Sociology 319

January 18, 2000

Classical Social Theory - II

 Modern. Last day we noted the distinction between society and nature that characterizes classical social theory – these writers developed their social theory as a theory of the society that had emerged in western Europe, disting uishing this new society as different than nature. More recently, the distinction between traditional and modern has been drawn by social theorists. The modern refers to the period following the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the French revolut ion, and the development and widespread influence of democracy, science, and technology. Very roughly speaking, this period can be thought of as from 1750 to the late twentieth century. This is characterized by continual change, economic growth (with ups and downs), expansion of capitalism, belief in science and technology, recognition of individuals, etc. Theorists of the modern are the classical social theorists and most other social theorists to the present.

More recently, some theorists have argued that the world has bypassed the modern, entering some sort of postmodern period. Associated with this is a view that the main problems of production of commodities has been solved, and that communication and ot her technologies and global capitalism have transformed the world to create a new postmodern world. This world is characterized by new forms of culture and new relations between production and the superstructure of culture, ideology, politics, and the soc ial. In the view of these writers, such as Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Kroker, the radical postmodernists, the social world has changed or disappeared, so that old social theories are no longer adequate.

Whether or not we have entered into a new postmodern world is questionable. There have certainly been many changes, often in contradictory directions. But the tools of classical and more recent social theory still have some use. In this course, the app roach to be taken is that the modern is the period from the 1700s through to the present, with the issue of the postmodern as one to be discussed and debated later in the semester. When I refer to theorists of the modern period, I will be referring to the classical social theorists and most other social theorists discussed in the text.

1. European Classical Approaches

a. The Social – notes from January 13.

b. Basis for Society – notes from January 13.

c. Social Order

One of the major issues addressed by classical social theorists was how society holds together, since modern society differs from traditional forms of social organization and nature. The modern is associated with the "division of society into separ ate entities (e.g. individuals), each pursuing their own ends or interests" (p. 30). Social theorists at least since the 1600s had been concerned with this issue, given the greater pace of change the the disintegration or alteration of the old order. Hobb es (1588-1679) asked what was to prevent a war of all against all, since people were separate individuals, each with certain abilities and each striving to pursue his or her own ends. Holton identifies three aspects to this question (p. 30):

One answer that had been given is that of Adam Smith (1723-1790), the Scottish political economist. Smith noted that people had various balancing sentiments "self-love, sympathy, the desire to be free, a sense of propriety, a habit of labour, and the p ropensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (Role, p 146). Smith then argued that exchange of commodities would provide a means for coordination and orderly operation of a complex society. Market exchange, if allowed to operate without interference, would provide a coordinating mechanism, "matching individual wants with available goods" (Turner, p. 30) and leading to the production of goods and services desired by members of society. Smith argued that in the context of the market, if e ach individual pursues their own advantage the individual is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention" (Roll, p. 147), that is the social good. It was this invisible hand of self-interest and market exchange that pro vided a coordinating mechanism for Smith, promoting social order and the expansion of wealth. This economic explanation was not generally regarded as sufficient for social theorists. Marx questioned whether this would provide for the good of all, and argu ed that only a few would benefit. Durkheim argued that this mechanism would be insufficient to ensure social order.

i. Marx. While social order was not the primary concern of Marx, his approach does provide an explanation of how it does take place. Marx’s view is that there is a social order based on coercion, deriving from the economic power of the dominant class, supplemented with political power. In capitalism, this is the coercive economic power that the bourgeoisie is able to exercise through its monopoly over ownership of the means of production. The mechanisms of exchange in capitalism perpetuate this monopoly and economic power – i.e. exploitation of labour power of the working class, creating surplus value for the bourgeoisie and continued wage slavery for the proletariat.

In addition to economic power, the dominant class is able to become a ruling class in the political sphere, so they dominate both the economy and the state. This political power may derive from their economic power (having the economic resources to dom inate in the political sphere) or from a more functional or structural connection between economic and political spheres (necessity for state to take measures assuring continued profitability). Marx even views ideology and what other sociologists might ca ll norms as derived from and part of the coercive economic and political order.

Holton notes that for Marx, social order comes primarily from the "way economic power influences social order through both the economic and political mechanisms" but he also notes that "the coercive and instrumental aspects of social order are given to o much prominence at the expense of consensual and normative elements" (p. 31). It is the latter that other sociologists have often emphasized, and it would seem that both coercion and consensus should be part of an overall theory of social order.

ii. Durkheim. In contrast to Marx, the problem of order appears to have been uppermost on the mind of Durkheim throughout his writings. His first book, The Division of Labour in Society addressed the question of how societies hold togethe r, what forms of solidarity are associated with different societies, and what is the source of this solidarity. The answer to the latter appears to be the common consciousness or sense of moral obligation that exists in each society. Durkheim shows how th is differs in different societies, and he uses the system of law as a reflection and index of the form of social solidarity.

