Sociology 319

Contemporary Social Theories -- Introduction

January 13, 2006


Readings for week of January 16:

            CST, Chapter 2 – Twentieth Century Functionalism: Parsons and Merton

            Parsons, “Action Systems and Social System”

            Parsons, “Sex Roles in the American Kinship System”

Next week we will discuss Chapter 2 of the text and these two readings from Parsons.


NOTE: In Table 2.1 of CST, p. 15, the two entries in the last row should be reversed.  That is, diffuseness is associated with Traditional Society and Secificity is associated with Modern Society.  See about half-way down the page.


Paper topics to be provided by Wednesday, January 18.


Other book by Rosalind Sydie – Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory.  For more information about Sydie, check web site


Survey of topics for this semester – feminist and postmodern approaches conclude the CST text.


2. Redistribution or Recognition?

The second text is Redistribution or Recognition? a Political-Philosophical Exchange, co-authored by Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.  We will not discuss this in class until near the end of the semester, around mid-March.  This text is intended to provide an example of how contemporary social theory can be developed and applied to a contemporary social issue, and how there is difference and debate over both the theory itself and the application of the theory.   The text contains an initial discussion by each of Fraser and Honneth, and then a debate between them. 

The particular issue of concern to Fraser and Honneth in this book is how social justice can be achieved in the contemporary world.  Earlier theorists, especially those in the Marxist and socialist tradition, emphasized redistribution, that is, attempting to change economic, political, and social conditions and structures to obtain a socially just distribution of resources, wealth, and income.  This was represented by social movements connected with trade unions, socialist or social democratic political parties, and social welfare programs such as pensions, minimum wage legislation, unemployment or employment insurance, child welfare, anti-poverty programs, and progressive taxation.  Social theorists and those involved in social movements around these issues generally looked on achievement of these reforms as a means of redistributing the wealth of society more equally, so that all members of a society could benefit equitably and in order to reduce or eliminate extreme economic inequalities.   These are what Fraser and Honneth refer to as redistribution or achieving distributive justice.     

Over the last sixty or seventy years, it became apparent that social movements and struggles for redistribution or distributive justice alone were inadequate or incomplete mechanisms for achieving social justice.  These class-based social movements that attempted to achieve distributive justice did not always address inequalities related to sex and gender, to ethnic and racial discrimination and difference, to national and regional inequalities, to discrimination on the basis of culture and religion, or to issues related to diverse sexualities and sexual practices.  Even more problematic was that some of the movements for distributive justice ignored, made secondary, or downgraded struggles related to these latter issues, using the argument that the class struggle must be the primary focus.  Among social and political movements that have highlighted the issues that are not strictly class struggles are the movements against colonialism and for national independence and human rights that have occurred around the world since the second world war; the civil rights movement in the United States, struggles for land claims and rights among First Nations and other aboriginal peoples; feminism and women’s rights; employment equity; and gay and lesbian rights and queer theory.  While it may be misleading to put all these social movements and issues together, they have often been given the name “identity politics” – that is, demands from groups to have their identity recognized and injustices of misrecognition and exploitation ended.  Fraser and Honneth term these “claims for recognition” and the two authors agree that these claims are central to contemporary social movements and some political struggles.

Where the two authors disagree is on the relative importance and distinctiveness of redistribution and recognition in the attempt to achieve social justice.  Fraser argues that both redistribution and recognition are required in order to create social justice, and these represent two distinct but inter-related forms of struggle for social justice.   That is, those who are considered minority groups or who have been treated inequitably and not provided the opportunity of equal treatment are most likely to be subjects of both maldistribution and misrecognition.  Many members of such groups have been exploited and not permitted to participate equitably in the distributive sphere, at the same time as their identity and claims have been ignored and not recognized.  Social justice requires both redistribution and recognition – these are inter-related but analytically distinct aspects. 

For Honneth, recognition is the primary issue, from which other claims for social justice proceed.  That is, it is necessary for others (not members of a particular group) to accord recognition to the culture and rights of members of a group in order to begin tackling issues of maldistribution.  Rather than separate the issues of distribution and recognition, Honneth attempts to put them in a single dimension, that of recognition.  This allows him to place the traditional socialist goals of redistribution within the same framework as that of claims for recognition.  In contrast, Fraser emphasizes the different types of claims, so her approach lends itself more to attempts to establish coalitions across the different types of claims. 

