Sociology 250

September 11, 2002

The World of Classical Social Theory

A. Varieties of social theory

While there are major similarities among the various sociological approaches, there are many theories and approaches. Among reasons for the different theories are the following.

1. Social and society. As noted last day, different sociologists developed different ideas of what they meant by society and the social. Some were more all-encompassing than others in including more aspects of human interaction in their definitions. Some theories are only partial theories, e.g. micro models tend to focus on individuals and small groups and their interactions whereas macro theories are concerned with society as a whole. Feminists, post-colonial theorists, queer theorists, and others have made sociologists aware of elements of social interaction and society that were ignored earlier. Contemporary sociological theory has thus moved in the direction of including more aspects of human interaction as part of the scope of sociology.

2. Philosophical approaches. Each sociological theory adopts assumptions about characteristics of humans and how we interact. There are many different possible assumptions – for example, some think of humans as having inherent characteristics with such diverse qualities as selfishness and sympathy. Others, such as Rousseau, think of people as having few natural characteristics other than physical needs – food, a mate, and rest – and other human characteristics are shaped by society (Zeitlin, 20). There are also different philosophical views concerning how social interaction takes place, what is the proper way to study society, and how society is structured. Tucker reviews some of these in chapter 2 and we will discuss these different approaches when we examine the writings of each author.

3. Political approach. Tucker does not emphasize this but one basic difference among the major theorists is their understanding of how change occurs; parallel with this is their view of how change should occur. Conservative or liberal approaches, such as those of Durkheim and Parsons tend to consider social change as gradual, with individuals, groups, institutions, and society adjusting gradually to external changes such as war, climate, and resources or to internal changes such as population growth and social conflict. These writers tend to look for evidence of consensus and order in society and how these can be achieved. In contrast, writers such as Marx, and to some extent Weber, look for conflicts, discontinuities, inequalities, and differences of power. Their view concerning change is that there are discontinuities, rapid change, and possibly revolutions that alter the structures and mode of operation of society. The gradualist approach tends to be associated with social reform while the conflict approach is more likely to be associated with analysis or support of social movements, radical change, or even revolution. One of the major differences among the classical writers is their position regarding social and political change. Look for this as we discuss the writings of each theorist.


4. Social world. Discussion for today, from Chapter 2 of Tucker

Sociological theories are not purely intellectual in nature, but are closely connected with developments in the social world and changes in society. One reason why sociological approaches differ is that they are attempting to describe different sets of social forces that develop in society – at different times and places, with different actors and results. As societies change, it is the nature of these changes that sociologists attempt to explain, and it is the changes themselves that lead to astute observers providing explanations of these changes. For example, Marx's political-economic theory is an explanation of nineteenth century capitalism as it developed in Britain. His theory could not have been developed fifty years earlier because the trends and forces that he described and explained were only beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century. Weber's analysis of bureaucracy and rationalization could not have emerged much sooner than it did, because the bureaucratic structures and the forces of rationalization had not developed all that much before Weber's time. And Durkheim’s analysis of the changing division of labour could take place only once some of the economic and social trends of modern, industrial societies became apparent.

While we may think of each sociologist as developing a new approaches, sociologists are also characterized by their careful and acute study of society and their ability to put together contributions from other writers. The same is true today – as society changes, new sociological theories and approaches are developed in an attempt to understand and explain these changes – for example, feminist and post-colonial approaches. Each is a response to the changed position of social actors – the increased activity of women in the labour force, politics, the public sphere and education and the increased ability of people of colour and others outside the mainstream to enter social life on a more equal basis, and to the barriers members of each group face as they do this. Sociological approaches may also assist such individuals and groups in obtaining a place in society.

At the same time, if the sociological theory is to be useful across time and place, it must have some universal aspects to it. The three major classical sociological approaches each have these two aspects to them – (i) describing the changes that took place or were taking place at the time and (ii) providing ways of explaining society at different times and places.


