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Chapter 1
Introduction:Sociological Theory
Chapter1: Introduction: Sociological Theory…………………………………....1
Chapter2: Auguste Comte and Positivism Sociology………………………....20
Chapter3: Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory………………………...48
Chapter4: Ferdinand Tonnies: First sign of German sociology………….…...68
Georg Simmel and Form sociology……………………………....71
Chapter6: Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine……………..…93
Chapter7 :Max Weber and Rationalization……………………………………..120
Chapter8: Vilfredo Pareto: the
Sound from Italy…………………………….161
Chapter10: Conflict Theory……………………………………………………..207
Chapter11: Critical Theory……………………………………………………...225
Chapter12: Exchange Theory…………………………………………………...245
Chapter13: Interaction Theory……………………………………………….…286
Chapter 1
Chapter 1
Chapter1: Introduction:Sociological Theory
Sociological Theory
Concepts: The Basic Building Blocks of Theory
Variables as an Important Type of Concept
Theoretical Statements and Formats
Sociological Theory
Theories are explanations about how and why events in the universe occur.
Sociological theories are thus explanations about how and why humans
behave, interact, and organize themselves. There is, however, considerable
controversy over tiffs definition of theory. At the center of this controversy is the
question of whether or not sociological theories can be scientific. Some argue
that they can, others argue the opposite, and many offer some moderating
position. To appreciate the dimensions of this controversy, let us begin by
briefly outlining the nature of scientific theories. Then, we can return to what
critics of scientific theory find objectionable.
Scientific theories begin with the assumption that the universe, including the
social universe created by acting human beings, reveals certain basic and
fundamental properties and processes that explain the ebb and flow of events
in specific contexts. Because of this concern with discovering fundamental
properties and processes, scientific theories are always stated abstractly,
rising above specific empirical events and highlighting the underlying forces~
that drive these events. In the context of sociological inquiry, for example,
theoretical explanations are not so much about the specifics of a particular
economy as about the dynamics of production and distribution in general.
Similarly, scientific theories are not so much about a particular form of
government as about the nature of power as a basic social force. Or, to
illustrate further, theories are not so much about particular behaviors and
interactions among actual persons in a specific setting as about the nature of
human interpersonal behavior in general. The goal, then, is always to see if
the underlying forces that govern particulars of specific cases can be
discovered. To realize this goal. theories must be about generic properties
and processes transcending the unique characteristics of any one situation or
case. Thus, scientific theories always seek to transcend the particular and the
time bound, and in so doing, they focus on the generic, the fundamental, the
timeless, and the universal.
Another characteristic of scientific theories is that they are stated more
formally than ordinary language. At the extreme, theories are couched in
another language, such as mathematics, but more typically in the social
sciences and particularly in sociology, theories are phrased in ordinary
Introduction:Sociological Theory
language. Still, even when using regular language, sociologists make an
effort to speak in neutral, objective, and unambiguous terms so that the
theory means the same thing to all who examine it. Terms denoting
properties of the world and their dynamics are defined clearly so that their
referents are clear, and relationships among concepts denoting phenomena
are stated in ways such that their interconnections are understood by all who
examine the theory. At times, this attention to formalism can make theories
seem stiff and dull, especially when these formalisms are couched at higher
levels of abstraction. Yet, without attention to what terms and phrases denote
and connote, a theory could mean very different things to diverse audiences.
A final characteristic of scientific theories is that they are designed to be
systematically tested with replicable methods against the facts of particular
empirical settings. Despite being stated abstractly and formally, then, scientific
theories do not stand aloof and alone from the empirical. Useful theories all
suggest ways that they can be assessed against empirical events.
All scientific fields develop theories. For in the end, science seeks (1) to
develop abstract and formally stated theories and (g) to test these theories
against empirical cases to see if they are plausible. If the theory seems
plausible in light of empirical assessment, then it represents for the present
time the explanation of events. If a theory is contradicted by empirical tests,
then it must be discarded or revised. If competing theories exist to explain the
same phenomena, they too must be empirically assessed, with the better
explanation winning out.
Science is thus a rather slow process of developing theories, testing
them, and then rejecting, modifying, or retaining them, at least until a better
theory is proposed. Without attention to stating theories formally and
objectively assessing then: against the empirical world, theory would become
self-justifying and self-contained; it would be hard to refute such theories, and
indeed, they would tend to reflect personal biases, ideological leanings, or
religious convictions. The differences between scientific theory and other types
of knowledge are presented in Figure 1.1.
The typology asks two basic questions: (1) Is the search for knowledge to be
evaluative or neutral? (2) Is the knowledge developed to pertain to actual
empirical events and processes, or is it to be about nonempirical realities? In
other words, should knowledge tell us what should be or what is? And should
knowledge refer to the observable world or to unobservable realms? If
knowledge is to tell us what should exist (and, by implication, what should not
occur) in the empirical world, then it is ideological knowledge. If it informs us
about what should be but does not pertain to observable events, then the
knowledge is religious, or about forces and beings in another realm of
existence. If knowledge is neither empirical nor evaluative, then it is a formal
system of logic, such as mathematics. And if it is about empirical events and is
nonevaluative, then it is science.
Chapter 1
Is knowledge to
be empirical?
Is knowledge to
be evaluative?
Ideologies; or
beliefs that state
the way the world
should be
Science, or the
belief that all
knowledge is to
reflect the actual
operation of the
empirical world
Rehgions; or
beliefs that state
the dictates of
supernatural forces
Logics, or the
various systems of
reasoning that
employ rules of
FIGURE 1.1 "Types of Knowledge
This typology is crude, but it makes the essential point: Them are different
ways to look at, interpret, and develop knowledge about the world. Science is
only one way. Science is based on the presumption that knowledge can be
value free, that it can explain the actual workings of the empirical world, and
that it can be revised as a result of careful observations of empirical events.
These characteristics distinguish science from other beliefs about how we
should generate understanding and insight.
The boundaries among these types of knowledge are often open, or at
least permeable. Logics can be the language of science, as is the case when
mathematics is used to state important relationships among forces driving the
universe. The boundaries between these forms of knowledge can also be
confrontational, as can be seen today in the controversy between religious and
scientific explanations for the evolution of humans. Within sociology proper, the
controversial relationship is between ideology and science. Many sociologists
behave that theory must contain an ideological component; it must criticize
undesirable conditions and advocate alternatives. Beliefs about "what should
be" thus dominate the analysis of the social universe. This view of sociology
contradicts the value-neutrality of science, where ideologies and other
evaluative beliefs are not to contaminate analysis of social conditions. The
debate between those who advocate scientific theory and those who argue for
the infusion of ideology has been present for most of the history of sociology,
and this debate still rages. In Part Ⅳ of this book. we devote a number of
chapters to "critical theory," whose goal is to criticize existing conditions and to
advocate potential alternatives.
These critical theories make a number of arguments. One is that no matter
how hard scholars try to exclude ideology from their work, ideology will slip in.
Every analyst is located at a particular position in society and will, therefore,
have certain interests that guide both the problems selected for analysis and
the mode of analysis itself Inevitably what people think should occur will enter
Introduction:Sociological Theory
their work, and so, it is only an illusion that statements about the operation of
the social world are free of ideology Another line of criticism is that when
"scientists" study what exists, they will implicitly see the social world as it is
currently structured as the way things must inevitably be. As a result, theories
about the world as it exists in the present can become ideologies legitimating
the status quo and blinding thinkers to alternative social arrangements. And, a
third line of attack on the value-neutrality of science is that humans call change
the very nature of their universe; hence, there can be no immutable laws of
human social organization because humans' capacity for agency allows them
to alter the very reality described by these laws. Therefore, a natural science of
society is not possible because the very nature of social reality can be
changed by the actors in this reality:
Those who advocate a scientific approach reject these arguments by
critical theorists. Although they see ideological bias as always a potential
problem, this problem can be obviated by careful attention to potential
sources of bias. And even if one's position in the social world shapes the
questions asked, it is still possible to ~answer these questions in an objective
manner. Moreover, those committed to science reject the notion that the
objective study of the social world ensures that inquiry will support the status
quo, Real science seeks to examine the forces driving the current world, and
theories are about these underlying forces that, in~ the very best theories,
have operated in all times and places. Thus. science does not just describe
the world as it is, but rather, scientists~ try to see how forces operating in the
past and present (and future) generate the empirical world as it now appears
and as it will appear in the future. These forces will thus change the present
into the future, just as they transformed the past into a new present. There is
no reason, therefore, for theories to legitimate a status quo; indeed, theories
are about the dynamic potential of the forces that change social arrangements.
And finally, scientists reject the notion that humans can change the very nature
of the forces that drive the social world. Humans can, of course, change the
social world as it exists, but this is very different from changing the generic and
basic forces that shape the organization of the social universe. Agency is thus
constrained by the underlying forces that drive the social universe. For
example, humans can change the way they produce things, but they cannot
eliminate production as a basic force necessary for the survival of the species;
people can change political regimes, but they currant eliminate power in
social relations.
The debate about whether or not sociology can be a natural science will,
no doubt, rage into the future. For our purposes, we simply must recognize that
commitments to science vary among theorists in sociology. Yet, in the pages to
follow, as well as on the Web site for this book emphasis is on the
contribution of theories to the science of sociology. Of course, those theories
rejecting this orientation are also examined, but these alternatives will always
be seen as deviating from scientific sociology.
Chapter 1
Theory is a mental activity revolving around the process of developing
ideas that explain how and why events occur. Theory is constructed with
several basic elements or building blocks: (1) concepts, (2) variables, and (3)
statements/formats. Although there are many divergent claims about what
theory is or should be, these four elements are common to all the claims. Let
me examine each of these elements in more detail.
Concepts: The Basic Building Blocks of Theory
Theories are built from concepts. Most generally, concepts denote
phenomena; in so doing, they isolate features of the world that are considered,
for the moment at hand, important. For example, notions of atoms, protons,
neutrons, and the like are concepts pointing to and isolating phenomena for
certain analytical purposes. Familiar sociological concepts would include
production, power, interaction, norm, role, status, and socialization. Each term
is a concept that embraces aspects of the social world that are considered
essential for a particular purpose.
Concepts are constructed from definitions. A definition is a system of
terms, such as the sentences of a language, the symbols of logic, or the
notation of mathematics, that inform investigators about the phenomenon
denoted by a concept. for example, the concept conflict has meaning only
when it is defined. One possible definition might be this: Conflict is interaction
among social units in which one unit seeks to prevent another from realizing
its goals. Such a definition allows us to visualize the phenomenon that is
denoted by the concept. A definition enables all investigators to "see the
same thing" and to understand what it is that is being studied.
Thus, concepts that are useful in building theory have a special
characteristic: They strive to communicate a uniform meaning to all those who
use them. Because concepts are frequently expressed with the words of
everyday language, however, it is difficult to avoid words that connote varied
meanings--and hence point to different phenomena--for varying groups of
scientists. This is why many concepts in science are expressed in technical or
more "neutral" languages, such as the symbols of mathematics. In sociology,
expressing concepts in such special Languages is sometimes not only
impossible but also undesirable. Hence. the verbal symbols used to develop a
concept must be defined as precisely as possible so that they point to the
same phenomenon for all investigators. Although perfect consensus might
never be attained with conventional language, a body of theory rests on the
premise that scholars will do their best to define concepts unambiguously.
The concepts of theory reveal another special characteristic:
abstractness, Some concepts pertain to concrete phenomena at specific times
and locations. Other, more abstract concepts point to phenomena that are not
related to concrete times or locations. For example, in the context 0f
small-group research, concrete concepts would refer to the persistent
interactions of particular individuals, whereas an abstract conceptualization of
Introduction:Sociological Theory
such phenomena would refer to those general properties of face-to-face
groups that are not tied to particular individuals interacting at a specified time
and location, Whereas abstract concepts are not tied to a specific context,
concrete concepts are. In building theory, abstract concepts are crucial,
although we will see shortly that theorists disagree considerably on this issue.
Abstractness poses a problem: Flow do we attach abstract concepts to
the ongoing, everyday world of events? Although it is essential that some of
the concepts of theory transcend specific times and places, it is equally critical
that there be procedures for making these abstract concepts relevant to
observable situations and occurrences. After all, the utility of an abstract
concept call be demonstrated only when the concept is brought to bear on
some specific empirical problem encountered by investigators; otherwise,
concepts remain detached from the very processes they are supposed to help
investigators understand. Just how m attach concepts to empirical processes,
or the workings of the real world, is very controversial in sociology. Some
argue for very formal procedures for attaching concepts to empirical events.
Those of this persuasion contend that abstract concepts should he
accompanied by a series of statements known as operational definitions,
which are procedural instructions telling investigators how to go about
discerning phenomena in the real world that are denoted by an abstract
concept. Others argue that the nature of our concepts in sociology precludes
such formalistic exercises. At best, concepts can be only sensitizing devices
that must change with alterations of social reality, and so we can only intuitively
arid provisionally apply abstract concepts to the actual flow of events. To
emulate the natural sciences in an effort to develop formal operations for
attaching concepts to reality is to ignore the fact that social reality is
changeable; it does not reveal invariant properties like the other domains of the
universe. Thus, to think that abstract concepts denote enduring and to variant
properties of the social universe and to presume, therefore, that the concept
itself will never need to he changed is, at best, naive.
And so the debate rages, taking many different turns. We need not go
into detail here because these issues will be brought out again and again as
the substance of sociological theories is examined in subsequent chapters. For
the present, it is only necessary to draw the approximate lines of battle.
Variables as an Important Type of Concept
When used to build theory, two general types of concepts can be
distinguished:(1) those that simply label phenomena and (2) those that refer to
phenomena that differ in degree.8 Concepts that merely label phenomena
would include such commonly employed abstractions as dog, cat, group,
social class, and star When stated in this way, none of these concepts reveals
the ways in which the phenomena they denote vary in terms of such properties
as size, weight, density, velocity, cohesiveness, or any of the many criteria
used to inform investigators about differences in degree among phenomena.
Those who behave that sociology can he like other sciences prefer
Chapter 1
concepts that are translated into variables-that is, into states that vary We want
to know the variable properties-size, degree, intensity, amount, and so forth -of
events denoted by a concept. For example, to note that an aggregate of
people is a group does not indicate what type of group it is or how it compares
with other groups by such properties as size, differentiation, and cohesiveness.
And so, some of the concepts of scientific theory should denote the variable
features of the world, To understand events requires that we visualize how
variation in one phenomenon is related to variation in another.
Others, who are less enamored by efforts to make sociology a natural
science, are less compulsive about translating concepts into variables. These
researchers far more interested in whether or not concepts sensitize and alert
investigators to important processes that they are in converting each concept
into a metric that varies in some measurable way. They are not, of course,
against the conversion of ideas into variables, but they are cautious about
efforts to translate every concept into a metric.
Theoretical Statements and Formats
To be useful, the concepts of theory must be connected to one another.
Such connections among concepts constitute theoretical statements. These
statements specify how events denoted by concepts are interrelated, and at
the same time they provide an interpretation of how and why events should he
connected. When these theoretical statements are grouped together, they
constitute a theoretical format. There are, however, different ways to
organize theoretical statements into formats. Indeed, in sociological theory
there is relatively little consensus about just how to organize theoretical
statements; in fact, much of the theoretical controversy in sociology" revolves
around differences concerning the best way to develop theoretical statements
and to group them together into a format. Depending on one's views about
what kind of science, if any, sociology can be, the structure of theoretical
statements and their organization into formats differ dramatically. Let us review
the range of opinion on the matter.
There are four basic approaches m sociological theory for generating
theoretical statements and formats: (1) meta-theoretical schemes, (2)
analytical schemes, (3) propositional schemes, and (4) modeling schemes.
Figure 1.2 summarizes the relations among these schemes and the basic
elements of theory. Concepts are constructed from definitions; theoretical
statements link concepts together; and statements are organized into four
basic types of formats. These four formats can be executed in a variety of
ways, however, and so in reality, there are more than just four strategies for
developing theoretical statements and formats. Moreover, these various
strategies are not always mutually exclusive, for, in executing one of them, we
are often led to another as a kind of "next step" in building theory. Yet-and this
point is crucial--these various approaches are often viewed as antagonistic,
and the proponents of each strategy have spilled a great deal of ink sustaining
the antagonism. Moreover, even within a particular type of format, there is
Introduction:Sociological Theory
constant battle over the best way to develop theory. This acrimony represents
a great tragedy because, in a mature science, these approaches are viewed as
highly compatible. Before pursuing this point further, we need to delineate
each of these approaches.
FIGURE 1.2 The Elements of Theory in Sociology
Meta-theoretical schemes
Analytical schemes
Propositional schemes
Meta-theoretical Schemes This kind of theoretical activity is more
comprehensive than ordinary theory. Meta-theoretical schemes are not, by
themselves, theories that explain specific classes of events; rather, they
explicate the basic issues that a theory must address. In many sociological
circles, meta-theory is considered an essential prerequisite to adequate theory
building, even though the dictionary definition of meta emphasizes "occurring
later" and "in succession" to previous activities. Furthermore, in most other
sciences, meta-theoretical reflection has occurred after a body of formal
theoretical statements has been developed. Only after a science has used a
number of theoretical statements and formats successfully do scholars begin
to ask meta-theoretical questions: What are the underlying assumptions
about the universe contained in these statements? What strategies are
demanded by, or precluded from, these statements and their organization
into formats? What kind of knowledge is generated by these statements and
formats, and, conversely, what is ignored? In sociological theory, however,
advocates of meta- theory usually emphasize that we cannot develop theory
until we have resolved these more fundamental epistemological and
metaphysical questions.
For those who emphasize meta-theory, several preliminary issues must
be resolved. These include the following: (I) What is the basic nature of
human activity about which we must develop theory? For example, what is the
basic nature of human beings? What is the fundamental nature of society?
What is the fundamental nature~ of the bonds that connect people to one
another and to society? (2) What is the appropriate way to develop theory, and
what kind of theory is possible? For instance, can we build highly formal
systems of abstract laws, as~ is the case in physics, or must we be content
with general concepts that simply sensitize and orient us to important
processes? Can we rigorously test theories with precise measurement
procedures, or must we use theories as interpretative frameworks that cannot
be tested by the same procedures as in the natural sciences? (3) What is the
critical problem on which social theory should concentrate? For instance,
should we examine the processes of social integration, or must we concentrate
Chapter 1
on social conflict? Should we focus on the nature of social action among
individuals, or on structures of social organization? Should we stress the
power of ideas, like values and beliefs, or must we focus on the material
conditions of people's existence?
A great deal of what is defined as sociological theory involves trying to
answer these questions. The old philosophical debates--idealism versus
materialism, induction versus deduction, causation versus association,
subjectivism versus objectivism, and so on--re re-evoked and analyzed with
respect to social reality~ At times, meta-theorizing has been true to the
meaning of meta and has involved a reanalysis of previous scholars' ideas in
light of these philosophical issues. The idea behind reanalysis is to summarize
the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the scholars' work and
to show where the schemes went wrong and where they still have utility.
Furthermore, based on this assessment, there are some recommendations in
reanalysis about how we should go about building theory and what this theory
should be.
Meta-theorizing often gets bogged down in weighty philosophical matters
and immobilizes theory building. The enduring philosophical questions persist
because they are not resolvable. One must just take a stand on the issues and
see what kinds of insights can be generated. But meta-theory often stymies as
much as stimulates theoretical activity because it embroils theorists in
inherently unresolvable and always debatable controversies. Of course, many
sociologists reject this assertion, and for our present purposes, the more
important conclusion is that a great deal of sociological theory is, in fact,
meta-theoretical activity.
Analytical Schemes Much theoretical activity in sociology consists of
concepts organized into a classification scheme that denotes the key
properties, and interrelations among these properties, in the social universe.
There are many different varieties of analytical schemes, but they share an
emphasis on classifying basic properties of the social world. The concepts of
the scheme chop up the universe; then, the ordering of the concepts gives the
social world a sense of order. Explanation of an empirical event comes
whenever a place in the classificatory scheme can be found for the empirical
There are, however, wide variations in the nature of the typologies in
analytical schemes, although there are two basic types: (1) naturalistic
schemes, which try to develop a tightly woven system of categories that is
presumed to capture the way in which the invariant properties of the universe
are ordered, and (2) sensitizing schemes, which are more loosely assembled
congeries of concepts intended only to sensitize and orient researchers and
theorists to certain critical processes. Figure 1.3 summarizes these two
types of analytical approaches. Naturalistic/positivistic schemes assume that
there are timeless and universal processes in the social universe, as much as
there are in the physical and biological realms. The goal is to create an
Introduction:Sociological Theory
abstract conceptual typology that is isomorphic with these timeless processes.
In contrast, sensitizing schemes are sometimes more skeptical about the
timeless quality" of social affairs. As a consequence of this skepticism,
concepts and their linkages must always be provisional and sensitizing
because the nature of human activity is to change those very arrangements
denoted by the organization of concepts into theoretical statements. Hence,
except for certain very general conceptual categories, the scheme must be
flexible and capable of being revised as circumstances in the empirical world
change. At best, then, explanation is simply an interpretation of events by
seeing them as an~ instance or example of the provisional and sensitizing
concepts in the scheme.
Some theorists argue that analytical schemes are a necessary
prerequisite for developing other forms of theory~ Until one has a scheme that
organizes the properties of the universe, it is difficult to develop propositions
and models about specific events. Without the general analytical framework,
how can a theorist or researcher know what to examine? There is some merit
to this position, but if the scheme becomes too complex and elaborate, it is not
easily translated into other theoretical formats. Thus, analytical schemes can
represent a useful way to begin theorizing, unless they are too rigid and
elaborate to stimulate theorizing outside the parameters imposed by the
scheme itself:
Propositional Schemes A proposition is a theoretical statement that
specifies the connection between two or more variables. It tells us how
variation in one concept is accounted for by variation in another. For example,
the propositional statement "group solidarity is a positive function of external
conflict with other groups" says that as group conflict escalates, the level of
internal solidarity among members of the respective groups involved in the
conflict increases. Thus, two properties of the social universe denoted by
variable concepts, "group solidarity" and "conflict:' are connected by the
proposition that as one increases in value, so does the other.
Propositional schemes vary perhaps the most of all theoretical
approaches.They vary primarily along two dimensions: (1) the level of
abstraction and (2) the way propositions are organized into formats. Some are
highly abstract and contain concepts that denote all cases of a type rather than
any particular case (for example, group solidarity and conflict are abstract
because no particular empirical instance of conflict and solidarity is addressed).
In contrast, other propositional systems are tied to empirical facts and simply
summarize relations among events in a particular case (for example, as World
War II progressed, nationalism in America increased). Propositional schemes
vary not only in abstractness but also by how propositions are laced together
into a format. Some are woven together by very explicit rules; others are
merely loose bunches or congeries of propositions.
Chapter 1
Naturalistic Scheme:
category 1
category 2
category 3
Explanation =
finding the place
in the typology of
an empirical event
category n
processes that link
clearly defined
conceptual categories
Sensitizing Scheme:
calegory 2
Abstract ~ ~
... category 1
category n
.. Explanation =
interpreting events In
terms of categories
category 3
category 4
: Loose and he~ible linkages among sensitizing
conceptual categories
FIGURE 1.3 Types~ of Analytical Schemes
By using these two dimensions, several different types of prepositional
schemes can be isolated: (a) axiomatic formats, (b) formal formats, and (c)
various empirical formats. (See Figure 1.4 on pages 14-15) The first two
(axiomatic and formal formats) are clearly theoretical, whereas various
empirical formats are simply research findings that test theories. But, these
more empirical types of propositional schemes are often considered theory by
practicing sociologists, and so they are included in our discussion here.
Axiomatic Format An axiomatic organization of theoretical statements
involves the following elements. First, it contains a set of concepts. Some of
the concepts are highly abstract; others are more concrete. Second, there is
always a set of existence statements that describes those types and classes of
situations in which the concepts and the propositions that incorporate them
Introduction:Sociological Theory
apply These existence statements make up what are usually caged the scope
conditions of the theory. Third-and most nearly unique to the axiomatic
format--propositional statements are stated in a hierarchical order. At the top of
the hierarchy are axioms, or highly abstract statements. from which all other
theoretical statements are logically derived. These latter statements are
usually called theorems and are logically derived in accordance with varying
rules from the more abstract axioms. The selection of axioms is, in reality, a
somewhat arbitrary matter, but usually they are selected with several criteria in
mind. The axioms should be consistent with one another, although they do not
have to be logically interrelated. The axioms should be highly abstract; they
should state relationships among abstract concepts. These relationships
should be lawlike in that the more concrete theorems derived from them have
not been disproved by empirical investigation. And the axioms should have an
intuitive plausibility in that their truth appears to be self-evident.
The result of tight conformity to axiomatic principles is an inventory or set
of interrelated propositions, each derivable from at least one axiom and usually
more abstract theorems. This form of theory construction has several
advantages. First, highly abstract concepts, encompassing a broad range of
related phenomena, can be employed. These abstract concepts do not have to
be directly measurable because they are logically tied to more specific and
measurable propositions that, when empirically tested, can indirectly subject
the more abstract propositions and the axioms to empirical tests, Thus, by
virtue of this logical interrelatedness~ of the propositions and axioms, research
can be more efficient because the failure to refute a particular proposition
lends credence to other propositions and to the axioms. Second, the use of a
logical system to derive propositions from abstract axioms can also generate
additional propositions that point to previously unknown or unanticipated
relationships among social phenomena.
There are, however, some fatal limitations on the use o f axiomatic theory
in sociology. Most interesting concepts and propositions in sociology cannot be
legitimately employed because the concepts are not stated with sufficient
precision and because they cannot be incorporated into propositions that state
unambiguously the relationship between concepts. Axiomatic theory also
requires controls on all potential extraneous variables so that the tight logical
system of deduction from axiom to empirical reality is not contaminated by
extraneous factors. Sociologists can create such controls, although in many
situations, this kind of tight control is not possible. Thus. axiomatic theory can
be used only when precise definitions of concepts exist, when concepts am
organized into propositions using a precise calculus that specifies relations
unambiguously, and when the contaminating effects of extraneous variables
are eliminated.
These limitations are often ignored in propositional theory building. The
language of axiomatic theory is employed (axioms, theorems, corollaries, the
like); but these efforts are, at best, pseudo-axiomatic schemes) In fact, it is
Chapter 1
best to call them formal propositional schemes--the second type of proposition
strategy listed earlier.
Formal Propositional Formats
Formal theories are, in essence,
watered-down or loose versions of axiomatic schemes. The idea is to develop
highly abstract propositions that ate used to explain some empirical event.
Some highly abstract propositions are seen as higher-order laws, and the goal
of explanation is to visualize empirical events as instances of this "covering
lave" Deductions from the laws are made, but they are much looser, rarely
conforming to the strict rules of axiomatic theory. Moreover, extraneous
variables cannot always be excluded, and so the propositions usually have the
disclaimer "other things being equal." That is, if other forces do not impinge,
then the relationship among concepts in the proposition should hold true. For
example, our earlier example of the relationship between conflict and solidarity
might be one abstract proposition in a formal system. Thus, a formal scheme
might say, "Other things being equal, group solidarity is a positive function of
conflict." Then we would use this law to explain some empirical event-say, for
instance, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (the conflict variable)
and nationalism in America (the solidarity variable). And we might find an
exception to our rule or taw, such as America's involvement in the Vietnam War,
that contradicts the principle, forcing its revision or the recognition that "all
things were not equal." In this case, we might revise the principle by stating a
condition under which it holds true: When parties to a conflict perceive the
conflict as a threat to their welfare, then the level of solidarity of groups is a
positive function of their degree of conflict. Thus, the Vietnam War did not
produce internal solidarity in America because many did not see it as a direct
threat to America's general welfare~ (whereas, for the North Vietnamese, it
was a very real threat and produced solidarity).
The essential idea here is that, in formal theory, an effort is made to create
abstract principles. These principles are often clustered together to form a
group of laws from which we make rather loose deductions to explain empirical
events. Much like axiomatic systems, formal systems are hierarchical, but the
restrictions of axiomatic theory are relaxed considerably, Most propositional
schemes in sociological theorizing are, therefore, of this formal type.
Empirical Propositional Formats Much of what is defined as theory in
sociology is more empirical. These empirical formats consist of generalizations
from specific events in particular empirical contexts. For example, Golden's
Law states that "as industrialization increases, the level of literacy in the
population increases." Such a proposition is not very abstract; it is filled with
empirical content--industrialization and literacy. Moreover, it is not about a
timeless process because industrialization is only a few hundred years old and
literacy emerged, at best, only 6,000 yews ago. Many such generalizations in
sociology are considered theoretical. They represent statements of empirical
regularities that scholars think are important to understand. Indeed, most
substantive areas and subfields of sociology are filled with these kinds of
Introduction:Sociological Theory
Strictly speaking, however, these are not theoretical. They are too tied to
empirical contexts, times, and places. In fact, they are generalizations that are
in need of a theory to explain them.Yet, many scholars working in substantive
areas see their empirical generalizations as theory; so, once again it is clear
that there is no clear consensus in sociology about what constitutes theory.
Precise logical derivations from
Axioms to empirical world in
Terms of a formal calculus
Propositions to
connect with data
Explanation =
subsumption of
empirical regularity
abstract ~axiorns
Empirical regularity
Loose derivation from
abstrat principles to
Empirical world without
Use of a formal calculus
Abstract formal
Propositions to
connect with data
Empirical regularity
FIGURE 1.4 Types of Propositional Schemes
Explanation =
subsumption of
empirical regularity
under abstract
principle or
Chapter 1
General statement of
Scope conditions for
Loosely structured effort to See empirical
regularity as Instance of Generalizations
limited by Scope conditions
Increasing levels of generalization,
but still content laden
Some effort to make
Abstract statements
Formal statement of
Empirical regularities
Specific empirical
Ability to see
Specific empirical
Regularity as one
Of a general calss
Of regularities of
This type of
More general statements of relations
Among variables
No deductions
Little increase
in abstraction
Empirical generalization:
Ability to generalize
Beyond one specific
research finding
Specific research
FIGURE 1.4 continued
Other kinds of empirical generalizations, however, raise fewer suspicions
about their theoretical merits. These are often termed middle-range theories
because they are more abstract than a ~search finding and because their
empirical content pertains to variables that are also found in other domains of
social reality. For example, a series of middle-range propositions from the
complex organization's literature might be stated as follows: "Increasing size of
a bureaucratic organization is positively related to (a) increases in the
complexity (differentiation) of its structure, (b) increases in the reliance on
formal rules and regulations, (c) increases in the decentralization of authority,
and (d) increases in span of control for each center of authority.'' These
principles (the truth of which is not at issue here) are more abstract than
Golden's Law because they denote a whole class of phenomena-organizations.
