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Second year university undergraduate study
Students working at this level are required to show that they are developing confidence in their grasp of their chosen subject and beginning to develop their powers of independent and critical examination. They should by this stage be able to produce fluent and well argued responses to essay topics and questions, and show that they are conversant with the set texts and the secondary literature of criticism and commentary in their subject. They should by now be at ease with the conventions of academic writing and if they have any flair or originality it is around this stage that it is likely to show. They may also be required to produce essays of up to 3000 words in length as part of assessed course work. The example is from a second year course dealing with issues in sociological thought.
What is the value of studying the writings of dead men? Is sociology too obsessed with the classics?
The glib and superficial answer to the first part of this question is that the work of the great thinkers of the past has an influence on the present, and is therefore worthy of consideration. Perhaps, however, this answer is not as glib as it appears at first sight, but is indeed founded on a fundamental truth. In this essay I shall attempt to argue that this is in fact the case, and that the classical legacy of sociology quite rightly exerts a strong influence on contemporary thought.
Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Simmel and Durkheim: nineteenth century names whose influence on modern society can be realised by a brief survey of the terminology used in dealing with almost any social issue today. It is impossible to talk of politics, poverty, education, work, or religion without recourse to concepts of class, status, alienation and anomie; of structure, interaction or social phenomena – all issues which were rigorously studied and researched by these earlier masters.
Auguste Comte first coined the term sociology in the early nineteenth century. Living as he did in the wake of the French Revolution, and at a time of tremendous social upheaval, instability and disorganisation, he must have felt a great need to produce a rational system of thought which would explain the social behaviour of men, and offer some sort of counter-balance to the seemingly destructive nature of organised groups. Comte was, of course, influenced by the science and reason of the Enlightenment. He was interested in the progress of science and felt that human intelligence had evolved to a stage where it could provide a scientific explanation of human behaviour. Comte’s interest was in the methodology of social research and his approach was a positivist one: all knowledge should be subject to canons of verification in terms of experience. Comte’s credo can be summed up in the words “To know in order to predict and to predict in order to control” (Coser and Rosenberg, 1964, p.2).
It is this question of control which, Dawe argues, is at the root of conflict within modern sociology. If we view sociology as having been shaped by the conservative reaction to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, then we must see sociology itself as a response to the problem of social order. Conservative thinkers, most notably Burke, sought a restoration of social order in the face of the subversive, anti-religious rationalism of the Enlightenment, the traumatic chaos of the French Revolution and, later, the evils of industrialisation. Thus Comte’s holistic view of society as an organic community became linked to concepts of authority. Conservative reaction confirmed Hobbes’s view of men’s lives as “solitary, poor, nasty, mean, brutish and short” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Pt I, Ch.13). Therefore, men needed constraints in order for society to function above the level of animals. The internalisation of these constraints is a feature of Durkheim’s work on moral solidarity, and also in Weber’s study of bureaucracy.
However, we can also view sociology as springing directly from the ideas of the Enlightenment, in which case we are dealing with ideas of human liberation and individual freedom. In this case, the problem is one of control: how can humans regain control over man-made institutions? Hence there is a contradiction between the construction of an external social system which exercises constraints, and the more subjective concept of social action. The social system theory argues that in order to provide for individual well-being, society exists before its participants: a view subscribed to by Durkheim. The social action theory argues that man is essentially autonomous and only able to create a social order when freed from constraints – as argued by Marx.
Thus there is a tension, not only between differing sociological ideas; mechanical versus organic, atomism versus holism, individualism versus collectivism; but also within the works of individual sociologists. Therefore we have Durkheim’s ideal of “a sociology justifying rationalist individualism but also preaching respect for collectivist norms” (Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, 1968, p.97). There is also Marx’s conflict between his humanitarian ideal of socially creative man and his pessimistic view of the nature of nineteenth century capitalists.
Gouldner (1971) also argues that there is ambiguity and conflict inherent in sociology in that culture and society are man-made creations, but take on a life of their own quite apart from their creator. It could be argued that it is this autonomous nature of society which makes it worthy of scientific study. In this way, sociology can be seen as a response to the alienation of men from the society which they have created. But if sociology retains the idea of man as creator, then it has a potentially liberating capacity.
So, a powerful argument for the importance of studying classical theorists is that they have been influenced by the earlier events of history; thus they represent a continuity in human wisdom. But what about criticisms of the continuing importance of what may appear to be anachronistic theories? Do such ideas have any contemporary relevance? Why study sociology at all?
Perhaps it is helpful to start with the last question. It is often suggested that the concept of “society” is merely an abstraction and therefore not a viable subject for study. For instance, if we accept that there is no society, only individuals, sociology can be subsumed by psychology. Philosophers have spent centuries arguing about the concept of language and how we name things. On the one hand, everything can be seen as a particular and individual form, whether we are discussing tomatoes or people. On the other hand, we do abstract general terms for reality, so that we can observe enough resemblance between things we recognise; for example, a particular style of painting or architecture, or to discuss such concepts as Protestantism, liberalism, racism, or feminism.
All these are collective phenomena, and all conform to Durkheim’s view that “the whole does not equal the sum of its parts; it is something different” (Durkheim, 1982, p.128). Therefore sociology differs from psychology, because society is a collection of individuals in association, it is a group, a separate entity which acts and exerts influence and force over its individual members. We may all become extremely well-balanced individuals by means of expert psycho-analysis, but in life we have to interact with others and make sense of the way in which they behave.
