student of human interaction--for instance, the concepts of culture and society