Sociology 319

March 23, 2000

Historical Sociology


1. Introduction

 Chapter 10 of the text contains a discussion of some historical approaches to the study of sociology. Some sociologists adopt an historical analysis as part of their sociological perspective and integrate it into their approach. For example, it is difficult to imagine studying the sociology of Marx or Weber without examining their historical analysis – the latter are essential aspects of their respective social theories. Others such as symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, or rational choice theorists are much less concerned with historical analysis, primarily focussing on social action and interaction, without reference to a particular stage or time in history.

The following notes examine only a few issues with respect to historical sociology – earlier approaches, world-systems theory, and the current debate concerning globalization. This is not to minimize the importance of the study of history in sociology, but a reflection of the limited time available and the focus of the class on theoretical rather than historical perspectives. In our department, Sociology 201 and 203 present historically oriented analyses of the development of capitalism and industrialism, and some of these perspectives are also presented in upper level classes.


2. Importance of Historical Perspectives in Sociology

In Chapter 10, the main question for Mandalios is that of whether modernity is fundamentally about standardization (p. 278). While Mandalios also deals with more general issues approaches which question this, this question, in itself, appears to reflect a particular view on historical sociology. It may not be Mandalios who is responsible for this question – it appears that historical sociology has generally asked this question, and Mandalios works within the framework of what other sociologists have discussed. But one point to consider is whether this is too limiting a question.

Another approach might be to study history and examine how historical analysis can contribute to understanding the social world in which we live and the manner in which changes are occurring in the contemporary world, without making any assumption concerning standardization or direction. For those who have an interest in and knowledge of history, it should be worthwhile to use these to develop an understanding of historical influences on the contemporary social world and how earlier changes might be relevant for today – without assuming inevitability or purpose to what has occurred.

Mandalios notes that "any theory of society must therefore be able to give an account of its own origins and development" (p. 280). That is, the institutions, structures, and forms of social interaction that exist at any given time in the social world have a history in that they are a result of previous developments in the social world. Historical analysis can show how these forms developed and give some idea of how they might change in the future. It can also provide guidelines concerning future alternatives and how people might be able to create those alternatives. Mandalios notes that historical study can also grapple with the question "in what way has our conception of the world or of ourselves fundamentally changed?" (p. 280). That is, human nature and the self have undoubtedly changed, and the way we look on the world is different today than it was in earlier societies.

Another aspect of historical analysis is the examination of how social thought is itself a product of a particular time, place, and social position. Or at least this is an hypothesis which requires historical data and analysis to examine and answer. In this class, I have attempted to note how the various social theories are products of the social world in which the social theorists write. The philosophical and social theorists of the Enlightenment produced their new forms of analysis during a time when the modern era was emerging and it would appear no accident that the theories of modernity developed at a time when these social changes were taking place. The more structural social models were products of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe, where the weight of tradition was still strong. The pragmatic, microsociological persepectives emerged in the United States, where the weight of historical structures was less and the practical problems of building a new society had to be faced.

Historical analysis can develop a critical approach to the study of the past, present, and future. It can illuminate the varieties of cultural and social diversity that have existed, and show how changes in these have occurred. Many historical approaches in sociology have assumed that history is associated with human progress and reaching higher stages of development of society – Marxian theories and liberal theories of modernization generally adopt this approach. But historical sociology need not make this assumption and can consider human experience to have many forms of diversity, society to have made great progress in some areas and little in others, and to consider the possibility of regression rather than progression.

In my view, it would be best to adopt an historical approach that does not consider human history to have a particular direction or to necessarily evolve to more progressive forms of social organization. Further, there may be no inevitability or purpose to historical change – change certainly occurs but is a product of myriad influences, some intended and others unintended, with coincidence and chance along with intersection of various unforeseen social circumstances and forces. There are certainly social forces leading in specific directions (markets, exchange) and powerful individuals and groups attempting to further their influence and power, but people in the social world can also resist or change these social forces. For example, some contemporary analysis assumes that globalization, standardization, and the decline of the nation-state are dominant forces that have a certain inevitability. While there is no doubt that these forces are strong, there are other aspects such as traditional cultures, resistance to change, local grounding, and communication and discussion (Habermas) that must be considered as well. For example, in his concluding sentence to the chapter Mandalios (p. 299) notes "To overlook the importance of cultural diversity in understanding the enormous transformations wrought by ‘modernization’ would be to risk reducing modernization to Westernization." That is, in adopting historical analysis, we must be careful not to be ethnocentric and assume a certain inevitability. Rather, we should use historical analysis in a critical and creative way, using it to consider options and alternatives, to contribute to communication and understanding of the social world.