Another difference between Fraser and Honneth is how each fits in the spectrum of social theories.   First, neither is strictly a sociologist so their work fits better within the category of social and political theory, rather than strictly sociological theory.   However, the issues they address fit within the subject of sociology, broadly defined, in that they deal with culture, the “social,” social relationships, social institutions, and social structures.  Honneth represents, and works within, the tradition of critical theory.  He is from Germany and is a professor at the Institute for Social Research, where critical theory began.  Fraser represents a political theorist who is in the North American pragmatic tradition, with an analysis closely connected to the social movements and issues within, although not restricted to, North America.  I consider Honneth’s approach, and that of critical theory as whole, to be more abstract theoretical, attempting to construct a single theoretical model that forms a comprehensive approach.  Fraser, and much of North American social theory, is less abstract and may be more readily connected to applied contemporary issues.

Examples from The Globe and Mail, December 29, 2005 illustrate the relevance of these issues.  Phil Fontaine, Assembly of First Nations, and native rights.  Chinese head tax issue.  Both involve demands for recognition (First Nations rights, treaties and land claims; historic injustices, museum, set of stamps) and redistribution ($5 billion for aboriginal housing, education, and health; $2.5 million fund to a Chinese-Canadian organization).


Introductory issues from Chapters 1 and 7 of CST

The Note to Students and Chapters 1 and 7 of the text raise a number of issues concerning the study of sociological theory.    We may return to Chapter 7 later, but it would be worthwhile to read this chapter along with Chapter 1. 

1.  What is sociological theory?

In the first paragraph of the note to students, Adams and Sydie raise the issue of each person being a social theorist.   Each individual has views on issues concerning social relationships and topics of social concern, and everyone has a certain form of understanding of social interaction and the social world around them.  It would be difficult for an individual to participate in groups, institutions, and organizations in the contemporary world without having some understanding of the social world.   But you might think about what distinguishes the theories we will study this semester from these practical and applied understandings everyone has about the social world around them.

Adams and Sydie date the beginnings of sociological theory to the mid-nineteenth century, when the theories of Comte and Spencer were developed, followed by the more influential approaches of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim later in the century.   There were explanations of society that preceded this and did not emerge from Western Europe – Confucius in China and Ibn Khaldun in North Africa in the fourteenth century (p. xviii).  For Adams and Sydie, the distinguishing feature of sociological theory is that it is scientific – “Sociological theory—the attempt to explain society scientifically—began in the nineteenth century” (p. 1).  From this, the distinguishing feature of sociological theory seems to be its scientific method and its subject – society or the social. 

While some consider sociology to be scientific, others question its scientific status and whether its scientific method matches that of the natural sciences.  The methods of the latter are often over-idealized in that characteristics such as experimentation, controls, replication (by others), objectivity, detachment, and separation from ideology do not characterize all parts of the natural sciences.  And they may characterize sociology even less.  At the same time, there are some characteristics that make sociological theorizing worthy of study.  Some of these characteristics might be as follows.

  • Systematic/comprehensive.  Sociological theory provides inter-related sets of statements that are reasonably consistent with each other.  Theorists attempt to provide comprehensive statements that may apply widely across time and place.  That is, theories are more than statements concerning specific individuals, groups, or situations, although it may build on these.   They attempt to explain anomalies, although continued anomalies may lead to new and different sociological theories.  Replication by other sociologists, further analysis in different situations, times, and places.
  • Continuity and change/history.  (a) Study of historical record in an attempt to understand and explain how developments occurred and how they influence the current social world.   (b) Theorists also examine what other theorists have said and both critique and build on these. 
  • Observation and empirical facts.  “There is no substitute for remaining in close touch with the empirical evidence, with the ‘damned facts.’”   Quote from 1960 presidential address of Howard Becker to the American Sociological Association (p. 142).  There can be no meaningful sociological theory that becomes too detached from the social world.  A sociological theory should be more than intellectual exercise or imagination or more than a flight of fancy as in some science fiction.   That is, to be meaningful and worthwhile it should be rooted in findings about the social world and be able to provide an understanding and explanation of that world.  Continual testing and retesting – hypotheses, findings, revision, new hypotheses, new tests.   Acute and careful observation and analysis of the social world, eg. Goffman and Garfinkel.
  • Critique or ideology?   Adams and Sydie argue that theory differs from ideology, which they identify as values common to a particular time and place (p. 2).  Sometimes ideology represents a set of ideas and approaches that are the dominant values of a particular time and place.  At least that is part of the claim of those who were critical of conventional sociology in the 1960s (p. 144).  Those who adhere to an ideology may also be reluctant to test it against the empirical evidence or may be willing to apply it in inappropriate situations.  Ideologies are comprehensive and systematic sets of ideas, but tend to be resistant to change and are not particularly influenced by observation and analysis of the social world.
  • Neutrality, detachment, or engagement?  Sociological theory has been developed by people, each of whom has a particular background, set of influences, interests, and ways of looking at the world.  Some sociologists have attempted to remain neutral and detached, concerned with careful observation analysis.  At the same time, such a value-free, neutral approach to sociology came under attack in the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 144-148).  Sociologists have often been heavily engaged in the social world – witness Marx and Giddens.   Understanding, sympathy, verstehen (Weber).