Traditional societies were held together by mechanical solidarity – common conditions, experiences, ideas, and obligations – solidarity through likeness. This was associated with repressive forms of law, with severe punishment of violations of conformi ty, since such violations severely offended the common consciousness. With the development of modern society, there is no longer likeness, but difference and occupational specialization characterize the experiences of members of society. Durkheim argues t hat it is this difference, the mutual needs and interdependence of different members of society, and the common recognition of difference, equity, rights, and obligations, that creates a new form of solidarity. The common consciousness associated with mod ern society is called organic solidarity. This may be a weaker common consciousness that in traditional societies, and it is certainly of a different form that mechanical solidarity. That is, it is concerned with restitution, enforcement of contracts, ind ividual rights and obligations, and restitutive law.

Holton notes how Durkheim considered economic features alone insufficient to ensure social order, that exchange, contracts, and the division of labour had to be set in the context of a moral obligation, leading to a set of laws and regulations governin g exchange. Holton also notes how Durkheim shifted his views somewhat, initially arguing that the division of labour alone provided sufficient basis for organic solidarity. He noted the need for professsional groupings and education. Later, Durkheim argue d that democratic citizenship was the "core institution wherein social bonds were periodically reaffirmed" (Turner, p. 34).

iii. Weber. While Weber may not have stated the problem of order as clearly as Durkheim, many of the concepts he developed showed a concern with the way in which society held together. Among the concepts he developed extensively in his writings were authority, legitimacy, domination, rationalization, and status. Each of these is an organizing principle whereby social order is created and perpetuated.

Domination is the probability that certain specific commands will be obeyed by a given group of persons. While Weber recognized that there could be coercion and the use of force, his primary interest appears to have been where the compliance was more v oluntary and accepted, and he explained different possible sources for such compliance. He then defined authority as legitimate forms of domination – it "involves an element of voluntary compliance from those to whom it applies, and therefore embraces the issue of meaningful action" (Turner, p. 43).

Weber divides authority into three types, corresponding to the source of legitimacy. Such authority may derive from tradition, a belief in the legitimacy of the dominant due to long traditions and beliefs; charismatic authority, a belief in or devotion to someone who is viewed by followers as having exceptional powers or abilities; or rational-legal forms of authority, resting on a belief in the legality of laws and enacted rules. While traditional and charismatic authority still exist in various forms in modern society, Weber argued that rational-legal authority or rationalization would be an overarching force that characterizes western society, and perhaps ultimately all societies, regardless of political and economic forms of organization.

iv. Tocqueville. His concern was with political forms of organization, and he focussed on the centralized democratic state with authority over citzens and monopoly over law in a particular territory. It appears that it was this centralized state , along with the mass base of the citizens that together formed the basis for social order. Each citizen has rights and it is the collective sovereignty of the citizenry that provides the new form of social authority characteristic of modern, democratic s ocieties such as the United States.

v. Simmel. Social order does not appear to have been a major concern of Simmel. At one level he was concerned with interaction and "mutual recoprocity between individuals" (Turner, p. 45) and at another level he argued that there were coercive s tructures.

vi. Conclusion. Simmel and Marx emphasized the coercive aspects of modern, capitalist society, with Marx arguing that these were central in maintaining social order. Durkheim, Weber, and Tocqueville focussed more on the voluntary aspects that cr eated social order, emphasizing obligations, beliefs, and participation in a diverse society.

d. Power and Inequality. The emphasis of each writer on power and inequality differs dramatically, and parallels their view of social order. Marx had the clearest and most complete analysis of inequality and Weber defines and analyzes power most clearly, while Durkheim and Tocqueville focus more on equality. Simmel emphasizes each, but at different levels.

i. Marx. For Marx, power was based on control over economic and material resources – the means of production and labour power. Each society has a dominant and a subordinate class, and the manner in which ownership and control over these material resources is organized forms the basis for power and inequality. In slave societies, the dominant class owns the means of production and the labourers, and this creates great inequality and power for the dominant class. In capitalism, the proletariat own their own labour power, but since they have no other resources, they are forced to sell this labour-power to capitalists, meaning that power is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Marx emphasized inequality in all aspects of society, and one of his primary concerns was how commodity exchange and private property created unacceptable inequalities and distorted human creativity and potential.