3. Earlier Historical Sociological Perspectives

Writers in the nineteenth century often adopted a view that human history passed through various identifiable stages. The sociology of Comte (theological, metaphysical, scientific?) and the analysis of Enlightenment writers tended to assume that human history had gone through various stages of development, with each of the stages at a higher level than earlier stages. The Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the stage that had been reached at the time they were writing was an advance over earlier stages, in that humans had developed a better understanding of the world and could now improve the social world. The view that the stages of history represented progress is reflected in concepts such as primitive and backward to refer to traditional forms, and civilization and modern to refer to the European societies of the nineteenth century.

Marx and Engels, and later writers in the Marxian perspective have generally adopted a similar view and developed an historical analysis as a major part of their analysis. For Marx, the modes of production were historical in nature, with each representing a particular stage of historical evolution, and containing forces for change, but also being limited in form. Thus markets and cities emerged in feudal society, but the power of these emergent social forces required change in the mode of production. As a result, the forces of the bourgeoisie and capitalism broke the power of feudal forms of social and economic organization, creating a new society in the nineteenth century. For Marx, each mode of production is historical in nature, having emerged at a particular time, but also having an historical dynamic built into it. Marxian analysis is thus essentially historical in content and form. While it is theoretical, the concepts and models of Marxian analysis are simultaneously historical and theoretical.

The sociology of Weber is also historical, although in a somewhat different manner than that of Marx. Weber studied history extensively, examining ancient society, Asian society, Judaism, and other religions that were historically important. He used this historical analysis to develop an understanding of various forms of authority, power, legitimacy, social organization, rationality, and other sociologically relevant issues. He used history in a more comparative manner, to develop an idea of how social organization works and how these comparative experiences can be used to develop ideal types as a form of social analysis. At the same time, his writings display a certain notion of historical inevitability, with the forces of rationalization in western societies as exercising a dominant influence.

Other European sociologists such as Simmel and Durkheim each had an historical analysis as well. While they may not have written as extensively on history as did Weber or Marx, their sociological analysis concerned the social forms that had emerged with modernism, and how these differed from earlier forms of social organization. Durkheim’s central ideas of mechanical and organic solidarity and division of labour are historical, as is his analysis of different forms of religion. For Simmel, the forces of urbanism, money, and exchange distinguish modern urban society from earlier, more traditional forms.

Early sociology in the United States did not devote much attention to historical analysis. The social theories of Mead, Parsons, Merton, Blumer, Goffman, and Garfinkel have little or no historical analysis built into them. This may be a reflection of the differing nature of the United States, with the primary concern being to build a new society, detached from Europe in what immigrants perceived to be a new land with new opportunities and new forms of social organization. Thus the concerns in the United States were more pragmatic and forward looking.

In Canadian sociology, to the extent that a distinctive approach exists, historical analysis is more prevalent, perhaps because of our longer colonial connection and because of the division of Canada into French, English, and aboriginal cultures and traditions. Each of these groups has had a different historical experience, these experiences cannot be ignored, and they have influenced Canadian society in various ways. The historical analysis of Harold Innis has had an important influence on much Canadian sociology – emphasizing the influence of the fisheries, fur, forestry, mining, and grain. Each of these staple trades and industries, along with our connections with Britain and the United States, has had an important influence on the structure and direction of Canadian society.


4. World-Systems Analysis

One of the primary historical sociological perspectives is that of world systems analysis, a neo-Marxian approach built around analyses of modes of production. This approach developed from an analysis of the economic and material world, specifically capitalism as it emerged and developed in Europe beginning in the 1500s. World systems analysis generally argues that this new economic and social system broke the power of earlier political and economic empires and systems, and developed toward a dominant world system. While originating in Europe, the world system that has emerged over the last five hundred years is without limits and extends it reach throughout the globe. In contrast to some Marxian approaches, this world system is not always progressive in its effects, it encompasses a variety of modes of production, and could ultimately be replaced by a socialist world system.

World systems analysis was developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930- ) who has been a professor at Columbia University, McGill University, and currently the State University of New York at Binghamton. Wallerstein is best known for his The Modern World-System, published in 1974. In this work he analyses the origins of the modern system, beginning around 1500, where there began to be a shift from political and military forms of dominance to economic influences and power. In later volumes, Wallerstein traces the development of this new system, showing how it creating core, periphery, and semi-periphery regions of the world. While political structures are connected to economic ones, Wallerstein argues that a variety of political structures are compatible with the capitalist world system.

World systems theory abandons national economies and the nation state as the unit of analysis. Marxian theory generally works within the framework of national social structures, with a capitalist and working class being rooted in the organization of production and distribution on a national scale. World systems theory considers the division of labour, exploitation, and inequality on a world, rather than a national level. That is, capitalism is not just organized on a national level, but develops and uses resources, labour, production, and markets on a world scale.