B. World of classical social theory

1. Introduction

Sociology emerged as a system of thought in the early 19th Century with writers such as Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in France and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in England. As an academic discipline, sociology did not take root in universities and society until much later in the 19th Century when Durkheim and Weber in Europe and Mead, Cooley, and others in the United States began to develop sociology as an academic discipline. What was common to the early and classic sociologists was their establishment of systems of thought dealing with "a shared intellectual project: the discovery of society." (Tucker, 17)

Each of the writers attempted to understand the developments that had occurred in Western Europe over the previous few hundred years – the development of cities, industry, transport, science, different philosophic approaches, the nation-state, democracry, capitalism, and new forms of culture. The economist Karl Polanyi referred to the changes in society as "the great transformation" – a transformation from the traditional, rural, slowly-changing, feudal forms of life to the rapidly changing, market dominated society that developed between approximately 1500 and 1900 in Europe. Social relations became transformed as the individual, new social roles, and new freedoms developed but at the same time new structures of class and power also created new forms of constraint. Questions concerning how society was organized, how social change takes place, how social order develops, and how political power was constructed and exercised were concerns of these writers and each of the classical sociologists developed a theory describing these.

Today we will survey some of the changes that occurred in European society. These are discussed in Chapter 2 of Tucker.

2. Industrialization and Urbanization

In Western European societies, tradition and religion governed many aspects of society until 1500 or later. Prior to 1500, most people lived in rural areas or small rural villages and these had a feudal form of organization. Almost everyone was involved directly or indirectly in agriculture and most people were serfs or peasants. Society was organized hierarchically, with lords being landowners and serfs being agricultural workers or servants. Connecting these was a system of "mutual rights and obligations. Peasants gave a portion of what they produced to the lord, who in turn provided military protection" (Tucker, 18). This traditional form of organization of social relations worked reasonably well in terms of maintaining power and hierarchy and allowed people to survive at a basic level. But there was also lots of poverty and there were few individual freedom or rights, at least in the political area – Tucker (p. 30) does note though that so long as people filled their obligations, there was little attempt to control the life activity of peasants.

The Roman Catholic church was a powerful force in many aspects of the daily lives of people and in the feudal social organization. It was the wealthiest organization in Europe and was also the largest landowner in Europe. Centred in Rome, it was also the only large scale organization in Europe. Other forms of political power were decentralized and local – nation-states developed much later. The church and traditional values and culture set out rules and conduct that attempted to govern daily life, and until the Reformation, there was little questioning of these traditions – or the questioning was not effective at promoting change. Feudal organization and the church had different strengths at different places in Europe, and social and economic change did occur. But in general, this change was very slow, societies were mostly rural, tradition governed and social organization was hierarchical in nature.

At the same time, various developments were taking place – resulting in dramatic changes that would alter the nature of these societies forever. The power of the Roman Catholic Church was challenged by reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin in the Reformation, beginning in the 1500s. Philosophers began to write in ways that challenged the traditional religious ideas, developing a secular explanation for society and culture – the idea of nature replaced the idea of God as the basis for society and systems of thought. Agriculture began to become much more economically productive, basic forms of industry began to develop, trade routes vastly expanded, and commerce and the use of money became much more widespread. These changes first took place in Western and Southern Europe, with Eastern Europe taking many more centuries to change. While Italy was originally in the forefront of these changes, it was in Britain, France and Germany where the major changes took place.

Trade, commerce, finance and exploration all developed rapidly after 1500. Changes in the organization of agriculture led to increased food production and populations grew, meaning more people in rural areas than were needed earlier. Cities developed as isolated centres for trade and commerce in the middle ages. These cities were important for their economic role and also for their political role: as self-governing units free of feudal control (democracy begins to develop) and as centres for the emergence of the new middle classes or the bourgeoisie. These changes took place through much of Europe, and at the end of the 1700s, the stage was set for major developments in European society.