They also deal with more generic variables-size, differentiation, centralization
of power, spans of control, rules, and regulations--that have existed in all times
and all places. Moreover, these variables could be stated more abstractly to
apply to all organized social systems, not just bureaucratic organizations, For
instance, a more abstract law might state this: "Increasing size of a social
Introduction:Sociological Theory
system is positively related to (a) increases in levels of system differentiation,
(b) increases in the codification of norms, (c) increases in the decentralization
of power, and (d) increases in the spans of control for each center of power."
The truth or falsity of these propositions is not being asserted here; rather,
these are illustrations of how empirical generalizations can be made more
abstract and, hence,theoretical. The central point is that some empirical
generalizations have more~theoretical potential than others. If their variables
are relatively abstract and if they pertain to basic and fundamental properties
of the social universe that exist in other substantive areas of inquiry, then it is
more reasonable to consider them theoretical.
In sum, then, there are three basic kinds of propositional
schemes:axiomatic, formal, and various types of empirical generalizations.
These propositional schemes are summarized in Figure 1,4. Although
axiomatic formats are elegant and powerful, sociological variables and
research typically cannot conform to their restrictions. Instead, we must rely on
formal formats that generate propositions stating abstract relations among
variables and then make loosely structured "deductions" to specific empirical
cases, Finally, empirical formats consist of generalizations from particular
substantive ~areas, and these are often considered theories of that area.
Some of these theories are little more~ than summaries of research findings
that require a theory to explain them, Others are more middle range and have
more potential as theories because they are more abstract and pertain to more
generic classes of variables.
Modeling Schemes At times it is useful to draw a picture of social events.
Some models are drawn with neutral languages such as mathematics, in
which the equation is presumed to map and represent empirical processes, In
reality, such equations are propositions (formal statements of relations among
variables) unless they can be used to generate a picture or some form of
graphic representation of processes. There is no clear consensus about what
a model is, but in general, models array in visual space concepts denoting
important social processes.
A model, then, is a diagrammatic representation of social events. The
diagrammatic elements of any model include the following: (1) concepts that
denote and highlight certain features of the universe, (2) the arrangement of
these concepts in visual space so they reflect the ordering of events in the
universe, and (3) symbols that mark the connections among concepts, such as
lines, arrows, vectors, and so on. The elements of a model may be weighted in
some way; they may be sequentially organized to express events over time; or,
they may represent complex patterns of relations, such as lag effects,
threshold effects, feedback loops, mutual interactions, cycles, and other
potential ways in which properties of the universe affect one another.
In sociology, most diagrammatic models are constructed to emphasize the
causal connections among properties of the universe. That is, they are
designed to show how changes in the values of one set of variables are related
Chapter 1
to changes in the values of other variables. Models are typically constructed
when there are numerous variables whose causal interrelations an investigator
wants to highlight. Figure 1.5 summarizes modeling strategies.
Analytical models:
property 2
Ability to map crucial
property 1
property 3
weighted) among basic
properties of a
specific class of
process or phenomenon
property 4
=Lines can be weighted and signed
Causal models:
variable 1
variable 3
variable 2
To be
tracing of causal
connections among
measured variables
accounting for variation
in the occurrence of
=Lines usually state a statistical association among variables
Figure1.5 Types of Moedling Schemes
Sociologists generally construct two different types of models, which can
be termed analytical models and causal models. This distinction is somewhat
arbitrary, but it is a necessary one if we are to appreciate the kinds of models
that are constructed in sociology. The basis for making this distinction is
twofold: First, some~ models are more abstract than others in that the
concepts in them are~ not tied to any particular~ case, whereas other models
reveal concepts that simply summarize statistically relations among variables
in a particular data set. Second, more abstract models almost always reveal
more complexity in their representation of causal connections among variables.
That is, one will find feedback loops, cycles, mutual effects, and other
connective representations that complicate the causal connections among the
Introduction:Sociological Theory
variables in the model and make them difficult to summarize with simple
statistics. In contrast, the less abstract models typically depict a clear~ causal
sequence among empirical variables. These models typically reveal
independent variables that effect variation in some dependent variable; if the
model is more complex, it might also highlight intervening variables and
perhaps even some interaction effects among the variables.
Thus, analytical modern are more abstract, they highlight more generic
properties of the universe, and they portray a complex set of connections
among variables. In contrast, causal models are more empirically grounded;
they are more likely to devote particular properties of a specific empirical case;
and they are likely to present a simple lineal view of causality.
Causal models are typically drawn to provide a more detailed
interpretation of an empirical generalization. They are designed to sort out the
respective influences of variables, usually in some temporal sequence, as they
operate on some dependent variable of interest. At times, a causal model
becomes a way of representing the elements of a middle-range theory so
these elements can be connected to the particulars of a specific empirical
context. For example, if we wanted to know why the size of a bureaucratic
organization is related to its complexity of structure in a particular~ empirical
case of a growing organization, we might translate the more abstract variables
of size and complexity into specific empirical indicators and perhaps try to
introduce other variables that also influence the relationship between size and
complexity in this empirical case. The causal model thus becomes a way to
represent with more clarity the empirical association between size and
complexity in a specific context.
Analytical models are usually drawn to specify the relations among more
abstract and generic processes. Often they are used to delineate the
processes that connect the concepts of an axiomatic or, more~ likely, a
formal theory. For example, we might construct a model that tells us more
about the processes that generate the relationship between conflict and
solidarity or between size and differentiation in social systems. Additional
concepts would be introduced, and their weighted, direct, indirect, feedback,
cyclical, lagged, and other patterns of effect on one another would be
diagrammed. In this way, the analytical model tells us more about how and
why properties of the universe are connected. In addition to specifying
processes among formal propositions, analytical models can be used to
describe processes that connect variables in the propositions of a
middle-range theory. For example, we might use a model to map out how
organization size and complexity are connected by virtue of other processes
operating in an organization.
Of course, we can construct analytical models or causal models for their
own sake, without reference to an empirical generalization, a middle-range
theory, and a formal or axiomatic theory. We may simply prefer modeling to
propositional formats. One of the great advantages of modeling is that it
Chapter 1
allows the presentation of complex relations among many variables in a
reasonably parsimonious fashion. To say the same tiring as a model, a
propositional format might have to use complex equations or many words.
Thus, by itself, modeling represents a tool that many theorists find preferable
to alter native theoretical schemes.
It is important to recognize that there is far from complete consensus over
which of these theoretical formats is the most desirable. The Web page for
Chapter 1 provides an assessment of the relative merits of these formats from
the perspective of science, but not all sociologists are committed to this
epistemology, as we will come to appreciate as particular theoretical
approaches are examined in the chapters to follow. Even among those
committed to developing scientific theory, there is only a general sense that it
is desirable to build formal propositions schemes. And so, as we approach the
substance of sociological theory, we will see great diversity in the kinds of
theories that various scholars seek to develop.
and Positivism Sociology
and Positivism Sociology
Positivism: The Search for lnvariant Laws
Law of the Three Stages
Positivism: The Search for Order and Progress
Social Statics
Social Dynamics
Who Will Support Positivism?
Positive Contributions
Basic Weaknesses in Comte's Theory
Alfred North Whitehead said: "A science which hesitates to forget its founders
is lost" (1917/1974:115). Practitioners in an advanced science such as
physics have forgotten the field's founders, or at least they have relegated
them to works on the history of the field. A student in physics does not
ordinarily read about the work of Isaac Newton but rather about the
contemporary state of knowledge on the issues that Newton and other classic
physicists first addressed. The state of knowledge in contemporary physics
has far outstripped that of Newton; hence, there is no need for a student to
learn about his ideas. Newton's still useful ideas have long since been
integrated into the knowledge base of physics. According to Whitehead,
physics is not lost; it has (largely) forgotten Isaac Newton and the other
important figures in the early history of the field.
Why then are students in sociology being asked to read about the work of
an early nineteenth-century thinker like Auguste Comte (1798-t857)? The fact
is that in spite of a variety of weaknesses, a number of Comte's ideas (for
example, positivism) continue to be important in contemporary sociology.
Mote importantly, many more of his ideas were important in their time and had
a significant impact on the development of sociology and sociological theory.
Although sociological theory has progressed far beyond many of Comte's
ideas, sociology is not yet (and some say it will never be) in the position of
physics, able to forget the work of its founders.
AUGUSTE COMTE:A Biographical Sketch
Auguste Comte(1798-1857) was born in Montpelier,France, on January 19,
1798 (Pickering,1993:7). His parents were middle class and his father
eventually rose to the position of official local agent for the tax collector.
Although a precocious student, Comte never received a college-level degree.
He and his whole class were dismissed from the Ecole Polytechnique for their
Chapter 2
rebelliousness and their political ideas. This expulsion had an adverse effect
on Comte's academic career. In 1817 he became secretary (and "adopted
son" [Manuel, 1962:281]) to Claude Henri Saint-Simon, a philosopher forty
years Comte's senior. They worked closely together for several years and
Comte acknowledged his great debt to Saint-Simon: "I certainly owe a great
deal intellectually to Saint-Simon . . . he contributed powerfully to launching
me in the philosophic direction that I clearly created for myself today and
which I will to/low without hesitation all my life" (Durkheim, 1928/1962:144).
But in 1824 they had a raging out because Comte believed that Saint-Simon
wanted to omit Comte's name from one of his contributions. Comte later
wrote of his relationship with Saint-Simon as "catastrophic" (Pickering,
1993:238) and described him as a "depraved juggler" (Durkheim,
1928/1962:144).In 1852, Comte said of Saint-Simon, "I owed nothing to
this personage" (Piekering,t 993:249).
Heilbron (1995) describes Comte as short (perhaps 5 feet, 2 inches), a
bit crosseyed, and very insecure in social situations,especially involving
women. He was also alienated from society as a whole. These facts may help
account for the fact that Comte married Caroline Massin (the marriage lasted
from 1825 to 1842). She was an illegitimate child who Comte later nailed a
"prostitute” although that label has been questioned recently (Pickerieg,
1997:37).Comte's personal insecurities stood in contrast to his great security
about his own intellectual capacities, and it appears as if this self-esteem was
well founded:
Comte's prodigious memory is famous. Endowed with a photographic
memory he could recite backwards the words of any page be had read but
once. His powers of concentration were such that he could sketch out an
entire book without putting pen to paper, His lectures were all
delivered without notes. When he sat down to write out his books he wrote
everything from memory.
(Schweber, 1991:134)
In 1826, Comte concocted a scheme by which he would present a series
of seventy-two public lectures (to be held in his apartment) on his philosophy.
The course drew a distinguished audience, but it was halted after three
lectures when Comte suffered a nervous breakdown. He continued to suffer
from mental problems, and once in 1827 he tried (unsuccessfully) to commit
suicide by throwing himself into the Seine River.
Although he could not get a regular position at the Ecole Polytechnique,
Comte did get a minor position as a teaching assistant
there in 1832. In 1837, Comte was given the additional post of admissions
examiner, and this, for the first time, gave him an adequate income (he had
often been economically dependent on his family until this time). During this
period, Comte worked on the six-volume work for which he is best
known,Cours de Philosophic Positive, which was finally published in its
entirety in 1842 (the first volume had been published in 1830). In that work
and Positivism Sociology
Comte outlined his view that sociology was the ultimate science. He also
attacked the Ecole Polytechnique, and the result was that in 1844 his
assistantship there was not renewed, By 1851 he had completed the
four-volume Systeme de Politique Positive, which had a more practical intent,
offering a grand plan for the reorganization of society.
Heilbron argues that a major break took place in Comte's life in 1838 and
it was then that be lost hope that anyone would take his work on science in
general, and sociology in particular, seriously. It was also at that point that he
embarked on his life of "cerebral hygiene"; that is, Comte began to avoid
reading the work of other people, with the result that he became hopelessly out of
touch with recent intellectual developments. It was after 1838 that he began
developing his bizarre ideas about reforming society that found expression in
Systeme de Politique Positive.Comte came to fancy himself as the high priest
of a new religion of humanity; he believed in a world that eventually would be
led by sociologist-priests. (Comte had been strongly influenced by his
Catholic background.) Interestingly, in spite of such outrageous ideas, Comte
eventually developed a considerable following in France, as well as in a
number of other countries.
Auguste Comte died on September 5, 1857.
Positivism: The Search for Invariant Laws
Comte is remembered to this day in sociology for his championing of
positivism (Half- penny, 1982, 2001; Scharff, 1995; J. Turner, 1985a, /990).
Although this term has a multitude of meanings, it is usually used to mean
the search fur invariant laws of both the natural and the social world. In
Comtr's version of positivism, these laws can be derived from doing research
on the social world and/or from theorizing about that world. Research is
needed to uncover these laws, but in Comte's view the facts derived from
research are of secondary importance to sound speculation. Thus Comte's
positivism involves empirical research, but that research is subordinated to
Comte's thinking is premised on the idea that there is a real world (for
example, biological, sociological) out there and that it is the task of the
scientist to discover and report on it. Because of this view, Comte is what we
would now call a realist. Here is the way Comte put the issue: "Positive
philosophers. ….approach the questions with the simple aim of ascertaining
the true state of things, and reproducing it with all possible accuracy in their
theories" (1830-42/1855:385). Later, Comte argued that positivist philosophy
(or any philosophy) "can only be valid insofar as it is an exact and complete
representation of the relations naturally existing" (1851/1957:8 9). (This is
sometimes called the "copy theory" of truth.)
There are two basic ways of getting at the real world that exists out
Chapter 2
there-doing research and theorizing. As we saw previously, while Comte
recognized the importance of research, he emphasized the need for theory
and speculation. In emphasizing theory and speculation, Comte was at
variance with what has now come to be thought of as positivism, especially
pure empiricism through sensory observations and the belief in quantification.
As Pickering puts it, "Comte would not recognize the mutilated version of
positivism that exists today" (1993:697).
Although many contemporary sociologists think of themselves as
positivists, positivism has come under severe attack in recent years.
Considerable work in the philosophy of science has cast doubt on whether
positivism fits the natural sciences, and this tends to raise even greater
doubts about the possibility of positivistic sociology. Some sociologists
(interpretationists) never accepted a positivist approach, and others who did
have either totally abandoned it or adopted a modified positivist perspective
(for example, Collins, 1989a). Positivism has not disappeared from sociology,
hut it seems clear that sociology now finds itself in a postpositivist age
(Shweder and Fiske, 1986).
Comte's interest in positivism is intimately related to his interest in
sociology. Comte "discovered" sociology in 1839. Consistent with his
commitment to positivism, he defined sociology as a positivistic science. In
fact, in defining sociology, Comte related it to one of the most positivistic
sciences, physics: "Sociology... is the term I may be allowed to invent to
designate social physics" (1830-42/1855:444).
Comte (183042/1855) developed a hierarchy of the positivistic sciences-mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology (physiology), chemistry, and at the
pinnacle (at least in his early work)--sociology.1 (It is interesting to note that
Comte leaves no place for psychology, which would seem to be reduced to a
series of biological instincts.) This hierarchy descends from the sciences that
are the most general, abstract, and remote from people to those that are the
most complex, concrete, and interesting to people (Heilbron, 1990).
Sociology builds upon the knowledge and procedures of the sciences that
stand beneath it, but in Comte's view, sociology is "the most difficult and
important subject of all" (1851/1968:31). Given his high estimation of
sociology, it is easy to see why Comte has long been esteemed by
sociologists. And given the fact that as a positivist, Comte viewed theorizing
as the ultimate activity, it is clear why he has had such high status among
Comte explicitly identified three basic methods for sociology--three basic
ways of doing social research in order to gain empirical knowledge of the real
social world. The first is observation, but Comte is quick to reject isolated,
atheoretical observations of the social world. Without theory, we would not
know what to look for in the social world and we would not understand the
significance of what we find. Observations should be directed by some theory,
and when made, they should be connected to some law. The second of
and Positivism Sociology
Comte's methods is the experiment, but this method is better suited to the
other sciences than it is to sociology. It is obviously virtually impossible to
interfere with, and to attempt to control, social phenomena. The one possible
exception would be a natural experiment in which the consequences of
something that happens in one setting (for example, a tornado) are observed
and compared to the conditions in settings in which such an event did not
occur. Finally, there is comparison, which Comte divides into three subtypes.
First, we can compare humans to lower animal societies. Second, we can
compare societies in different parts of the world. Third, we can compare the
different stages of societies over time. Comte found this last subtype
particularly important; in fact, he labeled it the "chief scientific device" of
sociology (1830-42/1855:481). It is so important that we separate it from the
other comparative methods and accord it independent status as Comte's
fourth major methodology--historical research. In fact, John Stuart Mill sees
this as one of Comte's most important contributions in placing the "necessity
of historical studies as the foundation of sociological speculation" (1961:86).
In his own work, Comte used the historical method almost exclusively,
although, as we will see, there are very real questions about how well he
actually used this methodology.
Although Comte wrote about research, he most often engaged in
speculation or the- orizing in order to get at the invariant laws of the social
world. He did not derive these laws inductively from observations of the social
world; rather, he deduced them from his general theory of human nature. (A
critic might ask questions like: How did Comte derive his theory of human
nature? Where did he get it from? How can we ascertain whether or not it is
true?) In this way Comte (1891/1973:302-304) created a number of general
positivistic laws, laws which he applied to the social world.
Law of the Three Stages
Comte's most famous law is the Law of the Three Stages. Comte identified
three basic stages and proceeded to argue that the human mind, people
through the maturation process, all branches of knowledge, and the history of
the world (and even, as we will see later, his own mental illness) all pass
successively through these three stages. Each stage involves the search by
human beings for an explanation of the things around them.
1. The Theological Stage Comte saw the theological stage as the first
stage and the necessary point of departure for the other two stages. In this
stage, the human mind is searching for the essential nature of things,
particularly their origin (where do they come from?) and their purpose (why do
they exist?). What this comes down to is the search for absolute knowledge, it
is assumed that all phenomena are created, regulated, and given their
purposes by supernatural forces or beings (gods). Although Comte includes
fetishism (the worship of an object such as a tree) and polytheism (the
worship of many gods) in the theological stage, the ultimate development in
this stage is monotheism, or the worship of a single divinity that explains
Chapter 2
2. The Metaphysical Stage To Comte, this stage is the least important
of the three stages. It is a transitional stage between the preceding
theological stage and the ensuing positivistic stage. It exists because Comte
believes that an immediate jump from the the-ological to the positivistic stage
is too abrupt for people to handle. In the metaphysical stage, abstract forces
replace supernatural beings as the explanation for the original causes and
purposes of things in the world. For example, mysterious forces such as
"nature" are invoked to explain why things are the way they are ("it was an act
of nature").Mill gives as an example of a metaphysical perspective Aristotle's
contention that the "rise of water in a pump is attributed to nature's horror of a
vacuum'" (1961:11). Or to take a more social example, we could say that an
event occurred because it was the "'will of the people." Although numerous
entities can be seen as causes in the metaphysical stage, its ultimate point is
reached when one great entity (for example, nature) is seen as the cause of
3, The Positivist Stage This, of course, is the final and most important
stage in Comte's system. At this point people give up their vain search for
original causes or purposes. All we can know are phenomena and the
relations among them, not their essential nature or their ultimate causes.
People drop such nonscientific ideas as supernatural beings and mysterious
forces. Instead, they Iook for the invariable natural laws that govern all
phenomena. Examinations of single phenomena are oriented toward linking
them to some general fact. The search for these laws involves both doing
empirical research and theorizing. Comte differentiated between concrete
and abstract laws. Concrete laws must come inductively from empirical
research, whereas abstract laws must be derived deductively from theory.
Comte was much more interested in creating abstract laws than in creating
concrete ones. Although positivism can be characterized by many laws, he
sees it ultimately gravitating toward a smaller and smaller number of general
abstract laws.
Although Comte recognized an inevitable succession through these
three stages, be also acknowledged that at any given point in time all three
might be operant. What he envisioned in the future of the world was a time
when the positivistic stage would be complete and we would see the
elimination of theological or metaphysical thinking.
Comte applied the Law of the Three Stages in a number of arenas. He
saw people going through the three stages and viewed the child as a
theologian, the adolescent as a metaphysician, and the adult as a positivist.
He also saw all the sciences in his hierarchy going through each of these
stages. (Because it was a new science in Comte's time, sociology had not yet
gone through the positivistic stage. Comte devoted much of his life to the
development of positivistic sociology.) And he saw the history of the world in
these terms. The early history of the world was the theological stage; the
and Positivism Sociology
next went through tire metaphysical stage; and during Comte's lifetime the
world was entering the last, or positivistic, stage. He believed that in the
positivistic stage, people would come to better understand the invariant laws
that dominate them and would be able to adapt to these laws "with fewer
difficulties and with greater speed" (Comte, 185211968:383). These laws
would also guide people in making choices that could expedite the
emergence, but not alter the course, of inevitable social developments.
Positivism: The Search for Order and Progress
Although Comte used the term positivism in the sense of a science committed
to the search for invariant laws, he also used it in another way--as the
opposite of the negativism that, in his view, dominated the social world of his
day. More specifically, that negativity was the moral and political disorder and
chaos that occurred in France, and throughout Western Europe, in the wake
of the French Revolution of 1789 (Levy-Bruhl, 1903/1973). Among the
symptoms of this malaise were intellectual anarchy, political corruption, and
incompetence of political leaders. Comte's positive philosophy was designed
to counter the negative philosophy and its symptoms that he found all around
But although Comte placed great blame on the French Revolution, he
found the major source of the disorder to be intellectual anarchy. "The great
political and moral crisis that societies are now undergoing is shown by a rigid
analysis to arise out of intellectual anarchy" (Comte, 1830~2/1855:36). Comte
traced that intellectual anarchy to the coexistence during his lifetime of all
three "'incompatible" philosophies--theological, metaphysical, and positivistic.
Not only did all three exist at one time, but none of them at that point was very
strong. Theology and metaphysics were in decay, in a "state of imbecility,"
and positivism as it relates to the social world (sociology) was as yet
unformed. The conflict among, and weaknesses of, these three intellectual
schemes allowed a wide variety of "subversive schemes" m grow
progressively more dangerous. The answer to this intellectual chaos clearly
lay in the emergence of any one of them as preeminent, and given Comte's
law, the one that was destined to emerge supreme was positivism. Positivism
had already become preeminent within the sciences (except sociology) and
had brought order to each, where previously there was chaos. All that was
needed was for positivism to bring social phenomena within its domain.
Furthermore, Comte saw this as the way to end the revolutionary crisis that
was tormenting France and the rest of Western Europe.
Comte also put this issue in terms of two of his great concerns---order and
progress. From his point of view, theology offered a system of order, but
without progress; it was a stagnant system, Metaphysics offered progress
without order; he associated it with the anarchy of his day, in which things
were changing in a dizzying and disorderly way. because of the coexistence
of theology and metaphysics (as well as positivism), Comte's time was
Chapter 2
marked by disorder and a lack of progress. Positivism was the only system
that offered both order and progress. On the one hand, positivism would bring
order through the restraint of intellectual and social disorder. On the other
hand, it would bring progress through an increase in knowledge and through
perfection of the relationship among the parts of the social system so that
society would move nearer, although never fully attain, its determinate end
(the gradual expansion of human powers). Thus, positivism is the only stage
in the history of humankind that offers us both order and progress.
Comte saw order and progress in dialectical terms, and in this sense he
offered a perspective close to that of Marx (see Chapter 5). This means that
Comte refused to see order and progress as separate entities but viewed
them as mutually defining and interpenetrating. "Progress may be regarded
simply as the development of Order; for the order of nature necessarily
contains within itself the germ of all positive progress Progress then is in its
essence identical with Order, and may be looked upon as Order made
manifest" (Comte, 1851/1957:116).
It is interesting and important to underscore the fact that in Comte's view
the crisis of his time was a crisis of ideas and that this crisis could be resolved
only by the emergence of a preeminent idea (positivism). In fact, Comte often
described positivism as a "spirit." In this sense, Comte is an idealist: "Ideas
govern the world" (183042/1855:36). On this issue, rather than being in
accord with Marx, he stands in stark contrast to Marx (a materialist). Marx
saw the capitalist crisis as stemming from the material conflict between
capitalists and the proletariat, and he believed that its solution lay in a
material revolution in which the economic system of capitalism would be
overthrown and replaced by a communist system. Marx scoffed at the idea
that he was dealing with a crisis of ideas that could be solved in the ideational
realm. Marx was distancing himself from the idealism of Hegel; Comte, in
contrast, had adopted a viewpoint that resembled, at least in a few respects,
Hegelian idealism.
We turn now more directly to Comte's sociology, or his thoughts about the
social world.Here we begin with another of Comte's lasting contributions--his
distinction between social statics and social dynamics. Although we do not
use those terms today, the basic distinction remains important in the
differentiation between social structure and social change. (By the way,
Comte believed that all sciences, not just sociology, are divided into statics
and dynamics.)
Social Statics
Comte defines the sociological study of social statics as "the investigation of
the laws of action and reaction of the different parts of the social system"
(1830-42/1855:457). Contrary to what one might think, the laws of the ways in
which parts of the social system interact (social statics) are not derived from
empirical study. Rather, they are "deduced from the laws of human nature"
and Positivism Sociology
(Comte, 1852/1968:344-345). Here, again, we see Comte's preference for
theory over empirical research.
In his social statics, Comte was anticipating many of the ideas of later
structural functionalists (see Chapter 15, on Parsons). Deriving his thoughts
from biology (Levine,1995b), Comte developed a perspective on the parts (or
structures) of society, the way in which they function, and their (functional)
relationship to the larger social system. Comte also saw the parts and the
whole of the social system in a state of harmony. The idea of harmony was
later transformed by structural functionalists into the concept of equilibrium.
Methodologically, Comte recommended that because we know about the
whole, we start with it and then proceed to the parts. (Later structural
functionalists also came to grant priority to the whole [the "social system"]
over the parts [the "subsystems"].) For these and many other reasons, Comte
is often seen as a forerunner of structural functionalism.
Comte argues that "in Social Statics we must neglect all questions of
time, and conceive the organism of society in its fullness Our ideal"
(1852/1968:249). In other words, to use a concept developed by Weber (see
Chapter 7), social statics describes an "ideal-typical" society. The system of
social statics conceived by Comte never really existed; it was an idealized
model of the social world at a given point in time. In order to construct such
a model, the sociologist must, at least for the purposes of analysis, hold
time still.
At a manifest level, Comte is doing a macrosociology of social statics
(and dynamics) because he is looking at the interrelationship among the parts
and the whole of the social system. Indeed, Comte explicitly defined
sociology as the macro-level study of
"collective existence"
The Individual in Comte's Theory However, Comte's isolated thoughts
on micro-level individuals are important not only for understanding his social
statics but also for comprehending many other aspects of his work. For
example, the individual is a major source of energy in his social system. It is
the preponderance of affect or emotion in individuals that gives energy and
direction to people's intellectual activities. It is the products of those
intellectual activities that lead to changes in the larger social system.
More important for understanding his social statics, as well as his overall
view of the world, is the fact that Comte sees the individual as imperfect,
dominated by "lower" forms of egoism rather than "higher," more social forms
of altruism. In fact, Comte sees this dominance of egoism as rooted in the
brain, which is viewed as having both egoistic and altruistic regions. Egoism
is seen as having higher energy, thereby helping to ensure the "natural
feebleness" of altruism (Comte, / 852/1968:139). Putting egoism and altruism
in slightly different terms, Comte argues: "Self-love... when left to itself is far
stronger than Social Sympathy" (1851/1957:24-25). To Comte
(1852/1968:122), the chief problem of human life is the need for altruism to
Chapter 2
dominate egoism. He sees all the social sciences as being concerned with
this problem and with the development of various solutions to it.
Thus, left to themselves, people will, in Comte's view, act in a selfish
manner. If we are to hope to be able to create a "better" world, the selfish
motives of individuals must be controlled so that the altruistic impulses will
emerge. Because egoism cannot be controlled from within the individual, the
controls must come from outside the individual, from society. "The higher
impulses within us are brought under the influence of a powerful stimulus
from without. By its means they are enabled to control our discordant
impulses" (Comte, 1851/1957:25-26). Thus Comte, like Durkheim (see
Chapter 6), his successor within French sociology, saw people as a problem
(egoism was a central concern to both) that could be handled only through
external control over people's negative impulses. In terms almost identical to
those later used by Durkheim, Comte argues that "true liberty is nothing else
than a rational submission to the . . . laws of nature" (183042/1855:435).
Without such external controls,
our intellectual faculties, after wasting themselves in wild
extravagancies, would sink rapidly into incurable sloth; our nobler
feelings would be unable to prevent the ascendancy of the lower
instincts; and our active powers would abandon themselves to purposeless
agitation. Our propensities are so heterogeneous and so deficient in
elevation, that there would be no fixity or consistency in our conduct..,
without them [external restrictions] all its [reason's] deliberations
would be confused and purposeless.
(Comte, 1851/1957:29-30)
Thus Comte concludes: "This need of conforming our Acts and our Thoughts
to a Necessity without us, far from hampering the real development of our
nature, forms the first general condition of progress towards perfection in
man" (1852/1968:26).
Not only does Comte have a highly negative view of people and their
innate propensity to egoism, but he also has a very limited view of the
creative capacities of individuals. "We are powerless to create: all that we can
do in bettering our condition is to modify an order in which we can produce no
radical change" (Comte, 1851/1957:30).Thus, Comte's actors are not only
egoistic but also weak and powerless. In a very real sense, people do not
create the social world; rather, the social world creates people, at least those
animated by the nobler altruistic motives.
Comte addresses this issue in another way, in terms of the relationship
between what he calls the "subjective" and "objective" principles. The
subjective principle involves "the subordination of the intellect to the heart,"
whereas the objective principle entails "the immutable Necessity of the
external world . . . actually existing without us"(Comte, 1851/1957:26-27).
Given the preceding discussion, it should be clear why Comte argues that the
subjective principle must be subordinated to the objective principle. The
and Positivism Sociology
"heart" (especially its egoism), which dominates the intellect, must be
subordinated to external societal constraints so that another aspect of the "heart,"
altruism, can emerge triumphant.