ii. Durkheim. Holton notes that power differentials were of much less concern for Durkheim than for Marx (p. 33), since Durkheim was primarily concerned with the issue of social order. Durkheim commented on issues of economic inequality, but gen erally argued that social reforms could deal with inequalities of wealth. By focussing on the division of labour and difference, along with the mutual recognition of rights and obligations, Durkheim appears to have considered people as relatively equal pa rticipants in the life of society. At the same time, Durkheim emphasized social facts as coercive, so he recognized a certain form of power as essential to society and social order. But since there was generally a form of consensus that governed these nor ms and obligations, Durkheim does not appear to have considered this form of power as a negative or objectionable feature of social organization.

iii. Weber. Max Weber was clearest in developing an explicit analysis of social power. He defined power as "action likely to succeed even against the opposition and resistance of those to whom it is applied" (Turner, p. 43). Weber certainly reco gnized that power existed in war and explicit coercion, but his primary interest was not in this, since he regarded this as "being unstable as a long-term source of order" (p. 43). Rather, Weber focussed on legitimate forms of domination, whereby the acti on can succeed without opposition and resistance.

Note that Weber’s definition of power has often been quoted, but it is fairly general. Weber tended to consider authority to be more important, and when considering social order, it is. However, there would seem to be more examples of coercive forms of power that are socially important than Weber appears to consider.

iv. Tocqueville. There is a recognition of the power of the modern state, since it is centralized and has monopoly of sovereignty and law over the territory that it governs. At the same time, Tocqueville regards this as based on the collective s overeignty of the citizens of the state, so there is presumably a legitimacy of the Weberian rational-legal type of authority. Tocqueville was also impressed with the degree of equality that existed in mid-nineteenth century America, and the consequences of this for social organization. Compared with Europe, in America there was much greater equality among the citizenry, and the forces for continuing and developing this were much stronger.

v. Simmel. There appears to be a certain equality of actors inherent in Simmel’s view of mutual interaction and reciprocity. At the same time, Simmels looked on money, the money economy, and commodity exchange as dominating people.

vi. Conclusion. Marx provides the most developed picture of inequality and its consequences. The value of this approach is that it encourages sociologists to look for sources of inequality and search for their origins. In some cases, these may n ot be purely material and economic, as Marx implies. This is where the analyses of Weber and Durkheim are likely to prove useful – to look for other sources of inequality, and consider how power may sometimes be based on consensus and non-economic factors .

e. Action and Structure.

Each classical sociologist addressed the issue of social action – how people carry out actions and activities in the social world, in conjunction with the actions of others and in the social and natural environment or setting. Each of these theorists a lso developed an analysis of structures – how they emerge, how they are maintained, how they change, and what their effect on actors is. Holton defines structure as "overarching systems of social relationships that stand as seemingly external forces deter mining the lives of individuals" (p. 27). Some of these classical sociologists were more successful than were others in explaining the relationships between these two levels of analysis. It is the issue of the nature of each of action and structure, and t heir connection with each other, that has become a major subject of analysis in contemporary sociology.

Holton sets the analysis of action and structure in the context of the long religious and philosophic discourse of free will and determinism. The history of western thought has proponents of each of these approaches. Some argue that people are agents w ho have free will, so that they can freely choose what to do and what not to do – individuals choose their destiny and are master over it. Other thinkers argued that people have little in the way of free will, but their actions are determined by external forces, perhaps a spiritual force such as a god or gods, or other unseen forces that strongly influence or determine human action. Classical sociologists were influenced by this debate and, while it may not have been a central issue for each of them, was certainly one that they did address in different forms.

Contemporary sociology has made this a major issue and this is referred to as the structure-agency debate or the structure-action debate. There is a great variety of approaches to this issue, with some proposing agency, activities, or action as basic, while others work from a structural perspective. Some writers integrate the two approaches, while others may argue that it is less important to reconcile the different approaches than to develop an analysis and explanation of each part of the social world .

i. Marx. Holton’s overall judgment is that Marx did not resolve the problem (p. 29). Marx is usually thought of as a structuralist, with economic structures in capitalism creating classes, and these in turn govern social relationships. At the sa me time, Marx argues that humans make their own history, although not always as they choose.