In the economic sphere, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, changing forever the relative roles of agriculture and industry, and introducing a period when change would become the norm in production of goods and services. Britain was clearly the leader, but other countries also had industrial revolutions, although somewhat later. Britain developed cotton textile production in factories. The nature of production changed dramatically, with more production taking place in factories. The way in which this took place changed the social order – from the hierarchical and traditional form of lords and serfs to the new hierarchy of capitalists and workers, based on free markets and industrial capitalism. While the Industrial Revolution has never stopped, and there have been continued revolutions in production, Tucker argues (p. 19) that by 1900, much of the transformation had been completed and social conditions had changed dramatically. By this time over half the population lived in urban areas, labour became a commodity, transportation systems and trade linked together the economies of much of the world, and literacy became common.

Today globalism has become of watchword, with global institutions and forces threatening to destroy established ways of life and institutions. But as Tucker notes (p. 21) many of these global developments started several centuries earlier and globalization was an important development in the nineteenth century. That is, development of trade, communication, transportation, economy on an international scale were highly developed by 1900. The effects of the Industrial Revolution have spread to all areas of the world. In this sense, the effect is universal, and theories describing the new economy of capitalism can also claim universality, although the manner in which each country and group of people have been affected differs by time and place. As noted last day, the classical writers and their followers claimed universal or global application of their theories.

  1. Science and Technology.
  2. The physical sciences had shown tremendous developments in the understanding of the physical world. Galileo (1564-1642, Italian), Kepler (1571-1630, German) and Newton (1642-1727, English) each combined careful observation of the movement of physical bodies with reasoning to obtain laws of motion. These laws could be described mathematically and were universal in their application. In addition, these laws were useful in a practical way – they could be used to help understand motion and could be adapted to produce new technologies. Zeitlin argues that these developments "had an incalculable impact on the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Here was a magnificent triumph of reason and observation, the new method that takes observed facts and advances an interpretation that accounts for what is observed, so that if the interpretation is correct, it can guide observers in their quest for new facts." (Zeitlin, p. 3).

    The scientific investigations of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) led to advances in understanding of the biological world and his theory of natural selection was a different way of understanding change in the natural world. Darwin’s influence on sociological approaches was great, as shown by the evolutionary theories of Spencer, and also in the theories of Marx and Durkheim. Tucker notes (p. 20) that at the same time as these scientific developments were taking place, there were religious revivals, writings about the unconscious and individual uniqueness, and artists who portrayed the world as more fragmented (Picasso). This demonstrates that there were reactions to the effect of the new, rational form of social organization associated with science and industry, and other "non-rational" influences on social life.




    4. Political change and the nation-state

    In England, the traditional political system from the feudal era began to break down by the 1600s. The parliament became supreme, indicating a form of democracy had developed, with the authority of the king being replaced by that of parliament between 1640 and 1688. This can be interpreted as the victory of the bourgeoisie, or middle classes, in the political arena – replacing the exclusive rule of aristocracy and landowners.

    In France, change took place more slowly, but when change did occur it was much more spectacular. The French Revolution of 1789 overthrew the old order in a few months and created dramatic changes very quickly. Many of the ideas that had been developed in the Enlightenment were put into practice – with the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity setting the basis for a completely new social and political order. These changes also represented the victory for the new middle classes in France, and the beginnings of societies based on the individual and individualism.

    In North America, the American Revolution brought many of the same ideas – life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, along with concepts of freedom and inalienable rights. While democracy was slow to take root, the new slogans and structures began to move in this direction in the political world. Canada had no such successful revolution, but the forces of democracy did have some effect here and began to develop as Canada became a country. Canada remained a colony until 1867, with colonial influences continuing until much later (peace, order, good government) and the concept of citizenship took another hundred years to take root here.

    Socialism was another political current that was influential. In the English and in the French Revolution there were those who wanted to take equality seriously and create equality for all, not just for the middle classes. Ideas of communal ownership or ownership by all emerged with the Levellers in England. In the French Revolution, Babeuf argued for an egalitarian society and said that the existing government would have to be toppled by force. There had been a long history of peasant revolts, but these did not create permanent organizations.