Comte had other, more specific things to say about the individual. For
example, he distinguished among four basic categories of instincts--nutrition,
sex, destruction and construction, and pride and vanity (Comte,
1854/1968:249-.252). Clearly, all but the constructive instinct are in need of
external control. Although Comte does attribute other, more positive instincts
to people (attachment to others, veneration of predecessors), it is the instincts
in need of external control that define to a great degree his thoughts on the
larger society. Larger social structures such as the family and society are
needed to restrain individual egoism and to help bring forth individual
Collective Phenomena In spite of his clear ideas on the individual,
Comte's sociology overtly begins at a more macro level, with the family, which
Comte labels the "fundamental institution." The family, not the individual, is
the building block of Comte's sociology, as he explains: "As every system
must be composed of elements of the same nature with itself, the scientific
spirit forbids us to regard society as composed of individuals. The true social
unit is certainly the family" (1830-42/I 855:502). Comte clearly believes that
individuals constitute a different "level" of analysis than families (and society),
which are, after all, "nothing but our smallest society" (1852/1968:161). These
"smaller societies" form the natural building blocks of the larger society.
Methodologically, Comte argues that "a system can only be formed out of
units similar to itself and differing only in magnitude" (1852/i968:153).
Individuals constitute different (microscopic) units, and (macroscopic) society
cannot be formed out of them. Families are similar, albeit smaller,
macroscopic units, and therefore they can be the basis of the larger society.
In fact, Comte traces a progression whereby out of families tribes emerge and
from tribes come nations. The family is the "true germ of the various
characteristics of the social organism" (Comte, 1830--42/1855:502). The
family not only is the building block of society but also serves to integrate the
individual and society, because it is through the family that people learn to be
social; the family is the "school" of society.Thus, it is the family that must play
a crucial role in the control of egoistic impulses and the emergence of
individual altruism. Furthermore, if we are ever to improve society significantly,
a change in the Family will be the fundamental basis of any such
alteration.Because the family is such a pivotal institution, a change in it will
have profound effects both on individuals and the larger society.
Although the family is the most basic and most pivotal institution, the most
important institution to Comte is religion, "the universal basis of all society"
(1852/1968:7).Doing a kind of structural-functional analysis, Comte identifies
two major functions of religion. First, it serves to regulate individual life, once
Chapter 2
again primarily by subduing egoism and elevating altruism. Second, it has the
more macroscopic function of fostering social relationships among people,
thereby providing the basis for the emergence of large-scale social structures.
Another important social institution to Comte is language. Language is
profoundly social; it is what allows people to interact with one another. Thus,
language helps promote unity among people, it connects people not only with
their contemporaries but also with their predecessors (we can read their ideas)
and their successors (they can read our ideas), Language is also crucial to
religion in that it permits the formation, transmission,and application of
religious ideas.
Another element of society that serves to hold people together is the
division of labor (a view very much like that of Durkheim; see Chapter 6).
Social solidarity is enhanced in a system in which individuals are dependent
upon others. Society should have a division of labor so that people can
occupy the positions for which they qualify on the basis of their abilities and
training. Conversely, society should not force people into positions for which
they are either underqualified or overqualified (Durkheim calls this the "forced
division of labor"). Although Comte argues for the need for a division of
labor,he is very concerned here, as he is elsewhere, about the dangers of
excessive specialization in work in general and in intellectual work in particular. He worries
about the tendency in society toward overspecialization and argues that the
government should intervene to emphasize the good of the whole.
The government, in Comte's view, is based on force. Force can hold
society together;however, if the use of force gets out of hand, the government
will be more of a destructive than an integrative factor in society. To prevent
this frmn occurring, the government needs to be regulated by a "broader and
higher society This is the mission of true Religion" (Comte, 1852/1968:249).
Comte clearly did not have a high regard for government, and he felt that
religion was needed "to repress or to remedy the evils to which all
governments are prone" (1852/1968:252).
Social Dynamics
Comte does have other things to say about social statics, but he devoted
more attention to social dynamics. He felt that less was known about social
statics than about social dynamics. Furthermore, the topic of social dynamics
was, in his opinion, more interesting and of far greater importance than social
statics. However, one may question these contentions. How is it that Comte
knew more about the history of the world than he did about the nature of his
own society? Why is the past (and future) more interesting than the 0resent?
In response to these questions, and contrary m Comte, it can be clearly
argued that we always know more about the present than the past (or
certainly the future) and that the here and now is far more interesting and far
more important than the past (or future). Nevertheless, it is on the basis of his
beliefs on these issues that Comte abbreviates his discussion of social statics
and Positivism Sociology
and moves on to the study of social dynamics.
The goal of Comte's social dynamics is to study the laws of succession of
social phenomena. Society is always changing, but the change is ordered
and subject to social laws. There is an evolutionary process in which society
is progressing in a steady fashion to its final harmonious destiny under the
laws of positivism: "We are always becoming more intelligent, more active,
and more loving" (Comte, 1853/1968:60).Alternatively, Comte labels social
dynamics the "theory of the Natural Progress of Human Society"
(1830-42/1855:515). Overall, Comte sees us evolving toward our "no-blest
dispositions," toward the dominance of altruism over egoism. Comte also
offers a somewhat more specific view of this future state toward which we are
The individual life, ruled by personal instincts; the domestic, by
sympathetic instincts; and the social, by the special development of
intellectual influences, prepare for the states of human existence which
are to follow: and that which ensues is, first, personal morality, which
subjects the preservation of the individual to a wise discipline; next,
domestic morality, which subordinates selfishness to sympathy; and
lastly, social morality, which directs all individual tendencies by
enlightened reason, always having the general economy in view, so as to
bring into concurrence all the faculties of human nature, according to
their appropriate laws.
(Comte, 183042/1855:515)
In his view, society invariably follows this law of progressive development;
only its speed from one time period or one society to another may vary.
Because inuvariant laws are controlling this process of change, there is
relatively little that people can do to affect the overall direction of the
process. Nevertheless, people can make a difference by acting "upon the
intensity and secondary operation of phenomena, but without affecting their
nature or their filiation" (Comte, 1830-42/1855:470). People can modify (for
example, speed up) only what is in accord with existing tendencies; that is,
people are able to bring about only things that would have happened in any
event. It is the fact that people can affect the development of society, if only
marginally, that led Comte to his ideas on changing society and his thoughts
on the relationship between theory and practice. We will have much more to
say about this issue later in this chapter. However, it should be pointed out
here that the idea that people can have only a minimal impact did not prevent
Comte from developing grandiose plans for the future, positivistic society.
Comte's theory of the evolution of society is based on his theory of the
evolution of the mind through the three stages described previously. He
contends that he himself has "tested" this law by means of all the major
methods--observation, experiment, comparison, historical research--and
found it "as fully demonstrated as any other law admitted into any other
department of natural philosophy" (Comte, 1830-42/1855:522).
Chapter 2
Having derived this social law theoretically (from the laws of human
nature), he turns to a "study" of the history of the world to see whether the
"data" support his abstract theory. However, Comte's use of the words study
and data is misleading because his methods did not incorporate the criteria
that we usually associate with a research study and the data derived from it.
For one thing, if Comte's findings contradicted the basic laws of human nature,
he would conclude that the research was wrong rather than question the
theory (Mill, 1961:85). Comte did no systematic study of the history of the
world (how could one systematically study such a vast body of material?), and
he did not produce data about that history (he merely provided a series of
broad generalizations about vast periods of history). In other words, Comte
did not do a research study in the positivistic sense of the term. In fact, Comte
acknowledges this by saying that all he is offering is an abstract history;
science is not yet ready for a concrete history of the world.
As he had in other areas of his work, Comte offered a dialectical sense of
the history of the world. What this meant, in particular, was that he saw the
roots of each succeeding stage in history in its prior stage or stages. In
addition, each stage prepared the ground for the next stage or stages. In
other words, each stage in history is dialectically related to past and future
stages. A similar viewpoint is offered by Marx (see Chapter 5), who sees
capitalism as being dialectically related to previous economic systems (for
example, feudalism) as well as to the future communist society. Although on
this point,and on several others, Comte's ideas resemble those of Marx, the
reader should bear in mind that the differences between the two thinkers far
exceed their similarities. This difference will be clearest when we discuss
Comte's conservative views about the future of the world, which are
diametrically opposed to Marx's radical communist society.
Never humble, Comte began his analysis of social dynamics by asserting,
"My principle of social development.., affords a perfect interpretation of the
past of human society at least in its principal phases" (1830-~-2/1855:541 ;
italics added). Similarly, at the close of the historical discussion briefly
outlined below, Comte concluded, "The laws originally deduced from an
abstract examination of human nature have been demonstrated to be real
laws, explaining the entire, course of the destinies of the human race"
(1853/1968:535; italics added).
History Comte limited his study to Western Europe (and the "white race")
because it had evolved the most and because it was, in his view, the "elite" of
humanity. We need not go into great detail here about his historical theory
because it is of little lasting significance. Furthermore, because it is more
central to Comte's underlying theory, we will focus on the changing nature of
ideas rather titan on more material transformations (for example, Comte sees
society as evolving from the warfare characteristic of the theological stage to
industry, which was to dominate the positivist stage). Comte begins with the
theological stage, which he traces to antiquity. He divides the theological
and Positivism Sociology
stage into three succeeding periods--fetishistic, polytheistic, and monotheistic.
In the early fetishistic stage, people personify external objects (for example, a
tree), give them lives like their own, and then deify those objects. Much later,
polytheism in Egypt, Greece,and Rome developed. Finally, Comte analyzes
the rise of monotheism, especially Roman Catholicism, in the Middle Ages.
Although all of these are part of the theological stage, Comte is careful to
show that they also possess the germs of the positivism that was to emerge
at a much later point in history.
Comte sees the fourteenth century as a crucial turning point, as theology
began a long period of enfeeblement and decline. More specifically,
Catholicism was undermined and eventually replaced by Protestantism,
which Comte sees as nothing more than a growing protest against the old
social order's intellectual basis (theology). This, for Comte, represents the
beginning of the negativity that he sought to counteract with his positivism, a
negativity that did not begin to be systematized into a doctrine until the
mid-seventeenth century. Protestantism laid the groundwork for this negativity
by encouraging unlimited free inquiry. This change in ideas, the development
of a negative philosophy, led to a corresponding negativity in the social world
and to the social crisis that obsessed Comte. This negative doctrine was
developed by French thinkers such as
Voltaire (1649-1778) and
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), whom Comte did not see as
systematic thinkers; as a result, he believed they were incapable of producing
coherent speculations. Nevertheless, these incoherent theories gained a
following among the masses because they appeared at a time when theology
was greatly weakened and positivism was not yet ready to take its place.
Most generally, this entire period was the transitional period, the metaphysical
stage, between theology and positivism.
Comte himself was writing during what he believed to be the close of the
metaphysical stage: "We find ourselves therefore living at a period of
confusion, without any general view of the past, or sound appreciation of the
future, to enlighten us for the crisis prepared by the whole progress yet
achieved" (Comte, 1830-42/1855:738-739). Negativity had far outstripped
positivity, and there was, as yet, no available intellectual means to reorganize
society. Everywhere Comte turned there was crisis--art was "adrift," science
was suffering from overspecialization, and philosophy had fallen into
"nothingness." Overall, Comte describes the situation as "the philosophical
anarchy of our time" (1830-42/1855:738). This philosophical anarchy
prepared the way for social revolution, especially the French Revolution,
which while negative in many senses, was salutary in that it paved the way for
the positivistic reorganization of society. As a social event it demonstrated
"the powerlessness of critical principles to do anything but destroy" (Comte,
Not only was France the site of the major political revolution, but it was to
take the lead in the reorganization of Western Europe. It had the most
Chapter 2
advanced negative ideas and developments, and it had gone furthest in
positive directions. In terms of the latter,its industrial activity was most
"elevated," its art was most advanced, it was "foremost" in science, and it was
closer to the new, positive philosophy (and, of course, his eminence, Auguste
Comte, lived there). Although Comte saw signs during this period of the
development of positivism, he recognized that in the short run, metaphysics
(and the metaphysical stage) had won out. He described the effort in France
to develop a constitutional government as being based on metaphysical
principles, and he felt that at a philosophical level Rousseau's "retrograde"
philosophy had won out. He felt that Rousseau sought to emulate older
societies, in which people were freer and more natural, rather than provide a
basis for modem society. This negative development held sway for half a
century in France, but Comte also saw within it positive developments in
industry, art, science, and philosophy.
Comte saw this period as dominated by a focus on the individual and the
metaphysical notion of individual rights. Concern for the individual led only to
disorder; in its place, Comte, as we have seen, urged a focus on collective
phenomena like the family and society. In addition, a focus on individual rights
furthered the tendency toward disorder and chaos; Comte sought a society
based on what he viewed us the positive idea of duties rather than on
individual rights. The idea of duties was seen as a positive notion both
because it was more scientific (for example, more "precise") and because it
bad a "calming" influence on people's egoism as well as on the rampant
negativity of the day. Instead of focusing on their individual rights, people
were urged to concentrate on their duties to the larger society. This emphasis
on duties would enable society to control individual egoism and to better bring
out the altruism innate in people. These new duties were to help form the
basis of a new spiritual authority that would help regenerate society and
morality. This new spiritual authority was, of course, positivism.
The discussion of the previous section, in broad outline, is Comte's theory of
social dynamics. Yet Cmnte (like Marx) wanted to do more than theorize. He
wanted his theoretical ideas to lead to practical social changes; he explicitly
and self-consciously sought the "connection between theory and practice"
(Comte, 1851/1968:46). To this end, Comte sees two objectives for positivism.
The first, covered in the preceding sections,is to generalize scientific
conceptions--in other words, to advance the science of humanity. The second,
covered in this section, is to systematize the art and practice of life (Comte,
1851/1957:3). Thus, positivism is both a scientific philosophy and a political
practice; the two "can never be dissevered" (Comte, 1851 / 1968:1 ).
Who Will Support Positivism?
One of the first political questions addressed by Comte is: Which social
groups are likely to support the new doctrine of positivism? It was assumed
by Comte that many philosophers would be ardent supporters of this new set
and Positivism Sociology
of ideas, but philosophers are limited in terms of their ability to implement
their ideas. What of the groups of people who are more actively engaged in
the social world?
Comte begins by excluding the upper classes because they are in the
thrall of metaphysical theories, are too self-seeking, occupy positions too
overly specialized to understand the total situation, are too aristocratic, are
absorbed in fighting over remnants of the old system, and are blinded by their
educational experiences. Overall, he sees the wealthy as more likely than
other social groups to be characterized by "avarice, ambition, or vanity"
(Comte, 1851/I 957:144). Comte also did not expect too much help from the
middle classes because they are too busily involved in trying to move into the
upper classes.
Comte did expect help from three groups: in addition to the philosophers,
who would supply the intellect, the working class would bring the needed
action, and women would provide the required feeling. The philosophers,
especially those attracted to positivistic ideas, would be involved, but the
major agents of political change would be women and members of the
working class: "It is among women, therefore,and among the working classes
that the heartiest supporters of the new doctrine will be found" (Comte,
1851/1957:4). Both groups are generally excluded from government positions
and thus will be more likely to see the need for political change. Furthermore,
discrimination against them in the educational system ("the present worthless
methods of instruction by words and entities" [Comte, 1851/1957:142]) is less
likely to blind them to the need for such change. Comte also sees both
women and the working class as possessing "strong social instincts" and "the
largest stock of good sense and good feeling" ( 1851/1957:142).
The Working Class In Comte's view, the members of the working
class are better able to think during the workday because their jobs are not as
fully absorbing as those of people in the higher social classes. Presumably
this means that the working class has more time and energy to reflect on the
benefits of positivism than do the upper classes. The working class is superior
not only intellectually, at least in the preceding sense, but also morally. Comte
offers a highly romanticized view of the morality of the working class: "The life
of the workman.., is far more favourable to the development of the nobler
instincts" ( 1851/1957:144-145). More specifically, Comte attributes a long
series of traits to members of the working class, including more affectionate
ties at home; the "'highest and most genuine types of friendship"; "sincere
and simple respect for superiors"; experience with life's miseries, which
stimulates them to nobler sympathies; and a greater likelihood of engaging in
"prompt and unostentatious self-sacrifice at the call of a great public
necessity" (Comte, 1851/1957:145-146).
Comte sees the spread of communism among the working classes in his
day as evidence that the trend toward social revolution is focusing in on moral
issues. But Comte reinterprets communism as a moral rather than an
Chapter 2
economic movement so that it fits into his scheme. He argues that
communism must be separated from the "numerous extravagant schemes"
(presumably Saint-Simon's socialism or Marx's call for a communist
revolution) that were being discussed at the time (Comte, 1851/1957:167). To
Comte,communism was "a simple assertion of the paramount importance of
Social Feeling"(1851/1957:169). To show how far he is willing to water down
the idea of communism,Comte argues that "the word Republican expresses
the meaning as well, and without the same danger" (1851/1957:169). Clearly,
this is a very different meaning of the term communism than the one used by
Marx (see Chapter 5) and by most other thinkers who have employed the
Comte sees positivism as the alternative to communism: positivism is the
"only doctrine which can preserve Western Europe from some serious
attempt to bring Communism into practical operation" (1851/1957:170).
Comte offers a number of contrasts between positivism and communism.
First, positivism focuses on moral responses rather than on political
responses and economic issues. (Here Comte clearly recognizes that
communism, at least as it was being practiced in his time, was an economic
and political, rather than a moral, system). Second, communism seeks to
suppress individuality, whereas positivism seeks both individuality and
cooperation among independent individuals. Third, communism seeks the
elimination of the leaders of industry, whereas positivism sees them as
essential. (Thus, while the leaders of industry cannot play a role in the
positivist revolution, they do play, as we will see later, a central role, along
with bankers, in Comte's vision of the revamped positivist society.) Fourth,
communism seeks to eliminate inheritance, whereas positivism sees
inheritance as important because it provides for historical continuity from
generation to generation. In spite of his rejection of communism, Comte sees
it as important as another, largely negative, force providing the groundwork
for the emergence of positivism.
Women Comte's interest in the working class as a revolutionary force is
not unusual, but his attraction to women as such a group is. Comte had some
extraordinary views about women. His major position was that women
brought to politics the needed subordination of intellect to social feeling. And
Comte came to believe that feeling was preeminent, far more important than
intellect or action: feeling is "the predominating principle, the motive power of
our being, the only basis on which the various parts of our natures can be
brought into unity" (1851/1957:227). Women are "the best representatives of
the fundamental principle on which Positivism rests, the victory of social over
selfish affections" (Comte, 1851/1957:232). Comte sometimes gushes with
his admiration for women in general (as he did more specifically for his
beloved "Saint" Clotilde)."Morally... she merits always our loving veneration,
as the purest and simplest impersonation of Humanity, who can never be
adequately represented in any masculine form"(1851/1957:234). Or even
and Positivism Sociology
more strongly, "Woman is the spontaneous priestess of Humanity" (Comte,
1851/1957:253). (Of course, this means that men in general, and Comte in
particular, are the priests of humanity.) Nevertheless, in spite of his admiration
for women, he clearly sees men as superior practically and intellectually. On
the intellectual issue Comte contends, "Women's minds no doubt are less
capable than ours of generalizing very widely, or of carrying on long
processes of deduction.., less capable than men of abstract intellectual
exertion" (1851/1957:250). Because of their intellectual and practical
superiority, it is men who are to take command in the actual implementation of
On the one hand, Comte clearly admired the moral and affectual aspects
of women,and as a result, he was willing to accord them a key revolutionary
role. On the other hand, he felt that men excelled in intellect and action, and
he tended to demean the intellectual and active capacities of women. In terms
of implementing their role in the positivist revolution, women were supposed
to alter the educational process within the family and to form "salons" to
disseminate positivistic ideas. In spite of his veneration of women, Comte did
not believe in equality: "Equality in the position of the two sexes is contrary to
their nature" (1851/1957:275). He defended this view on the basis of the fact
that positivism has discovered the following "axiom": "Man should provide for
Woman" (Comte, 1851/1957:276). More practically, positivism would institute
a new doctrine: "Worship of Woman, publicly and privately" (Comte,
Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions Comte's focus on women, and his
emphasis on their capacity for feeling, represented a general change in
perspective from his earlier positions. As we have seen, Comte emphasized
order in social statics and progress in social dynamics. To order and progress
he now added the importance of feeling (love),which he associated with
women. As a result he came to proclaim the "positivist motto,Love, Order,
Progress" (Comte, 1851/1957:7). Positivism was no longer important just
intellectually but morally as well. Similarly, Comte added the emotional
element to his previous commitment to thought and action by arguing that
positive philosophy represented a comprehensive perspective encompassing
"Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions" (1851/1957:8).
Comte went further than simply according feeling equal status with
thought and action; he gave feeling the preeminent place in his system.
Feeling was to direct the intellect as well as practical activity. In particular,
Comte argued that "individual happiness and public welfare are far more
dependent upon the heart than upon the intellect" (1851/1957: [5]. It is this
kind of viewpoint that led the.champion of positivist intellectual life to the
anti-intellectualism that is one of the problems we will discuss later in this
The emphasis on feeling and love led Comte in his later work to add the
science of morality (the study of sentiment) to his list of sciences. "Morals is
Chapter 2
the most eminent of the Sciences" (Comte, 1853/I968:41). Morality was a
science, which in his system exceeded even sociology. "The field of Morals is
at once more special, more complex, and more noble than that of Sociology"
(Comte, 1853/1968:40). Not only was morality the most important science,
but it was also crucial in giving direction to political changes.In Comte's terms,
morality is "the ultimate object of all Philosophy, and the starting point of all
Polity" (1851/1957:101). In other words, morality lies at the center of the
relationship between theory and practice. Comte sees a natural morality in
the world, and it is the task of the positivist to discover its laws. It is these
underlying laws of morality that guide our intellectual thoughts and our
political actions. Comte concludes, "It is henceforth a fundamental doctrine of
Positivism, a doctrine of as great political as philosophical importance, that
the Heart preponderates over the Intellect" (1851/1957:18).
Having added morality to the list of his major concerns, Comte returns to
his Law of the Three Stages to look at each stage from the point of view of
thoughts, feelings, and actions. He sees the theological stage as being
dominated by feeling and imagination,with only slight restraint from reason.
Theology operated on a purely subjective level,with the result that it was out
of touch with the objectivity of practice in the real world."Theology asserted all
phenomena to be under the dominion of Wills more or less arbitrary," but in
the real world people were, of course, led by "invariable laws"
(Comte,1851/1957:10). The transitional metaphysical stage continued to be
dominated by feeling, was muddled in its thoughts, and was even less able to
deal with the practical world.However, positivism finally offered the unity and
harmony of thought, feeling, and action. The ideas of positivism are derived
from the practical world and are certainly a monumental intellectual
achievement. And positivism also came to comprehend the moral sphere.
Only when positivism incorporates morality "can the claims of theology be
finally set aside" (Comte, 1851/1957:13). Among other things, morality
(feeling) is important for giving direction to thought and action. For example,
without the direction of morality, positivism is prone to be too specialized and
to deal with "useless or insolvable questions" (Comte, 1851/1957:21 ). Under
the guidance of morality, positivism comes to focus on the broadest, most
important, most pressing, and most solvable problems of the day.
With morality added to positivism, it is but a short step for Comte to
declare positivism a religion: "Thus Positivism becomes, in the true sense of
the word, a Religion;the only religion which is real and complete; destined
therefore to replace all imperfect and provisional systems resting on the
primitive basis of Theology" (1851/1957:365).And this means that Comte and
his principal followers become priests of humanity, with far greater influence
than any other previous priesthood. In fact, Comte, with customary humility,
declared himself the "founder of the Religion of Humanity" (1853/1968:x).The
object of worship in the new religion of positivism is not a god or gods but
humanity, or what Comte later referred to as the "Great Being," that is, "the
and Positivism Sociology
whole constituted by the beings [including animals], past, future, and present,
which co-operate willingly in perfecting the order of the world" (1854/1968:27).
The Great Being lies at the base of the positivist religion: "The Positive
Religion inspires all the servants of the Great Being with a sacred zeal to
represent that Being as fully as possible" (Comte,1852/1968:65).
Given Comte's exaggerated conception of positivism, as well as of his own
position in it, it should come as little surprise that he ultimately conceived a
grand visionary plan for the future of the world. It is here that we find most of
Comte's most outrageous and ridiculous ideas. (It might be that one should
take his earlier theories more seriously than his later vision of the future.)
Standley calls Comte's vision of the future a "'Memorable Fancy" (1981:158).
We do not want to go into too much detail, so we will merely suggest the
lengths to which Comte went in proposing ways of implementing his
positivistic ideas.
For example, he suggested a new positivistic calendar which was to be
composed of thirteen months, each divided into twenty-eight days. He
created a large number of public holidays to reaffirm positivism, its basic
principles, and its secular heroes. He even got into the question of the design
of new positivistic temples. He specified the number of priests and vicars
required in each temple. Forty-two of the vicars were to be chosen as the
priests of humanity, and from that group the high priest ("the Pontiff') of
positivism was to be chosen (in contrast to the Catholic pontiff, who resided in
Italy, the positivist pontiff was normally supposed to reside in Paris). (Comte
saw himself as the current pontiff and worried over the fact that there was no
clear successor on the horizon.) All these religious figures were to be freed of
material cares and therefore were to be supported by the bankers! Comte
even specified incomes for religious figures—240 pounds for vicars, 480
pounds for priests, and 2400 pounds for the high priest. Given Comte's views
on the positive influence of women, all the priests were to be married so that
"'they may be under the full influence of affection" (Comte, 1854/1968:224).
However, in spite of his high esteem for women, they were not permitted to
serve as priests,vicars, or the pontiff. These positions were reserved for men.
While he did not see them as revolutionary forces, Comte eventually
accorded members of the upper class, such as bankers and industrialists,
central roles in the new positivist society. It was specified that Western
Europe was to have "two thousand bankers, a hundred thousand merchants,
two hundred thousand manufacturers, and four hundred thousand
agriculturists" (Comte, 1854/1968:269). Merchants, manufacturers, and
industrialists were to be apportioned an adequate number of members of the
proletariat. Bankers would be both the centers of the commercial world and
the suppliers of re quired funds to the positivist priesthood. Furthermore, from
those bankers who are most distinguished for "breadth of thought and
generosity of feeling" would be derived the supreme triumvirate (bankers
Chapter 2
representing merchants, manufacturers, and agriculturalists), which was to
However,overseeing and directing the operation of this government would be
the pontiff and his priests, armed with the religion of positivism.
Turning to other matters, Comte urged the adoption of a positivist library
of 100 titles (already specified by him). Additional reading was to be
discouraged because it hampered meditation. This, too, is reflective of
Comte's growing anti-intellectualism (see the next section).
Given Comte's negative views on individual passion, he urged chastity
within the positivist family. He felt that positivism would "discredit and repress
the most troublesome of the egoistic instincts [sex!]" (Comte, 1854/1968:251).
To deal with the problem of sex, Comte espoused virgin birth. While he did not
yet know how virgin birth was to be accomplished (could he have anticipated
artificial insemination?), he seemed confident that others would be able to
solve the problem eventually. He also favored eugenics, in which only the
"higher types" of people (women) would be allowed to reproduce.Such a plan
"would improve the human race" (Comte, 1854/1968:244). He said that we
should devote "the same attention to the propagation of our species as to that
of the more important domestic animals" (Comte, 1891/1973:222).
The positive family was to be composed of a husband, a wife, ordinarily
three children, and the husband's parents. The latter were included to bring
the wisdom of the past into the family of the present. The mother of the
husband, possessing not only the wisdom of advanced age but also the
feeling inherent in the female sex, would become the "'goddess" of the
positivist family.
These are just a few of the myriad of highly detailed proposals Comte put
forth on the basis of his positivist theory. He was careful to point to a division
of labor in the development of these guidelines. The positivist philosopher
was to come up with the ideas,but he was not to intervene himself in the
social world. Such interventions are left to the politician, guided, of course, by
the positivist priesthood.
From the previous discussion of a few of Comte's ideas about the future, the
reader might conclude that Comte ought to be dismissed out of hand. In fact,
it might even be asked again why a chapter on Comte is included in this book.
Thus, we will begin this concluding section with an overview of Comte's most
important contributions to sociology. Later we will turn to the far more
numerous weaknesses in Comte's work weaknesses that lead us to conclude
that it is safe for the science of sociology to forget much of Comte's work and
get on with its own development, which has forged far ahead of Comte's
Positive Contributions
First, of course, Comte was the first thinker to use the term sociology; he can
be seen as the "founder" of sociology. Although it is certainly the case that
and Positivism Sociology
thinkers throughout the course of human history have dealt with sociological
issues, Comte was the first to make such a focus explicit and to give it a
Second, Comte defined sociology as a positivistic science. Although this is,
as we will see later, a mixed blessing, the fact is that the majority of
contemporary sociologists continue to see sociology as a positivistic science.
They believe that there are invariant laws of the social world and that it is their
task to discover those laws. Many search for such laws empirically, whereas
others (for example, J. Turner, 1985a) follow Comte's model and go about the
search for such laws theoretically. Much of contemporary empirical sociology,
and a significant segment of sociological theory, continues to accept Comte's
positivistic model of sociology.
Third, Comte articulated three major methods for sociology---observation,
experiment, and comparison (the historical comparative method is sufficiently
important to be distinguished as a fourth methodology)--which continue to be
widely used in sociology.Although Comte's work is badly dated in most
respects, it is surprisingly contemporary in terms of its methodological
pronouncements. For example, there has been a substantial resurgence of
interest in historical studies in contemporary sociology (see, for example,
Mann, 1986; Wallerstein, 1989).
Fourth, Comte differentiated in sociology between social statics and social
dynamics. This continues to be an important differentiation in sociology, but
the concepts are now called social structure and social change. Sociologists
continue to focus on society as it is presently constituted as well as on its
changing nature.
Fifth, although again a mixed blessing, Comte defined sociology in
macroscopic terms as the study of collective phenomena. This was to take
clearer form in the work of Durkheim, who defined sociology as the study of
social facts (see Chapter 6). More specifically, many of Comte's ideas played
a key role in the development of a major contemporary sociological
theory--structural functionalism (see Chapter 15).
Sixth, Comte stated clearly his basic ideas about the domination of human
nature, if left on its own, by egoism. Because he is clear about such basic
views, the reader gets a sound understanding of where Comte's thoughts on
the larger structures of society come from. Basically, those larger structures
are needed to control individual egoism and to permit the emergence of
individual altruism.
Seventh, Comte offered a dialectical view of macro structures. He saw
contemporary macro structures as being the product of past structures and as
possessing the seeds of future structures. This view gave his work a strong
sense of historical continuity. His dynamic, dialectical view of social structure
is superior to positions taken by many later, even contemporary, theorists of
social structure who have tended to adopt static, ahistorical perspectives.
