Sociology 319

January 8 – 10, 2003

Foundations of social theory


A. Themes in Introduction


For the most part, I will attempt to closely follow and explain arguments in the text, and expand on them in order to provide background and explanation.  The first section, the Introduction by Turner, provides a overview of some general arguments about the nature of social theory.  I will highlight three themes identified by Turner in the Introduction and by Delanty in the first part of Chapter 1.


1. Nature of the social, society, and social theory (Turner, pp. 3-5; Delanty pp. 21-22).


The issue here is the way that different sociological theorists and approaches define the subject of the discipline of sociology – what is the nature of society and the social.  There has been an expansion in the scope of sociology in recent years – sociology now considers issues such as daily interaction, emotions, and the body, whereas sociology began as study of societal structures and development, where society was regarded as separate and distinct from nature and the private world. 


What is the sphere of the social and what is the proper object of study of sociology, that is, what is the social world?  Turner notes how, when sociology was first established as a discipline in the nineteenth century, social analysts and writers considered society as that which is separate from nature, or the social was the transformation of “the natural conditions of human beings” (Turner, p. 3).  Delanty states that “social theory is the interpretation of ‘the social,’ which came be seen as a domain mediating the private world and the state.” (Turner, p. 21).  The development of modern, urban, industrial, capitalist society was a new development, separating people from their traditional life – from communities that were considered by some to be natural.  On the one hand, this was an “emancipation of humanity from the state of nature” (Turner, p. 21), but at the same time there were concerns about social order and connections between individuals and society.  Some writers developed a nostalgic view of traditional society and argued that modern society produced rootlessness, disorder, and domination in a way that earlier societies had not.  Delanty argues that early social science had three concerns: socialization of the individuals, sources and rationality of knowledge, and legitimation of power (Delanty in Turner, p. 22). 


Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Toennies, and Simmel each analyzed differences between traditional and modern and each developed an explanation of the organization, structure, and mode of change of the new society that had emerged in western Europe.  Their theories concerned this new social world, describing and analyzing the social forces, modes of actions, structures, and dynamics of society.  In doing this though, they concentrated on what they observed in western Europe and there they focussed primarily on we now term the public.  The private, women and children, the household, and much of the world outside Europe were ignored and relegated to the natural. 


As a result, their analyses now appear incomplete – theories that provide masterful understanding of the public, but not all of what we would now consider society to be.

The late twentieth century has seen a widening of the definition of the social – beginning to include women, family, household, and sexuality as part of its scope.  Sociology has also become more pluralist by including analysis of different racial and ethnic groups and extending its approach to more geographic areas of the world.  Feminist, post-colonial, and queer theory have been included as essential parts of sociology.  This widening of scope has led to challenges to traditional theoretical approaches and to new perspectives and modes of social analysis.


Turner (p. 5) notes how for cultural studies “the social is now identified wholly with the cultural” (p. 5), indicating a reversal of earlier analysis where the cultural was ignored, was traditional and external to the social, or was rooted in economic conditions and structures.  In contrast, in much contemporary writing today, the cultural is primary – media, sports, arts, technology, tourism, and “cultural consumption and lifestyle” (Turner, p. 5).  In many ways, current analysis regards these as determining much of the direction of social development, or at least primary in sociological analysis.  Postmodern theorists, such as Baudrillard, again turn this around to argue that the social and social theory have ended – there has been an implosion of the social upon itself, everything is a sign or simulation, there is no other form of reality, and “everything is a representation of a representation of a representation” (Turner, p. 5). 


Dualisms.  In classical sociology, the separation of society from the natural, traditional from modern, led to the development of dualisms (Turner, pp. 3, 29).  Concepts such as traditional and modern, sacred and profane, authentic and artificial community (gemeinschaft and gesellschaft), authentic and artificial, irrational or nonrational and rational, expressive and instrumental, and the pattern variables of Parsons all have their roots in this approach.  In addition, nostalgia for the natural often became identified with the good and authentic, and the rational, urban, and artificial association of modern society often began to be viewed as stifling or destroying human creativity.  Delanty mentions “community and society, sacred and profane, status and contract, individual and society, self and other, origin and goal, differentiation and integration” (Turner, p. 29).  Contemporary sociology attempts to overcome some of these dualisms, emphasizing a greater variety of possibilities and the continuity and flexibility of forms of social action within societal structures, with more possible outcomes, not just dualities.  At the same time, some contemporary sociological approaches place major emphasis on the issue of agency and structure – a traditional dualism.