    With the development of industry, workers began to form trade unions. While it took considerable time for these to develop, they did show the effectiveness of the organization of ordinary working people. Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a successful British industrialist who had a vision of a better society. He established a model workers' community in New Lanark, Scotland where workers had decent wages and children were educated. He argued for creation of a society of equals and for social reforms. What is important about these is that there were socialist ideas of equality and improvement of society during the early nineteenth century. These were to have a strong influence on the writings and activities of Marx.

    In Western Europe and later in other parts of the world, nation-states began to develop. This meant unification of people and territories, formerly governed by separate rulers, into a single political grouping. These nation-states were an important force in unifying markets for capitalists, with each nation having a common language, set of laws, monetary system, military organization, and government. At the same time, these nation-states provided people with a cultural and social identity – replacing previous identities such as local region or religion. People began to construct and share a collective history and write common narratives, claiming that they had a distinctive national past (Tucker, p. 27). Nationalism developed and this had a variety of effects – splitting people with common interests and sometimes leading to conflicts, but at the same time providing a source of pride and identification for people.

    There were also contrary developments in the political arena. On one side, democracy meant increased individual freedom and rights, the possibility of citizenship and voting, public debates about social and political issues, and rule by the people. For property owners, property was freed from public control and property rights became established (Tucker, p. 27). But there were also some negative features. Women and many men were excluded from public debate, voting, and property ownership. Such exclusionary laws and practices have, for the most part, been eliminated, but such developments took a long time. Tucker (pp. 24-5) also notes that the development of the nation-state was also associated with the centralization of violence (larger armies and police), greater internal controls, and pacification of the population – what he calls the disciplinary society. In addition, the triumph of the market and capitalism have led to new forms of economic inequalities, class hierarchies and conflict, and economic compulsion based on the discipline of poverty, unemployment, and market forces.

  3. Religion and Secular Thought.

The teachings of the church in the middle ages have been called the "Christian paternalist or corporate ethic," reflecting the idea of society as a single entity or corporation. Within this traditional form of society the individual was not important, nor the basis for analysis of society. The common person was to take his or her place in society and carry out his or her duties willingly. Society could be compared to a traditional family with the Church or God as father and with the others as willing subjects in this institution. accepting leadership and not questioning authority. These traditional teachings of the Church also were anticapitalist – prohibiting profit and interest and discouraging innovation, trade and gain. (See Hunt, Ch. 1).

The challenge to the authority of Rome began in the 14th Century, but the Reformation is usually dated as beginning with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517. In most countries of Western Europe, Protestant groups emerged over the next few years. In England, the conflict between Henry VIII and Rome led to the break with Rome in 1534. These developments challenged the authority of traditional thought in various ways. (i) At the minimum, they meant several sources of independent thought, rather than having authoritative ideas coming from Rome. (ii) The notion of a single entity or corporation as an adequate description of society was shattered. (iii) Individualism began to be promoted, since many of the Protestant doctrines emphasized the relationship of the individual to God, without necessarily having the Church involved. (iv) The possibility of the development of secular thought. If the Church is no longer the sole authority, and different forms of relationship with God could exist, this could open the possibility of individual interpretations which do not involve God. By the 1700s, a much more open view of ideas became possible.

The new Protestant churches place less emphasis on the salvation through the church and tended to emphasize personal salvation. Max Weber considered this more individualistic approach to be one of the major forces that gave impetus to the development of capitalism in Western Europe.

6. Colonialism

Europeans explored most of the world between 1500 and 1800 and began setting up global trade routes and communications. In the period from 1800 to the first world war, Europe colonized all of Africa and much of Asia. As Tucker notes (p. 32), associated with this was the dismantling or domination of older political formations such as the Chinese, Ottoman, and Indochinese empires. While economic interests dominated this European expansion, with minerals and other resources as the major profit source, there was also an attempt to dominate these colonies and dependencies politically and for military, cultural, and religious reasons. This new political and economic form was imperialism, with imports of cheap raw materials to Europe and exports of manufactured products from Europe. European financial interests also increasingly controlled the finances of the colonies and dependencies.