Is sociology too theoretical and divorced from real life? Certainly theory was of prime importance to nineteenth century thinkers on the subject, although the practical application of such theories was frequently the ultimate objective. The emphasis on theory stemmed from the desire to create a social science, and no one would deny the importance of theory in physical sciences. They can solve practical problems when allied with research, and this is exactly what the classicists attempted. One thinks of Durkheim’s work on suicide, of the hours spent by Marx in the British Museum, and of Engels’ empirical work on new industrial cities such as Manchester. It is equally important to remember that no single theory is an absolute truth. In order to have contemporary relevance, sociology must develop and adapt, just as science has evolved and made new discoveries. But the basic tenets of any ‘ology’ retain their significance. Although modern physics has evolved at a phenomenal rate, no scientist would deny the importance of Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion.
Perhaps another criticism of sociology is that it is just based on common sense. Certainly many sociological statements do appear to be stating the obvious. “Two’s company: three’s a crowd” might be one interpretation of Simmel’s work on the dyad and the triad. Nonetheless, how many laymen stop to examine what lies behind the obvious fact that a close relationship between two people is altered by the arrival of a third person.
In the same way, wise women and herbalists have prescribed remedies without knowing why they work: for example, the use of dried foxgloves as a heart stimulant without knowing about the existence of digitalis. There can be a world of difference between knowing that something works and understanding why – a difference which can sometimes be crucial in terms of life and death.
Modern studies of society are ineluctably linked with the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, whether in agreement with them or in conflict. Capitalism, class, status, bureaucracy, and organicism are all issues of contemporary concern. One cannot envisage a study of work, for instance, which does not consider the tension generated between capital and labour. Sociology itself is subject to criticism on the grounds of class. The Left attacks its practitioners as being too middle-class and, therefore, afraid and incapable of inquiring too deeply into areas which the rich and powerful wish to protect. Alternatively, the Right views sociology as a hotbed of subversive radicalism. None of these arguments would be possible without the work of Marx.
Nor is it possible to discuss bureaucracy, social interaction or the work ethic without first referring to Weber’s studies. Weber’s work on the Protestant ethic and capitalism is particularly valuable for the way in which it linked two apparently unconnected ideas, and also for its notion of unintended consequences. Certainly the works of the classical theorists have sometimes had consequences unintended by their authors. It might be interesting to speculate on what these dead men would make of modern sociology.
The creative imaginations of the nineteenth century thinkers sparked off ideas which led them to attempt to construct whole social systems which were based on theory and verified by scientific data and research. No doubt they would have welcomed many of the further developments and specialisations which have followed, although it is difficult to imagine what they would have made of such subjects as the sociology of jazz, or of sleep. The important thing about all these sub-divisions is that they are but particular manifestations of the overall study of men’s social relationships.
One significant feature of the classical legacy is that it cast a totally different perspective on history. It enabled us to escape from ‘Whig’ history, from the ‘Great Men’ accounts of the past, and to allow for the importance of individuals; of the social conditions in which people lived as well as the outcome of political battles. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills argues that the purpose of sociology is to provide this link between biography and history; between personal problems and public issues. Thus men see themselves as “minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society” (Mills, 1959, p.7).
The success of this idea can be seen in the increasing popularity of social history and in the number of Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and Christopher Hill, who have provided new angles on our interpretation of past events via the study of individual lives. As Engels remarked in his letter to Bloch in 1890, “the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life.”
Men are conscious and active, therefore sociology must remain conscious and active. Of course we must beware of falling into the trap of accepting classical theories as unchallengeable conventional wisdoms: it is doubtful whether knowledge as absolute truth exists in the field of the social sciences. Nonetheless, the works of the founding fathers of sociology contain much of relevance and value and a study of their works may save us the task of re-discovering certain basic facts.
The one thing all these thinkers have in common is that they were trying to provide solutions to the problems of human existence. As science rationalised the physical world, so the desire to rationalise human activity became stronger. It may well be that human behaviour is essentially subjective and incapable of being totally understood. This may not be such a bad thing. The implications otherwise are that whole groups of people could be subject to experiments in social engineering. Nevertheless, it seems certain that people will never stop trying to make sense of the often chaotic conditions in which they find themselves. If that is the case, then we ignore history at our peril: a refusal to learn from the mistakes of the past can only lead to a repetition of such errors. The great men of sociology’s past have at least provided us with some ammunition to protect ourselves against such eventualities.
Coser, L. & Rosenberg, B., Sociological Theory, Macmillan, 1964.
Durkheim, E., The Rules of Sociological Method, Macmillan, 1982.
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, O.U.P., 1959.
Thompson, K. & Tunstall, J., Sociological Perspectives, Penguin, 1971, (especially essays by Dawe, A. ‘The Two Sociologies’ (1970) and Gouldner, A. ‘Sociology’s Basic Assumptions’ (1971) in the above).
This is an elegant and thoughtful essay which covers a lot of the central issues. You might possibly have mentioned the gender issue – that these were literally ‘founding fathers’ – but this might have made for another and much longer essay. This is a well argued defence of the classic tradition with some interesting illustrations.
Mark – a clear 1st – 75 plus.