Regarding Working Towards Essays and Tests

Sociology as an Abstract Form of Learning, especially at A level (AS and A2).

Here is a statement defining sociology that comes straight from the AQA (

Sociology is the study of human society. As a discipline it embraces a  variety of viewpoints  all of which, however, share the common pursuit of increasing our  understanding  of the social world. Sociology places the individual  within a social context . It is concerned with the study of social structures, social processes and social issues. In pursuit of this study it has developed a unique and distinctive  range of concepts  applicable to any human society.

The highlighted words show what has to be done to gain an understanding of Sociology. The understanding needs to appreciate that there are a variety of viewpoints, that these have to be understood, that ideas are in context (so the context must be understood as well as the factual material of the idea, and that there are a range of tools of concepts to do this with.

In other words, there is more here than just rote learning of facts. There must be understanding, conceptualising and placing. Facts must link.

Essay title: "Religion may encourage rather than inhibit social change." Critically discuss this statement with some reference to contemporary society.
The essay should be evidence-led in terms of what sociologists have written (from what they have done by way of research or reasoning). Paragraphs should be consistently critical. In academic circles critical means characterised by serious and careful evaluation and judgment discriminating between terms and meanings.
The essay also demands that the title is followed throughout. It is not enough to bolt in once revised pieces of text. The essay is its own entity and needs to be followed.
Dissect title by the title's key words:

  • Religion
  • encourage social change
  • inhibit social change
  • Critically
  • Discuss
  • Some reference to contemporary society
  • Use essay criteria as guideline towards standards
  • Paragraphs thus must not only be descriptive; they must analyse and be critical
Possible sections (going from the general to the specific, establishing foundations before making specific points)...
Paragraph 1 (groundwork) - Difficulty of definition of religion; sociological views of religion: religion as force of sacred effect that can be conservative but against this is religion as highly varied in causality according to perspective.
Paragraph 2 - Marxist perspective described including false consciousness. Discuss critically: a counter argument is whether is this Marxist systematic approach is historical? A critical approach weaves in Weber as concerned for history.
Paragraph 3 - Liberation theology described but how much a modification of Marxism. This is potentially illustration rich: include Civil Rights, Hinduism and Gandhi. Discuss each critically: this would involve how successful they were.
Paragraph 4 - Weberian view and social action; interpretive approaches and expected decline. This needs to grapple with Weber and theory through to bureaucracy. There are critical, analytical futher questions. Is Weber's pessimism justified? Is he right that religion will have no further social role?
Paragraph 5 - Durkheim and functionalist view, but consider that his study was of simpler society and that he commented about religion and modernity in organic society.
Paragraph 6+ - Issues in contemporary society: the impact of religion; this requires own reading on modernity, postmodernity, and possibly secularisation; Shi'ite Islam in Iran 1979 and Saudi Wahabi Islam and terrorism of especially 2001 to now; plural identities including ethnic minorities, religion and nationalism (Ireland, former Yugoslavia); Berger and The Homeless Mind. This is the most discussive, expansive and analytical area for the essay.
Paragraph... The conclusion should round up the whole essay and not introduce new information although it may add new overall analysis.
An open question like this brings on the analytical side of Sociology. The AO2 mark is catered for along with the AO1 marking for factual material.

AO1: Knowledge and understanding of the theories, methods, concepts and various forms of evidence, and of the links between them; Communication of knowledge and understanding in a clear and effective manner. Worth 45-55%.
AO2: Acquisition and appropriate application of skills of identification, analysis, interpretation and evaluation. Worth 45-55%


Revision is about concentrating and remembering analysis. Having analysis means being able to mould facts towards answering any question. Here is one:
Briefly explain Weber's social action theory. (4)
Social action theory means people develop their own interpretation of the world in conversation with others and this influences their actions. Meanings and motives direct behaviour and can go so far as to change the economic and social institutions of society.
Name Weber's book on the development of capitalism. (2)
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Give a brief explanation of 'predestination'. (2)
Predestination is the belief that God, who is all knowing, knows the fate of everyone before birth and through time. Especially important to predestination is God's knowledge whether someone is saved or damned. The human being lived in comparative ignorance of salvation or damnation, but would look for signs of God's favour.
Why, according to Weber, did this belief encourage Calvinists to develop capitalism? (6)
Calvinists did not know if they were one of the "elect" and the saved. In order to know this, they looked for real signs of favour from God. This was material benefit, and could be compared with the sinful who were living in poverty. As a holy people, they were not spendthrift and worked hard and invested what they had. Investment without over consumption leads to business growth. Some Calvinists (such as Leonard Chamberlain in Hull) became incredibly wealthy and put some of their money into religious, charitable and social projects. Yet they had a religious drive towards investment. Investment is a vital part of capitalist growth and industrialisation.
Catholic countries were not as quick to industrialise. How did Weber explain this? (5)
Catholic stress on seeking forgivenness for sin and having them forgiven by the priest was effectively passive, and all could be saved through this loyal process within the Catholic church. People could consume sinfully and then go to confession and forgivenness of sins. As a result Weber stated that Catholic countries did not generate the right conditions for capitalist growth. The conservative nature of Catholic countries meant that wealth stayed largely in land, compared with Protestant countries were business ventures put wealth into capital. Due to the religious ethic, Protestants took business risks to see strong material signs of God's favour.
Discuss Samuelson's criticism of Weber and why Marshall dismisses this criticism. (6)
Samuelson argues that Calvinism started in Switzerland but did not encourage Capitalism there. In Britain colonialism (including slavery), piracy and international trade created a pool of wealth for investors and facailitated industrialisation, not religious belief. Sombart stated that Calvinists did not pursue money for its own sake (but then Weber did not say that they did).

Marshall supports Weber by pointing out that Calvinist Protestantism was only one factor in growth and Weber was interested to see the parallel between the Protestant ethic and the spirt of capitalism. Weber was sophisticated in his approach and historical. Finding a Calvinist exception does not dismiss Weber's approach because Weber did recognise the importance of available economic factors.


Adrian Worsfold