Sociology 319

January 13, 2000

Review of Classical Sociology

A. Notes on Introduction to the Blackwell Companion (pages 1-23).

For the most part, I will attempt to stick fairly closely to the presentation and arguments in the text, but will expand on them in order to provide background and explanation. The first section, the Introduction by Turner, provides a review of several aspects of social theory. I will highlight several themes identified by Turner in this section.

1. 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 (pp. 8-9) notes that there has been "little evidence of successful accumulation of theory through a dialectical process of empirical research and analytical reformulation" 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 great fragmentation in social theory, with many 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.

2. Nature of the social. One issue that has concerned sociologists from the beginning of sociological theory is the subject of sociology itself – what is regarded as 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 in the nineteenth century, when sociology was first established as a discipline, society was regarded as that which is separate from nature, or the social was the transformation of "the natural conditions of human beings" (p. 3). The development of modern, urban, industrial, capitalist society was a new development, separating people from their traditional, natural communities. The concern of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Toennies, and Simmel was to develop an explanation of the organization, structure, and mode of change of the new society that emerged in western Europe. Their theories concerned the 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.

In classical sociology, the separation of society from the natural led to the development of many dualisms in sociology. Concepts such as traditional and modern, sacred and profane, authentic and artificial community (gemeinschaft and gesellschaft), 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. Contemporary sociology attempts to overcome some of these dualisms, emphasizing a greater variety of possibilities and the continuity and flexibility of social action and structure.

3. Nature of social theory. 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. 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 and generalizable accounts of those. Other theorists emphasize the pragmatic and empirical aspects of sociology, arguing that generalisable and causal explanations cannot be developed. 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 too far from this. In Chapter 1, Holton notes 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.

4. 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 is 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. 14-15).

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.

5. 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 had to focus on some 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.


B. Classical Social Theory

Classical social theory is usually identified as the European social theory of Comte, Spencer, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, with Parsons sometimes included. While these writers set the general outlines for much social theory, as an academic discipline, North American sociology developed at much the same time as did European sociology. Mead and Park were born around the same time as Weber and only a few years later than Durkheim, and the Chicago sociology department was established around the turn of the century. Since it is the European influences that have played the dominant role though, we will first examine those. The American contribution centred around the issues of action and the self, and provide a transition to the discussion of microsociology, so they will be examined later.

1. European Classical Approaches

The lecture and discussion topics for today and next day will be centred around the European classical sociologists. These notes are organized around a number of topics that the classical sociologists were concerned with. Holton identifies a number of topics and issues as being key to understanding the similarities and differences among the classical sociological approach. Following is a discussion of some of these.

a. The Social

As noted earlier, nineteenth century sociologists looked on society as a separation from the natural. The development of modern, urban, industrial, capitalist forms of social organization separated society from the traditional, rural, agricultural, feudal forms of social organization. The latter tended to be viewed by sociologists as natural and integrated forms of social organization, not requiring much in the way of explanation of how they were organized. What required explanation was "the distinctiveness of society from nature" (p. 27). As a result, these sociologists built their social theory around an explanation of what they felt was new and unique about the modern form of social organization. In doing this, these theorists had to define what they considered to be their subject of study – the social. Some human activities and aspects of social organization began to be regarded as proper for study for the new discipline of sociology, while other human activities and institutions were considered outside the social.

i. Marx. Holton notes that Marx was very clear in what constituted the social (p. 29) and distinguished it from nature. Beginning with the commodity, and building an analysis of labour-power as a commodity, surplus value and exploitation, mode of production, class structure, and class struggle, Marx clearly laid out a social and economic form of organization of production which were not natural, but formed the basis for society. The basis for capitalist society was the reorganization of production so that production was aimed at producing commodities or exchange-values.

While very critical of this form of social organization, Marx also praised it as representing an advance in its ability to organize human labour. Great productive powers became unleashed and great wealth created. The capitalist form of social organization formed the basis for a superior form of social organization – socialism and communism – to be created by the proletariat, the working class created in the process of the development and expansion of capitalist society.


ii. Durkheim. Of the classical sociologists, Durkheim may have done the most to identify sociology as a distinct academic discipline. He identified society as something that is an entity in and of itself, one which has forces that are social, relating to other social aspects. Durkheim identified the social with social facts – things which are external to and coercive of, the individual. These social facts are explained by other social facts and together these social facts constitute society. Social facts are to be distinguished from psychological, economic, or biological facts – they are social in that they emerge from humans relating to other humans in some organized fashion. Unlike psychological facts, which may be part of the mind, or economic facts which are part of the organization of production, social facts concern social constraints. Examples of social facts are norms, obligations, moral values, and religion – all created in the social sphere and passed on socially from one generation to the next.

iii. Weber. For Weber, the social was identified with meaningful human action. Rather than looking on the social as the constraining, external social or economic facts of Durkheim or Marx, Weber was concerned with interpreting individual action which had meaning for the individual. Holton notes that Weber emphasizes the viewpoint of the individual rather than the collective mind of the group or nation (p. 40). For Weber, action is social when it has meaning – reflexive, repetitive, habitual forms of behaviour are not part of social actions. It is rather the considered, and often rational, action of individuals that concerned Weber.