Holton identifies two aspects to agency in Marx – (i) "the struggle to overcome the limits of nature" and (ii) "the struggle to overcome the alienating consequences of private property rights of various kinds throughout human history" (p. 28). For Marx , agency is primarily at the group level – classes, political organizations, and workers organized into workplace organization such as trade unions. By acting together in groups, where people have similar interests, these groups can influence or change hi story. These may be struggles by workers in the workplace over hours of work, or efforts by the bourgeoisie to use their economic and political power to create free trade or extend the influence of capital. Marx views the proletariat as the class that can express the universal interests of society as a whole and as a revolutionary force can create a new and better society (p. 35).

While a powerful analysis of agency, Marx’s approach does have some limitations. One is that some of the accounts of group agency tend to be somewhat voluntaristic (p. 29) – that is, Marx notes the power that groups can exercise when they act together, but it is not always clear why or how this group action comes about. Certainly the voluntary form of action is important, but it is curious that economic exchange is so structured at one level, while group action is often entirely voluntary, with little analysis of how the two are connected.

Another criticism is that Marx’s theory of action tends to be somewhat narrowly focussed on economic actions directed toward very specific ends. For example working class struggles may focus on the length of working day or wages, making it difficult to see how the struggles of the proletariat could resolve all problems in society. Holton refers to this as an overly instrumental focus on self-interest, with insufficient attention paid to normative issues. He notes that instrumental refers to "a focus on actions taken as means to some end, rather than on actions that are valued in and of themselves" (p. 31). Certainly the instrumental search for improving the economic is central, but so are values and a wide variety of other actions – friendship, love, a nd affection that cannot be reduced to achieving specific ends.

ii. Durkheim. Of all the classical sociologists, Durkheim is undoubtedly the strongest structuralist, with little room for agency, voluntarism, or free will. If social facts have as strong an influence as Durkheim sometimes claims, then individu als have little choice to comply, or they become deviant, pathological, or self-destructive (and even these are sometimes explained as social facts). Social solidarity is well established in each society, based on norms and obligations. These are learned through socialization in the family and educational system. Whether in traditional or modern society, there are strong structural forces which exist in the economic and social world, and these are slow to change. Exactly what role there is for human agenc y in this is unclear.

Holton notes that Durkheim’s human actor is cognitive, not evaluative (p. 35). That is, at any time there is only one moral system, and that is the one that is dominant in the society. While Durkheim examines ways that humans make their actions consist ent with this, he does not consider the variety of human actions possible and how these might represent different value systems. This seems strange since he is concerned with differences associated with the division of labour in the economic sphere, but h e does not extend such differences to the normative realm.

iii. Weber. It is Weber who most clearly understood the problem of relating action and structure, and who always attempts to understand the viewpoint of the actor. His theory of action shows how "all human actors interpret and construct the mean ing of the social world around them" (p. 41). From human action, Weber was able to show how structures can be established – they are not merely external constraints on the individual, but are actively built through the actions of people (p. 44). For examp le, class structures may not form the basis for social action, rather people interpret their situation in particular ways and from this form various groupings such as status groups or political organizations. These appear as structures, but are built thro ugh the actions of people, considering the meaning these groupings and associated values have for them. Similar arguments can be made for the various forms of authority. As a result, Weber had some success in integrating action and structure. While recent theorists may adopt a different view of action than did Weber, it has been Weber’s vision that has guided much recent sociological theorizing concerning this issue. We will return to Weber’s views on these issues in Chapter 4.

iv. Tocqueville. As a political theorist, Tocqueville provides a reasonable explanation of how individual citizens through the exercise of citizenship rights and obligations have mass sovereignty – so that at one level they create the authority for the modern state. At the same time, he was concerned with the power of the state and the "tendency toward privation among individuals" (p. 38). He described conflicting trends associated with participation and atomism. While not solving the sociologic al concern over structure and agency, Tocqueville’s analysis parallels sociological concerns and provides some guidelines to sociology.

v. Simmel. The focus on social interaction, everyday experience, and emotions that formed a large part of Simmel’s analysis provides a basis for later analysis of structure and agency. Simmel clearly identified larger structures such a money, th e city, and fashion, but at the same time he shows how these are subjectively interpreted. For Simmel, there are new modes of interaction in modern society and "a new set of cultural sensibilities, embodied in social interaction" (p. 45). Simmel also note s how metropolitan populations respond to their environment in an active way, "through the development of interacting circles of webs of sociation" (p. 46).

vi. Conclusion. Weber and Simmel appear to have done the most to integrate agency and structure. At the same time, the emphasis of Marx on group action and economic interest cannot be ignored. Together these writers began to point the way to dea ling with issues of agency and structure. This is one of the major themes of contemporary sociology, so look for the ways in which these are either more or less successfully integrated in later sociological approaches.

f. History

Each of the classical writers had a strong sense of historical development, since each had extensively studied history and was very aware of how the modern society of the nineteenth century was a result of historical change. In fact, for all of the m, historical analysis was a major object of their analysis and source for their evidence and approach.

