When Arizona’s immigration bill SB1070 passed, there was a flurry of information flooding media outlets. Opponents and supporters brought out poll after poll to show public opinion, and both sides cited studies that showed the benefits and problems with immigration and how the law would help or hinder American society. All of these studies and polls are created and conducted through methods influenced by political sociology.
Political sociology investigates the association between society and politics, and can be considered the intersection of political science and sociology. More specifically, the main focus is on power. In sociology, power is defined as the ability to achieve one’s goals over the objections of another group. In political sociology, we study who has the power, how they use it, and how it is institutionalized. This can include the study of political activity of specific groups (race, class, gender, ideology), how social pressure forces change in policy, or how policy will affect society.
Why is Political Sociology Important?
As is the goal of sociology in general, political sociology exists mainly to better society as a whole. Understanding the political system is important because in order to make informed decisions, we must first understand groups with power and how they use it. It is highly important to the efficacy of a democracy for the public to be aware of how power is used for and against our interests in order to keep leaders from becoming too powerful or corrupted by special interest groups and to demand change where they believe it is needed.
The following is an example of one government who’s power was not curbed by the use of political sociology. The communist government is a product of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx details the evils of capitalism and offers communism as the best alternative. In short, communism is supposed to be a system with no classes where much of society’s industry is owned by the government. This is ideally supposed to lead to a kind of egalitarian land where everyone is economically and politically equal.
However, we have seen that in practice communism leads to much more insidious outcomes. By studying the affects of communism in places like the U.S.S.R., we see that this system of government comes at great cost to individuals. Civil liberties such as freedom of expression and religion are suffocated as individuals are forced to accept the government’s dogma or risk severe consequences. We have seen that such a strongly centralized government can lead to extreme corruption and abuse of power. Using political sociology to study and understand how this power is used and institutionalized, we can hope to avoid the same outcome in our own society. On the other side, if a power system had an outcome we wanted to duplicate, studying and understanding it would allow us to apply the same system here.
Political sociology can also serve the public good by serving as a wake up call to show us what’s happening in our own society. There are a huge number of studies and books concerning the political system in the United States, ranging from investigations of the political elite to the patterns of voter turnout. These studies and books provide us with information about our political system and how power is used in our own country. For example, the book Why Americans Still Don’t Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way by Frances Piven and Richard Cloward investigates voting trends of Americans and how not voting affects our lives. Through this aggregation of information, more attention will be focused on the benefits of voter turnout; and as a consequence, greater resources will be spent on campaigns to encourage an increase in future voter turnout.
Careers in Political Sociology
Professional social scientists spend time doing research. They can earn grants to pay for research through the government, universities, or special interest groups. Often those who work for universities split their time between research and teaching classes. There are also opportunities outside of individual research in politics, including:
- Congressional aid
- Data analyst and processing
- Social survey director
- Demographic analyst
- Policy analyst
- Public opinion surveyor
- Research analyst, director or assistant
Overview of Two Important Political Sociological Works
While there are hundreds of important studies and theories involved with political sociology, what follows are brief overviews of two very important works that still influence political sociology in America today.
The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx became one of the founders of social science and political sociology when his studies of the effects of capitalism on the worker lead to his work The Communist Manifesto. Marx investigated the relationships between capitalism and society and found, among other problems, what he believed to be an unfair balance of power. He saw the ruling class (those who own the means of production such as factories) could cruelly and endlessly exploit the working class (those who work in the factories). His answer to this imbalance was Communism. In short, he hoped that by transferring means of production, transportation, and communication and banks to the government, a Communist government would create a classless society where nobody could take advantage of someone else in the ways he saw happening around him.
Although the merits of communism are hotly debated, there is a persistent truth to his thoughts about the imbalance of political and economic power between the classes. Therefore, Marx’s work is and will continue to be important in political sociology for the foreseeable future.
Democracy in America
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study American society and why our form of government was working here but not in other countries. His findings were published in France, and later all over the world. He took note of anything he could in American culture to find out how democracy worked here. He found great importance in our judiciary system, specifically the Supreme Court and jury system that offer safeguards against the legislature. He also found that our freedoms of press, association, and religion gave our leaders moral governing that was necessary to avoid rampant corruption.
He did, however, find shortcomings in democracy and American ideals. For example, he found America’s obsession with equality problematic. He wondered if everyone was truly equal, how could one person rule over another? He also found that running for re-election would make representatives do what was popular, not necessarily what was right. This idea ties into what he called the “tyranny of the majority,” which means the rule of the majority will subvert the interests of minorities or individuals.
Tocqueville’s two books go into great detail about American society and the benefits and dangers of democracy. As a comprehensive study of early American democracy and ideals, Democracy in America continues to be a reference used in classes and by theorists in political sociology.
If you are interested in becoming a political sociologist or political scientist, request information from schools offering degree programs in psychology or sociology.