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Exam technique advice

Example Answer for Questions 13, 14 and 15 Paper 2: A Level Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA

Topic B1: Beliefs in Society

Q13 (10 marks)

Q14 (10 marks)

Q15 (20 marks)


Sects tend to recruit members from the working class, since they are more likely to feel marginalised and/or materially deprived. Weber argued that sects provide a ‘theodicy of disprivilege’. This means that sects explain and justify their members’ relative deprivation, and sometimes even use it as a test of their faith commitment. They are also known to promise eternal rewards in the afterlife as compensation for their lack of financial and social status on Earth, as was the case in the People’s Temple. Their high commitment and small, exclusive nature might also offer a way for people who feel left out of mainstream society, such as some working class ethnic minorities, to celebrate a sense of belonging, value and purpose. Having said this, it is likely that only a tiny proportion of working class ethnic minorities are sect members.

Sects also tend to recruit twice as many women as men, according to Bruce. This can be explained by adopting Stark and Bainbridge’s religious market theory. This theory sees sects as offering compensation for organismic deprivation (suffering from poor physical and mental health) and ethical deprivation (perceiving the world as being in moral decline). These are more likely to affect women, who report higher levels of physical and mental health problems and are socialised to be morally conservative. With the social status of women arguably rising in recent generations, this trend may not continue.


Religion has led to social change in circumstances where a religious group has a, “profound sense of being right,” as stated in the item, i.e. taking the moral high ground over a society whose norms and values are seen as unjust. Led by the Baptist minister Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights movement in America successfully campaigned to end racial segregation in 1964. Bruce argues that it did so by appealing to the Christian value to ‘love they neighbour’ shared by both black and white clergy, which shamed the white Christian ruling class into changing the law. A secular or violent struggle may not have been as successful. Although segregation laws were abolished, racial prejudice and inequality still exist. This raises the prospect of religion having led in this case to legal change, but not to overall social change.

Another argument is that religion has been known to lead to social change almost by accident. The reference to leading believers, “to act in ways that can have unforeseen consequences for society,” in the item bears similarity to Weber’s account of 17th century Calvinist Protestants. As a way of finding out whether they were in the ‘elect’, a privileged few who were predestined for heaven, Calvinists adopted an ascetic lifestyle and worked as hard as they could, as was their ‘calling’ from God. Their theory was that by working hard and spending little money, the amount of wealth they accumulated would be a sign of God’s favour towards them, and therefore of the likelihood of them going to heaven. Despite their lack of interest in financial power over each other, these circumstances inadvertently led to the perhaps the greatest social change of all time, the birth of capitalism. Weber did not claim that the Calvinism alone created capitalism, but that material and cultural factors such as the existence of money and road networks and the respect for private property were also present. Weber may have exaggerated the role of their religion in creating this social change. They may have been forced to work hard and save money because they were socially excluded from mainstream society.


Science and religion are often seen as competing ways of explaining the world. Since people seem to put their faith in either or both, they can be seen as belief systems, reinforcing ideas about things we hold to be true. Sociologists argue about the extent to which they both go so far as to become ideologies, where sets of beliefs sway us towards interpreting the world in a way which justifies the interests of a dominant social group.

The modern era is, or was, characterised by rationality and scientific discovery and progress. Over recent centuries we have relentlessly sought to, “understand and control the word,” (Item J) to manipulate its resources for the good of mankind. Scientific achievements in food, medicine, transport and communications have raised living standards and led to a widespread faith in science. During the same period a secularisation process has occurred in the societies at the forefront of this scientific revolution. Sociologists such as Bruce point out a direct causal relationship between the decline in religious power and authority in western society and the ascent of science, with the latter replacing the former as the dominant belief system.