Tucker notes how European expansion created a unity within Europe – "European colonists began to believe that they had more in common with one another than with the natives" (p. 32). Europeans believed that they were superior to the people of colonized regions, had superior technology, industry, and science, and a superior culture and religion. As a result Europeans attempted to westernize colonized peoples, believing that they were bringing "civilization to the ‘barbarians’" (p. 33). Tucker notes how this united workers and ruling classes, perhaps moderating class struggle in European countries.

Social science, including sociology, was complicit in this European domination in a variety of ways. Some social scientists claimed superiority for white Europeans over other races, and the concept and language of race or racial superiority and inferiority became more systematic during this period. Theories that societies evolve to higher stages were common throughout the nineteenth century and such theories lent themselves to the view that European society was superior to people in the less developed and more primitive dominated regions. While Durkheim, Weber, and Marx may not have expressed such crude ideas, their view of progress and their definitions of the social lent themselves to this same set of ideas.

Results of the colonial period include movements of population from colonized regions to Europe and North America. Colonialism and imperialism and their aftermath in the post-colonial period have led to creation of poverty, undermining of traditional sources of livelihood, and dislocation of people in the former colonized regions. In terms of the social sciences, as noted last day, writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Franz Fanon have made us aware of the incorrect assumptions, gaps, and misleading conclusions of some social theory.

7. Gender, sex, families, and the private sphere

One feature associated with the development of modern societies was the division of social life into public and private. In earlier times, there was generally some division of labour by sex, so that men and women often performed different types of work. But work and life were intimately connected, with the rhythm of work and life subject to the requirements of agriculture and the seasons. While early forms of industry were often based in rural areas, as industry, trade, commerce, and manufacturing expanded, production of goods increasingly became separated from the household. This began to create the split between public and private, with jobs increasingly located in the public sphere and outside the household. Family life, childbearing and rearing, socialization, and daily and generational reproduction took place in the family and household. This began to create a split between male and female types of work and responsibilities – women in the household and family and men in the public labour force.

Early forms of industrial production extensively used the labour of women and children. But in the nineteenth century social reformers, the labour movement, and legislation moved in the direction of reducing child and female labour in factories, with the result that such work became increasingly male work. The nineteenth century middle class ideal was to confine female work and responsibilities to household and family with male work being in the labour force outside the household, in the labour force.

A parallel development took place in the political and legal spheres. As Tucker notes "Politics was a man’s affair. In many countries women were barred from professions and from universities. Women’s rights to sign contracts on their own, or to act independently of their fathers or husbands in legal matters were severely constrained." (p. 34) As citizenship and rule by the people developed, this was primarily male citizenship and rule by males, since women were not citizens, did not have the right to vote, and in many areas did not have the right to own property.

Most of the male enlightenment writers regarded men were regarded as rational, egoistic, and concerned about public matters. The rational, self-interested individual of classical economics or the cultured individual of public life was a male. Women were identified with nature (outside the social), emotional, loving, sharing, and nurturing, characteristics often associated with good management of household, family, and children. Marriage was sometimes viewed as a way of tempering the egoistic and selfish impulses of men. The writings of the classical social theorists adopted and reflected these common assumptions concerning public and private, men and women, and their proper place. Writers such as Wollstonecraft and Mill developed a different approach, but their views were not widely adopted in the nineteenth century.



Hunt, E. K., Property and Prophets: the Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies, sixth edition, New York, Harper and Row, 1990.

Ritzer, G., Sociological, Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938

Sydie, R. A., Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, New York, New York University Press, 1987

Tucker, Kenneth H. Jr., Classical Social Theory: A Contemporary Approach, Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell, 2002

Zeitlin, Irving M., Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1990. HM19 Z4


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Last edited September 15, 2002