Eighth, Comte was not content with simply developing abstract theory,
Chapter 2
but he was interested in integrating theory and practice. Although this
ambition was marred by some of his ludicrous ideas for the future society, the
integration of theory and practice remains a cherished objective among
contemporary sociologists. In fact, there is a growing interest in what is now
called applied sociology, and the American Sociological Association has a
section on sociological practice.
Basic Weaknesses in Comte's Theory
We can begin the discussion of Comte's specific weaknesses with a quotation
from one of his severest critics, Isaiah Berlin:
His grotesque pedantry, the unreadable dullness of his writing, his
vanity, his eccentricity, his solemnity, the pathos of his private life,
his insane dogmatism, his authoritarianism, his philosophical
fallacies... [his] obstinate craving for unity and symmetry at the
expense of experience ..with his fanatically tidy world of human beings
joyfully engaged in fulfilling their functions, each within his own
rigorously de freed province, in the rationally ordered, totally
unalterab|e hierarchy of the perfect society.
(Berlin, 1954:4-5, 22)
One is hard-pressed to think of a more damning critique of any social
theorist, yet much of it is warranted. The issue here is: Where and how did
Comte go wrong in his social theorizing?
First, Comte's theory was overly influenced by the trials and tribulations
of his own life. For one thing, very much ignored in his lifetime, Comte
became increasingly grandiose in his theoretical and practical ambitions. For
another, his largely unfulfilled relationships with women, especially his
beloved Clotilde, led him to a series of outrageous ideas about women and
their role in society. This problem was amplified by a sexism that lad him to
accord feelings to women, while men were given intellectual capacities and
political and economic power. Then we must add the fact that Comte was
deeply troubled psychologically; one often feels, especially in regard to the
later works, that one is reading the rantings of a lunatic.
Second, Comte seemed to fall increasingly out of touch with the real
world. After Positive Philosophy his theories were characterized by a spinning
out of the internal logic of his own ideas. One reason is that despite his claims,
Comte actually did no real empirical research. His idea of doing empirical
research was to offer gross generalities about the historical stages and the
evolution of the world. Comte's looseness about data analysis is reflected in
the following statement: "Verification of this theory may be found more or less
distinctly in every period of history" (1851/1957:240; italics added). Had
Comte been a better data analyst, and had he been more generally in touch
with the historical and cotemporary world.% ins theories might not have
become so outrageous.
Third, Comte also grew progressively out of touch with the intellectual
work of his time. Indeed, he is famous for practicing cerebral hygiene rather
and Positivism Sociology
early in his life. He systematically avoided reading newspapers, periodicals,
and books (except for a few favorite poems) and thereby sought to keep the
ideas of others from interfering with his own theorizing. In effect, Comte was
increasingly anti-intellectual. This ultimately became manifest in his
substantive work, m which he urged such things as the abolition of the
university and the withdrawal of economic support for science and scientific
societies. It is also manifest in his positivist reading list of 100 books.
Presumably, this limited list meant that all other books did not need to be read
and could be safely burned.Comte's anti-intellectualism is also found in other
aspects of his substantive work. For example, in making the case that strong
affect helps lead to important scientific findings,Comte downgrades the
importance of rigorous scientific work: "Doubtless, the method of pure
science leads up to it also; but only by a long and toilsome process, which
exhausts the power of thought, and leaves little energy for following out the
new results to which this great principle gives rise" (1851/1957:243). The
clear lesson of Comte's errors is that a theorist must remain in touch with both
the empirical and the intellectual worlds.
Fourth, he failed as a positivist, both in his empirical and in his theoretical
work. As to his empirical work, we have seen that he did woefully little of it
and that the work he did was really little more than a series of gross
generalizations about the course of world history. There was certainly little or
no induction from dam derived from the real world. Regarding his theoretical
work, it is hard even to think of many of his bizarre generalizations about the
social world as sociological laws. Even if we take Comte's word that these
were, in fact, laws, it remains the case that few, if any, social thinkers have
confirmed the existence of these invariant laws. Although Comte argued that
his laws should be reflections of what actually transpired hi the social world,
the fact is that he
most often seemed to impose his vision on the world.
Fifth, although Comte is credited with creating sociology, there is very little
actual sociology in his work. His sketchy overviews of vast sweeps of history
hardly qualify as historical sociology. His admittedly weak statements on a
few elements of social statics contributed little or nothing to our understanding
of social structure. Thus, little, if any,of Comte's substantive sociology
survives to this day. John Smart Mill was quite tight when he argued, "Comte
has not, hi our opinion, created sociology.., he has, for the first time, made the
creation possible" (1961:123-124). Comte's lasting legacy is that he created
some domains sociology, positivist sociology, social statics, social
dynamics--which his successors gave filled in with some genuine substantive
Sixth, it can be argued that Comte really made no original contributions.
Mill clearly minimizes Comte's contribution in tiffs domain: "The philosophy
called Positive is not a recent invention of M. Comte, but a simple adherence
to the traditions of all the great scientific minds whose discoveries have made
Chapter 2
the human race what it is" (1961:8-9; see also Heilbron, 1990). Mill also
argues that Comte was well aware of his lack of originality: "M. Comte claims
no originality for his conception of human knowledge" (1961:6). Comte readily
acknowledged his debt to such renowned positivists as Bacon,Descartes,
and Galileo. A similar point could be made about Comte's contribution to
sociology. Comte clearly recognized important forerunners hi sociology, such
as Charles
de Montesquieu (1689 1755) and Giovanni Vico (1668-1774). He may have
invented the term sociology, but he certainly did not create the practice of
Seventh, whatever sociology Comte did have to offer was distorted by a
primitive organicism (Levine, 1995b), in which he saw strong similarities
between the workings of the human and the social body. For example, Comte
argues that composite groups such as social classes and cities are "the
counterpart of animal tissues and organs in the organisation of the Great
Being" (1852/1968:153). Later, he contends that the family is the social
counterpart of cells in an organism. Furthermore, Comte sees an analogy
between social disorder and disease in organisms. Just as medicine deals
with physical diseases, it "is left for Positivism to put an end to this long
disease [social anarchy]" (Comte, 1852/1968:375). This kind of organicism
has long been eliminated from sociology.
Eighth, Comte tended to develop theoretical ways of thinking and
theoretical tools that he then imposed on whatever issue he happened to be
analyzing. For example,Comte seemed to be fond of things that came in
threes, and many of his theoretical ideas had three components. In terms of
theoretical tools, he was not content to apply his Law of the Three Stages to
social history; he also applied it to the history of sciences, the history of the
mind, and the development of individuals from infancy through adulthood.A
particularly bizarre example of this tendency to apply the Law of the Three
Stages to anything and everything is Comte's application of it to his own
mental illness:
I will confine myself to recording here the valuable phenomena I was
able to observe in the case of my own cerebral malady in 1826.... The
complete course.., enabled me to verify twice over my then recently
discovered Law of the Three Stages; for while 1 passed through those
stages, first inversely, then directly, the order of their succession
never varied. During the three months in which the medical treatment
aggravated my malady, I descended gradually from positivism to fetishism,
halting first at monotheism, and then longer at polytheism. In the
following five months... 1 reascended slowly from fetishism to
polytheism, and from that to monotheism, whence I speedily returned to
my previous positivism...thus furnishing me with a decisive confirmation
of my fundamental Law of the Three Stages.
(Comte, 1853/1968:62-63)
and Positivism Sociology
Ninth, Comte's "outrageous," "colossal" self-conceit (Mill, 1961) led him
to make a series of ridiculous blunders. On the one hand, his never powerful
theoretical system grew progressively weak as he increasingly subordinated
the intellect to feeling. One manifestation of this is his unrealistic and highly
romanticized view of the working class and women as agents of the positivist
revolution. This decline in intellect is also manifest in his practice of cerebral
hygiene as well as in his limiting of the number of positive books. On the other
hand, and more important, his oversized ego led him to suggest a series of
social changes, many of which, as we have seen, are ludicrous.
Tenth, Comte seemed to sacrifice much of what he stood for in his later
turn toward positivist religion. In the framing of this religion, Comte seemed to
be most influenced by the structure of Catholicism. In fact, T. H. Huxley called
Comte's system "Catholicism minus Christianity" (cited in Standley, 1981:103).
Comte acknowledged his debt to Catholicism when he argued that positivism
is "more coherent, as well as more progressive, than the noble but premature
attempt of medieval Catholicism" (1851/1957:3).His positivist religion minored
Catholicism with its priests, vicars, and even its pontiff.Clearly, positivist
religion has had no lasting impact, and it certainly served to subvert Comte's
scientific pretensions.
Finally, there is the issue of the totalitarian implications of Comte's plans
for the future. For one thing, these were highly detailed plans in winch Comte
personally sought to dictate what the various agents in ins system would do.
For another, his plans even extended to specific institutions such as the family.
Particularly notable here are his ideas on the application of the principles of
animal husbandry to humans. Ultimately, of course, his plans encompassed
religion, with his notion of a supreme pontiff who would rule over the positivist
This is not an unbiased presentation of Comte's ideas. It is clear that
contemporary sociology has moved far beyond Comtian theory, and this
chapter underscores that point.Although there are a number of useful
derivatives from Comte's theory, the main point is that there are innumerable
weaknesses in that theory. This chapter is concerned with the limited number
of positive derivatives from Comte's theories and. more important.the
negative lessons that can be of utility to the modern sociologist.
On the positive side, Comte offers us a positivist perspective, and many
contemporary sociologists continue to accept the idea of the search for
invariant social laws.Comte has also given us the term sociology, and his
focus within that field on social statics and social dynamics remains a viable
distinction. His basic methods of social research----observation,
experimentation, comparison, and historical research—remain major
methods of social research. Within his work on social statics, he made a
number of contributions (a focus on structures, functions, equilibrium) that
were important hi the development of the contemporary theory of sructural
Chapter 2
functionalism. Also within social statics, it is to Comte's credit that he laid out
a detailed view of human nature on which he then erected his
macrosociological theory. At the macro level Comte offers a dialectical sense
of structural relations, and his social realism anticipates that of Durkheim and
many other later theorists. His work on social dynamics was relevant to later
evolutionary theorists. Finally, Comte was not content simply to speculate, but
he was interested in linking theory and practice.
Although these are important accomplishments, there are far more things
to be critical of in Comte's work. He allowed his theoretical work to he
distorted by his personal experiences. He lost touch with both the social and
intellectual worlds. His empirical and theoretical work was lacking, given his
own positivistic standard. There is really little substantive sociology in his
work. and that which he offers is distorted by a primitive organicism. There is
little hi his work that was new at the time. Comte tended to impose his
theoretical schemes on anything and everything, no matter how good the fit.
His oversized ego led him to a number of outrageous theoretical blunders as
well as many ludicrous suggestions for reforming the social world. His reform
proposals were further undermined by his increasing preoccupation with
positivism as a religion and his role as the pontiff of this new religion. Finally,
his blueprint for the future positivist society had many totalitarian implications.
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
Chapter3: Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
Evolutionary Theory
Defining the Science of Sociology
Sociological Methods
Simple and Compounded Societies
Militant and Industrial Societies
In the theoretical ideas of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) we see a considerable
advance over those of Auguste Comte. Not only was Spencer's work important
in the development of sociological theory, but many of his theoretical ideas
stand up well from the vantage point of contemporary sociological theory, fu
spite of this, Jonathan Turner (t985b), who is strongly in sympathy with many
of Spencer's ideas, paints out that modem sociological theorists have been
disinclined to lake Spencer seriously, relegating him, like Comte, to the
"dustbin" of history.(Actual, in superheated terms, Turner argues that
contemporary social theorists have been inclined to "spit on die grave of
Spencer" [1985b:71 ].) This negativity is, to a large extent, traceable to
Spencer's highly conservative libertarian (not liberal) politics and to his belief in
a sociological version of survival of the fittest. Although we d~ not fully share
Turner's enthusiasm for Spencer, there is much of merit in Spencer's work. It
will be demonstrated that a number of Spencer's theoretical ideas continue to
be important and relevant to sociological theory.However, there are also
serious problems with Spencer's theory that lead to the conclusion that while it
represents an advance over Comtian theory, it is not quite up to the standard of
the other major early theorists Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel—to be
discussed in the ensuing four chapters.
HERBERTSPENCER:A BiographicalSketch
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was born in Derby, England, on April 27,1820.
He was not schooled in the arts and humanities, but rather in technical and
utilitarian matters. In 1837 he began work as a Civil engineer for a railway, an
occupation he held until 1846. During this period, Spencer continued to study
on his own and began to publish scientific and political works.
In 1848 Spear was appointed an editor of The Economist, and his
intellectual ideas began to solidify. By 1850, he had completed his first major
work, Social Statics. During the writing of this work, Spencer first began to
experience insomnia, and over the years his mental and physical problems
mounted He was to suffer a series of nervous breakdowns throughout the rest
Chapter 3
of his life.
In 1853 Spencer received an inheritance that allowed him to quit his job
and live for the rest of his Ida as a gentleman scholar He never earned a
university degree or held an academic position. AS he grew mere isolated, and
physical and mental illness mounted, Spencer's productivity as a scholar
increased. Eventually, Spencer began to achieve not only fame within England
but also an international reputation. AS Richard Hofstadter put it: "In the three
decades after the Civil War it was impossible to be active in any field of
intellectual work without mastering Spencer" (1959:33). Among his supporters
was the important industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wrote the following to
Spencer during the latter's fatal illness of 1903:
Dear Master Teacher.,. you come to me every day in thought, and the
everlasting "why" intrudes_Why lies he? Why must he go? . . . The world
jogs on unconscious of its greatest mind,.,. But it will wake some day
to its teachings and decree Spencer's place is with the greatest.
(Carnegie, cited in Peel, 1971:2)
But that was not to be Spencer's fate.
One of Spencer's most interesting characteristics, one that was ultimately
to be the cause of his intellectual undoing, was his unwillingness to read the
work of other people.In this, he resembled another early giant of sociology,
Auguste Comte, who practiced "cerebral hygiene." Of the need to read the
works of others, Spencer said: “All my life I have been a thinker and not a
reader, being able to say with Hobbes that 'if I had read as much as other men
I would have known as little'" (Wiltshire, f978:67). A friend asked Spencer's
opinion of a book, and "his reply was that on Iooking into the book he saw that
its fundamental assumption was erroneous, and therefore did not care to read
(Wiltshire, 1978:67). One author wrote of Spencer's "incomprehensible way of
absorbing knowledge through the powers of his skin ... he never seemed to
read books"(Wiltshire, 1978:67),
If he didn't read the work of other scholars, where, then, did Spencer's
ideas and insights come from? According to Spencer,they emerged
involuntarily and intuitively from his mind. He said that his ideas emerged “little
by little, in unobtrusive ways,without conscious intention or appreciable effort"
(Wiltshire, 1978:66). Such intuition was deemed by Spencer to be far more
effective than careful study and thought: "A solution reached in the way
described is more likely to be true than one reached in the pursuance of a
determined effort [which] causes perversion of thought" (Wiltshire,1978:66).
Spencer suffered because of his unwillingness to read seriously the works of
other people. In fact, if he read other work, it was often only to find confirmation
for his own independently created ideas. He ignored those ideas that did not
agree with his. Thus,his contemporary, Charles Darwin, said of Spencer: "if he
had trained himself to be observe more, even at the expense of . . .some Ioss
of thinking power, he would have been a wonderful man" (Wiltshire, 1978:70).
Spencer's disregard for the rules of scholarship led him to a series of
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
outrageous ideas and unsubstantiated assertions about the evolution of the
world. For these reasons,sociologists in the twentieth century came to reject
Spear's work and to substitute for it careful scholarship and empirical research.
Spencer died on December 8,1903.
A usesful starting point for this discussion is the relationship between
Spencer's ideas and those of Auguste Comte. Although the lives of Spencer
and Collate overlapped, the two men were separated by the English Channel
(Spencer was British, and Comte was French) and there was a substantial
difference in their ages (Comte was twenty two years old when Spencer was
born, arid Spencer lived for forty-six years after Comte's death and into the
twentieth century). Thus, Comte had completed most of his work before
Spencer published his first book, Social Statics, hi 1850. However, almost as
soon as Spencer had published Social Statics, comparisons began to be made
between his theories and those of Comte. A number of seeming similarities
exist between the work of the two men, bet Spencer most often fell the need to
distinguish his theories from those of Comte.
Spencer commented on Comte's work in various places and even felt
compelled to write an essay titled "Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy
of M. Comte" (1864/1883/1968). Spencer began with great, if only obligatory,
praise for Comnte's work: "In working out this conception [of positivism] be has
shown remarkable breadth of view, great originality, immense fertility of
thought, unusual powers of generalization" (1864//883/1968:118), In spite of
such an encomium, Spencer was concerned mainly with positioning himself as
one of Comte's "antagonists" and with distinguishing his own ideas from those
of Comte because their work was "so utterly different in nature" (Spencer,
Spencer did acknowledge his terminological debt to Comte by admitting, "I
also adopt his word, Sociology" (1864/1883/1968:130). Both derived the terms
structure and function largely from biology, and they tended to use them in
similar ways. In utilizing these terms and the perspective they imply, both
Spencer and Comte played key historic roles in the development of structural
functionalism. Floweret, regarding another set of terms, social statics and
social dynamics, there are important differences between the two men.
Although Spencer uses these terms, he denies that they are drawn from or
resemble Comte's identical terms. ~ his autobiography, Spencer contends that
when Social Statics (1850/1954) was published, he "knew nothing more of
Auguste Comte, than that he was a French philosopher" (1904a:414). For
Comte, these terms refer to all types of societies, whereas Spencer relates
them specifically to his future ideal society. Spencer defines social statics as
dealing with "the equilibrium era perfect society" and social dynamics as
relating to "the forces by which society is advanced toward perfection"
(185011954:367). Thus, for Spencer the terms social statics and social
dynamics are normative, and for Comte they are descriptive.
Chapter 3
Spencer classifies himself, like Comte, as a positivist interested in the
discovery of the invariant laws of the social world, but he hastens to add that
positivism was not invented by Comte. Although Spencer sees himself as a
positivist, he does not accept Comte's version of positivism, especially Comte's
sense of a positivist religion. Spencer, like Comte. deals with a wide range of
sciences, but unlike Comte, he argues that "the sciences cannot be rightly
placed in any linear order whatever' (1883:/85). Rather, Spencer views the
sciences as being interconnected and interdependent. Another major
distinction made by Spencer is between Comte's subjectivity (his concern with
ideas) and Spencer's objectivity (his concern with things):
What is Comte's professed aim? To give a coherent account of the
progress of human conceptions. What is my aim? To give a coherent account
of the progress of the external world. Comte proposes to describe the
necessary, and the actual, filiation of ideas. I propose to describe the
necessary, and actual, filiation of things Comte professes to interpret
the genesis of our knowledge of ,nature. My aim is to interpret, as far
as it is possible, the genesis of the phenomena which constitute nature.
The one end is subjective, the other is objective.
(Spencer, 1904b:570)
Thus, although both Spencer and Comte were concerned with the evolution of
the world, Comte was mainly interested in the evolution of ideas, whereas
Spencer focused on structural (and functional) evolution.
Finally, there are powerful political differences between Spencer and Comte.
As we saw in the previous chapter, Comte wanted to construct a society, even
a world, dominated by a positivistic religion of humanity and led by the high
priests of positivism.Spencer countered that Comte's faith that "the 'Religion of
Humanity' will be the religion of the future is a belief countenanced neither by
induction nor by deduction"( 1873/1961:283 ). In addition, Spencer had little
regard for centralized control, which he felt would do far more harm than good.
Thus, Spencer's ideal is a society in which the government is reduced to a
minimum and individuals are allowed maximum freedom.we will return to
Spencer's political ideas later in the chapter, but suffice it to say that they axe
radically different from Comte's polities. Spencer was led to muse on how
'profoundly opposed" were Comte's and his "avowed or implied ideals of
human life and human progress" (1904a:414).
Comte believed that individuals could be taught morality, largely through the
positivist religion, but Spencer ridiculed the idea that morality could be taught in
any fashion and by any means. Spencer believed that moral ideas emerge
from individual action. In arriving at this conclusion, Spencer used here, as he
did in many other places in his work, a survival-of-the-fittest perspective. In this
specific case, the requirements of an orderly life will force people to act on the
basis of their higher moral sentiments and repress their lower sentiments; in
other words, people will be rewarded for moral behavior and penalized for
immoral behavior. To put it another way, moral actions are likely to survive,
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
whereas immoral actions are not. Spencer concludes that this "natural
selection" of moral actions "alone is national education" (1873/1961:340).
In sum, although Spencer and Comte shared concerns with sociology,
structures and functions, social statics and social dynamics, positivism, the
relationships among the sciences, the evolution of the world, the future ideal
society, and morality, there are profound differences in their views on most of
these topics as well as in their overall theories. Given this relationship-or, more
accurately, this lack of a strong relationship----we turn to a discussion of
Spencer's sociological theory.
Spencer's thoughts on the social world are based on a series of general
theoretical principles. He begins by arguing that in the early history of
humankind religion and science were unified in their efforts to analyze and
understand the world (Spencer, 1902/1958).Gradually, the two begin to
separate, with religion coming to focus on the unknowable and science on that
which can be known. However, this differentiation is far flora complete, even in
the modem era, so religion and science continue to overlap and to conflict. In
fact, Spencer sees his own work as involving elements of science (intelligence)
and religion (morals).
Spencer's main concern was with the knowable world and was therefore much
more scientific than it was religious. (This is another contrast to Comte, whose
later work be-came far more religious than scientific.) Science could never
know the ultimate nature of things, but it could strive for the highest possible
degree of knowledge. Before we can get to Spencer's thoughts on science, we
first need to deal with his philosophy, which Spencer sees as transcending the
sciences in the search for the complete unification of knowledge, for "truths
which unify concrete phenomena belonging to all divisions of Nature"
(1902/1958:277). In this section we will discuss Spencer's "general
philosophy," in which he deals with "universal truths" for all the world, and later
we will analyze Iris "special philosophies" and the narrower, but still universal,
truths of specific areas, especially those relating to the social world. In
emphasizing the overarching character of philosophy, Spencer rejects the
positivistic idea that the goal of science is the reduction of an array of complex
laws to a simple law and accepts, instead, the goal of knowledge integrated
from a range of specific scientific fields.
Spencer articulates a series of general truths about the world, including
the facts that matter is indestructible, that there is continuity of motion and
persistence of force, that the relations among forces persist, and that matter
and motion are continually redistributed. By a process of deduction from these
general laws, Spencer articulates a series of ideas that constitute his general
evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary Theory
Spencer believes that all inorganic, organic, and superorganic (societal)
phenomena undergo evolution and devolution, or dissolution. That is,
Chapter 3
phenomena undergo a process of evolution whereby matter becomes
integrated and motion tends to dissipate. Phenomena also undergo a process
of devolution in which motion increases and matter moves toward
disintegration. Having deduced these general principles of evolution and
dissolution from his overarching principles, Spencer then turns to specific
areas in order to show that his theory of evolution (and devolution) holds
inductively, that is, that "all orders do exhibit a progressive integration of Matter
and concomitant loss of Motion"
The combination of induction and deduction leads Spencer to his "final"
evolutionary formula:
Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of
motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent
homogeneity to a definite, coherent, heterogeneity; and during which the
retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.
(Spencer, 1902/1958:394)
Let us decompose this general perspective and examine each of the major
elements of Spencer's evolutionary theory.
First. evolution involves progressive change from a less coherent to a
more coherent form; in other words, it involves increasing integration. Second,
accompanying increasing integration is the movement from homogeneity to
more and more heterogeneity; in other words, evolution involves increasing
differentiation. Third, there is a movement from confusion to order from
indeterminacy to determined order, "an increase in the distinctness with which
these parts are marked off from one another" (Spencer, 1902/1958:361); in
other words, evolution involves movement from the indefinite to the definite. (In
Chapter i5 we will see that Parsons developed a similar evolutionary theory in
his later work.)
Thus, the three key elements of evolution are increasing integration,
heterogeneity, and definiteness. More specifically, Spencer is concerned with
these elements and his general theory of evolution as they apply to both
structures and functions. At the most general level, Spencer associates
structures with "matter" and sees them growing more integrated,
heterogeneous, and definite. Functions are linked to "retained motion," and
they, too, are seen as growing increasingly integrated, heterogeneous, and
definite. We will have occasion to deal with Spencer's more concrete thoughts
oil the evolution of functions and structures in his work on society.
Having outlined his general theory of evolution, Spencer turns to the
issue of the reasons for the occurrence of evolution. First, Spencer argues that
homogeneous phenomena are inherently unstable: "the absolutely
homogeneous must lose its equilibrium; and the relatively homogeneous must
lapse into the relatively less homogeneous" (1902/1958:426). One reason for
this instability is that the different parts of a homogeneous system are
constantly subjected to different forces, which tend to differentiate them from
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
one another. Changes in one part of the once homogeneous system will
inevitably result in changes in other parts, leading, in turn, to greater
multiformity. A second factor in sequence, but not in importance, is the
multiplication of effects. In Spencer's view, the multiplication of effects
proceeds in a geometric manner. In other words, a small change in a once
homogeneous system has increasingly ramifying effects. Thus, over time, the
once homogeneous system grows increasingly heterogeneous. Third, Spencer
discusses the effects of segregation on evolution. A sector becomes
segregated from the others because of a likeness among its components,
which are different from the components of other sectors. This segregation
serves to maintain differences among the sectors, and this, in turn, furthers the
multiplication of effects when one sector is exposed to and incorporates the
distinguishing characteristics of other sectors.
Given that evolution is an inevitable process, the issue becomes: Where is
evolution headed? While en route to their end state, phenomena move through
a series of transitional states that can be described as "moving equilibria," and
the end state of the process is a new equillibrium. It could be argued that we
arc moving to "a state of quiescence," and it could then be asked: "Are we not
manifestly progressing toward omnipresent death" through the dissipation of
moving forces (Spencer, 1902/1958:508)?Spencer responds negatively to this
question, arguing that we are moving toward universal life through new stages
in the evolutionary process. He does, however, posit an end state of the
evolutionary process: "Evolution can end only in the establishment of the
greatest perfection and the most complete happiness" (Spencer,
1902/1958:511).Spencer obviously has great faith in the evolutionary process,
and its ultimate state of perfection gives him a standard by which he can
assess all other steps in the evolutionary process.
In spite of his faith in evolution, Spencer recognizes, in a dialectical
fashion, that the process of dissolution complements the evolutionary process
and periodically leads to its undoing. The dissolution process is likely to occur
when evolution has ended and the evolved phenomenon has begun to decay.
Evolution constitutes the focus of Spencer's work in a variety of realms,
but our concern is with the evolution of human societies in terms of their growth
and with the evolution of structures and functions. Following Spencer's
approach, we will look at the evolution of society in general. Spencer's
rationale for devoting so much attention to the evolution of society (and its
institutions) is his view that a fully adequate understanding of human social
relations requires an understanding of their evolution (as well as their cycles
and dissolution).
Defining the Science of Sociology
Given Spencer's focus on evolution, he defines "the study of Sociology as the
study of Evolution in its most complex form" (187311961:350). To put it another
way, sociology is "the natural history of societies" or, more specifically, "an
Chapter 3
order among those structural and functional changes which societies pass
through" (Spencer, 1873/1961:63J04).However, Spencer does not restrict
sociology to historical societies but also accepts study of the ways in which
contemporary organizations and institutions "me severally related to other
phenomena of their respective times-the political institutions, the
class-distinctions, the family arrangements, the modes of distribution and
degrees of intercourse between localities, the amounts of knowledge, the
religious beliefs, the morals, the sentiments, the customs, the ideas"
(1873/1961:120). But while Spencer sanctions the need for contemporaneous
research, he feels that the true meaning of his work is found only when it is
placed in a historical, evolutionary context. However, whether sociological
research focuses on historical or contemporary issues, it is clear that
Spencer's sociology concentrates Iargely on macro-level social phenomena
(social aggregates)-societies, social structures, social institutions-as well as
the functions of each.
Spencer (1873/1961:II5) shares with Comte the view that sociology should
deal with social questions in the same scientific manner in which we address
issues in the natural sciences. Furthermore, Spencer, like Comte. sees
sociology, especially in its evolutionary concerns, as the most complex of
Although Spencer sees sociology as a (complex) science, he recognizes
that it is not an exact science, but he rhetorically wonders, how many sciences
are exact sciences? To be a science, in Spencer's view, a field of study need
only consist of generalizations (laws) and interpretations based on those
generalizations. Sociology seeks laws of social phenomena in the same way
that the natural sciences seek the laws of natural phenomena. "Either society
has laws or it has not. If it has not, them can be no order,no certainty, no
system in its phenomena, if it has, then are they like the other laws of the
universe-sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exceptions?" (Spencer,
1850/1954:40). Although sociology and other sciences seek to make
predictions about the future on the basis of laws, in most cases all sciences
must be satisfied with only the most general predictions.
Legitimizing Sociology In endeavoring to lay the groundwork for his
kind of scientific sociology, Spencer confronted the problem that many other
early sociologists faced the need to legitimize the field. For example, he felt
compelled to argue that laypeople lack the capacity to grasp the complex
issues of concern to sociologists: one needs to be a trained sociologist in order
to comprehend them. Because in their everyday lives they deal with the same
issues that are of concern to sociologists, laypeople in Spencer's day, and to
this day as well, are convinced, erroneously, that they can do as good a job of
social analysis as trained sociologists can. Spencer also confronted the
misplaced confidence of laypeople in their views and their hostility to
sociologists by arguing that the incapacity of the layperson "is accompanied by
extreme confidence of judgment on sociological questions, and a ridicule of
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
those who, after long discipline, begin to perceive what there is to be
understood, and how difficult is the right understanding of it" (1873/1961: I 15).
As a result of these lay attitudes, Spencer saw many barriers to sociology's
receiving the recognition it deserves. These include the fact that few laypeople
will be able to grasp the complexity of sociology's subject matter, an
unconsciousness on the part of laypeople that there are any such complex
phenomena, the misplaced confidence of laypeople, and the fact that the
minds of most laypeople are not adaptable and flexible enough to accept the
new perspective offered by sociology.
Spencer felt that sociologists, in contrast to laypeople, require disciplined
habits of thought and that those habits are to be derived from a careful study of
other sciences.This need to study other sciences is buttressed by an argument
similar to one made by Comte, that is, that the science of sociology
encompasses the phenomena of concern in all other sciences. Spencer gave
particular importance to the need for sociologists to be familiar with the fields of
biology and psychology.
Sociology and Biology Spencer saw three basic linkages between
biology and sociology. First, he believed that all social actions ate determined
by the actions of individuals and that those actions conform to the basic laws of
life in general. Thus, to understand social actions, the sociologist must know
the basic laws of life, and it is biology that he]ps us comprehend those laws.