The development of Canada could easily be interpreted within a world systems approach. European expansion led to the development of the Atlantic fisheries to supply food for Europe. Later the development of the fur trade supplied furs for European consumption. These were connected to the development of industry and consumer markets in Europe – with an emerging bourgeoisie and working class. The development of trade and European expansion across North America destroyed many of the aboriginal economies that existed earlier. Agricultural and industrial changes in Europe led to export of dispossessed and poor Europeans to settle in North America. Forest, mining, and agricultural products were exported to Europe, thereby assisting in the growth of European and North American capitalism. While some areas benefited, others became disadvantaged as a result of these developments. Social and class structures have a connection to this international division of labour and the forms of development of production and markets on a world scale.

In world systems analysis there are three types of regions. The core areas of the world system are the wealthy countries of Europe and North America that dominate and exploit much of the rest of the world. These countries tend to have relatively free labour markets with relatively well paid skilled workers. In contrast, the periphery is poor and exploited, exporting raw materials to the core economies. Conditions for workers in the periphery tend to be very poor, and workers in these countries are often coerced through slavery or threat of starvation. The core countries benefit by maintaining the peripheral countries in a backward state. Semi-peripheral countries combine aspects of the core and periphery, being exploited and exploiting. Examples might include some of the poorer parts of Europe (Portugal or Greece) or some of the better off South American countries such as Argentina. The key to the division, however, is not so much the countries but the position any area occupies within the international division of labour. For example, there may be peripheral areas of core countries (some parts of northern Saskatchewan or the Maritimes) and core areas in primarily peripheral countries.

In terms of sociological analysis, there appear to be at least three implications of world systems analysis.

World systems analysis provides a useful way of examining changes that have occurred and continue to occur across the globe. For example, the migration of large numbers of people from poor to richer countries is a result of the developments on the world system – destroying traditional ways of life and livelihood in the sending countries and filling labour supply needs in receiving countries. At the same time, this approach may be overly economistic in much the same manner as much Marxian analysis. That is, world systems analysis does not pay much attention to culture and does not appear to consider it as an independent aspect. Further, the assumption of dominance of European and North American capitalist forces may be somewhat ethnocentric.


5. Globalization

a. Meaning of Globalization. Usually associated with an increased uniformity across the globe, often because of the powerful force of capital on an international or global scale. Political – supranational political authority as in Europe or in new forms of trade and investment agreements. Cultural – this may be the most important in the future, with the flexibility of culture and its ability to cross political, social, and geographic boundaries. Common ways of life through the totalizing effects of media, mass consumption, popular culture, common images and symbols, advertising.

b. Arguments for Globalization. Free markets, financial flows, expanded technology and communication. Arguments from those who support even more development of capitalism. Kroker’s virtual class argues for and benefits from globalization – those who are closely tied in to and benefit from the new technologies, new forms of communication, development of markets for new products, and new opportunities for business and profit. These are often portrayed as voices of progress, but Kroker notes how this may benefit only a few and how this may sap creativity and human ideals.

c. Arguments against Globalization. Tend to be from the left. Concern with furthering the influence of capital and markets. Against free trade agreements, multilateral agreements on conditions for investment, multinational corporations, etc. For social programs, local control, and more democratic forms of decision making. Concerned about the political power of the nation state, that it may be held hostage to the interests of global capital, and unable to meet the needs of the citizens of each country. Fear that capital will divide workers and reduce living standards.

d. Positive Effects of Globalization. Limiting aspects of isolation and tradition. Economic, social, cultural gains. Spread of knowledge, technology, information, communication.

e. Standardization or Diversity. Kymlicka argues that contemporary society results in increased diversity within each society but reduced diversity across societies. Classical sociologists emphasized the former, contrasting the increased diversity of modern society compared with the sameness of earlier, traditional societies. Those who argue that the contemporary forces of capitalism and technology creates standardization emphasize the latter aspect – reduced diversity across societies.

f. Evidence for Globalization. Be careful not to interpret any aspect of change that appears to favour freedom for capital as part of globalization. That is, there are particular interests which may be in favour of free trade, reduced taxation, etc. but these are not always globalized forces. These may be the traditional conservative forces that opposed social programs and equality in the past.

g. Limits of Globalization. People are still local most of the time and much industry and many services must be provided locally. Class structure has a strong local component – workers must be available and production must often be located relatively close to markets. Political backing for capital is primarily through national governments and military – i.e. there has been little transference of "legitimate" use of force and violence to the international or global level. Economic aspects associated with multinational capital are not necessarily dominant – local and traditional cultures, religion, resistance, inability of capital to meet local and different needs, localized political control, distance and geography, costs of moving people and goods.


6. Conclusion

Consider historical aspect to social institutions, structures, ways of life, self, and social theory.

Nature of historical change – progress, regress, purpose, direction, chance?

End of history? Postmodernism next week.

World-systems, globalization or nations, cultures, and local.


Last edited on March 23, 2000.

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