The key advantage science has over other beliefs systems is its cognitive power. It enables us to explain, predict and, “control,” the world in a way that is seemingly beyond ‘pre-scientific’ beliefs systems. In explaining what distinguishes science from religious belief systems, Sir Karl Popper (1959) goes some way to explain why it has such a great appeal to people today. Science is an ‘open’ system. Its theories are open to scrutiny, criticism and re-testing. Rather than seeking to prove existing theories, Popper tells us that scientific theories are governed by principles of falsification, i.e. we assume them to be true by continually challenging, or seeking to falsify them. Scientific knowledge is cumulative, meaning that if a body of falsifying evidence can be built up against a theory it will discarded in favour of a more reliable explanation. Popper’s view reflects the early positivism of Durkheim, who attempted to replicate the use of quantifiable scientific methods to study social life. More recently, Durkheim’s fellow functionalist Merton supported Popper by stating that the institution of science follows what he called ‘C.U.D.O.S.’ norms, in which scientists share their findings, use objective criteria, are detached from ideological bias and question every idea. Unlike religion, no scientific knowledge is sacred.

From this it is clear to see how science fits well as the preferred belief system of the modern era. However, it is somewhat of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation of which came first – has modernity led to the rise of science as a belief systems, or vice versa? Also, Popper et al claim that science’s superiority is down to its objectivity, which is not a characteristic of belief systems, since beliefs systems are based on ideas that we hold to be true even in the face of evidence to contrary.

This positivist view has, “challenged religious explanations based on faith,” seeing them as ‘closed’ rather than open systems. In their view religion claims to have special, perfect knowledge of the absolute truth which cannot be challenged, like the divine right of kings, and therefore does not change. Evans-Pritchard studied witchcraft among the Azande in 1936 and concluded that believers are trapped within their own ‘ideom of belief’ or way of thinking, which means they cannot challenge its basic assumptions. However, such an account cannot be seen to represent all established religions, and certainly not, “today.”

There is certainly no universal agreement about science having replaced religion as the belief system of today. The item refers to modernity, yet in today’s late- or postmodern world our faith in science has been dimmed by the significant problems caused by the products and bi-products of scientific and technological advancement. Addiction to medication, the dark net, weapons of mass destruction, pollution and global warming bring with them their own ‘manufactured risks’ of death and destruction. We have arguably lost our faith in science, although we may not be able to control its influence over us.

In direct criticism of Popper, Thomas Kuhn (1970) depicts science as a closed belief system. Scientific knowledge is based on a set of shared assumptions he calls a paradigm. Scientific education is a process of being socialised into faith in the truth of the paradigm. Non-believers are ridiculed and hounded out of the profession. Far from being open to falsification, this paradigm only shifts during the rare occurrence of a ‘scientific revolution’, where the shared assumptions buckle under the weight of evidence against them.

Scientism is a belief system or ideology that suggests that the scientific method provides the only valid means of gaining knowledge about the world. This extreme view rejects any claims to the truth that are not evidence-based, such as that provided by religion. Scientism is therefore not an open system, but a closed one.

Whilst conflict theories maintain that science is ideological, serving the interests of the ruling class (Marxism) or men (Feminism), it must be clarified that these perspectives are themselves ideological. Furthermore, political ideologies may outweigh scientific or religious ones.

It would seem that science and religion have more in common than either side might let on. Polanyi argued in 1958 that all belief systems, be they scientific or religious, reject fundamental challenges in order to sustain themselves. Interpretivists argue that all knowledge is relative and socially constructed, including that which claims to be scientific. The emergence of NRMs and NAMs has made it harder to consider religion as one entity, and similarly science is made up of opposing viewpoints, such as those surrounding the current debate around climate change. Since postmodernists also reject the knowledge-claims of both science and religion, seeing both as metanarratives, or ‘big stories’ which cannot be ultimately proven or disproven, it is not safe to assume that science has a greater influence on people’s lives in the western world today. On a global scale it could be argued that religious and supernatural beliefs retain extraordinary power over billions of people. Buddhist monks led an uprising against the government in Burma in 2007, the New Christian Right have political influence over Donald Trump’s US administration and continued Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks are perhaps the single most significant issue uniting people across Europe today and the world today.

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect my attempt at producing a model answer on the day of the exam.

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