Second, there are powerful analogies between sociology and biology. That is,
society as a whole, like the living body, is characterized by, among other things,
growth, structure, and function. Thus an understanding of the biology of the
living organism, which after all is far easier to study than the social organism,
offers many keys to understanding society. Spencer concludes, "There can be
no rational apprehension of the truths of Sociology until there has been
reached a rational apprehension of the troths of Biology" (1873/1961:305).
Third, a kind of natural progression and linkage exist between the two fields
because humans are the "terminal" problem for biology and the starting point
for sociology.
A more specific similarity between biology and sociology is the operation
of the survival-of-the-fittest process in both living and social organisms.
Spencer felt that survival of the fittest occurs in both the biological and the
social realms and that the lessons of biology from the natural world are that
there should be no interference with this process in the social world.
Sociology and Psychology Spencer also devoted considerable
attention to psychology as another major base for sociology. He adopted the
general position that "psychological truths underlie sociological truths"
(Spencer, 1873/1961:348). As he saw it, psychology is the study of intelligence,
feeling, and action. He believed that one of the great lessons of psychology is
that feeling, not intelligence, is linked to action. This belief led Spencer to
emphasize sentiments and to downgrade the importance of intelligence and
cognition in his sociological analyses (see the preceding chapter, on Comte,
Chapter 3
for a similar view). Although people throughout history have been dominated
by sentiments and desires, this was especially true in primitive societies.
Primitive people were inherently impulsive, and because they were "not much
habituated to associated life," they were "habituated to that uncontrolled
following of immediate desires" (Spencer, 1908a:64). In contrast, people in the
modern world, although still dominated by feelings, emotions, and desires, are
better able to control them because they are more habituated to collective life.
Thus, Spencer is led to argue that primitive people are characterized by
greater selfishness and that there is more altruism in the modern world.This
general orientation leads Spencer to focus substantively on collective
phenomena, and politically this emphasis on the importance of feelings is one
of the factors causing him to oppose conscious and intelligent change of
Although Spencer embeds his sociology in a set of assumptions about
the psychological characteristics of individuals, he does not accept the idea
that these characteristics are fixed. Rather, psychological characteristics
change with the changes in society as well as with those in the larger
From his study of psychology, and more generally from his basic
philosophical orientation, Spencer comes to the "methodological individualist"
conclusion that the units of society are individuals and that individuals are the
source of social phenomena. Everything in society is derived from the motives
of individuals, the combined similar motives of many individuals, or the conflict
between those with one set of motives and others with another set. However,
Spencer bases his sociology on such psychological principles, but he does not
spend much time analyzing the ways in which these psychological phenomena
lead to the development of society and its various institutions. Rather, Spencer
assumes that individuals are the units, and the base, of society and institutions,
and then he proceeds to the macro level to study the evolution of society and
its institutions. This lack of concern (with a few exceptions; see the discussion
of ceremonial institutions later in this chapter) for how macro level phenomena
(society and institutions) emerge from micro-level units (individuals and their
motives) is a serious weakness in Spencer's sociological theory.
Sociological Methods
Within the context of Spencer's definition of sociology as a science, he
addressed a range of methodological problems.
Difficulties Facing Sociology Spencer attempts to show "how greatly
the advance of Sociology is hindered by the nature of its subject-matter'
(1873/196l:66). He believes that sociology confronts several difficulties that
differentiate it from natural sciences. To begin with, there are objective
difficulties that involve the intrinsic nature of the facts that sociologists must
analyze. For example, social phenomena are not directly perceptible. Unlike
natural phenomena, they cannot be studied and measured with such
instruments as clocks, thermometers, scales, and microscopes. (Of course,
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
modem sociology has demonstrated that at least some social phenomena can
be studied and measured with instruments [for example, audiotapes and
videotapes].) Another methodological difficulty for sociologists, in Spencer's
view, is that they, unlike psychologists,cannot utilize introspection as a method;
social facts cannot be studied through introspection, but psychological facts
can. (Again, at least some modem sociologists [for example,
phenomenologists] do use introspection as a method.)
The facts of concern to sociologists not only are different from those found
in die natural sciences and psychology but also are far more complex and
difficult to study. Sociologist inevitably deal with an enormous range of highly
dispersed details. It is often difficult to gain a sense of what is happening,
because things occur over a wide geographic area and over long periods of
time. Thus, for example, Spencer contends that the increasing division of labor
is very difficult to study and was under way for quite some time before its
development was recognized.
Another objective difficulty facing sociology is the untrustworthiness of its
data, derived from both past and present societies. For one thing, the data are
often distorted by the subjective states of the witnesses to the events under
study, but sociologists must rely on the reports of such witnesses for their data.
For another, the sociological observer is often misled by superficial and trivial
facts and falls to see what is truly important. Spencer offers a number of
cautions to sociologists: "In every ease we have to beware of the many modes
in which evidence may be vitiated-have to estimate its worth when it has been
discounted in various ways; and have to take care that our conclusions do not
depend on any particular class of facts gathered from any particular place or
time" (1873/1961:102). Spencer recognizes that the objective difficulties are
formidable, but he still believes that sociology can deal scientifically with
general classes of facts, although not with specific facts.
Sociologists must also confront the reality that they are the human
observers of humanly created phenomena. As human beings, sociologists use
modes of observation and reasoning in their daily lives, and such habits may
not ha useful in, or may even be impediments to, sociological study.
Sociologists must be wary of assessing others on the basis of their own
standards. They are likely to experience difficulties in their own society, and
those difficulties are greatly magnified when sociologists examine other
Biases Sociologists also have a very different relationship to the facts they
observe than do natural scientists. Sociologists' emotions may affect their
judgments of social phenomena or lead them to make judgments without
sufficient evidence. Spencer argues that "minds thus swayed by
disproportionate hates and admirations, cannot flame those balanced
conclusions respecting social phenomena which alone constitute Social
Science" (1873/1961:144). In this context, Spencer deals with a number of
specific emotional biases.
Chapter 3
First, there is what Spencer calls an educational bias. He traces this to the
fact that we live in a society that combines elements of both militant and
industrial societies (which are discussed later in tiffs chapter). The result is that
we are taught a tangle of ideas derived from both systems, and this causes the
sociologist to misinterpret social phenomena. The sociologist must not be
biased against either militant or industrial society and must be able to study
both types impartially and to recognize that both have been necessary
historically. For example, as we will discuss later, Spencer, in spite of his
biases against warfare, is able to see that war is functional for militant
Second, there is the bias of patriotism (and antipatriotism). As Spencer
argues: "'Our country, right or wrong,'... Whoever entertains such a sentiment
has not that equilibrium of feeling required for dealing scientifically with social
phenomena" (1873/1961:185). Sociologists must emancipate themselves from
the bias of patriotism, but Spencer recognizes that such emancipation is not
easy to accomplish. However, he holds out hope for the future because he
believes that the triumph of industrial society, the resulting increase in
harmonious sentiments, and the decrease in hostility to societies different from
our own will lead to a decline in patriotic bias mid an increased capacity to be
objective about our society and others, both historically and
Third, there is class bias, found in the upper and lower classes, among
employers and the employed, which Spencer regards as the most serious of
the biases in sociological work. Because all sociologists come from a given
class, they are likely to reflect this bias in their work. Again, however,
Spencer holds out hope for the future, in which gloater societal harmony will
lead to less class antagonism and to the increased ability of sociologists to
come to more balanced conclusions about social phenomena. However,
Spencer goes thither and uses the argument about class bias to underscore
his conservative orientation: "The class-bias obscures tile truth, otherwise not
easy to see, that the existing type of industrial organization, like the existing
type of political organization, is about as good as existing human nature allows.
The evils there are in it are nothing but the evils brought round on men by theft
own imperfections" (1873/196l:229).Spencer's conservatism, and its
implications for his sociology, will be touched upon throughout this chapter.
Fourth. Spencer discusses political bias. The current government its laws,
and its political parties, among other political phenomena, serve to bias
socioiogists in their work.Not only are sociologists prone to view things the way
the current political system sees them, but they are led to examine visible
political forms and ignore less visible poIitical phenomena (for example.
"national character"). Furthermore, the existing political system tends to
obscure the unanticipated effects of legal and other political changes. For
example, the government will attune observers to acknowledge the anticipated
benefits of political changes and to ignore their unanticipated evils.
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
Finally, Spencer looks at theological bias. For example, the sociologist
may be led to assess things relative to the creed of a given religion rather than
to the way they relate to human welfare in general. Although Spencer foresees
no end to religion, he does see it undergoing the evolutionary trend described
earlier, and this trend will serve to mitigate theology as a source of bias in the
Speneer's Approach In seeking to exclude these and other biases tom
sociological research, Spencer is articulating a "value-free" position for the
discipline (see Chapter 7, on Weber, for a more complex view of this issue). He
argues, for example, that
in pursuing our sociological inquiries.., we must. as much as possible,
exclude whatever emotions the facts arc calculated to excite,.,
trustworthy interpretations of social arrangements imply an almost
passionless consciousness. Though fee/ring cannot and ought not to be
excluded from the mind when otherwise contemplating them, yet it ought
to be excluded when contemplating them as natural phenomena to ha
understood in their causes and effects.
(Spencer, 1908b:230, 232)
In his own work, Spencer employed what has come to be called the
comparative historical method. That is, he engaged mainly in the comparative
study of the different stages of societies over time as well as of various kinds of
contemporary societies. His goal in this research was always to seek out,
inductively, support (or, presumably, lack of support) for the theories derived
deductively from his most general orientation. He was also interested in
developing empirical generalizations based on his comparative, especially
evolutionary, studies.
We must not close this section without mentioning the fifteen volumes of
data on various societies (for example, ancient Mexicans, ancient Romans)
commissioned by Spencer but put together by others in accord with a category
system developed by Spencer (J. Turner, 1985b:95-104). Although these
volumes have been little read or used by sociologists, and although they are
almost impossible to find today, they reflect Spencer's commitment to empirical
research of the comparative-historical variety in order to create a base
whereby he and others could inductively support, or fail to supper, theories
derived deductively.
Spencer employs his evolutionary theory in his massive three-volume work,
The Principles of Sociology (1908a, 1908b, 1908c). (Much of this work had
been published in serial form in magazines in the late 1800s.) In his more
specific focus on the evolution of society and its major institutions, Spencer
employs the three general dimensions out lined earlier increasing integration
(increasing size and coalescence of masses of people), heterogeneity, and
definiteness (clearly demarcated social institutions). In addition,he employs a
fourth dimension, the increasing coherence of social groups (modern civilized
Chapter 3
nations hold together far longer than early wandering groups of people). Thus,
he offers the following statement as his general formula of social evolution:
'There is progress toward greater size, coherence, multiformity and
definiteness" (Spencer,1908a:597).
Before we go any further, it is important to make it clear that in spite of
appearances, Spencer does not adopt an inevitable, unilinear view of social
evolution. That is. evolution does not have to occur, and it does not always
move in a single direction. Societies are constantly changing in light of
changes in their environs, but these changes are not necessarily evolutionary.
"Only now and then does the environing change initiate in the organism a new
complication, and so produce a somewhat higher structure"
(Spencer,1908a:95-96). It is possible at any given moment for there to be no
change, dissolution,or evolution. Not only is evolution not inevitable, but when
it does occur, it does not take the form of a simple unilinear pattern; the stages
do not necessarily occur in serial order (Haines, 1997).
Before getting to the actual evolution of society, we need a definition of
society. Spencer discusses the issue of nominalism (society is nothing more
than its component parts) versus realism (society is a distinct and separable
entity) and comes down on the side of realism because of die "permanence of
the relations among component parts which constitutes die individuality of a
whole" (1908a:447). "Thus we consistently regard society as an entity,
because, though formed of discrete units, a certain concreteness in the
aggregate of them is implied by the general persistence of the arrangements
among them throughout the area occupied" (Spencer, 1908a:448). Thus,
Spencer considers society a "thing," but it is unlike any other thing except for
parallel principles in the way the component parts are arranged.
It should be pointed out here that there is an uncomfortable fit between
Spencer's social realism and his previously discussed methodological
individualism. Methodological individualism generally leads to, and is more
comfortable with, a nominalist position on society. Conversely, methodological
individualism generally rules out a realist orientation to society. Spencer holds
to both without telling us much about how he is able to adopt two such
discordant perspectives or how they are linked to one another. In other words,
how do individuals create a "real" society? Spencer begins with assumptions
about individuals, imposes the existence of society, and then ends (as we will
see later) with a series of concerns about the negative impact of society on
Spencer sees societies as being like organic bodies (but unlike inorganic
bodies) in that they are characterized by permanent relations among the
component parts (Levine.1995b). Spencer's organicism led him to see a
number of parallelisms between society and organic entities. Among other
similarities, both entities increase in size and are subject to structural and
functional differentiation. Furthermore. both ate characterized by an increasing
division of labor, the development of interrelated differentiations that make still
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
other differentiations possible. The component parts of both society and an
organism are interconnected and in need of each other. In addition, if the
whole of society or an organism dies, parts can live on; conversely, the whole
can live on even if parts die (for example, society continues even after
individuals die).
One issue here is whether Spencer believed that society is an organism or
that there are simply important analogies between the two. Although at times
Spencer discussed society as an organism, his avowed position was that there
are merely important parallels between the two and that one could improve
one's understanding of society by better understanding the parallelisms.
In a more concrete sense. Spencer (1908b) sees society as a gathering of
people forming a group in which there is cooperation to seek common ends.
Cooperation in society implies some form of organization. In Spencer's view.
there are two basic types of cooperation. The first is the division of labor, which
is a spontaneously and unconsciously developed system that directly serves
the interests of individuals and indirectly serves the interests of society. Here
we have a situation in which individuals consciously pursue their private ends,
and the unconsciously evolving organization is not coercive.The second
cooperative system is the one for defense and government, that is, the political
organization, which is a consciously and purposefully created system that
directly serves the interests of society and indirectly those of the individual.
The political system involves the conscious pursuit of public ends, and this
consciously evolving organization is coercive in regard to individuals.
The first element in Spencer's work on the evolution of society is society's
growth in size. In his view, societies, similar to living organisms, "begin as
germs" (Spencer, 1908a:463). "Superorganic" (social) phenomena, like
organisms, grow through both the multiplication of individuals and the union
("compounding") of groups (for example, tribes), both of which may go on
The increase in the size of society is accompanied by an increase in
structure. Spencer defines a structure as "an organization" (1908c:3). Greater
size requires more differentiation, a greater unlikeness of parts. In fact,
Spencer argues that "to reach great size [society] must acquire great
complexity" (1908a:471). More generally, he contends that "all social
structures result from specializations of a relatively homogeneous mass"
(Spencer, 1908c: 181). The first differentiation is the emergence of one or more
people claiming and/or exercising authority. This is followed soon after by the
division between the regulative and the sustaining structures of society. We will
have more to say about these structures later, but at this early stage the
regulative structure is associated with military activities, whereas economic
activities that maintain the group are linked to the sustaining structures. At first,
this differentiation is closely linked to the division of labor among the sexes,
with men handling the regulative structure (the military) and women the
sustaining structures. As society evolves, each of these structures undergoes
Chapter 3
further differentiation; for example, the regulative agency acquires a system of
kings, local rulers, petty chiefs, and so oil. Then there are differentiations of
social classes as tile military, the priestly, and the slave classes emerge.
Further differentiations occur within each social class; in the priestly class, for
example, sorcerers, priests, diviners, and exorcists develop. Overall, society
moves toward increasing structural differentiation and complexity.
The increasing differentiation of structures is accompanied by increasingly
differentiated functions. A function is "the need subserved" by a structure
(Spencer, 1908c:3).Spencer argues that "changes of structures cannot occur
without changes of functions"(1908a:485). More generally, he contends that
one cannot truly understand structures without a clear conception of their
functions, or the needs served by the structures, in a relatively undifferentiated
scare, the various parts of society can perform each other's functions. Thus, in
a primitive society the male warriors could raise food and the females could
fight if it became necessary. However, as society grows increasingly complex
structurally, it is more and more difficult for highly specialized parts to perform
each other's functions. Evolution brings functional progress along with
structural progress: "With advance of organization, every part, more limited in
its office, performs its office [that is, function] better; the means of exchanging
benefits becomes greater; each aids all, and all aid each with increasing
efficiency; and the total activity we call life, individual or national, augments"
(Spencer, 1908a:489).
Having argued that societies evolve both structurally and functionally,
Spencer returns to the sustaining and regulative systems mentioned previously
and adds a third, the distributing system. In the discussion of these three
systems, Spencer makes great use of analogies between social systems and
organisms. In both social systems and organisms the sustaining system is
concerned with the internal matters needed to keep them alive. In the living
body the sustaining system takes the form of the alimentary organs, whereas
in the social system it adopts the form of the various elements of the industrial
system. External matters for both social systems and organisms are handled
by the regulative system. The regulative system takes the form of the
neuromuscular system in organisms and the government-military apparatus in
social systems. Both are concerned with warfare with other systems and
conflicts with the environment. Finally, the distributive system links the
sustaining and regulative organs and systems. Here Spencer sees an analogy
between blood vessels (in organisms) and roads (in social systems), "channels
which carry, in the one case blood-corpuscles and serum, and in the other
case men and commodities" (1908a:510). In addition to describing each of
these structures and the functions they perform, Spencer also demonstrates
how each is undergoing a process of evolution.
Simple and Compounded Societies
On the basis of what he claims are inductions from the evolution of past and
present societies, Spencer develops two systems for classifying societies. The
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
first, or primary, method is based on the increasing number of members of the
aggregate as well as the degree to which that aggregate is compounded, or
added to, by combining with other aggregates through such means as
conquest or peaceful merger. Although, as we saw above, Spencer has argued
in general against a simple unilinear theory of evolution the latter is just what
he seems to offer here: 'The stages stages of compounding and
recompounding have to be passed through in succession. No tribe becomes a
nation by simple growth; and no great society is formed by the direct union of
the smallest societies"(1908a:555; italics added).
Spencer identifies four types of societies on the basis of their degree of
compounding. First, there are simple societies, which constitute single working
entities that are not connected with any other entities. These are relatively
homogeneous and uncivilized societies that have not gone through a
compounding process. Second, we find compound societies, in which there is
some increase in heterogeneity. For example, here we may find the
emergence of a supreme chief who rules over the chiefs of several simple
groups. Obviously, because there are now several groups, some compounding
has occurred either by conquest or by peaceful means. We also find in
compound societies, as a result of increasing heterogeneity, an increase in the
division of economic labor and in organization. Third, there are
doubly-compound societies, formed on the basis of the recompounding of
compound groups. Here we find still more heterogeneity and further advances
in civilization. Thus, in the political realm we find even more developed and
stable governments. Spencer describes many other advances in these
societies, such as the development of an ecclesiastical hierarchy, a more
complex division of economic labor, law emerging from custom, more towns
and roads, and more advanced knowledge and arts. Finally, there are the
trebly-compound societies, or the great nations of the world, which are even
more advanced in the areas just mentioned, as well as in many others,
included in this category are both older societies, like the Roman Empire, and
modern nations.
Militant and Industrial Societies
Spencer offers a secondary system of classifying societies, although this one
became better known than his primary system of classifying societies by their
degree of compounding. This is his famous distinction between militant and
industrial societies and the character of societies as they oscillate between the
two. Militant societies tend to be dominated by the regulative system, whereas
industrial societies are characterized by their more highly developed sustaining
systems. These are ideal types, as Spencer recognizes: "During social
evolution there has habitually been a mingling of the two" (19081o:568).
Spencer sees a long-term evolutionary trend from militant to industrial societies,
although here he is more careful to be clear that this trend is not unilinear.
Spencer also briefly mentions the possibility of a future, "higher" type of society
characterized by intellectual and esthetic concerns (Perrin, 1976), but he has
Chapter 3
little to say of a substantive nature about the possibility of this third type of
Spencer goes into much more detail about militant societies than about
industrial societies, and what he says about them is much clearer, because
militant societies had long been in existence, whereas industrial societies
were still emerging in Iris day.
Militant societies are characterized by highly structure ad organizations
for offensive and defensive warfare. In effect, the army and the nation are one:
'the army is the nation mobilized while the nation is the quiescent army, and
which, therefore, acquires a structure common to army and nation" (Spencer,
1908a:557). The militant society is dominated by its regulative system, with
centralized and despotic government control, unlimited political control over
personal conduct, and a rigidly controlled, disciplined, and regimented
population. The cooperation that exists in society is a result of compulsion. The
individual exists for the good of the collectivity: "Under die militant type the
individual is owned by the slate. While preservation of die society is the
primary end, preservation of each member is a secondary end" (Spencer,
1908b:572). There is a rigid status hierarchy, and individual positions are fixed
as to rank, occupation, and locality.
Industry, such as it is, exists largely to fill the needs of the government-military.
Although he is critical of warfare, and he hopes for a future society in
which warfare is reduced or eliminated, Spencer believes that war is useful in
militant societies in producing social aggregation (by, for example, military
conquest). It is also useful in laying die groundwork for industrial society:
"Without war large aggregates of men cannot be formed, and.., without large
aggregates of men there cannot be a developed industrial slate" (Spencer,
1873/1961:176). This attitude toward warfare is also 'linked to Spencer's views
on survival of the fittest: "We must recognize the truth that the struggles for
existence between societies have been instrumental to their evolution"
(1908b:241). However, with the development of industrial society, war
becomes more dysfunctional than functional, as it serves to block industrial
growth, consumes needed people and materials, draws off intellectual
resources, and fosters antisocial attitudes and behaviors in a society that
values harmony.
As is his normal pattern, Spencer arrives at the characteristics of the
militant society deductively and then demonstrates that they are supported by
induction from actual militant societies. However, he is forced to deviate from
his usual pattern in the ease of industrial societies because their
characteristics are not fully emergent and continue to be hidden by the militant
characteristics of society. Therefore, in his depiction of industrial societies,
Spencer is forced to rely even more heavily on die deductive method, although
he does find some support in data derived from societies with industrial
The industrial society is dominated by the sustaining system, and its
Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Theory
industrial system is more developed and diverse. The regulative control that
continues to exist tends to be negative (people shall not do certain things)
rather than positive (people must do certain things). There is no need for
despotic control, and the government tends to be de mocratic, with
representatives of the people exercising power. The control that remains tends
to be much more decentralized. There is voluntary cooperation among people,
and the collectivity exists to serve the welfare of the people. Individuality is
protected and permitted to flourish. The military system is subordinated to the
needs of the industrial system Control is exercised by contracts voluntarily
entered into by individuals. Harmony rather than conflict and warfare,
characterizes industrial societies. Although militant societies are forced to be
economically autonomous because of the hostility from and toward their
neighbors, industrial societies are much more interdependent economically.
Whereas militant societies tend to be rather inflexible, industrial societies are
much more changeable and adaptable.
Of course, these societies are ideal types that vary greatly from one
setting to another. Spencer made clear die ideal-typical character of his
depiction of a militant society:"Having contemplated the society ideally
organized for war, we shall be prepared to recognize in real societies the
characteristics which war has brought about" (1908b:569;italics added).
Spencer details a number of factors that contribute to variation within each of
these types, including racial composition, the nature of the immediately
preceding society, the habitat, and surrounding societies. Spencer also
discusses "hybrid societies," which are only partially militant or industrial,
although he contends that hybrid societies are likely to be more like militant
societies than industrial societies. In fact, he describes the society in which he
lived as such a transitional hybrid -semi-militant and semi-industrial (Spencer,
1908c:551 ). Finally, although there is a general evolutionary trend toward
industrial societies, Spencer recognizes that regression to more militant
societies is possible. For example, an international conflict can cause an
industrial society to grow more militant, engaging in more aggressive external
acts and developing a more repressive internal government. Although Spencer
sees a continual threat of rebarbarization, he hopes for some sort of federation
of the nations of the world that would forbid wars among member nations.
Thus, in his militant-industrial categorization system, Spencer does not offer a
unilinear view of the evolution of society.
Herbert Spencer has a more powerful theory, and his work has more
contemporary significance, than that of the other significant figure in the
"prehistory" of sociological theory, Auguste Comte. Their theories have some
similarities (for example, positivism) but far more differences (for example,
Comte's faith in a positivist religion and Spencer's opposition to any centralized
system of control).
Spencer offers a series of general principles from which he deduces an
Chapter 3
evolutionary theory: increasing integration, heterogeneity, and definiteness of
both structures and functions. Indeed, sociology, for Spencer, is the study of
the evolution of societies. Although Spencer sought to legitimize sociology as a
science, he also felt that sociology is linked to, and should draw upon, other
sciences such as biology (especially the idea of survival of the fittest) and
psychology (especially the importance of sentiments). In part from his concern
with psychology, Spencer developed his methodological-individualist approach
to the study of society.
Spencer addresses a number of the methodological difficulties confronting
sociology as a science. He is especially concerned with various biases the
sociologist must overcome---educational, patriotic, class, political, and
theological. In seeking to exclude these biases, Spencer articulates a
"value-free" position for sociology. In much of his substantive work, Spencer
employs the comparative-historical method.
The evolution of society occupies a central place in Spencer's sociology.
In his analysis of societal evolution, Spencer employs the three general
aspects of evolution mentioned previously--increasing integration (increasing
size and coalescence of masses of people), heterogeneity, and definiteness
(here, clearly demarcated institutions)-as well as a fourth aspect the increasing
coherence of social groups. In his evolutionary social theory, Spencer traces,
among other things, the movement from simple to compounded societies and
from militant to industrial societies.
Spencer also articulates a series of ethical and political ideals.
Consistent with his methodological individualism, Spencer argues that people
must be free to exercise their abilities; they must have liberty. The only role for
the state is the protection of individual liberty. Such a laissez-faire political
perspective fits well with Spencer's ideas on evolution and survival of the fittest.
Given his perspective on the gradual evolution of society, Spencer also rejects
the idea of any radical solution (for example, communism) to society's
Ferdinand Tonnies: First sign of German sociology
Chapter4: Ferdinand Tonnies: First sign of German sociology
Ferdinand Tonnies: A Biographical Sketch
Ferdinand Tonnies (1855 - 1936) The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies
was a major contributor to theory and field studies in sociology. He is best
remembered for his distinction between two basic types of social groups.
T6nnies argued that there are two basic forms of human will: the essential will,
which is the underlying, organic, or instinctive driving force; and
arbitrary will, which is deliberative, purposive, and future (goal) oriented.
Groups that form around essential will, in which membership is self-fulfilling,
Tonnies called Gemeinschaft (often translated as community).Groups in
which membership was sustained by some instrumental goal or definite end
he termed Gesellschaft (often translated as society). Gemeinschaft was
exemplified by the family or neighborhood; Gesellschaft, by the city or the
state. There is a contrast between a social order which-being based upon
consensus of wills-rests on harmony and is developed and ennobled by
folkways, mores, and religion, and an order which-being based upon a union
of rational wills-rests on convention and agreement, is safeguarded by
political legislation: and finds its ideological justification in public opinion.
Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
A relationship.., and also the resulting association is conceived of either as
real and organic life--this is
essential characteristic of the
Gemeinschaft (community); or as imaginary and mechanical structure this is
the concept of Gesellschaft (society)
All intimate, private, and exclusive living together, so we discover, is
understood as lifc in Gemeinscbaft (community).Gesellschaft (society) is
public life-it is the world itself. In Gemeinschaft with one's family, one lives
from birth on, bound to it in weal and woe. One goes into Gesellschaft as one
goes into a strange country. A young man is warned against bad Gesellschaft,
but the expression bad Gemeinschaft violates the meaning of the word.
Lawyers may speak of domestic (hausliche) Gesellschaft, thinking only of the
legalistic concept of social association; but the domestic Gemeinschaft, or
home life with its immeasurable influence upon the human soul, has been felt
by everyone who ever shared it. Likewise, a bride or groom knows that he or
she goes into marriage as a complete Gemeinschaft of life ( comrnunio
totius vitae ). A Gesellschaft of life would be a contradiction in and of itself.
One keeps or enjoys another's Gesellsehaft, but not his Gemeinschaft in this
sense. One becomes a part of a religious Gcmeinschaft; religious
Gesellschaften (associations or societies), like any other groups formed for
given purposes, exist only in so far as they, viewed from without, take their
places among the institutions of a political body or as they represent
conceptual elements of a theory: they do not touch upon the religious
Gemeinschaft as such. There exists a Gemeinschaft of language, of folkways
or mores, or of beliefs; but, by way of contrast, Gesellsehaft exists in the
Chapter 4
realm of business, travel, or sciences. So of special importance are the
commercial Gesellschaften; whereas, even though a certain familiarity and
Gemeinschaft may exist among business partners, one could indeed hardly
speak of commercial Gemeinsehaft. To make the word combination
"joint-stock Gemeinsehaft" would be abominable. On the other hand,
there exists a Gemeinschaft of ownership in fields, forest, and pasture. The
Gemeinschaft of property between man and wife cannot be called
Gesellschaft of property. Thus many differences become apparent.
Gemeinschaft is old: Gesellsehaft is new as a name as well as a
phenomenon Says Bluntschli (Staatsworterbuch IV), "Wherever urban culture
blossoms and bears fruits, Gesellschaft appears as its indispensable organ.
The rural people know little of it. " On the other hand, all praise of rural life
has pointed out that the Gemeinschaft among people is stronger there and
more alive; it is the lasting and genuine form of living together. In
contrast to Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft is transitory and superficial.
Accordingly, Gemeinschaft should be understood as a living organism,
Gesellschaft as a mechanical aggregate and artifact The Gemeinschaft by
blood, denoting unity of being, is developed and differentiated into
Gemeinscbaft of locality, which is based on a common habitat, A further
differentiation leads to the Gemeinschaft of mind, which implies only
co-operation and co-ordinated action for a common goal. Gemeinschaft of
locality may be conceived as a community of physical life, just as
Gemeinschaft of mind expresses the community of mental life. In conjunction
with the other, this last type of Gemeinschaft represents the truly human and
supreme form of community. Kinship Gemeinschaft signifies a common
relation to, and share in, human beings themselves, while in Gemeinschaft of
locality such a common relation is established through collective ownership of
land; and, in Gemeinschaft of mind, the common bond is represented by
sacred places and worshiped deities. All three types of Gemeinschaft
are closely interrelated in space as well as in time. They are, therefore, also
related in all such single phenomena and in their development, as well as in
general human culture and its history. Wherever human beings are
related through their wills in an organic manner and affirm each other, we find
one or another of the three type of Gemeinschaft. Either the
earlier type involves the later one, or the later type has developed to relative
independence from some earlier one. It is, therefore, possible to deal with (1)
kinship, (2) neighborhood, and (3) friendship as definite and meaningful
derivations of these original categories.