2. Continuity and accumulation in social theory.


At times it appears that each sociologist has a different approach and does not build on earlier sociological analysis.  This is in contrast to some other disciplines, where there is a continuity of approach, with each new development building on previous knowledge and using this to expand knowledge.  In contrast, sociology sometimes appears to jump from issue to issue, with each writer developing a different language and approach.


Continuity of theory.  While we go to considerable effort in the theory classes in our department to show how sociology is a distinct discipline and how an understanding of the social is essential in explaining the social world in which we live and interact.  In every issue, we emphasize social construction and how the biological, the economic, the political, and the psychological by themselves cannot explain all aspects of social issues.  For example, we emphasize socially constructed gender distinctions in addition to sex differences, how social stratification is a result of social forces such as class, and how our selves and identities are socially created through interaction and social structures and institutions. 


The book is titled “Social Theory” rather than sociological theory.  While sociological theory is to be distinguished from economic, psychological, anthropological, or historical theory, there is no doubt that sociology has drawn heavily on these other disciplines at all stages in its history.  In recent years, sociological theory has widened its perspective, and the text covers aspects of “political theory, sociology, feminism, and cultural analysis” (p. 2), all of which have become essential, if not central, parts of sociological theory. 


The approach of this text is to regard social theory as inter or multidisciplinary and encompassing a wide variety of theoretical concepts and perspectives.  As a result, do not try to focus too narrowly on sociological theory as such – the sociological is to be distinguished, but as theory it relates to and interacts with both past and contemporary theory in other disciplines.  Whether truly multidisciplinary studies can be created within the academic setting is less clear – the discipline boundaries may be more or less arbitrary in theory, but in practice the journals and departments are organized primarily by discipline.


In addition to connections across disciplines, Turner notes the continuity associated with social theory over time.  Many social theorists place their work within the classical tradition, either by showing how their work is founded on classical social theory, or by showing how it differs from and is a departure from earlier approaches.  Many of the same issues that classical theory addressed are the same issues as addressed by later writers – social class, action, culture, structures, etc. 


At the same time, Turner notes that there has been “little evidence of successful accumulation of theory through a dialectical process of empirical research and analytical reformulation” (p. 8) as might characterize the development of natural science.  He points out that later Marxism emphasizes cultural analysis, the role of the superstructure, and philosophical problems, in contrast to the political and economic analysis of earlier Marxism, with its focus on the proletariat, class struggle, and the achievement of socialism and communism.  The same is true of feminism, systems approaches, and functionalism.  Many parts of sociology are thus not cumulative, in the sense of developing and refining an approach, with all sociologists attempting to move theory closer to a complete explanation of the social world.  Rather, there are fashions and trends in social theory – with new ideas becoming popular for a time and then being discarded or ignored.  As a result, there is fragmentation in social theory, with adherents and proponents of the various perspectives, each often being critical and dismissive of those adhering to a different perspective.   


In summary, social theory is pluralist and multidisciplinary, and this can be regarded as a positive feature.  The social world is complex, fragmented, pluralist, and diverse and it would be difficult to have a single theory that can explain all of it.  In that sense, the diversity of sociological approaches may be no more than a reflection of the social world of which social theory is part.  This may be disappointing to those who expect a single answer, or a complete guide to study and understanding of the social world, but represents social theory as is presently exists.