Holton recognizes the importance of Weber’s approach but is also critical of some aspects of Weber’s view of the individual, that of nineteenth century liberalism (p. 44). While Weber attempts to understand individuals and their actions, he does not pay much attention to interaction. While Weber’s action takes into account the possible responses of others, his main concern was with the individual him or herself. For Weber, "individual interest and conscience" (p. 44) are key, and the individual tends to be an isolated, rational individual, with well formed ideas. This may not be quite the rational actor of rational choice theory, but it comes close.

iv. Simmel. Simmel placed greater emphasis on intersubjectivity or social interaction, considering the various ways in which two more individuals relate to each other. Holton notes that this includes all interaction "whether formal and visible, or informal and invisible" (p. 45). Simmel notes features such as glances, impressions, calculation, fleeting contacts as characteristics of modern, urban life. It is the study of these forms of daily experience, "popular everyday knowledge, and the emotions" which form the study of the social.

v. Summary. Each of these writers has a particular view of the social, with some similarities and some differences. For each the social is identified with modern society, and involves human actions and interactions in various ways. Each writer also notes a structural aspect to society – structures that have been created by humans in the social action and interaction. However, the forces that are identified as key to studying action and interaction differs considerably. Marx emphasizes the economic, Durkheim social facts, Weber action as associated with meaning, and Simmel interaction.

b. Basis for Society

Closely connected with the way in which they defined the social, and usually building on this definition, each writer argued that society was built on a certain set of social forms.

i. Marx. The economic of material aspects of society were basic for Marx. He developed this approach in opposition to what he termed the idealist approach of Hegel, who had argued for the influence of ideas in guiding historical development. Partly in reaction to this, and partly emerging out of his study of history, society, and political economy, Marx developed a materialist theory of economic and social organization. This "centred on the mode of production, and the social relations of production" (p. 29), with the latter emerging from the way labour and production of commodities was organized. Thus the working class were the members of society who had no way to support themselves other than by selling their labour power, while the bourgeoisie derived their wealth by owning the means of production and exploiting workers. While Marx also analyzed politics, culture, legal institutions, religion, and ideology, he generally argued that these were part of the superstructure, "profoundly influenced" (p. 30) if not determined by the material base of society.

ii. Durkheim. Social facts formed the proper study of sociology, but the basis for social organization for Durkheim was formed by factors such as moral values, norms, social solidarity, religion, and consensus among members of society. Durkheim was well aware of the importance of the economic and identified the division of labour as a key feature in creating social solidarity in modern, industrial society. But for Durkheim, "the exercise of self-interest by human actors within the market in pursuit of diverse ends is not … able to guarantee social solidarity" (p. 33). Classical economists had argued that economic self interest could be a guiding force in creating a society that works for the best of everyone – Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding people to some sort of social optimum is the best known example. In contrast, Durkheim is convinced that such forces could only work if set within "some external and underlying set of obligation" (p. 33). It was these commonly agreed upon values and norms that formed the basis for society.

iii. De Tocqueville. Usually considered a political theorist, analyzing the basis of democracy in America, de Tocqueville is included as a classical theorist who considered nineteenth society as being a new form of human development. Holton notes how de Tocqueville identified the new forms of authority and social institutions, such as democracy, and identified "their consequences for human values such as freedom and community" (p. 37). Holton notes how he considered the modern state to be characterized by a more centralized form of authority, yet at the same time this power and authority rested on a mass base – "the collective sovereignty of the universal citizenry, each of whom possessed rights as an individual citizen" (p. 37). While this may be considered to be more a basis for politics, de Tocqueville identified this mass base as an essential aspect of the new society that was emerging. Thus individual citizens, each with certain citizenship rights, collectively formed the basis for the new democratic states that were emerging. Other institutions, such as voluntary associations, education, and new forms of community also emerged from this.

iv. Weber. Marxists have often claimed that Weber is an idealist, standing in opposition to the materialism of Marx. There are certainly aspects of this in Weber, since he emphasizes religion, culture, and rationalization as forces that cannot be reduced to the economic. For Weber, these forces exercise an important influence over social action and human history. Holton notes how Weber identified religion as an important force in the emergence and development of capitalism in western Europe. In addition, Weber abstracts what he terms ideal types from the social world. However, Holton notes that Weber also emphasized material forces in the development of capitalism – laying down the economic preconditions for the emergence of capitalism (cities, markets, etc.) and also noting how practices that emerged from ideas (protestant ethic) affected the development of capitalism only as they had material implications.

Rather than considering Weber as an idealist, Holton notes how it makes more sense to consider Weber as rejecting a unidimensional explanation of society (social facts or material forces) and adopting a multidimensional explanation. While some sociologists today might consider Weber as opposed to Marx, it is more common today to consider Weber as complement to Marx. Weber considered political factors, religion, and the economic each to have independent, but interlocking, effects on human actors and human history.

v. Simmel. At some times Simmel sounds much like Marx or Weber, noting the pervasive influence of "rationalization and the universalization of impersonal exchange relations" (p. 45). Yet he returns to the subjective and interaction level but noting "the subjective and esthetic popular experience of commodities" (p. 45). As a result, society is a combination of interaction at all levels, with both economic and social bases.

vi. Summary. Much debate has centred around the debate between the material basis for society and other bases such as ideas, culture, or religion. It would appear that Weber’s approach is most useful here – to consider the economic as essential, but to integrate other forces as having their own independent effect on the economic and on society in general.


Last edited on January 13, 2000.

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