Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories
No class – Friday, February 10. First paper due on Monday, February 13.
Two excerpts from Erving Goffman.
1. Historical sociology
Some sociologists adopt an historical analysis as part of their sociological perspective and integrate it into their approach. It is difficult to imagine studying the sociology of Marx or Weber without examining their historical analysis – the latter are essential aspects of their respective social theories. Others such as symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, or rational choice theorists are much less concerned with historical analysis, primarily focussing on social action and interaction, without reference to a particular stage or time in history.
In the contemporary world there is much talk about globalization, from those who promote increased globalization through expansion of markets to those who are critical of, and oppose, attempts to expand global markets. In the Department of Sociology and Social Studies, Sociology 201 and 203 present historically oriented analyses of the development of capitalism and industrialism, and some of these perspectives are also presented in upper level classes. In these notes, there is a discussion of a particular approach to historical and global analysis – that of world-system, primarily associated with the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein.
a. Progress? Historical analysis can develop a critical approach to the study of the past, present, and future. It can illuminate the varieties of cultural and social diversity that have existed, and show how changes in these have occurred. Many historical approaches in sociology have assumed that history is associated with human progress and reaching higher stages of development of society – Marxian theories and liberal theories of modernization generally adopt this approach. But historical sociology need not make this assumption and can consider human experience to have many forms of diversity, society to have made great progress in some areas and little in others, and to consider the possibility of regression rather than progression.
In my view, it would be best to adopt an historical approach that does not consider human history to have a particular direction or to necessarily evolve to more progressive forms of social organization. Further, there may be no inevitability or purpose to historical change – change certainly occurs but is a product of myriad influences, some intended and others unintended, with coincidence and chance along with intersection of various unforeseen social circumstances and forces. There are certainly social forces leading in specific directions (markets, exchange) and powerful individuals and groups attempting to further their influence and power, but people in the social world can also resist or change these social forces. For example, some contemporary analysis assumes that globalization, standardization, and the decline of the nation-state are dominant forces that have a certain inevitability. While there is no doubt that these forces are strong, there are other important and opposing forces, including traditional cultures, resistance to change, local grounding, and communication (Habermas’s communicative action) that must be considered as well. That is, in adopting historical analysis, we must be careful not to be ethnocentric or assume that the direction society has taken is historically inevitabile. Rather, we should use historical analysis in a critical and creative way, using it to consider options and alternatives, to contribute to communication and understanding of the social world.
b. Earlier historical sociological perspectives
Writers in the nineteenth century often adopted a view that human history passed through various identifiable stages. The sociology of Comte (theological, metaphysical, scientific eras following each other) and the analysis of Enlightenment writers assumed that human history had gone through various stages of development, with each of the stages at a higher level than earlier stages. The Enlightenment writers argued that the stage of societal development that had been reached at the time they were writing was an advance over earlier stages, in that humans had developed a better understanding of the world and could now improve the social world. The view that the stages of history represented progress is reflected in concepts such as primitive and backward to refer to traditional forms, and civilization and modern to refer to the European societies of the nineteenth century.
Marx and Engels, and later writers in the Marxian perspective, generally adopted a similar view and developed an historical analysis as a major part of their analysis. For Marx, the modes of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism) were associated with historical periods, with each representing a stage of historical evolution but also containing forces for change and further development. For example, markets and cities emerged in feudal society, but the power of these emergent social forces led to change in the feudal mode of production, eventually replacing it with a capitalist mode of production. The forces of the bourgeoisie and capitalism broke the power of feudal forms of social and economic organization, creating a new society in the nineteenth century. For Marx, each mode of production is historical in nature, having emerged at a particular time, but also having an historical dynamic built into it. Marxian analysis is thus both historical and theoretical.
The sociology of Weber is also historical, although in a somewhat different manner than that of Marx. Weber studied history extensively, examining ancient society, Asian society, Judaism, and other religions that were important in earlier times. He used this historical analysis to develop an understanding of various forms of authority, power, legitimacy, social organization, rationality, and other sociologically relevant issues. He used history in a more comparative manner, to develop an idea of how social organization works and how these comparative experiences can be used to develop ideal types as a form of social analysis. At the same time, his writings display a certain notion of historical inevitability, with the forces of rationalization in western societies as exercising a dominant influence.