The theory of the Gesellschaft deals with the artificial construction of an
aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft
in so far as the individuals live and dwell together peacefully. However, in the
Gemeinschaft they remain essentially united in spite of all separating factors,
whereas in the Geselischaft they are essentially separated in spite of all
uniting factors. In the Geselischaft, as contrasted with the Gemeinschaft, we
Ferdinand Tonnies: First sign of German sociology
find no actions that can be derived from a priori and necessarily existing
unity; no actions, therefore, which manifest the will and the spirit of the
unity even if performed by the individual: no actions which, in so far
as they are performed by the individual, take place on behalf of those united
with him. In the Gesellschaft such actions do not exist. On the contrary, here
everybody is by himself and isolated, and there exists a condition of tension
against all others. Their spheres of activity and power are sharply separated,
so that everybody refuses to everyone else contact with and admittance to
his sphere; i. e., intrusions are regarded as hostile acts. Such a
negative attitude toward one another becomes the normal and always
underlying relation of these power-endowed individuals, and it characterizes
the Gesellschaft in the condition of rest; nobody wants to grant and produce
anything for another individual, nor will he be inclined to give ungrudgingly to
another individual, if it be not in exchange for a gift or labor equivalent
that he considers at least equal to what he has given.
... in Gesellschaft every person strives for that which is to his own
advantage and he affirms the actions of others only in so far as and as long
as they can further his interest, Before and outside of convention and also
before and outside of each special contract, the relation of all to all may
therefore be conceived as potential hostility or latent war. Against this
condition, all agreements of the will stand out as so many treaties and
peace pacts. This conception is the only one which does justice to all facts
of business and trade where all rights and duties can be reduced to mere
value and definitions of ability to deliver. Every theory of pure private law or
law of nature understood as pertaining to the Gesellschaft has to be
considered as being based upon this conception.
Chapter 5
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
Levels and Areas of Concern
Dialectical Thinking
interaction: Forms and Types
Money and Value
Money, Reification, and Rationalization
The impact of the ideas of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) on American
sociological theory, as well as socio|ogical theory in general, differs markedly
from that of the three theorists discussed in the preceding three chapters of
this book (see Dahme, 1990;Featberstone, 1991; Kaern, Phillips, anti Cohen,
1990; for a good overview of |he secondary literature on Simmel, see Frisby,
1994; Nedelmann, 2001; Scarf, 200O), Marx,Durkheim, and Weber, despite
their later significance, had relatively little influence on American theory in the
early twentieth century. Simmel was much better known to the carry American
sociologists (laworski, 1997). Simmel was eclipsed by Marx,Durkheim, and
Weber, although he is far more influential today than classical thinkers such as
Comte and Spencer. In recent years we have seen an increase in Simmel's
impact on sociological theory (Aronowitz, 1994; D. Levine, 1985, 1989, 1997;
Scarf.2000) as a result of the growing influence of one of his most important
works, The Philosophy of Money (for an analysis of this work, see Poggi, 1993),
as well as the linking of his ideas to one of the most important developments in
social thought—postmodern social theory (Weinstein and Weinstein, 1993.
Georg Simmel :A Biographical Sketch
Georg Simmel (1858-1918)was born in the heart of Berlin on March 1
1858.He studied a wide range of subjects at the University of Berlin. However,
his first effort to produce a dissertation was rejected, and one of his professors
remarked, "We would do him a great service if we do not encourage him
further in this direction" (Frisby,
1984= 23).
Despite this, Simmel
persevered and received his doctor ate in philosophy in 1881. He remained at
the university in a teaching capacity until 1914, although he occupied a
relatively unimportant position as privatdozent from 1885 to 1900. In the latter
position, Simmel served as an unpaid lecturer who se livelihood was
dependent on student fees. Despite his marginality, Simmel did rather well in
this position,largely because he was an excellent lecturer and attracted large
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
numbers of (paying) students (Frisby). His style was so popular that even
cultured members of Berlin society were drawn to his lectures, which became
public events.
Simmel wrote innumerable articles ("The Metropolis and Mental Life") and
books ( The Philosophy of Money) He was well know in German academic
circles and even had an international following, especially in the United States,
where his work was of great significance in the birth of sociology. Finally, in
1990, Simmel received official recognition, a purely honorary title at the
University of Berlin, which did not give him full academic status. Simmel tried
to obtain many academic positions, but he failed in spite of the support of such
scholars as Max Weber.
One of the reasons for Simmel's failure was that he was a Jew in a
nineteenth-century Germany rife with anti-Semitism. Thus, in a report on
Simmel written to a minister of education, Simmel was described as "an
Israelite through and through, in his external appearance, in his bearing and in
his mode of thought" (Frisby). Another reason was the kind of work that he did.
Many of his articles appeared in newspapers and magazines; they were
written for a more general audience than simply academic sociologists. In
addition, because he did not hold a regular academic appointment, he was
forced to earn his living through public lectures. Simmel's audience, both for
his writings and his lectures, was more the intellectual public than professional
sociologists, and this tended to lead to derisive judgments from fellow
professionals. For example, one of his contemporaries damned him because
"his influence remained.., upon the general atmosphere and affected, above all,
the higher levels of journalism" (Troeltsch, cited in Frisby). Simmel's personal
failures can also be linked to the low esteem that German academicians of the
day had for sociology.
In 1914 Simmel finally obtained a regular academic appointment at a minor
university (Strasbourg), but he once again felt estranged. On the one hand, he
regretted leaving his audience of Berlin intellectuals. Thus his wife wrote to
Max Weber's wife:"Georg has taken leave of the auditorium very badly The
students were very affectionate and sympathetic It was a departure at the full
height of life." (Frisby) On the other hand, Simmel did not feel a part of the life
of his new university. Thus, he wrote to Mrs. Weber:"There is hardly anything
to report from us. We live.., a cloistered, closed-off,indifferent, desolate
external existence. Academic activity is = O, the people.., alien and inwardly
hostile." (Frisby) World War I started soon after Simmel's appointment at
Strasbourg; lecture halls were
turned into military hospitals, and students went off to war. Thus, Simmel
remained a marginal figure in German academia until his death in 1918. He
never did have a normal academic career. Nevertheless, Simmel attracted a
large academic following in his day, and his fame as a scholar has, if anything,
grown over the years.
Chapter 5
Although we will focus on Simmel's contributions to sociological theory, we
should point out that he was primarily a philosopher and that many of his
publications dealt with philosophical issues (for example, ethics) and other
philosophers (for example,Kant).
With the exception of his contribution to the primarily macroscopic conflict
theory (Coser, 1956; Simmel, 1908/1955), Georg Simmel is best known as a
microsociologist who played a significant role hi the development of small
group research (Caplow, 1968),symbolic interactionism, and exchange theory.
All of Simmel's contributions in these areas reflect his belief that sociologists
should study primarily forms and types of social interaction. Robert Nisbet
presents this view of Simmel's contribution to sociology:
It is the microsociological character of Simmel's work that may always
give him an edge in timeliness over the other pioneers. He did not disdain
the small and the intimate elements of human association, nor did he ever
lose sight of the primacy of human beings, of concrete in dividuaIs, in
his analysis of institutions.
(Nisbet, 1959:480)
David Frisby makes a similar point: "The grounding of sociology in some
psychological categories may .be one reason why Simmel's sociology has
proved attractive not merely to the interactionist but also to social psychology"
(1984:57; see also Frisby,1992:20-41). However, it is often forgotten that
Simmel's microsociological work onthe forms of interaction is embedded in a
broader theory of the relations between individuals and the larger society.
Levels and Areas of Concern
Simmel had a much more complicated and sophisticated theory of social
reality than he commonly is given credit for in contemporary American
sociology. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby (1978) argue that there are four
basic levels of concern in Simmel's work. First are his microscopic
assumptions about the psychological components of social life.Second, on a
slightly larger scale, is his interest in the sociological components of
interpersonal relationships. Third, and most macroscopic, is his work on the
structure of,and changes in, the social and cultural "spirit" of his times. Not only
did Simmmel operate with this image of a three-tiered social reality, he adopted
the principle of emergence, the idea that the higher levels emerge out of the
lower levels: "Further development replaces the immediacy of interacting
forces with the creation of higher supra-individual formations, which appear as
independent representatives of these forces and absorb and mediate the
relations between individuals" (I 907/1978:174). He also said, "If society is to
be an autonomous object of an independent science, then it can only be so
through the fact that, out of the stun of the individual elements that constitute it,
a new entity emerges; otherwise all problems of social science would only be
those of individual psychology" (Frisby, 1984:5657). Overarching these three
tiers is a fourth that involves ultimate metaphysical principles of life. These
eternal truths affect all of Simmel's work and, as we will see, lead to his image
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
of the future direction of the world.
This concern with multiple levels of social reality is reflected in Simmers
definition of three separable problem "areas" in sociology in "The Problem
Areas of Sociology" (1950; originally published in 1917). The first he described
as "pure" sociology. In this area, psychological variables are combined with
forms of interactions. Although Simmel clearly assumed that actors have
creative mental abilities, he gave little explicit attention to this aspect of social
reality. His most microscopic work is with the forms that interaction takes as
well as with the types of people who engage in interaction (Korilos,1994). The
forms include subordination, superordination, exchange, conflict, and
sociability. In his work on types, he differentiated between positions in the
interactional structure, such as "competitor" and "coquette," and orientations to
the world, such as "miser," "spendthrift," "stranger," and "adventurer." At the
intermediate level is Simmel ‘s "general" sociology, dealing with the social and
cultural products of human history. Here Simmel manifested his larger-scale
interests in the group, the structure, and history of societies and cultures.
Finally, in Simmel's "philosophical" sociology, he dealt with his views on the
basic nature, and inevitable fate, of humankind. Throughout this chapter, we
will touch on all these levels and sociologies. We will find that although Simmel
sometimes separated the different levels and sociologies, he more often
integrated them into a broader totality.
Dialectical Thinking
Simmel's way of dealing with the interrelationships among three basic levels of
social reality (leaving out his fourth, metaphysical, level) gave his sociology a
dialectical character reminiscent of Marx's sociology (Levine, 1991b: 109). A
dialectical approach, as we saw earlier, is multicausal and multidirectional,
integrates fact and value, rejects the idea that there are hard-and-fast dividing
lines between social phenomena, focuses on social relations (B. Turner, 1986),
looks not only at the present but also at the past and the future, and is deeply
concerned with both conflicts and contradictions.
In spite of the similarities between Marx and Simmel in their use of a
dialectical approach, there are important differences between them. Of
greatest importance is the fact that they focused on very different aspects of
the social world and offered very different images of the future of the world.
Instead of Marx's revolutionary optimism, Simmel had a view of the future
closer to Weber's image of an "iron cage" from which there is no escape (for
more on the intellectual relationship between Simmel and Weber. See Scarf,
1989:121 151).
Simmel manifested his commitment to the dialectic in various ways
(Featherstone, 1991:7). For one thing, Simmel's sociology was always
concerned with relationships (Lichtblau and Ritter, 1991), especially interaction
(association). More generally, Simmel was a "methodological relationist"
(Ritzer and Gindoff, 1992) operating with the "principle that everything interacts
in some way with everything else" (Simmel, cited in Frisby. 1992:9). Overall he
Chapter 5
was ever attuned to dualisms, conflicts, and contradictions in whatever realm
of the social world be happened to be working on (Sellerberg, 1994).Donald
Levine states that this perspective reflects Simmel’s belief that "the world can
best be understood in terms of conflicts and contrasts between opposed
categories"(1971:xxxv). Rather than try to deal with this mode of thinking
throughout Simmel's work, let us illustrate it from his work on one of his forms
of interaction--fashion. Simmell used a similar mode of dialectical thinking in
most of his essays on social forms and social types, but this discussion of
fashion amply illustrates his method of dealing with these phenomena. We will
also deal with the dialectic in Simmel's thoughts on subjective-objective culture
and the concepts of”'more-life"and "more-than-life."
Fashion In one of his typically fascinating and dualistic essays, Simmel
(1904/1971; Gronow, 1997; Nedelmaim, 1990) illustrated the contradictions in
fashion in a variety of ways. On the one hand, fashion is a form of social
relationship that allows those who wish to conform to the demands of the
group to do so. On the other hand,fashion also provides the norm from which
those who wish to be individualistic can deviate. Fashion involves a historical
process as well: at the initial stage, everyone accepts what is fashionable;
inevitably, individuals deviate from this; and finally, in the process of deviation,
they may adopt a whole new view of what is in fashion. Fashion is also
dialectical in the sense that the success and spread of any given fashion lead
to its eventual failure. That is. the distinctiveness of something leads to its
being considered fashionable; however, as large numbers of people come to
accept it, it ceases to be distinctive and hence it loses its attractiveness. Still
another duality involves the role of the leader of a fashion movement. Such a
person leads the group, paradoxically, by following the fashion better than
anyone else. that is, by adopting it more determinedly, Finally, Simmel argued
that not only does following what is in fashion involve dualities, so does the
effort on the part of some people to be out of fashion. Unfashionable people
view those who follow a fashion as being imitators and themselves as
mavericks, but Simmel argued that the latter are simply engaging in an
inverse form of imitation. Individuals may avoid what is hi fashion because they
are afraid that they, like their peers, will lose their individuality, but in Simmel's
view, such a fear is hardly a sign of great personal strength and independence.
In sum, Simmel noted that in fashion "all... leading antithetical tendencies.., are
represented in one way or another" (1904/1971:317).
Simmel's dialectical thinking can be seen at a more general level as well.
As we will see throughout this chapter, he was most interested in die conflicts
and contradictions that exist between the individual and the larger social and
cultural structures that individuals construct. These structures ultimately come
to have a life of their own, over which the individual can exert little or no
Individual (Subjective) Culture and Objective Culture People are
influenced,and hi Simmel's view threatened, by social structures and, more
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
important for Simmel,by their cultural products. Simmel distinguished between
individual culture and objective culture. Objective culture refers to those things
that people produce (art, science,philosophy, and so on). individual (subjective)
culture is the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control die elements
of objective culture. In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped
by, objective culture. The problem is dial objective culture comes to have a life
of its own. As Simmel put it, 'They [die elements of culture] acquire fixed
identities, a logic and lawfulness of their own; this new rigidity inevitably places
diem at a distance from the spiritual dynamic which created diem and which
makes them independent" ( 1921/1968: I 1 ). The existence of these cultural
products creates a contradiction with the actors who created them because it is
an example of
the deep estrangement or animosity which exists between organic and
creative processes of the soul and its contents and products: the
vibrating, restless life of the creative soul; which develop toward the
infinite contrasts with its fixed and ideally unchanging product and its
uncanny feedback effect, Which arises and indeed rigidities this
liveliness, Frequently it appears as if creative movement of the soul was
dying from its own product.
(Simmel, 1921/1968:42)
AS K. Peter Etakorn said, "In Simmel's dialectic, mall is always in danger of
being slain by those objects of his own creation which have lost their organic
human coefficient"(1968:2).
More.Life and More-Than-Life Anther area of Simmel's thinking, his
philosophical sociology, is an even more general manifestation of iris
dialectical thinking. In discussing die emergence of social and cultural
structures, Simmel took a position very similar to some of Marx's ideas. Marx
used the concept of the fetishism of commodities to illustrate the separation
between people arid their products. For Marx, this separation reached its apex
in capitalism, could be overcome only in die future socialist society, and thus
was a specific historical phenomenon. But for Simmel this separation is
inherent in the nature of human life. In philosophical terms, there is art inherent
and inevitable contradiction between "more-life" and "more-than-fife" (Oakes,
1984;6;Walngartner, 1959).
The issue of more-life and more-than-life is central in Simmel's essay "The
Transcendent Character of Life" (191811971). As the title suggests and as
Simmel makes clear, "Transcendence is immanent in life" (1918/197l:361).
People possess a doubly transcendent capability. First, because of their
restless, creative capacities (more life), people are able to transcend
themselves. Second, this transcendent, creative ability makes it possible for
people to constantly produce sets of objects that transcend them.The objective
existence of these phenomena (more-than-tile) comes to stand in
irreconcilable opposition to the creative forces (more-life) that produced the
objects in the first place. In other words, social life "creates and sets flee from
Chapter 5
itself something that is not life but 'which has its own significance and follows
its own law'" (Weingartner, citing Simmel, 1959:53). Life is found in the unity,
and the conflict, between the two. As Simmel concludes, "Life finds its essence,
its process, in being more life and more-than-life" (1918/197 I:374).
Thus, because of his metaphysical conceptions, Simmel came to an
image of the world far closer to Weber's than to Marx's. Simmel, like Weber,
saw the world as be coming an iron cage of objective culture from which
people have progressively less chance of escape. We will have more to say
about a number of these issues in the following sections, which deal with
Simmel's thoughts on the major components of social reality.
Georg Simmel is best known in contemporary sociology for his contributions to
our understanding of the patterns, or forms, of social interaction. He expressed
his interest in this level of social reality in this way:
We are dealing here with microscopic molecular processes within human
material, so to speak. These processes are the actual occurrences that
are concatenated or hypostatized into those macrocosmic, solid units and
systems. That people look at one another and are jealous of one another;
that they exchange letters or have dinner together; that apart from all
tangible interests they strike one another as pleasant or unpleasant; that
gratitude for altruistic acts makes for inseparable union; that one asks
another to point out a certain street; that people dress and adorn
themselves for each other--these are a few casualty chosen illustrations
from the whole range of relations that play between one person and another.
They may be momentary or permanent, conscious or unconscious, ephemeral
or of grave consequence, but they incessantly tie men together. At each
moment such threads ~ spun, dropped, taken up again, displaced by others,
interwoven with others. These interactions among the atoms of society are
accessible only to psychological microscopy.
(Simmel. 1908/1959b:327-328)
Simmel made clear here that one of his primary interests was interaction
(association) among conscious actors and that his intent was to look at a wide
range of interactions that may seem trivial at some times but crucially
important at others. His was not a Durkheimian expression of interest in social
facts but a declaration of a smaller-scale focus for sociology.
Because Simmel sometimes took an exaggerated position on the
importance of interaction in his sociology, many have lost sight of his insights
into the larger-scale aspects of social reality. At times, for example, he equated
society with interaction:"Society... is only the synthesis or the general term for
the totality of these specific interactions 'Society' is identical with the sum
total of these relations" (Simmel, 1907/1978:175). Such statements may be
taken as a reaffirmation of his interest in interaction, but as we will see, in his
general and philosophical sociologies, Simmel held a much larger scale
conception of society as well as culture.
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
Interaction; Forms and Types
One of Simmel's dominant concerns was the form rather than the content of
social interaction. This concern stemmed from Simmel's identification with the
Kantian tradition in philosophy, in which much is made of the difference
between form and content. Simmel's position here, however, was quite simple.
From Simmel's point of view, the real world is composed of innumerable
events, actions, interactions, and so forth. To cope with this maze of reality (the
"contents"), people order it by imposing patterns, or forms,on it. Thus, instead
of a bewildering array of specific events, the actor is confronted with a limited
number of forms. In Simmel's view, the sociologist's task is to do precisely what
the layperson does, that is, impose a limited number of forms on social reality,
on interaction in particular, so that it may be better analyzed. This methodology
generally involves extracting commonalities that are found in a wide array of
specific interactions. For example, the superordination and subordination
forms of interaction are found in awide range of settings, "in the state as well
as in a religious community, in a band of conspirators as in an economic
association, in art school as in a family" (Simmel, 1908/1959b:317). Donald
Levine, one of Simmel's foremost contemporary analysts, describes Simmel's
method of doing formal interactional sociology in this way: "His method is to
select some bounded, finite phenomenon from the world of flux; to examine the
multiplicity of elements which compose it; and to ascertain the cause of their
coherence by disclosing its form. Secondarily, he investigates the origins of
this form and its structural implications" (1971:xxxI). More specifically, Levine
points out that "forms are the patterns exhibited by the associations" of people
(198 lb:65).
Simmel's interest in the forms of social interaction has been subjected to
various criticisms. For example, he has been accused of imposing order where
there is none and of producing a series of unrelated studies that in the end
really impose no better order on the complexities of social reality than does
the layperson. Some of these criticisms are valid only if we focus on Simmel's
concern with forms of interaction, his formal sociology, and ignore the other
types of sociology he practiced.
However, there are a number of ways to defend Simmel's approach to
formal sociology. First, it is close to reality, as reflected by the innumerable
real-life examples employed by Simmel. Second, it does not impose arbitrary
and rigid categories on social reality but tries instead to allow the forms to flow
from social reality. Third, Simmel's approach does not employ a general
theoretical schema into which all aspects of the social world are forced. He
thus avoided the reification of a theoretical schema that plagues a theorist like
Parsons. Finally, formal sociology militates against the poorly
conceptualized empiricism that is characteristic of much of sociology. Simmel
certainly used empirical "data," but they are subordinated to his effort to
impose some order on the bewildering world of social reality.
Social Geometry In Simmel's formal sociology, one sees most clearly his
Chapter 5
effort to develop a "geometry" of social relations. Two of the geometric
coefficients that interested him are numbers and distance (others are position,
valence, self-involvement, and symmetry [Levine, 1981b]).
Numbers Simmel's interest in the impact of numbers of people on the
quality of interaction can be seen in his discussion of the difference between a
dyed and a triad.
Dyad and Triad. For Simmel (1950) there was a crucial difference
between the dyad (two-person group) and the triad (three-person group). The
addition of a third person causes a radical and fundamental change.
Increasing the membership beyond three has nowhere near the same impact
as does adding a third member. Unlike all other groups, the dyed does not
achieve a meaning beyond the two individuals involved. There is no
independent group structure in a dyed; there is nothing more to the group than
the two separable individuals. Thus, each member of a dyed retains a high
level of individuality. The individual is not lowered to the level of the group. This
is not the case in a triad. A triad does have the possibility of obtaining a
meaning beyond the individuals involved. There is likely to be more to a triad
than the individuals involved. It is likely to develop an independent group
structure. As a result, there is a greater threat to the individuality of the
members. A triad can have a general leveling effect on the members.
With the addition of a third party to the group, a number of new social roles
become possible. For example, the third party can take the role of arbitrator or
mediator in disputes within the group. Then the third party can use disputes
between the other two for his or her own gain or become an object of
competition between the other two parties. The third member also can
intentionally foster conflict between the other two parties in order to gain
superiority (divide and rule). A stratification system and an authority structure
then can emerge. The movement from dyad to triad is essential to the
development of social structures thin can become separate from, and
dominant over, individuals. Such a possibility does not exist in a dyad.
The process that is begun in the transition from a dyed to a tried continues
as larger and larger groups and, ultimately, societies emerge. In these large
social structures, the individual, increasingly separated from the structure of
society, grows more and more alone, isolated, and segmented. This results
finally in a dialectical relationship between individuals and social structures:
"According to Simmel, the socialized individual always remains in a dual
relation toward society: he is incorporated within it and yet stands against it....
The individual is determined, yet determining; acted upon, yet selfactuating"
(Coser, 1965:11). The contradiction here is that "society allows the emergence
of individuality and autonomy, but it also impedes it" (Coser, 1965:11 ).
Group Size. At a more general level, there is Simmel's ( 1908/1971 a)
ambivalent attitude toward the impact of group size. On the one hand, he took
the position that the increase in the size of a group or society increases
individual freedom. A small group or society is likely to control the individual
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
completely. However, in a larger society, the individual is likely to be involved in
a number of groups, each of winch controls only a small portion of his or her
total personality. In other words, "lndividuality in being and action generally
increases to the degree that the social circle encompassing the individual
expands" (Simmel, 190811971 a:252). However, Simmel took the view that
large societies create a set of problems that ultimately threaten individual
freedom For example, he saw the masses as likely to be dominated by one
idea, the simplest idea. The physical proximity of a mass makes people
suggestible and more likely to follow simplistic ideas, to engage in mindless,
emotional actions.
Perhaps most important, in terms of Simmel's interest in forms of
interaction, is that increasing size and differentiation tend to loosen the bonds
between individuals and leave in their place much more distant, impersonal,
and segmental relationships. Paradoxically, the large group that frees the
individual simultaneously threatens that individuality. Also paradoxical is
Simmers belief that one way for individuals to cope with the threat of the mass
society is to immerse themselves in small groups such as the family.
Distance Another of Simmel's concerns in social geometry was distance.
Levine offers a good summation of Simmel's views on the role of distance in
social relationships: "The properties of forms and the meanings of things are a
function of the relative distances between individuals and other individuals or
things" (1971 :xxxiv). This concern with distance is manifest in various places
in Simmlel's work. We will discuss it in two different contexts--in Simmel's
massive The Philosophy of Money and in one of his cleverest essays, 'The
In The Philosophy of Money (1907/1978), Simmel enunciated some
general principles about value and about what makes things valuable---that
served as the basis for his analysis of money. Because we deal with this work
in detail later in tiffs chapter, we discuss this issue only briefly here. The
essential point is that the value of something is determined by its distance from
the actor. It is not valuable if it is either too close and too easy to obtain or too
distant and too difficult to obtain. Objects that are attainable, but only with great
effort, are the most valuable.
Distance also plays a central role in Simmel's "The Stranger" (1908/1971b;
Tabboni,1995), an essay on a type of actor who is neither too close nor too far.
If he (or she) were too close, he would no longer be a stranger, but if he were
too far, he would cease to have any contact with die group. The interaction that
the stranger engages in with the group members involves a combination of
closeness and distance. The peculiar distance of die stronger from the group
allows him to have a series of unusual interaction patterns with the members.
For example, the stranger can be more objective in its relationships with the
group members. Because he is a stranger, other group members feel more
comfortable expressing confidences to him. In these and other ways, a pattern
of coordination and consistent interaction emerges between the stranger and
Chapter 5
the other group members. The stranger becomes an organic member of the
group. But Simmel not only considered the stranger a social type, he
considered strangeness a form of social interaction. A degree of strangeness,
involving a combination of newness and remoteness, enters into all social
relationships, even the most intimate. Thus we can examine a wide range of
specific into actions in order to discover the degree of strangeness found in
Although geometric dimensions enter a number of Simmel's types and
forms, there is much more to them than simply geometry. The types and forms
are constructs that Simmel used to gain a greater understanding of a wide
range of interaction patterns.
Social Types We have already encountered one of Simmel's types, the
stranger; others include the miser, the spendthrift, the adventurer, and the
nobleman. To illustrate its mode of thinking in this area, we will focus on one of
his types, the poor.
The Poor As is typical of types in Simmel's work, the poor were defined
in terms of social relationships, as being aided by other people or at least
having die right to that aid. Here Simmel quite clearly did not hold the view that
poverty is defined by a quantity, or rather a lack of quantity, of money.
Although Simmel focused on the poor in terms of characteristic
relationships and interaction patterns, he also used the occasion of his essay
"The Poor" (1908/197 It) to develop a wide range of interesting insights into the
poor and poverty. It was characteristic of Simmel to offer a profusion of insights
in every essay. Indeed, this is one of his great claims to fame. For example,
Simmel argued that a reciprocal set of rights and obligations defines the
relationship between the needy and the givers. The needy have the right to
receive aid, and this fight makes receiving aid less painful. Conversely, the
giver has the obligation to give to the needy. Simmel also took the functionalist
position that aid to die poor by society helps support the system. Society
requires aid to the poor "so that the poor will not become active and dangerous
enemies of society, so as to make their reduced energies more productive, and
so as to prevent the degeneration of their progeny" (Simmel, 1908/1971c: 154).
Thus aid to the poor is for the sake of society, not so much for the poor per se.
The state plays a key role here, and, as Simmel saw it, the treatment of the
poor grows increasingly impersonal as the mechanism for giving aid becomes
more bureaucratized.
Simmel also had a relativistic view of poverty; that is, the poor are not
simply those who stand at die bottom of society. From his point of view, poverty
is found in all social strata. This concept foreshadowed the later sociological
concept of relative deprivation. If people who are members of the upper
classes have less than their peers do, they are likely to feel poor in comparison
to them. Therefore, government programs aimed at eradicating poverty can
never succeed. Even if those at the bottom are elevated, many people
throughout the stratification system will still feel poor in comparison to their
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
Social Forms As with socinl types, Simmel looked at a wide range of
social forms, including exchange, conflict prostitution, and sociability. We can
illustrate Simmel's (190811971d) work on social forms through his discussion
of domination, that is, superordination and subordination.
Superordination and Subordination Superordination and subordination
have a reciprocal relationship. The leader does not want to determine
completely the thoughts and actions of others. Rather, the leader expects the
subordinate to react either positively or negatively. Neither this nor any other
form of interaction can exist without mutual relationships. Even in the most
oppressive form of domination, subordinates have at least some degree of
personal freedom.
To most people, superordination involves an effort to eliminate
completely the independence of subordinates, but Simmel argued that a social
relationship would cease to exist if this were the case.
Simmel asserted that one can be subordinated to an individual, a group,
or an objective force. Leadership by a single individual generally leads to a
tightly knit group either in support of or in opposition to the leader. Even when
opposition arises in such a group, discord can be resolved more easily when
the parties stand under the same higher power. Subordination under a plurality
can have very uneven effects. On the one hand, the objectivity of rule by a
plurality may make for greater unity in the group than does the more arbitrary
rule of an individual. On the other hand, hostility is likely to be engendered
among subordinates if they do not get the personal attention of a leader.
Simmel found subordination under an objective principle to be most
offensive, perhaps because human relationships and social interactions are
eliminated. People feel they are determined by an impersonal law that they
have no ability to affect. Simmel saw subordination to an individual as freer
and more spontaneous: "Subordination under a person has an element of
freedom and dignity in comparison with which all obedience to laws has
something mechanical and passive" (1908/1971d:I 15). Even worse is
subordination to objects (for example, icons), which Simmel found a
"humiliatingly harsh and unconditional kind of subordination" ( 1908/I 971 d: I
15 ). Because the individual is dominated by a thing, "he himself
psychologically sinks to the category of mere thing" (Simmel,
Social Forms and Simmel's Larger Problematic Guy Oakes (1984)
linked Simmel's discussion of forms to his basic problematic, the growing gap
between objective and subjective culture. He begins with the position that in
"Simmel's view, the discovery of objectivity-the independence of things from
the condition of their subjective or psychological genesis--was the greatest
achievement in the cultural history of the West" (Oakes, 1984:3). One of the
ways in which Simmel addresses this objectivity is in his discussion of forms,
but although such formalization and objectification are necessary and
Chapter 5
desirable, they can come to be quite undesirable:
On the one hand, forms ale necessary conditions for the expression
and the realization of the energies and interests of life. On the other
hand, these forms become increasingly detached and remote from life.