Society and the social.  See January 8, 2003 notes.   Sociological theory emerged with the development of a new social world in the nineteenth century.  Prior to this, there was a private world of household, family, and small group, which constituted most of social life.   At the governing level were rulers and sometimes a state mechanism, with little connection between the state and the private world.   As modernization began, various parts of social life began to become detached from the private world of household and family.  It was this new social world of cities, businesses and employers, labourers, markets, schools, and other institutions that began to form the subject of the new field of sociology.  As a result, the definition of the social became that which was separated from the household, family, and private life.   Since it was primarily women, children, and the elderly who were not part of social and public life, sociology more or less ignored these.  Thus sociology became primarily a description and analysis of male social life, with the social being defined as the social relationships, institutions, and structures established by males. 

In addition, sociology was established in Europe, at a time when some European nations dominated the world economy and politics.  As a result, sociology tended to ignore other parts of the world.  Racial issues and ethnic or national differences also tended to be ignored by early sociologists, since each European country claimed a single nationality or ethnicity, although the situation was not usually this straightforward. 

In Chapter 7, Adams and Sydie outline some of the changes that occurred by the mid-twentieth century to begin changing this (pp. 152-160).  As sociologists were forced to become more aware of women and feminist issues, race and ethnic differences, and national liberation movements in colonial countries, they began to expand the subject of sociology by expanding the definition of what is meant by the social.   In contemporary sociology, most human interactions, relationships, and institutions have become subjects of observation and analysis, and sociological theory has a much expanded scope about what is meant by the “social.”

2.  Sociological theory and development of society

Sociology and history.  In Chapter 1, Adams and Sydie describe how sociology developed in Europe with the emergence of an industrial, capitalist society.   One of the major concerns of nineteenth century sociologists was to understand some of the new social developments as large-scale industry began to develop and cities began to grow.  Given the advent of global technological, economic, and political forces today, we may think of these developments as very limited and localized.  But at the time, these developments were associated with major social disruption and heralded a new set of social forces that continued to develop and transform society through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   Marx analyzed the economic and social power of the new capitalist forms of economic organization.   Durkheim drew attention to the power of the development of the division of labour, and how this created a new form of social organization, with a change from societies being organized on the basis of similarities and common experiences (mechanical solidarity) to societies being organized on the basis of difference and mutual needs (organic solidarity).  Weber drew attention to the increased importance of large scale organizations – the state, bureaucracy, corporations – with large-scale, depersonalized structures organized on a rational basis.    That is, social relations in these organizations are built around pursuit of particular ends (profits, reducing costs, providing specific services) in an organized and planned manner.  Simmel contrasted the social life of a rural world (similar to Durkhem’s mechanical solidarity) with social life in urban settings, where development of individual personality and style are means people use to deal with multiple, and often brief, encounters with others.

For the most part, sociologists have proved to be better at explanation, understanding, and analysis than at prediction.  In my view sociological theory has generally followed after the developments in the social world, rather than preceding them.  That is, sociological approaches have provided people with a means of understanding what is going on around them.  However, it has not been so good at forecasting what new developments will take place, where the forces of technology, class, globalization, and personal and group choices have often led society in unexpected directions.   Sociologists have often provided guidelines concerning how people might deal with these, but sociologists have also emphasized the unintended consequences of change. 