Other European sociologists such as Simmel and Durkheim each had an historical analysis as well. While they may not have written as extensively on history as did Weber or Marx, their sociological analysis concerned the social forms that had emerged with modernism, and how these differed from earlier forms of social organization. Durkheim’s central ideas of mechanical and organic solidarity and division of labour are historical, as is his analysis of different forms of religion. For Simmel, the forces of urbanism, money, and exchange distinguish modern urban society from earlier, more traditional forms.
Early sociology in the
The social theories of Mead, Parsons, Merton, Blumer, Goffman, and Garfinkel have little or no historical analysis built into
them. This may be a reflection of the
differing nature of the
In Canadian sociology, to the extent that a distinctive
approach exists, historical analysis is more prevalent, perhaps because of our
longer colonial connection and because of the division of Canada into French,
English, and aboriginal cultures and traditions. Each of these groups has had a different
historical experience, these experiences cannot be ignored, and they have
influenced Canadian society in various ways.
The historical analysis of Harold Innis has
had an important influence on much Canadian sociology – emphasizing the
influence of the fisheries, fur, forestry, mining, and grain. Each of these staple trades and industries,
along with our connections with
2. World-system analysis
One of the primary historical sociological perspectives is
that of world-system analysis, a neo-Marxian approach built around historical
examination of capitalism and other modes of production, analyzing these on a
global scale. Wallerstein
developed this approach by studying the economic world, specifically capitalism
as it emerged and developed in
World-system analysis was developed by Immanuel Wallerstein
(1930- ) who has
been a professor at
Unit of analysis. World-system theory uses the whole world as it basic unit of analysis instead of society, national economy, or nation state as the unit of analysis. Marxian theory generally works within the framework of national economic and social structures, with a capitalist and working class being rooted in the organization of production and distribution in a nation state. World-system theory argues that the division of labour, exploitation, and inequality should be analyzed on a world, rather than a national level. That is, capitalism is not just organized on a national level, but develops and uses resources, labour, production, and markets on a world scale.
Expansion and change. Unlike earlier empires where expansion was limited by the ability to politically govern a wide area, there appears to be little internal limit to the expansion of the capitalist world system. It has expanded over the last five hundred years and shows no signs of ending its influence over the world economy. Wallerstein argues that this is one difference of the current world system from earlier ones – there was a decisive break around 1500, whereby capitalism, technology, and science became combined to create an expansive and global system. Wallerstein argued there was an “emergence of capitalist agriculture and a European-dominated world economy” (CST, p. 121).
Among the characteristics of the expansion were:
of labour. Marx and Durkheim saw how capitalism and modern technologies created
and expanded the division of labour in each country of
For world-system analysts, the division of labour is organized on a world-wide basis, with exchange of products among regions and countries. Some regions are devoted to raw materials production with other regions more heavily reliant on manufacturing. Exchange of raw materials and products among regions and countries, on a global basis, leads to different regions expanding or declining and becoming rich or poor.
Examples of interdependence and division of labour were
clear in the colonial and imperialist era where colonies were organized to
produce raw materials for the colonial power and were dominated politically by
the government of the colonizing country.
This was true of the
Regions/location within world-system. World-system analysts argue that the result of these developments is to create three types of regions. These are the core, periphery, and the semi-periphery. Changes in these have occurred over time, with no region being assured of being able to maintain a privileged position. In addition, countries that are predominantly core may have peripheral regions within them, just as peripheral countries may have regions that are part of the core of the world-system.
In terms of sociological analysis, there appear to be at least three implications of world systems analysis.
World-system analysis provides a useful way of examining changes that have occurred and continue to occur across the globe. For example, the migration of large numbers of people from poor to richer countries is a result of the developments on the world system – destroying traditional ways of life and livelihood in the sending countries and filling labour supply needs in receiving countries. At the same time, this approach may be overly economistic in much the same manner as much Marxian analysis. That is, world systems analysis does not pay much attention to culture and does not appear to consider it as an independent aspect. Further, the assumption of dominance of European and North American capitalist forces may be somewhat ethnocentric.
Social and class structures have a connection to this
international division of labour and the forms of development of production and
markets on a world scale. The fate of
workers in natural resources and manufacturing in
changes in technology, communications, and economic organization are
transforming the world-system in the current era. Much manufacturing has left the core
economies and moved to semi-peripheral or peripheral countries. The core economies have retained their
strength by dominating services, trade, and finance. However, these conditions appear to be changing
with the increasing economic power of Asian countries, especially
In a recent commentary, Wallerstein
argues that the “United States is a declining hegemonic power” which must rely
on military power in an attempt to maintain its geopolitical position. That is, the economic and political strength
Systems Analysis: An Introduction.
1974. The Modern World-System.