When this happens, a conflict develops between the process of life and
the configuration in which it is expressed. Ultimately, this conflict
threatens to nullify the relationship between life and form, and thus to
destroy the conditions under which the process of life can be realized
in autonomous structures.
(Oakes, 1984:4)
Simmel said relatively little directly about the large-scale structures of society.
In fact, at times, given his focus on patterns of interaction, he denied the
existence of that level of social reality. A good example of this is found in his
effort to define society, where he rejected the realist position exemplified by
Emile Durkheim that society is a real, material entity. Lewis Coser notes, "He
did not see society as a thing or an organism"(1965:5). Simmel was also
uncomfortable with the nominalist conception that society is nothing more than
a collection of isolated individuals. He adopted an intermediate position,
conceiving of society as a set of interactions (Spykman, 1925/I 966:88).
"Society is merely the name for a number of individuals connected by
'interaction'" (Simmel, cited in Coser, 1965:5).
Although Simmel enunciated this interactionist position, in much of ins work
he operated as a realist, as if society were a real material structure. There is,
then, a basic contradiction in Simmel's work on the social-structural level.
Simmel noted, "Society transcends the individual and lives its own life which
follows its own laws. It, too, confronts the individual with a historical, imperative
firmness" (1908/1950a:258). Coser catches the essence of this aspect of
Simme’s thought: "The larger superindividual structures--the state, the clan,
the family, the city, or the trade union--turn out to be hut crystallizations of this
interaction, even though they may attain autonomy and permanency and
confront the individual as if they were alien powers" (1965:5). Rudolph Heberle
makes essentially the same point: "One can scarcely escape the impression
that Simmel views society as an interplay of structural factors, in which the
human beings appear as passive objects rather than as live and willing actors"
The resolution of this paradox lies in the difference between Simmel's
formal sociology, in which he tended to adhere to an interactionist view of
society, and ins historical and philosophical sociologies, in winch he was much
more inclined to see society as an independent, coercive social structure. In
the latter sociologies, he saw society as part of the broader process of the
development of objective culture, which worried him. Although objective culture
is best seen as part of the cultural realm, Simmel included the growth of
large-scale social structures as part of rigs process. That Simmel related the
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
growth of social structures to the spread of objective culture is clear in this
statement: 'The increasing objectification of our culture, whose phenomena
consist more and more of impersonal elements and less and less absorb the
subjective totality of the individual . also involves sociological structures"
(1908/1950b:318). In addition to clarifying the relationship between society and
objective culture, tiffs statement leads to Simmers thoughts on the cultural
level of social reality.
One of the main focuses of Simmel's~ historical and philosophical sociology
is the cultural level of social reality, or what he called the "objective culture." In
Simmel's view, people produce culture, but because of their ability to reify
social reality, die cultural world and the social world come to have lives of their
own, lives that come increasingly to dominate the actors who created, and
daily recreate, them. '`The cultural objects become more and more linked to
each other in a self-contained world winch has increasingly fewer contacts with
the [individual] subjective psyche and its desires and sensibilities" (Coser.
1965:22). Although people always retain the capacity to create and recreate
culture, the long-term trend of history is for culture to exert a more and more
coercive force on the actor.
The preponderance of objective over [individual] subjective culture
that developed during the nineteenth century.., this discrepancy seems
to widen steadily. Every day and from all sides, the wealth of objective
culture increases, but the individual mind can enrich die forms and
content of its own development only by distancing itself still further
from that culture and developing its own at a much slower pace.
(Simmel. 1907/1978:449)
In various places in his work, Simmel identified a number of components of
the objective culture, for example, tools, means of transport, products of
science, technology, arts, language, die intellectual sphere, conventional
wisdom, religious dogma, philosophical systems, legal systems, moral codes,
and ideals (for example, the "fatherland"). The objective culture grows and
expands in various ways. First, its absolute size grows with increasing
modernization. This can be seen most obviously in the case of scientific
knowledge, winch is expanding exponentially, although this is just as true of
most other aspects of the cultural realm. Second. the number of different
components of the cultural realm also grows. Finally. and perhaps most
important, the various dements of the cultural world become more and more
intertwined in an ever more powerful, self-contained world that is increasingly
beyond the control of the actors (Oakes, 1984:12). Simmel not only was
interested in describing die ~growth of objective culture but also was greatly
disturbed by it: "Simmel was impressed if not depressed by the bewildering
number and variety of human products which in the contemporary world
surround and unceasingly impinge upon die individual" (Weingartner,
Chapter 5
What worried Simmel most was the threat to individual culture posed by the
growth of objective culture. Simmel's personal sympathies were with a world
dominated by individual culture, but he saw the possibility of such a world as
more and more unlikely.It is this that Simmel described as the "tragedy of
culture." (We will comment on tins in detail in the discussion of The Philosophy
of Money.) Simmel’s specific analysis of the growth of objective culture over
individual subjective culture is simply one example of a general principle that
dominates all of life: '~The total value of something increases to the same
extent as the value of its individual parts declines" (1907/1978:199).
We can relate Simmel's general argument about objective culture to his
more basic analysis of forms of interaction. In one of ins best-known essays,
'The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903/197l), Simmel analyzed the forms of
interaction that take place in die modern city (Vidler, 1991). He saw the modern
metropolis as the "genuine arena" of the growth of objective culture and the
decline of individual culture. 1! is the scene of the predominance of the money
economy, and money, as Simmel often made clear, has a profound effect on
the nature of human relationships. The widespread use of money leads to an
emphasis on calculability and rationality in all spheres of life. Thus genuine
human relationships decline, and social relationships tend to be dominated by
a blasé and reserved attitude. Whereas the small town was characterized by
greater feeling and emotionality, the modem city is characterized by a shallow
intellectuality that matches the calculability needed by a money economy. The
city is also the center of the division of labor, and as we have seen,
specialization plays a central role in the production of an ever-expanding
objective culture, with a corresponding decline in individual culture. The city is
a "frightful leveler," in which virtually everyone is reduced to emphasizing
unfeeling calculability. It is more and more difficult to maintain individuality in
the face of the expansion of objective culture (Lohmann and Wilkes, 1996).
It should be pointed out that in his essay on the city (as well as in many
other places in his work) Simmel also discussed the liberating effect of this
modem development. For example, he emphasized the fact that people are
freer in the modem city than in the tight social confines of the small town. We
will have more to say about Simmel's thoughts on the liberating impact of
modernity at/he close of the following section, devoted to Simmel's book The
Philosophy of Money.
Before we get to that work, it is necessary to indicate that one of the many
ironies of Simmel's influence on the development of sociology is that his
micro-analytic work is used, but its broader implications are ignored almost
totally. Take the example of Simmel's work on exchange relationships. He saw
exchange as the "purest and most developed kind" of interaction (Simmel,
1907/1978:82). Although all forms of interaction involve some sacrifice, it
occurs most clearly in exchange relationships. Simmel thought of all social
exchanges as involving "profit and loss." Such an orientation was crucial to
Simmel's microsociological work and specifically to the development of his
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
largely micro-oriented exchange theory. However, his thoughts on exchange
are also expressed in his broader work on money. To Simmel, money is the
purest form of exchange. In contrast to a barter economy, where the cycle
ends when one object has been exchanged for another, an economy based on
money allows for an endless series of exchanges. This possibility is crucial for
Simmel because it provides the basis for the widespread development of
social structures and objective culture. Consequently, money as a form of
exchange represented for Simmel one of the root causes of the alienation of
people in a modern reified social structure.
In his treatment of the city and exchange, one can see the elegance of
Simmel's thinking as he related small-scale sociological forms of exchange to
the development of modern society in its totality. Although this link can be
found in his specific essays (especially Simmel, 1991), it is clearest in The
Philosophy of Money.
The Philosophy of Money (1907/1978) illustrates well the breadth and
sophistication of Simmel's thinking. It demonstrates conclusively that Simmel
deserves at least as much recognition for his general theory as for his essays
on microsociology, many of which can be seen as specific manifestations of his
general theory.
Although the title makes it clear that Simmel's focus is money, his interest
in that phenomenon is embedded in a set of his broader theoretical and
philosophical concerns. For example, as we have already seen, Simmel was
interested in the broad issue of value, and money can ha seen as simply a
specific form of value. At another level, Simmel was interested not in money
per se but in its impact on such a wide range of phenomena as the "inner
world" of actors and the objective culture as a whole. At still another level, he
treated money as a specific phenomenon linked with a variety of other
components of life, including "exchange, ownership, greed, extravagance,
cynicism individual freedom, the style of life, culture, the value of the
personality, etc." (Siegfried Kracauer, cited in Bottomore arid Frisby, 1978:7).
Finally, and most generally, Simmel saw money as a specific component of life
capable of helping us understand the totality of life. As Tom Bortomore and
David Frisby put it, Simmel sought no less than to extract "the totality of the
spirit of the age from his analysis of money" (1978:7).
The Philosophy of Money has much in common with the work of Karl Marx.
Like Marx, Simmel focused on capitalism and the problems created by a
money economy. Despite this common ground, however, the differences are
overwhelming. For example,Simmel saw the economic problems of his time as
simply a specific manifestation of a more general cultural problem, the
alienation of objective from subjective culture (Poggi, 1993). To Marx these
problems are specific to capitalism, but to Simmel they are part of a universal
tragedy -the increasing powerlessness of the individual in the face of the
growth of objective culture. Whereas Marx's analysis is historically specific,
Chapter 5
Simmel's analysis seeks to extract timeless truths from the flux of human
history. As Frisby says, "In his The Philosophy of Money... .what is missing.., is
a historical sociology of money relationships" (1984:58). This difference in their
analyses is related to a crucial political difference between Simmel and Marx.
Because Marx saw economic problems as time-bound, the product of capitalist
society, he believed that eventually they could be solved. Simmel, however,
saw the basic problems as inherent hi human life and held out no hope for
future improvement. In fact, Simmel believed that socialism, instead of
improving the situation, would heighten the kinds of problems discussed in The
Philosophy of Money. Despite some substantive similarities to Marxian theory,
Simmel's thought is far closer to that of Weber and his "iron cage" in terms of
his image of both the modem world and its future.
The Philosophy of Money begins with a discussion of the general forms of
money and value. Later the discussion moves to the impact of money oil the
"inner world" of actors and on culture in general. Because the argument is so
complex, we can only highlight it here.
Money and Value
One of Simmers initial concerns in the work, as we discussed briefly earlier, is
the relationship between money and value (Kamolnick, 2001 ). In general, he
argued that people create value by making objects, separating themselves
from those objects, and then seeking to overcome the "distance, obstacles,
difficulties" (Simmel, 1907/1978:66). The greater the difficulty of obtaining an
object, the greater its value. However, difficulty of attainment has a "lower and
an upper limit (Simmel, 1907/1978:72). The general principle is that the value
of things comes from the ability of people to distance themselves properly from
objects. Things that are too close, too easily obtained, are not very valuable.
Some exertion is needed for something to be considered valuable. Conversely,
things that are too far, too difficult, or nearly impossible to obtain are also not
very valuable. Things that defy most, if not all, of our efforts to obtain them
cease to be valuable to us. Those things that are most valuable are neither too
distant nor too close. Among the factors involved in the distance of an object
from an actor are die time it takes to obtain it, its scarcity, the difficulties
involved in acquiring it, and the need to give up other things in order to acquire
it. People try to place themselves at a proper distance from objects, which
must be attainable, but not too easily.
In this general context of value. Simmel discussed money. In the
economic realm. money serves both to create distance from objects and to
provide the means to overcome it. The money value attached to object in a
modem economy places them at a distance from us; we cannot obtain them
without money of our own. The difficulty in obtaining the money and therefore
the objects makes them valuable to us. At the same time. Once we obtain
enough money, we are able to overcome the distance between ourselves and
the objects. Money thus performs the interesting function of creating distance
between people and objects and then providing the means to overcome that
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
Money, Reification, and Rationalization
In the process of creating value, money also provides the basis for the
development of the market, the modem economy, and ultimately modem
(capitalistic) society (Poggi,1996). Money provides the means by which these
entities acquire a life of their own that is external to, and coercive of, the actor.
This stands in contrast to earlier societies in which barter or trade could not
lead to the reified world that is the distinctive product of a money economy.
Money permits this development in various ways. For example. Simmel argued
that money allows for "long-range calculations, large-scale enterprises
and Iong-term credits" (190711978:125). Later. Simmel said that "money
has . . .developed . . . the most objective practices, the most logical, purely
mathematical norms, the absolute freedom from everything personal"
(1907/1978:128). He saw this process of reification as only part of the more
general process by which the mind embodies and symbolizes itself in objects.
These embodiments, these symbolic structures, become reified and come to
exert a controlling force on actors.
Not only does money help create a reified social world, it also contributes to
the increasing rationalization of that social world (Deutschmalm, 1996; B.
Turner, 1986). This is another of the concerns that Simmel shared with Weber
(Levine. 2000). A money economy fosters an emphasis on quantitative rather
than qualitative factors. Simmel stated:
It would be easy to multiply the examples that illustrate the growing
preponderance of the category of quantity over that of quality, or more
precisely the tendency to dissolve quality into quantity, to remove the
elements more and more from quality, to grant them only specific forms
of motion and to interpret everything that is specifically, individually,
and qualitatively determined as the more or less, the bigger or smaller,
the wider or narrower, the more or less frequent of those colorless
elements and awarenesses that ale only accessible to numerical
determination---even though this tendency may never~ absolutely attain
its goal by retinal means....
Thus, one of the major tendencies of the reduction of quality to
quantity-achieves its higher and uniquely perfect representation in money.
Here, too, money is the pinnacle of a cultural historical series of
developments which unambiguously determines its direction.
(Simmel, 1907/1978:278-280)
Less obviously, money contributes to rationalization by increasing the
importance of intellectuality in the modern world (B. Turner, 1986;
Deutschmann. 1996). On the one hand, the development of a money economy
presupposes a significant expansion of mental processes. As an example,
Simmel pointed to the complicated mental processes that are required by such
money transactions as covering bank notes with cash reserves. On the other
hand, a money economy contributes to a considerable change in the norms
Chapter 5
and values of society; it aids in the "fundamental reorientation of culture
towards intellectuality" (Simmel, 190711978:152). In part because of a money
economy, intellect has come to be considered the most valuable of our mental
Simmel saw the significance of the individual declining as money
transactions become an increasingly important part of society and as reified
structures expand. This is part of his general argument on the decline of
individual subjective culture in the face of the expansion of objective culture
(the "tragedy of culture"):
The rapid circulation of money induces habits of spending and
acquisition; it makes a specific quantity of money psychologically less
significant and valuable, while money in genial be comes increasingly
important because money matters now affect the individual mole vitally
than they do in a less agitated style of life. We are confronted here with
a very common phenomenon; namely, that the total value of something
increases to the same extent as the value of its individual parts declines.
For example, the size and significance of a social group often becomes
greater the less highly the lives~ and interests of its individual members
are valued; the objective culture, the diversity and liveliness of its
content attain their highest point through a division of labour that often
condemns the individual representative and participant hi this culture
to a monotonous specialization, narrowness, and stunted growth. The whole
becomes more perfect and harmonious, the less the individual is a
harmonious being.
(Simmel, 1907/1978:199)
Jorge Arditi (1996) has put this issue in slightly different terms. Arditi
recognizes the theme of increasing rationalization in Simmel's work, but
argues that it must be seen in the context of Simmel's thinking on the
nonrational. "According to Simmel, the nonrational is a primary, essential
element of 'life,' an integral aspect of our humanity. Its gradual eclipse in the
expanses of a modem, highly rationalized world implies, then, an
unquestionable impoverishment of being" (Arditi, 1996:95). One example of
the nonralional is love (others are emotions and faith), and it is nonrational
because, among other things, it is impractical, is the opposite of intellectual
experience, does not necessarily have real value, is impulsive, nothing social
or cultural intervenes between lover and beloved, and it springs "'from the
completely nonrational depths of life'" (Simmel, in Arditi, 1996:96). With
increasing rationalization, we begin to lose the nonrationai and with it "we
lose . . . the most meaningful of our human attributes: our authenticity" (Arditi,
1996:103). This loss of authenticity, of the nonrational, is a real human tragedy.
In some senses, it may be difficult to see how money can take on the
central role that it does in modem society, on the surface, it appears that
money is simply a means to a variety of ends or, in Simmel's worlds, "the
purest form of the tool" (1907/1978:210). However, money has come to be the
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
most extreme example of a means that has become an end in itself:
Never has an~ object that owes its value exclusively to its quality
as a means, to its convertibility into more definite values, so thoroughly
and unreservedly developed into a psychological value absolute, into a
completely engrossing final purpose governing our practical
consciousness. This ultimate craving for money must increase to the extent
that money takes on the quality of a pure means .For this implies that
the range of objects made available to money grows continuously ,that
things submit more and more defencelessly to the power of money ,that money
itself becomes more and more lacking in quality yet thereby at the same
time becomes powerful in relation to the quality of things.
We have already discussed some criticisms of Simmel's particular ideas, for
example that ins emphasis on forms imposes order where none exists (p. 249)
and that he seems to contradict himself by viewing social structures, on the
one hand, as simply a form of interaction and, on the other hand, as coercive
and independent of interactions (p. 254). In addition, we have described the
difference between Marx and Simmel on alienation, which suggests the
primary Marxist criticism of Simmel. This criticism is that Simmel does not
suggest a way out of the tragedy of culture, because he considers alienation to
be inherent to the human condition. For Simmel, the disjuncture between
objective and subjective culture is as much a part of our "species being" as
labor is to Marx. Therefore, whereas Marx believes that alienation will be swept
away with the coming of socialism, Simmel has no such political hope.
Undoubtedly, the most frequently cited criticism of Simmel is the
fragmentary nature of his work. Simmel is accused of having no coherent
theoretical approach, but instead a set of fragmentary or "impressionistic"
(Frisby, 1981) approaches. It certainly is true as we have argued here, that
Simmel focused on forms and types of association, but that is hardly the sort
of theoretical unity that we see in the other founders of sociology. Indeed, one
of Simmel's most enthusiastic living supporters in American sociology, Donald
Levine (1976a:814) admits that, "although literate American sociologists today
could be expected to produce a coherent statement of the theoretical
frameworks and principal themes of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, few would be
able to do the same for Simmel." Further, Levine (1976b: 1128) admits that it is
not the obtuseness of modern interpreters, but "the character of Simmel's work
itself: the scatter of topics, the failure to integrate related materials, the paucity
of coherent general statements, and the cavalier attitude toward academic
tradition." Although Levine attempts to present the core of Simmel's unique
approach (as we have here), he must admit that, "in spite of these
achievements of Simmelian scholarship, there remains for the reader the
undeniable experience of Simmel as an unsystematic writer. Indeed, although
many have found his work powerfully stimulating, virtually no one knows how
Chapter 5
to practice as a full-blown proponent of Simmelian social science" (Levine
Despite the fact that there ate few Simmelians, Simmel has often been
recognized as an "innovator of ideas and theoretical lead" (Tenbruck, 1959:61).
This really is exactly what Simmel intended.
I know that I shall die without spiritual heirs (and that is good).
The estate I leave is like cash distributed among many heirs, each of whom
puts his shoe to use in some~ trade that is compatible with his nature
but which can no longer be recognized as coming from that estate.
(Simmel in Frisby, 1984:150)
Consequently, Simmel has often been regarded as a natural resource of
insights to be mined for empirical hypothesis rather than as a coherent
framework for theoretical analysis.
Nevertheless, we do not feel that its potential for positivistic hypothesis is a
satisfactory answer to the objection that Simmel's work is fragmentary. If these
are the terms by which Simmel is measured, he most certainly must be judged
a failure whose ideas are only saved because of the work of his more scientific
successors. This was, in fact, Durkheim's (1979:328) assessment of Simmel's
work. We. however, agree more with Nisbet's ( 1959:481 ) assessment that
there is, in Simmel’s work, "a larger element of irreducible humanism and. , . it
will always be possible to derive something of importance from him directly that
cannot be absorbed by the impersonal propositions of science."
With all of the classical theorists, it is important for the student to directly
encounter their original writings, even if only in translation. The power and
humor of Marx's language evaporates when we summarize Iris theories. The
broad strokes of our précis obscure Durkheim's carefully detailed arguments.
The optimistic faith in scholarship that lies behind Weber's pessimistic
conclusions are missed. But this is most true with Simmel. There simply is no
substitute for picking up one of Simmel's essays and being taught to look anew
at fashion (1904/1971) or flirting (1984) or the stranger (1908/1971b) or
secrecy (1906/1950).
The work of Georg Simmel has been influential in American sociological theory
for many years. The focus of this influence seems to be shifting from
microsociology to a general sociological theory. Simmel's microsociology is
embedded in a broad dialectical theory that interrelates the cultural and
individual levels. We identify four basic levels of concern in Simmel's work:
psychological, interactional, structural and institutional, and the ultimate
metaphysics of life.
Simmel operated with a dialectical orientation, although it is not as well
articulated as that of Karl Marx. We illustrate Simmel's dialectical concerns in
various ways. We deal with the way they are manifested in forms of interaction
specifically, fashion. Simmel also was interested in the conflicts between the
individual and social structures. but his greatest concern was those conflicts
Georg Simmel and Form sociology
that develop between individual culture and objective culture. He perceived a
general process by which objective culture expands and individual culture
becomes increasingly impoverished in the face of this development. Simmel
saw this conflict, in turn, as part of a broader philosophical conflict between
more-life and more-than-life.
The bulk of this chapter is devoted to Simmel's thoughts on each of the four
levels of social reality. Although he has many useful assumptions about
consciousness, he did comparatively little with them. He had much more to
offer on forms of interaction and types of interactants. In this formal sociology,
we see Simmel’s great interest in social geometry, for example, numbers of
people. In this context, we examine Simmel's work on the crucial transition
from a dyad to a triad. With the addition of one parson, we move from a dyad to
a triad and with it the possibility of the development of large-scale structures
that can become separate from, and dominant over, individuals. This creates
the possibility of conflict and contradiction between the individual and the
larger society. In his social geometry, Simmel was also concerned with the
issue of distance, as in,for example, ins essay on the "stranger," including
"strangeness" in social life. Simmel’s interest in social types is illustrated in a
discussion of the poor, and his thoughts on social forms are illustrated in a
discussion of domination, that is, superordination and subordination.
At the macro level, Simmel had comparatively little to say about social
structures. In fact, at times he seemed to manifest a disturbing tendency to
reduce social structures to little more than interaction patterns. Simmel's real
interest at the macro level was objective culture. He was interested in both the
expansion of this culture and its destructive effects on individuals (the "tragedy
of culture"). This general concern is manifest in a variety of his specific essays,
for example, those on the city and exchange.
In The Philosophy of Money Simmel's discussion progressed from money
to value to the problems of modem society and, ultimately, to the problems of
life in general. Of particular concern is Simmel's interest in the tragedy of
culture as part of a broader set of apprehensions about culture. Finally, we
discussed Simme]'s work on secrecy in order to illustrate the full range of his
theoretical ideas, The discussion of Simmel's work on money, as well as his
ideas on secrecy, demonstrates that he has a far more elegant and
sophisticated theoretical orientation than he is usually given credit for by those
who are familiar with only ins thoughts on micro-level phenomena.
Chapter 6
Chapter6: Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
Material and Nonmaterial Social Facts
Types of Nonmaterial Social Facts
Mechanical and Organic Solidarity
Dynamic Density
Repressive and Restitutive Law
Normal and Pathological
The Four Types of Suicide
Suicide Rates and Social Reform
EMILE DURKHEIM:A Biographical Sketch
Emile Durkheim(1858-1917) was born on April 15,1858,in Epinal, France. He
was descended from along line of rabbis and himself studied to be a rabbi,
but by the time he was in his teens,he had largely disavowed his
heritage(Strenski, 1997:4). From that time on, his lifelong interest in religion
was more academic than theological (Meatrovic, 1988). He was dissatisfied
not only with his religious training but also with his general education and its
emphasis on literary and esthetic matters. He longed for schooling in
scientific methods and in the moral principles needed to guide social life. He
rejected a traditional academic career in philosophy and sought instead to
acquire the scientific training needed to contribute to the moral guidance of
society. Although he was interested in scientific sociology, there was no field
of sociology at that time, so between 1882 and 1887 he taught philosophy in a
number of provincial schools in the Paris area.
His appetite for science was whetted further by a trip to Germany, where
he was ex-posed to the scientific psychology being pioneered by Wilhelm
Wundt (Durkheim,1887/1993). In the years immediately after his visit to
Germany, Durkheim published a good deal, basing his work, in part, on his
experiences there (R. Jones, 1994). These publications helped him gain a
position in the department of philosophy at the University of Bordeaux in 1887.
There Durkheim offered the first course in social science in a French
university. This was a particularly impressive accomplishment, because only
a decade earlier, a furor had erupted in a French university after the mention
of Augusta Comte in a student dissertation. Durkheim's main responsibility,
however, was teaching courses in education to schoolteachers, and his most
important course was in the area of moral education. His goal was to
communicate a moral system to the educators, who he hoped would then
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
pass the system on to young people in an effort to help reverse the moral
degeneration he saw around him in French society.
The years that followed were characterized by a series of personal
successes for Durkheim. In 1893 he published his French doctoral thesis,
The Division of Labor in Society, as well as his Latin thesis on Montesquieu
(Durkheim, 1892/1997; W. Miller, 1993). His major methodological
statement,The Rules of Sociological Method, appeared in 1895, followed (in
1897) by his empirical application of those methods in the study Suicide. By
1896 he had become a full professor at Bordeaux. In 1902 he was summoned
to the famous French university the Sorbonne, and in 1906 he was named
professor of the science of education, a title that was changed in 1913 to
professor of the science of education and sociology. The other of his most
famous works, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, was published in
Durkheim is most often thought of today as a political conservative, and
his influence within sociology certainly has been a conservative one. But in
his time, he was considered a liberal, and this was exemplified by the active
public role he played in the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army.
captain whose court-martial for treason was felt by many to be anti-Semitic
Durkheim was deeply offended by the Dreyfus affair, particularly its
anti-Semitism.But Durkheim did not attribute this antiSemitism to racism
among the French people. Characteristically, he saw it as a symptom of
the moral sickness confronting French society as a whole (Bimbaum and
Todd, 1995). He said:
When society undergoes suffering, it feels the need to find
someone whom it can hold responsible for its sickness, on whom it can
avenge its misfortunes: and those against whom public opinion already
discriminates are naturally designated for this role. These are the
pariahs who serve as expiatory victims. What confirms me in this
interpretation is the way in which the result of Dreyfus's trial was
greeted in 1894. There was a surge of joy in the boulevards. People
celebrated as a triumph what should have been a cause for public mourning.
At least they knew whom to blame for the economic troubles and moral
distress in which they lived. The trouble came from the Jews. The charge
had been officially proved. By this very fact alone, things already
seemed to be getting better and people felt consoled.
(Lukec, 1972:345)
Thus, Durkheim's interest in the Dreyfus affair stemmed from his deep
and lifelong interest in morality and the moral crisis confronting modern
To Durkheim, the answer to the Dreyfus affair and crises like it lay in
ending the moral disorder in society. Because that could not be done quickly
or easily, Durkheim suggested more specific actions such as severe
Chapter 6
repression of those who incite hatred of others and government efforts to
show the public how it is being misled. He urged people to "have the courage
to proclaim aloud what they think, and to unite together in order to achieve
victory in the struggle against public madness" (Lukee, 1972:347).
Durkheim's (1928/1962) interest in socialism is also taken as evidence
against the idea that he was a conservative, but his kind of socialism was very
different from the kind that interested Marx and his followers. In fact,
Durkheim labeled Marxism as a set of "disputable and out-of-date
hypotheses" (Lukes, 1972:323). To Durkheim, socialism represented a
movement aimed at the moral regeneration of society through scientific
morality, and he was not interested in shorterm political methods or the
economic aspects of socialism. He did not see the proletariat as the salvation
of society, and he was greatly opposed to agitation or violence.
Socialism for Durkheim was very different from what we usually think of
as socialism; it simply represented a system in which the moral principles
discovered by scientific sociology were to be applied.
Durkheim, as we will see throughout this book, had a profound influence
on the development of sociology, but his influence was not restricted to it
(Halls, 1996). Much of his impact on other fields came through the journal
L'annee scoiologique, which he founded in 1898. An intellectual circle arose
around the journal with Durkheim at its center. Through it, he and his ideas
influenced such fields as anthropology, history, linguistics, and--somewhat
ironically, considering his early attacks on the field psychology.
Durkheim died on November 15,1917, a celebrated figure in French
intellectual circles, but it was not until over twenty years later, with the
publication of Talcott Parsons's The Structure of Social Action (1937), that his
work became a significant influence on American sociology.
There are two main themes in the work of Emile Durkheim. The first is the
priority of the social over the individual. and the second is the idea that
society can be studied scientifically. Because both of these themes continue
to be controversial, Durkheim is still relevant today, We live in a society that
tends to see everything as attributable to individuals, even clearly social
problems such as racism, pollution, and econormic recessions. Durkheim
approaches things from the opposite perspective, stressing the social
dimension of all human phenomena. However, even some who recognize the
importance of society tend to see it as an amorphous entity that can be
intuitively understood, but never scientifically studied. Here again, Durkheim
provides the opposing approach. For Durkheim, society is made up of "social
facts" that exceed out intuitive understanding and must be investigated
through observations and measurements. These ideas are so central to
sociology that Durkheim is often seen as the "father" of sociology (Gouldner,
1958). To found sociology as a discipline was indeed one of Durkheim's
primary goals.
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
Durkheim (/90011973b:3) believed that sociology, as an idea, was born in
France in the nineteenth century. He wanted to turn this idea into a discipline,
a well-defined field of study, He recognized the roots of sociology in the
ancient philosophers--such as Plato and Aristotle---and more proximate
sources in French philosophers such as Montesquieu and Cundorcet.
However, in Durkhehn's (1900/1973b:6) view, previous philosophers did not
go far enough, because they did not try to create an entirely new discipline.
Although the term sociology had been coined some years earlier by
Auguste Comte, there was no field of sociology per se in late
nineteenth-contrary universities. There were no schools, departments, or
even professors of sociology. There were a few thinkers who were dealing
with ideas that were in one way or another sociological, but there was as yet
no disciplinary "home" for sociology. Indeed, there was strong opposition from
existing disciplines to the founding of such a field. The most significant
opposition came from psychology and philosophy, two fields that claimed
already to cover the do-main sought by sociology. The dilemma for Durkheim,
given his aspirations for sociology, was how to create for it a separate and
identifiable niche.