Contradictions in social theory.  Contemporary social theory is not only diverse, there are also a number of contradictions and different directions in recent approaches.  Turner notes that postmodern approaches and rational choice theory appear to point in entirely opposite directions, both in terms of their form of analysis and what they promise.  Postmodernists question universality and comprehensive analysis, and argue that sociologists should pay more attention to context, locality, and difference.  Rational choice theorists tend to argue that their theory can provide an overall explanation of the social world at all levels, and that their assumptions can be universally applied. 


Some contemporary theorists argue that everything is social and almost every aspect of society (even the body) is, to some extent, a social construction.  In contrast, some postmodernists (e.g. Baudrillard) argue that nothing is social, that the world is nothing but communication, signs, and representations, and the world is no more than a series of simulations (p. 5).


Social theorists also differ concerning rationality.  Critical theorists have been concerned with the excessive bureaucracy and rationality of contemporary society, sometimes calling it an administered society.  In contrast, others have emphasized risk and uncertainty as central elements of the contemporary world.  (see pp. 13-14).


Other contrasts or contradictions concern the influence of the cultural as opposed to the economic.  Arguments over the extent of globalization as against the influence of the local are also prevalent.  Other contradictions in the different directions social theory has taken might also be noted in the Introduction and through the various chapters of the text.


3. Prospects for social theory? 


Turner notes that sociological theory may sometimes appear to be irrelevant or impossible to construct – postmodern theorists sometimes make this same argument and talk about the end of social theory.  At the same time, social theory is applicable to a wide range of social issues and demonstrates its usefulness in that manner.  Turner lists some areas where social theory could contribute to understanding the social world.


End of social theory?  Given all the above difficulties, some argue that social theory has had its best days and has now reached an end, so that there is little role for or possibility of development of a improved theoretical explanations of the social world.  The diverse models, the contradictions, and the non-accumulative structure of social theory certainly mean that sociology has not filled the promise of being a comprehensive and universal account of the social world.  Contemporary social theory appears to provide fewer answers than the classic theories.  Even the influence of sociology may seem less than in an earlier era, with sociologists being overly concerned with obscure theories and research issues. 


While much of this is true, there is also no doubt that our understanding of many aspects of the social world has dramatically improved.  The definition of the social is now much more inclusive, and many of the ideas of sociology have pervaded all aspects of society.  Also, contemporary social theory recognizes the complexity of the social world in a way that classical sociology did not.  In order to achieve the universal and comprehensive models of classical sociology, Marx and Durkheim limited the scope of their analysis, focussing on particular aspects of society.  Weber did much the same, isolating various ideal types and issues, although his writings also deal with the complexities of society.  In contemporary sociology, the definition of the social was widened, so the concerns of sociology are much more widespread than before, and this may be part of the reason for the diversity of theoretical approaches.


As you go through the text, attempt to understand the different sociological perspectives and also consider how they can help you understand different aspects of the social world.  By combining perspectives, the study of sociology has much to say about social action, social structures, and social dynamics.


Turner notes that social theory has always been engaged with study of the society around it, and has been most successful when it has done so (Turner, p. 12).  That is, social theory has not just been formal theory, with assumptions, concepts, propositions, and laws, although these may be an important part of some theories such as Marxism or rational choice theory.  While one branch of social theory is similar to natural science in that it examines empirical puzzles, practices, and institutions, and attempts to create causal accounts.  Other theorists emphasize the pragmatic and empirical aspects of sociology, arguing that causal explanations that can be generalized are not possible.  In this latter approach, sociology can still develop accounts of local action and interaction, and provide useful analyses of various social contexts.  Regardless of which perspective is taken, and both are useful approaches, “social theory thrives and survives best when it is engaged with empirical research and/or public issues” (p. 12).  If it is to provide worthwhile analysis, social theory should deal with people as they act and interact in the social world, and never get to far from this.  In Chapter 1 of the first edition of this text, Holton noted how nineteenth century sociology became associated with “a critical standpoint toward the contemporary world” (p. 26) and many of the leading sociologists were associated with social reform.


Examples in Canadian social theory.  Multiculturalism, bilingualism, regionalism, vertical mosaic, feminism, influence of space. Among the issues Turner suggests could be usefully examined by sociologists are:


·        Citizenship and human rights – dealing with isues of poverty, employment, welfare state.