All of the classical writers recognized the changes in the forms of social organization that had occurred in western Europe, with the development of modern society as the object of their analysis. Several of the writers adopted a view that there were v arious stages of human history – with a progression to improved forms. Hegel, Comte, and Marx adopted a view of this sort. Other writers such as Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Simmel may not have adopted this view, but still considered the modern form as diff erent than earlier stages of history.

Holton notes that Marx’s approach was evolutionary in the sense of a "progressive unfolding of an evolutionary logic" (p. 28). Rather than ideas as characterizing the various stages, Marx argued for historical materialism, that the forces of production are organized in different ways in different historical epochs, resulting in various forms of social organization. At all stages, it was the manner in which the means of production and use of labour were organized that characterized the stage. Each stage had a dynamic of its own, with the development of the forces of production clashing with the relations of production, leading to the next stage. There tended to be dramatic, revolutionary upheavals that characterized the transition from one stage to the next.

Durkheim’s historical approach was more evolutionary than that of Marx, in the sense that change was gradual, and not characterized by dramatic changes. At least in The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim characterizes change as relatively s mooth, so that as differences among members of society develop, society adapts to these changes in a way that social solidarity is maintained. Durkheim recognized periods when the normal functioning of the division of labour is upset, resulting in anomie, but thought as these as unusual.

Weber devoted much time and effort to historical study and wrote several volumes of historical analysis. He does not not appear to have adopted the stages view of history in the same manner as did Marx, instead focussing on various aspects of social or ganization of earlier societies that he used to illustrate his analysis – e.g. of authority and domination. One issue worthy of note in Weber is the unintended consequences of social action. Each social action has meaning for the actors, but the consequen ces of such action are not necessarily foreseen by the actors, or these consequences turn out somewhat differently than anticipated. It is the study of these unanticipated consequences that should be one of the subjects of sociological study. One example of this, and Weber’s best known study, is the analysis of the effect of the protestant ethic on the emergence of capitalism. Weber argued that there were many factors that led to the development of capitalism, but one was the manner in which the activity of calvinist religious beliefs were applied in the economic sphere.

Simmel is to be noted for his argument that there is a new social psychology of modernity – not just new sets of social structures, but "new patterns of feeling and emotion in everyday life … a new set of cultural sensibilities, embodied in social inte raction" (p. 45). That is, for Simmel, modern society creates new types of social interaction and new ways in which people relate to each other, thereby creating new forms of social interaction and organization.

g. Democracy

While democracy is not usually highlighted as a sociological concern, it is a form of political organization that parallels the social and is interconnected with it. Marx generally viewed modern democracy as a sham, given the power and domination o f the bourgeoisie. Weber did not consider democracy as a central feature because it was limited by rationality and bureaucracy. Durkheim looked on democracy as more important, although Holton notes that he never developed much theory of citizenship. It wo uld seem that democracy would be a useful complement to Durkheim’s social theory.

Tocqueville is the writer who gave most attention to democracy, and this was the focus of his study of America. He notes how there was a long history to the development of the notion of equality among individuals, and it was in North America that this ideas was most highly developed.

i. Other issues.

Holton notes how Weber developed a multidimensional approach, one that has made it possible for analysts to consider a variety of different influences on social organization – none of them being entirely reducible to the other, and each having an indep endent influence on forms of social organization.

Simmel adopted a unique approach among classical sociologists, always emphasizing social interaction and individual interpretation of structures. His analysis also laid the basis for later cultural analysis, with a focus on issues such as fashion and t he "esthetic popular experience of commodities" and a "sociology of consumption" (p. 45).

j. Conclusion

Each writer emphasizes somewhat different aspects of social organization, with each adopting a unique approach to the study of society. Marx developed the most thorough and sophisticated analysis of the structure of capitalism. Durkheim focusses on morality, obligation, norms, and solidarity, and connects these to the material organization of society. Weber is best seen as complementing the other writers, focussing on a wide variety of issue, and laying out a methodology and analyses of action that have proved very useful in later sociology. Tocqueville is primary a political analyst, with his analysis of democracy providing a useful complement to analyses of social organization. Simmel developed an approach that microsociologists have found to be worthwhile.


Roll, Eric. 1956. A History of Economic Thought, third edition. Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall.


Last edited on January 20, 2000.

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