Theory, method, and evidence.  Given the above, there is a complex relationship among the development of theory, the practice of methodology, and use of the data or empirical evidence.  In my view, good theory develops from careful, systematic, and sympathetic observation of the social world.  At the same time, such observation is guided by careful study and analysis of other situations and of history.   That is, the methods of studying the social world use suspicions, hypotheses, and conjectures obtained from other writers, analysts, and encounters.  Findings from the data are then incorporated into an existing theory, used to modify a theory, or lead to a new theoretical approach.  There is a back-and-forth relationship between theory and method, with both being used to modify each other.  Theory guides the methodology, but findings from the applications modify the theory, and an ongoing and continuing exchange between theory and practice.  As a result, theories do not stand on their own apart from the social world, but are part of the social world so long as they can help us explain and understand that world.

3.  Single or multiple theories?

Some consider sociological theory poorly developed or incomplete because there is no single theory that adequately explains the social world and developments there.  Rather, there is a multiplicity of theoretical approaches, with different subjects of investigation and different conclusions.   For example, the interactionist approach and Marxian approaches initially appear so different that they might not be considered part of the same discipline.  The same could be said about the gap between micro and macro approaches in general, although writers such as Giddens have attempted to bridge this gap. 

A further problem is that sociological theory may not appear to be cumulative, with later writers preferring to develop a new theoretical approach rather than developing or refining earlier theories.  In some disciplines, theoretical progress is measured by filling in gaps in a particular theory, but this process than not been used all that much in sociological theorizing.

Adams and Sydie refer to clusters of approaches or schools of thought (xvi and xxii) and p. 2-3.  They identify the functionalist, evolutionist, revolutionary or conflict approaches, critical theory, feminism, microsociology, and rational choice theory, and they build the book around these approaches.  Other writers have attempted to develop a general theory – Parsons is probably the best known, although some more recent sociologists have also indicated the need for this. 

While the different approaches may seem confusing, this approach also has advantages over those fields with a single theoretical approach.  The social world is diverse and different sociological are aimed at explanation of different phenomena.   By keeping sociological theorizing flexible, a variety of theories can be used to help explain new phenomena as they emerge.  Given that each of us has some autonomy and freedom of choice, but imperfect understandings of the social word around us and of the future, it is likely that human action will respond in unexpected ways to diverse and sometimes contradictory forces.  Sociologists have emphasized the unintended consequences of social developments, and it is these that require a variety of theoretical approaches.  

4.  Self, individual, or social interaction

On pages 4-5, Adams and Sydie have a short section entitled “The Self” where they argue that the introduction of the development of the self was an important contribution to sociology in the twentieth century.  In my view, this has been a central development but Adams and Sydie may give insufficient emphasis to the social aspects of this.  Sociologists have emphasized that there is not a fixed, given human nature, but that “human nature” is very flexible across times, cultures, and situations.  This is reflected in the nature/nurture debate, with sociologists emphasizing the nurture approach.  

While each of us develops a self or a set of selves, these emerge through social interaction with others, within institutions, and within social structures.  Postmodern approaches have made us aware that we may have several selves, where no single structural influence dominates our identity, but we may have multiple identities depending on the specific situation and set of encounters. 

5.  Difference in history of US and Canadian sociology

The text is written from the viewpoint of United States sociology, especially the discussion of ideological disputes, protests, and challenges in Chapter 7.  The history of Canadian sociology has been somewhat different, with limited development prior to the 1960s, a dramatic expansion in the 1960s and early 1970s, followed by a period of consolidation since then.  Canadian sociology may not have established a distinctive identity in this process, although its subject matter has concerned issues that are central to Canadian society – class and power (Porter, Clement), regionalism (Quebec, North, West), immigration and ethnicity (multiculturalism), and First Nations issues.  In analyzing these issues, Canadian sociologists have generally used approaches developed elsewhere, modifying and adapting these to the Canadian situation.   If there is time later in the semester, I will provide an overview of Canadian sociological theory.


Next day – Parsons and functionalist sociology.  CST, Ch. 2, and two readings from Parsons.


Last edited January 14, 2006