Sociology Sociological Approaches to Character
Arthur E. McLuhan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0178


What is character? Many notable scholars have attempted to answer this question throughout the history of Western social thought. These attempts to define and explain character have been manifold, and this diversity is reflected in the contemporary study of character. In the social sciences, the study of character cuts across a wide range of disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological boundaries. Although the study of character is commonly associated with philosophy and psychology, there is a rich sociological tradition that examines character as a social product and process. Sociology emphasizes the role of social interaction and group membership in the formation, individuation, and designation of character. By attending to the role of the group in the development and meaning of character, sociology provides a useful counterpoint to the individual emphasis in psychology. Early-21st-century work in the study of character has often been interdisciplinary, with a growing group of scholars combining the two most recognized traditions—philosophy and psychology—in generating, assessing, and revising theoretical formulations of character. However, in the midst of increased scholarly attention and collaboration on studying character, the sociological tradition is often disregarded. This overview suggests several areas of sociological research that may serve as resources in pursuing future studies of character as a sociological phenomenon.


There are no specific textbooks on the sociology of character. Rather, knowledge of one or more areas of sociological theory and research provides the general foundation from which specific treatments of character can emerge. With its emphasis on the relationship between the individual and society in everyday life, sociological social psychology is a powerful approach to the study of character as a social essence. Rohall, et al. 2007 covers the multiple approaches within sociological social psychology. Sandstrom, et al. 2014 focuses on the symbolic interactionist approach. Rousseau 2002 is an excellent companion to the other textbooks. The sociology of emotions and sociology of morality have seen renewed interest in recent decades, and both fields are central to understanding character. Turner and Stets 2005 introduces the various approaches to the sociology of emotions in accessible yet thorough terms. Hitlin 2008 provides an excellent introduction to the sociology of morality.

  • Hitlin, Steven. 2008. Moral selves, evil selves: The social psychology of conscience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230614949

    Integrates research from psychological social psychology and sociological social psychology on personality, character, and moral aspects of self. A useful starting point for advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and established scholars who are interested in the sociology of character and morality.

  • Rohall, David E., Melissa A. Milkie, and Jeffrey W. Lucas. 2007. Social psychology: Sociological perspectives. Boston: Pearson Education.

    A recent introduction to the three major research traditions in sociological social psychology. Each approach—symbolic interactionism, social structure and personality, and group processes—offers a different perspective on the nature and study of character as a social phenomenon.

  • Rousseau, Nathan, ed. 2002. Self, symbols, and society: Classic readings in social psychology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    An excellent reader in classic, midcentury, and contemporary sociological social psychology. Each chapter provides an excerpt from a seminal work supplemented with a brief introduction. Many of the chapters feature contributions to the sociology character. An essential text and reference for students and scholars alike.

  • Sandstrom, Kent L., Kathryn J. Lively, Daniel D. Martin, and Gary Alan Fine. 2014. Symbols, selves, and social reality: A symbolic interactionist approach to social psychology and sociology. 4th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An introductory text to symbolic interactionism. Organized around substantive areas of interactionist research. See the chapters on socialization, self, role, and emotions for the most explicit treatment of character-related theory and research. Most useful for undergraduate students.

  • Turner, Jonathan H., and Jan E. Stets. 2005. The sociology of emotions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819612

    The sociology of emotion and the sociology of character are intimately related. A recent review of the major approaches to the sociology of emotions by two leading scholars in the field. Suitable for both undergraduate and graduate students.

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