·        Environmentalism and pollution.  Technology, science, environment, sustainable development, ecology.

·        Moral dimensions of society, technology, and human relations.  This was a theme of Durkheim but has largely been lost within current sociology.  Turner connects this to the sociology of the body, issues of difference, fragmentation, risk, uncertainty, and fragility. 


While moral dimensions may be one resolution of current problems and confusion, it is difficult to understand what direction Turner is pointing to here.  Most of the problems he identifies here are concerned with the first two areas of focus and if he is to lay out a moral solution independent of human rights, citizenship and sustainable development, I would like to know what form of solution this is.  Turner may be expressing nostalgia for an earlier era here in the same way that Tonnies, Durkheim, and others did.


B. Foundations and directions in social theory


In Chapter 1 of the text, Delanty provides a summary historical view of the development of sociology.  He begins with writers from as early as 1500, describes the main influences on the development of sociological thought, and the main contours of the development of the sociological approach to study of society.  I have provided a schematic map of what I consider to be Delanty’s approach and here provide only some short notes on a few parts of this.


Utopia.  The possibility of a better, or perfect, society was anticipated by writers such as Thomas More (1478-1535), Francis Bacon (1629) and others.  In some ways, an emphasis on utopian society may come from Roman and Christian thought and may have influenced writers to the present.  Current science fiction carries on such a tradition, although perhaps the visions of future are no longer so desirable or utopian there.   But these ideas undoubtedly influenced the early sociologists, who imagined the possibility of a better society  Some argued that social analysis could help produce a better society through social reform, and the study of sociology could assist in producing this result.  Others’ view of utopia was more like a romantic vision of an ideal past that they considered to have been destroyed by modernization.  Marx’s communism is also a utopian vision – one that Marx considered scientific analysis envisioned as possible.  Utopian movements and communities in the nineteenth century


Order.  Writers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Spinoza were concerned with the “relationship between state and society in a way that would allow some autonomy for the social” (Delanty in Turner, p. 25).  These writers often produced a theory of a social contract between individuals and society or the state.  This question of social order, how society holds together given individual autonomy, freedom, and flexibility, and what is the relation between individual and society preoccupied later sociologists such as Durkheim and Parsons.  Issues raised by these writers included the independence and autonomy of both individuals and society, and the connections between individuals and society; also social order and legitimation of power.


Empiricism.  The Scottish writers, Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Hume (1711-1776) developed a view of “society as an organic whole which is more than the sum of its parts but is itself a reality creating force” (Delanty in Turner, p. 27).  Smith is noted for his vision of how individual self-interest can promote the general good, through an “invisible hand” and Hume is noted for his defence of empiricism, that is, that knowledge is developed by examining the social world and “all forms of truth are ultimately social conventions” (Delantay in Turner, p. 28).


Reason and progress.  The French enlightenment combined various of these strands of social thought:  the empiricism of Hume, progress through rational thought, and the triumph of the modern over the traditional.  Social reform.  Development of sociology and social theory as a means of explaining, understanding, and improving society.  Sociology also influenced by a conservative and traditional view.  Preserve social order.


Rationality and fragmented knowledge.  Kant and Hegel.  Knowledge as critical, with cognitive, normative, and aesthetic components.  While rational, knowledge was also fragmented, perhaps foreshadowing contemporary discussions or even postmodern views.  Hegel as idealist whereby knowledge constructs social reality, but in a dialectical fashion, so that knowledge is also critique.  Critical knowledge as consciousness raising.


Industrialism (Comte) and capitalism (Marx).  Each had an historical approach, stressing change, and with various stages to history.  Comte considered sociology as positivist, aiming to develop social laws for the social world, much like physics in the natural world.  Marx developed a different view of modernity – dominated by alienation, struggle between exploiter and exploited, and commodification.  Comte’s views were further developed by Spencer and Durkheim and Marx’s views became the basis for socialist movements and critical theory. 


Last edited January 10, 2003


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