To separate it from philosophy, Durkheim argued that sociology should be
oriented toward empirical research. This seems simple enough, but the
situation was complicated by Durkheim's belief that sociology was also
threatened by a philosophical school within sociology itself. In his view, the
two other major figures of the epoch who thought of themselves as
sociologists, Comte and Herbert Spencer, were far more interested in
philosophizing, in abstract theorizing, than they were in studying the social
world empirically. If the field continued in the direction set by Comte and
Spencer, Durkheim felt, it would become nothing more than a branch of
philosophy. As a result, he found it necessary to attack both Comte and
Spencer (Durkheim, 1895/1982:19-20) for relying on preconceived ideas of
social phenomena instead of actually studying the real world. Thus Comte
was said to be guilty of assuming theoretically that the social world was
evolving in the direction of an increasingly perfect society, rather than
engaging in the hard, rigorous, and basic work of actually studying the
changing nature of various societies. Similarly, Spencer was accused of
assuming harmony in society rather than studying whether harmony actually
In order to help sociology move away from philosophy and to give it a clear
and separate identity, Durkheim (1895/1982) proposed that the distinctive
subject matter of sociology should be the study of social facts (see Crane,
1988; Gilbert, 1994; and the special edition of Sociological Perspectives
[1995]). Briefly, social facts are the social structures and cultural norms and
values that are external to, and coercive of, actors. Students, for example, are
constrained by such social structures as the university bureaucracy as well as
Chapter 6
the norms and values of American society, which pIace great importance on a
college education. Similar social facts constrain people in all areas of social
Crucial in separating sociology from philosophy is the idea that social
facts are to be treated as "things" (S. Jones, 1996) and studied empirically.
This means that social facts must be studied by acquiring data from outside of
our own minds through observation and experimentation. This empirical study
of social facts as things sets Durkheimian sociology apart from more
philosophical approaches.
A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or nut, capable of
exercising on the individual an ex- ternal constraint; or again, every
way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the
same time existing in its own fight independent of its individual
(Durkeim, 1895/1982:13)
Note that Durkheim gave two ways of defining a social fact so that sociology
is distinguished from psychology. First, it is experienced as an external
constraint rather than an internal drive; second, it is general throughout the
society and is not attached to any particular individual.
Durkheim argued that social facts cannot be reduced to individuals, but
must be stud-ied as their own reality. Durkheim referred to social facts with
the Latin term suigeneris, which means "unique." He used this term to claim
that social facts have their own unique character that is not reducible to
individual consciousness. To allow that social facts could be explained by
reference to individuals would be to reduce sociology to psychology. Instead,
social facts can be explained only by other social facts. We will study some
examples of this type of explanation below, where Durkheim explains the
division of labor and even the rate of suicide with other social facts rather than
individual intentions. To summarize, social facts can be empirically studied,
are external to the individual, are coercive of the individual, and are explained
by other social facts.
Durkheim himself gave several examples of social facts, including legal
rules, moral obligations, and social conventions. He also refers to language
as a social fact, and it provides an easily understood example. First, language
is a "thing" that must be studied empirically. One cannot simply philosophize
about the logical rules of language. Certainly, all languages have some logical
rules regarding grammar, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth; however, all
languages also have important exceptions to these logical rules (Quine,
1972). What follows the roles and what are exceptions must be discovered
empirically by studying actual language use, especially since language use
changes over time in ways that are not completely predictable.
Second, language is external to the individual. Although individuals use a
language, language is not defined or created by the individual. The fact that
individuals adapt lan-guage to their own use indicates that language is first
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
external to the individual and in need of adaptation for individual use. Indeed,
some philosophers (Kripke, 1982;Wittgenstein, 1953) have argued that there
cannot be such a thing as a private language. A collection of words with only
private meanings would not qualify as a language since it could not perform
the basic function of a language: communication. Language is, by definition,
social and therefore external to any particular individual.
Third, language is coercive of the individual. The language that we use
makes some things extremely difficult to say. For example, people in lifelong
relationships with same-sex partners have a very difficult time referring to
each other. Should they call each other partners--leading people into thinking
they are in business together--significant others, lovers, spouses, special
friends? Each seems to have its disadvantages. Language is part of the
system of social facts that makes life with a same-sex partner difficult even if
every individual should be personally accepting of same-sex relationships.
Finally, changes in language can be explained only by other social facts
and never by one individual's intentions. Even in those rare instances where a
change in language can be traced to an individual, the actual explanation for
the change is the social facts that have made society open to this change. For
example, the most changeable part of language is slang, which almost
always originates in a marginal social group. We may assume that an
individual first originates a slang term, but which individual is irrelevant. It is
the fact of the marginal social group that truly explains the history and
function of the slang.
Some sociologists feel that Durkheim took an "extremist" position
(Karady,1983:79-80) in limiting sociology to the study of social facts. This
position has limited at least some branches of sociology to the present day.
Furthermore, Durkeim seemed to artificially sever sociology from neighboring
fields. As Lemert (1994a:91 ) puts it," Because he defined sociology so
exclusively in relation to its own facts, Durkheim cut it off from the other
sciences of man." Nevertheless, whatever its subsequent draw-backs,
Durkheim's idea of social facts both established sociology as an independent
field of study and provided one of the most convincing arguments for studying
society as it is before we decide what it should be.
Material and Nonmaterial Social Facts
Durkheim differentiated between two broad types of social facts--material
and nonmaterial. Material social facts, such as styles of architecture, forms of
technology, and legal codes, are the easier to understand of the two because
they are directly observable. Clearly, such things as laws are external to
individuals and coercive over them. More importantly, these material social
facts often express a far larger and more powerful realm of moral forces that
are at least equally external to individuals and coercive over them. These are
nonmaterial social facts.
The bulk of Durkheim's studies, and the heart of his sociology, lies in
the study of nonmaterial social facts. Durkheim said: "Not all social
Chapter 6
(1897/1951:315). What sociologists now call norms and values, or more
generally culture (Alexander, 1988a), are good examples of what Durkheim
meant by nonmaterial social facts, But this idea creates a problem: How can
nonmaterial social facts like norms and values be external to the actor?
Where could they be found except in the minds of actors? And if they are in
the minds of actors, are they not internal rather than external?
Durkeim recognized that nonmaterial social facts are, to a certain
extent, found in the minds of individuals. However, it was his belief that when
people begin to interact in complex ways, their interactions will "obey" laws all
their own" (Durkheim, 1912/1965:471). Individuals are still necessary as a
kind of substrate for the nonmaterial social facts, but the particular form and
content will be determined by the complex interactions and not by the
individuals. Hence, Durkheim could write in the same work first that "Social
things are actualized only through men; they are the product of human
activity" (1895/1982:17) and second that "Society is not a mere sum of
individuals"(1895/1982:103). Despite the fact that society is made up only of
human beings and contains no immaterial "spiritual" substance, it can be
understood only through studying the interactions rather than the individuals.
The interactions, even when nonmaterial, have their own levels of reality. This
has been called "relational realism" (Alpert,1939).
Durkheim saw social facts along a continuum of materiality (Lukes,
1972:9-10). The sociologist usually begins a study by focusing on material
social facts, which are empirically accessible, in order to understand
nonmaterial social facts, which are the real focus of his work. The most
material are such things as population size and density, channels of
communication, and housing arrangements (Andrews, 1993). Durkheim
called these facts morphological, and they figure most importantly in his first
book, The Division of Labor in Society. At another level are structural
components (a bureaucracy, for example), which are a mixture of
morphological components (the density of people in a building and their lines
of communication) and nonmaterial social facts (such as the bureaucratic
Types of Nonmaterial Social Facts
Since nonmaterial social facts are so important to Durkheim, we will
present a brief discussion of four different types--morality, collective
conscience, collective representations, and social currents--before examining
how Durkheim used these types in his studies.
Morality Durkheim was a sociologist of morality in the broadest sense
of the word (Hall, 1987; Mestrovic, 1988). Studying him reminds us that a
concern with morality was at the foundation of sociology as a discipline.
Durkheim's view of morality had two aspects. First, Durkheim was convinced
that morality is a social fact, in other words, that morality can be empirically
studied, is external to the individual, is coercive of the individual, and is
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
explained by other social facts. This means that morality is not something that
one can philosophize about, but something that one has to study as an
empirical phenomenon. This is particularly true because morality is intimately
related to structure. To understand the morality of any particular
institution, you have to first study how the institution is constituted, how it
came to assume its present form, what its place is in the overall structure of
society, how the various institutional obligations are related to the social good,
and so forth.
Second, Durkheim was a sociologist of morality because his studies were
driven by his concern about the moral "health" of modern society. Much of
Durkheim's sociology can be seen as a by-product of his concern with moral
issues. Indeed, one of Durkheim's associates wrote in a review of his life's
work that "one will fail to understand his works if one does not take account of
the fact that morality was their center and object" (Davy, trans, in Hall,
This second point needs more explanation if we are to understand
Durkheim's perspective. It was not that Durkheim thought that society had
become, or was in danger of becoming, immoral. That was simply impossible
because morality was, for Durkheim (1925/1961:59), identified with society.
Therefore, society could not be immoral, but it could certainly lose its moral
force if the collective interest of society became nothing but the sum of
self-interests. Only to the extent that morality was a social fact could it impose
an obligation on individuals that superseded their self-interest. Consequently,
Durkheim believed that society needs a strong common morality. What the
morality should be was of less interest to him.
Durkheim's great concern with morality was related to his curious
definition of freedom. In Durkheim's view, people were in danger of a
"pathological" loosening of moral bonds. These moral bonds were important
to Durkheim, for without them the individual would be enslaved by
ever-expanding and insatiable passions. People would be impelled by their
passions into a mad search for gratification, but each new gratification would
lead only to more and more needs. According to Durkheim, the one thing that
every human will always want is "more." And, of course, that is the one thing
we ultimately cannot have. If society does not limit us, we will become slaves
to the pursuit of more. Consequently, Durkheim held the seemingly
paradoxical view that the individual needs morality and external control in
order to be free. This view of the insatiable desire at the core of every human
is central to his sociology.
Collective Conscience Durkheim attempted to deal with his interest in
common morality in various ways and with different concepts. In his early
efforts to deal with this issue. Durkheim developed the idea of the collective
conscience. In French, the word conscience means both "consciousness"
and "moral conscience." Durkheim characterized the collective conscience in
the following way:
Chapter 6
The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens
of the same society forms a determinate system which has its own life;
one may call it the collective or common conscience It is, thus, an
entirely different thing from particular consciences, although it can
be realized only through them.
(Durkheim, 1893/1964:79-80)
Several points are worth underscoring in this definition. First, it is clear
that Durkheim thought of the collective conscience as occurring throughout a
given society when he wrote of the "totality" of people's beliefs and
sentiments. Second, Durkheim clearly conceived of the collective conscience
as being independent and capable of determining other social facts. It is not
just a reflection of a material base as Marx sometimes suggested. Finally,
although be held such views of the collective conscience, Durkheim also
wrote of its being "realized" through individual consciousness.
Collective conscience refers to the general structure of shared
understandings, norms, and beliefs. It is therefore an all-embracing and
amorphous concept. As we will see below, Durkheim employed this concept
to argue that "primitive" societies had a stronger collective conscience--that is,
more shared understandings, norms, and beliefs—than modem societies.
Collective Representations Because collective conscience is such a
broad and amorphous idea, it is impossible to study directly, but must be
approached through related material social facts. (Below, for example, we will
look at Durkheim's use of the legal system to say something about the
collective conscience.) Durkheim's dissatisfaction with this limitation led him
to use the collective conscience less in his later work in favor of the much
more specific concept of collective representations (Nemedi, 1995;Schmans,
1994). The French word representation literally means "idea." Durkheim used
the term to refer to both a collective concept and a social "force." Examples of
collective representations are religious symbols, myths, and popular legends.
All of these are ways in which society reflects on itself (Durkheim,
1895/1982:40). They represent collective beliefs, norms, and values, and
they motivate us to conform to these collective claims.
Collective representations also cannot be reduced to individuals,
because they emerge out of social interactions, but they can be studied more
directly because they are more liable to be connected to material symbols
such as flags, icons, and pictures or connected to practices such as rituals.
Therefore, the sociologist can begin to study how certain collective
representations fit well together, or have an affinity, and others do not. As an
example, we can look at a recent sociological study that shows how
representations of Abraham Lincoln have changed in response to other social
Between the turn of the century and 1945, Lincoln, like other heroic
presidents, was idealized.
Prints showed him holding Theodore
Roosevelt's hand and pointing him in the right direction, or hovering
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
in ethereal splendor behind Woodrow Wilson as he contemplated matters
of war and peace, or placing his reassuring hand on Franklin Roosevelt's
shoulder. Cartoons showed admirers looking up to his statue or portrait.
Neoclassical statues depicted him larger than life; state portraits
enveloped him in the majesty of presidential power; "grand style" history
painting showed him altering the fate of the nation. By the 1960s, however,
traditional pictures had disappeared and been replaced by a new kind of
representation on billboards, posters, cartoons, and magazine covers.
Here Lincoln is shown wearing a party hat and blowing a whistle to mark
a bank's anniversary; there he is playing a saxophone to announce a rock
concert; elsewhere he is depicted arm in arm with a seductive Marilyn
Monroe, or sitting upon his Lincoln Memorial chair of state grasping a
can of beer, or wearing sunglasses and looking "cool," or exchanging
Valentine cards with George Washington to signify that Valentine's Day
had displaced their own traditional birthday celebrations. Post-1960s
commemorative iconography articulates the diminishing of Lincoln's
(Schwartz, 1998:73)
Abraham Lincoln functions in American society as a collective
representation in that his various representations allow a people to think
about themselves as Americans—as either American patriots or American
consumers. His image is also a force that motivates us to perform a patriotic
duty or to buy a greeting card. A study of this representation allows us to
better understand changes in American society.
Social Currents Most of the examples of social facts that Durkeim
refers to are associated with social organizations. However, he made it clear
that there are social facts "which do not present themselves in this already
crystallized form" (1895/1982:52). Durkheim called these social currents. He
gave as examples "the great waves of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity" that
are produced in public gatherings (Durkheim, 1895/1982:52-53). Although
social currents are less concrete than other social facts, they are nevertheless
social facts because they cannot be reduced to the individual. We are swept
along by such social currents, and this has a coercive power over us even if
we become aware of it only when we struggle against the common feelings.
It is possible for these nonmaterial and ephemeral social facts to
affect even the strongest institutions. Ramet (1991), for example, reports that
the social currents that are potentially created among a crowd at a rock
concert were looked at as a threat by Eastern European communist
governments and, indeed, contributed to their downfall. Rock concerts were
places for the emergence and dissemination of "cultural standards, fashions,
and behavioral syndromes independent of party control" (Ramet, 1991:216).
In particular, members of the audience were apt to see an expression of their
alienation in the concert. Their own feelings were thereby affirmed,
strengthened, and given new social and political meanings. In other words,
Chapter 6
political leaders were afraid of rock concerts because of the potential for the
depressing individual feelings of alienation to be transformed into the
motivating social fact of alienation. This provides another example of how
social facts are related to but different from individual feelings and intentions.
A Group Mind? Given the emphasis on norms, values, and culture in
contemporary. sociology, we have little difficulty accepting Durkheim's interest
in nonmaterial social facts. However, the concept of social currents does
cause us a few problems. Particularly troublesome is the idea of a set of
independent social currents "coursing" through the social world as if they
were somehow suspended in a social void. This problem has led many to
criticize Durkheim for having a group-mind orientation (Pope, 1976:192-194).
Those who accuse Durkheim of having such a perspective argue that he
accorded nonmaterial social facts an autonomous existence, separate from
actors. But cultural phenomena cannot float by themselves in a social void,
and Durkheim was well aware of this.
But how are we to conceive of this social consciousness? Is it a
simple and transcendent being, soaring above society?... It is certain
that experience shows us nothing of the sort. The collective mind
[l'esprit collectif] is only a composite of individual minds. But the
latter are not mechanically juxtaposed and closed off from one another.
They are in perpetual interaction through the exchange of symbols; they
interpenetrate one another. They group themselves according to their
natural affinities; they coordinate and systematize themselves. In this
way is formed an entirely new psychological being, one without equal in
the world. The consciousness with which it is endowed is infinitely more
intense and more vast than those which resonate within it. For it is "a
consciousness of consciousnesses"[une conscience de consciences].
Within it, we find condensed at once all the vitality of the present and
of the past.
(Durkheim, 1885/1978:103)
Social currents can be viewed as sets of meanings that are shared by the
members of a collectivity. As such, they cannot be explained in terms of the
mind of any given individual. Individuals certainly contribute to social currents,
but by becoming social something new develops through their interactions.
They can only be explained intersubjectively, that is, in terms of the
interactions between individuals. They exist at the level of interactions, not at
the level of individuals. These collective "moods," or social currents, vary from
one collectivity to another, with the result that there is variation in the rate of
certain behaviors, including, as we will see below, something as seemingly
individualistic as suicide.
In fact, there are very strong similarities between Durkheim's theory of
social facts and current theories about the relation between the brain and the
mind (Sawyer, 2002).Both theories use the idea that complex, constantly
changing systems will begin to display new properties that "cannot be
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
predicted from a full and complete description of the component units of the
system" (Sawyer, 2002:228). Even though modern philosophy assumes that
the mind is nothing but brain functions, the argument is that the complexity of
the interconnections in the brain creates a new level of reality, the mind, that
is not explainable in terms of individual neurons. This was precisely
Durkheim's argument: that the complexity and intensity of interactions
between individuals cause a new level of reality to emerge that cannot be
explained in terms of the individuals. Hence, it could be argued that Durkheim
had a very modem conception of nonmaterial social facts that encompasses
norms, values, culture, and a variety of shared socialpsychological
phenomena (Emirbayer, 1996).
The Division of Labor in Society (Durkheim, 1893/1964) has been called
sociology's first classic (Tiryakian, 1994). In this work, Durkheim traced the
development of the modern relation between individuals and society. In
particular, Durkheim wanted to use his new science of sociology to examine
what many at the time had come to see as the modern crisis of morality. The
preface to the first edition begins, "This book is above all an attempt to treat
the facts of moral life according to the methods of the positive sciences."
In France in Durkheim's day, there was a widespread feeling of moral
crisis. The French Revolution had ushered in a focus on the tights of the
individual that often expressed itself as an attack on traditional authority and
religious beliefs. This trend continued even after the fall of the revolutionary
government. By the mid-nineteenth century many people felt that social order
was threatened because people thought only about themselves and not
about society. In the less than 100 years between the French Revolution and
Dnrkheim's maturity, France went through three monarchies, two empires,
and three republics. These regimes produced fourteen constitutions. The
feeling of moral crisis was brought to a head by Prussia's crushing defeat of
France in 1870, which included the annexation of Durkheim's birthplace by
Prussia. This was followed by the short-lived and violent revolution known as
the Paris Commune.Both the defeat and the subsequent revolt were blamed
on the problem of rampant individualism.
August Comte argued that much of this could be traced to the increasing
division of labor. In simpler societies, people do basically the same thing,
such as farming, and they hare common experiences and consequently have
common values. In modern society, veryone has a different job. When
different people are assigned various specialized tasks, they no longer share
common experiences. This undermines the shared moral beliefs that are
necessary for a society. Consequently, people will not sacrifice in times of
social need. Comte proposed that sociology create a new pseudo-religion
that would reinstate social cohesion. To a large degree, The Division of Labor
in Society can be seen as a refutation of Comte's analysis (Gouldner, 1962).
Durkheim argues that the division of labor does not represent the
Chapter 6
disappearance of social morality so much as a new kind of social morality.
The thesis of The Division of Labor in Society is that modern society is
not held together by the similarities between people who do basically similar
things. Instead, it is the division of labor itself that pulls people together by
forcing them to be dependent on each other. It may seem that the division of
labor is an economic necessity that corrodes the feeling of solidarity, but
Durkheim (1893/1964:17) argued that "'the economic services that it can
render are insignificant compared with the moral effect that it produces and its
true function is to create between two or more people a feeling of solidarity."
Mechanical and Organic Solidarity
The change in the division of labor has had enormous implications for the
structure of society. Durkheim was most interested in the changed way in
which social solidarity is produced, in other words, the changed way in which
society is held together and how its members see themselves as part of a
whole. To capture this difference, Durkheim referred to two types of
solidarity--mechanical and organic. A society characterized by mechanical
solidarity is unified because all people are generalists. The bond among
people is that they are all engaged in similar activities and have similar
responsibilities. In contrast, a society characterized by organic solidarity is
held together by the differences among people, by the fact that all have
different tasks and responsibilities.
Because people in modern society perform a relatively narrow range of
tasks, they need many other people in order to survive. The primitive family
headed by father-hunter and mother-food gatherer is practically self-sufficient,
but the modern family needs the grocer, baker, butcher, auto mechanic,
teacher, police officer, and so forth.These people, in turn, need the kinds of
services that others provide in order to live in the modem world. Modern
society, in Durkheim's view, is thus held together by the specialization of
people and their need for the services of many others. This specialization
includes not only that of individuals but also of groups, structures, and
Durkheim argued that primitive societies have a stronger collective
conscience, that is, more shared understandings, norms, and beliefs. The
increasing division of labor has caused a diminution of the collective
conscience. The collective conscience is of much less significance in a
society with organic solidarity than it is in a society with mechanical solidarity.
People in modem society are more likely to be held together by the division of
labor and the resulting need for the functions performed by others than they
are by a shared and powerful collective conscience. Nevertheless, even
organic societies have a collective consciousness, albeit in a weaker form
that allows for more individual differences.
Anthony Giddens (1972) points out that the collective conscience in the
two types of society can be differentiated on four dimensions-volume,
intensity, rigidity, and content. Volume refers to the number of people
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
enveloped by the collective conscience; intensity, to how deeply the
individuals feel about it; rigidity, to how clearly it is defined; and content, to the
form that the collective conscience takes in the two types of society (see
Table 6.1 ).
Mechanical Entire society
particular groups Low
Moral individualism
In a society characterized by mechanical solidarity, the collective
conscience covers virtually the entire society and all its members; it is
believed in with great intensity; it is extremely rigid; and its content is highly
religious in character. In a society with organic solidarity, the collective
conscience is limited to particular groups; it is adhered to with much less
intensity; it is not very rigid; and its content is the elevation of the importance
of the individual to a moral precept.
Dynamic Density
The division of labor was a material social fact to Durkheim because it is a
pattern of interactions in the social world. As we indicated above, social facts
must be explained by other social facts. Durkheim believed that the cause of
the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity was dynamic density. This
concept refers to the number of people in a society and the amount of
interaction that occurs among them. More people means an increase in the
competition for scarce resources, and more interaction means a more intense
struggle for survival among the basically similar components of society.
The problems associated with dynamic density usually are resolved
through differentiation and, ultimately, the emergence of new forms of social
organization. The rise of the division of labor allows people to complement,
rather than conflict with, one another. Furthermore, the increased division of
labor makes for greater efficiency, with the result that resources increase,
making the competition over them more peaceful.
This points to one final difference between mechanical and organic
solidarity. In societies with organic solidarity, less competition and more
differentiation allow people to cooperate more and to all be supported by the
same resource base. Therefore, difference allows for even closer bonds
between people than does similarity. Thus a society characterized by organic
solidarity leads to both more solidarity and more individuality than does one
characterized by mechanical solidarity (Rueschemeyer, 1994). Individuality,
then, is not the opposite of close social bonds, but a requirement for it (Muller,
Repressive and Restitutive Law
The division of labor and dynamic density are material social facts, but
Durkheim's main interest was in the forms of solidarity, which are nonmaterial
Chapter 6
social facts. Durkheim felt that it was difficult to study nonmaterial social facts
directly, especially something as pervasive as a collective conscience. In
order to study nonmaterial social facts scientifically, the sociologist should
examine material social facts that reflect the nature of, and changes in,
nonmaterial social facts. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim chose
to study the differences between law in societies with mechanical solidarity
and law in societies with organic solidarity (Cotterrell, 1999).
Durkheim argued that a society with mechanical solidarity is
characterized by repressive law. Because people are very similar in this type
of society, and because they tend to believe very strongly in a common
morality, any offense against their shared value system is likely to be of
significance to most individuals. Since everyone feels the offense and
believes deeply in the common morality, a wrongdoer is likely to be punished
severely for any action that offends the collective moral system. Theft might
lead to the cutting off of the offender's hands; blaspheming might result in the
removal of one's tongue. Even minor offenses against the moral system are
likely to be met with severe punishment.
In contrast, a society with organic solidarity is characterized by restitutive
law, where offenders must make restitution for their crimes. In such societies,
offenses are more likely to be seen as committed against a particular
individual or segment of society than against the moral system itself. Because
there is a weak common morality, most people do not react emotionally to a
breach of the law. Instead of being severely punished for every offense
against the collective morality, offenders in an organic society are likely to be
asked to make restitution to those who have been harmed by their actions.
Although some repressive law continues to exist in a society with organic
solidarity (for example, the death penalty), restitutive law predominates,
especially for minor offenses.
In summary, Durkheim argues in The Division of Labor that the form of
moral solidarity has changed in modern society, not disappeared. We have a
new form of solidarit), that allows for more interdependence and closer, less
competitive relations and that produces a new form of law based on
restitution. However, this book was far from a celebration of modem society.
Durkheim argued that this new form of solidarity is prone to certain kinds of
social pathologies.
Normal and Pathological
Perhaps the most controversial of Durkheim's claims was that the sociologist
is able to distinguish between healthy and pathological societies. After using
this idea in The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim wrote another book,
The Rules of Sociological Method, in which, among other things, he
attempted to refine and defend this idea. He claimed that a healthy society
can be recognized because the sociologist will find similar conditions in ether
societies in similar stages. If a society departs from what is normally found, it
is probably pathological.
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
This idea was attacked at the time, and there are few socioIogists today
who subscribe to it. Even Durkheim, when he wrote the "Preface to the
Second Edition" of The Rules, no longer attempted to defend it: "It seems
pointless for us to revert to the other controversies that this book has given
rise to, for they do not touch upon anything essential. The general orientation
of the method does not depend upon the procedures preferred to classify
social types or distinguish the normal from the pathological" (1895/1982:45).
Nevertheless, there is one interesting idea that Durkheim derived from
this argument: the idea that crime is normal rather than pathological. He
argued that since crime is found in every society, it must be normal and
provide a useful function. Crime, he claimed, helps societies define and
delineate their collective conscience: "Imagine a community of saints in an
exemplary and perfect monastery. In it crime as such will be unknown, but
faults that appear venial to the ordinary person will arouse the same scandal
as does normal crime in ordinary consciences. If therefore that community
has the power to judge and punish, it will term such acts criminal and deal
with them as such" (1895/1982:100).
In The Division of Labor, he used the idea of pathology to criticize
stone of the "abnormal" forms that the division of labor takes in modem
society. He identified three abnormal forms: (1) the anomic division of labor,
(2) the forced division of labor, and (3) the poorly coordinated division of labor.
Durkheim maintained that the moral crises of modernity that Comte and
others had identified with the division of labor was really caused by these
abnormal forms.
The anomic division of labor refers to the lack of regulation in a society
that celebrates isolated individuality and refrains from telling people what they
should do. Durkheim further develops this concept of anomie in his work on
suicide discussed later. In both works, he uses the term to refer to those
social conditions where humans lack sufficient moral restraint (Bar-Haim,
1997; Hilbert, 1986). For Durkheim, modern society is always prone to
anomie, but it comes to the fore in times of social and economic crises.
Without the strong common morality of mechanical solidarity, people
might not have a clear concept of what is and what is not proper and
acceptable behavior. Even though the division of labor is a source of cohesion
in modem society, it cannot entirely make up for the weakening of the
common morality. Individuals can become isolated and be cut adrift in their
highly specialized activities. They can more easily cease to feel a common
bond with those who work and live around them. This gives rise to anomie.
Organic solidarity is prone to this particular "pathology," but it is important to
remember that Durkheim saw this as an abnormal situation. The modem
division of labor has the capacity to promote increased moral interactions
rather than reducing people to isolated and meaningless tasks and positions.
While Durkheim believed that people needed rules and regulation to tell
them what to do, his second abnormal form pointed to a kind of rule that could
Chapter 6
lead to conflict and isolation and therefore increase anomie. He called this the
forced division of labor. This second pathology refers to the fact that outdated
norms and expectations can force individuals, groups, and classes into
positions for which they are ill suited.
Traditions, economic power, or status can determine who performs what
jobs regardless of talent and qualification. It is here that Durkheim comes
closest to a Marxist position.
if one class in society is obliged, in order to live, to take any price
for its services, while another class can pass over this situation,
because of the resources already at its disposal, resources that, however,
are not necessarily the result of some social superiority, the latter
group has an unjust advantage over the former with respect to the law.
(Durkheim, 1895/1982:319)
Finally, the third form of abnormal division of labor is where the specialized
functions performed by different people are poorly coordinated Again
Durkheim makes the point that organic solidarity flows from the
interdependence of people. If people's specializations do not result in
increased interdependence but simply in isolation, the division of labor will not
result in social solidarity.
For the division of labor to function as a moral and socially solidifying force in
modem society, anomie, the forced division of labor, and the improper
coordination of specialization must be addressed, Modem societies are no
longer head together by shared experiences and common beliefs. Instead,
they are held together through their very differences, so long as those
differences are allowed to develop in a way that promotes interdependence.
Key to this for Durkheim is social justice.
The task of the most advanced societies is, then, a work of
justice....last as the idea of lower societies was to create or maintain
as intense a common life as possible, in which the individual was absorbed,
so oar ideal is to make social relations always more equitable, so as
to as sure the free development of all our socially useful forces.
(Durkheim, 1893/1964:387)
Morality, social solidarity, justice---these were big themes for a first book in
a fledgling field. Durkheim was to return to these ideas again in his work, but
never again would he look at them in terms of society as a whole. He
predicted in his second book, The Rules of Sociological Method
(1895/1982:184), that sociology itself would succumb to the division of labor
and break down into a collection of specialties. Whether this has led to an
increased interdependence and an organic solidarity in sociology is still an
open question.
It has been suggested that Durkheim's study of suicide is the paradigmatic
example of how a sociologist should connect theory and research (Merton,
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
1968). Indeed, Durkheim makes it clear in the "Preface" that he intended this
study not only to contribute to the understanding of a particular social problem,
but also to serve as an example of his new sociological method. (For a series
of appraisals of Suicide nearly 100 years after its publication, see Lester,
Durkheim chose to study suicide because it is a relatively concrete and
specific phenomenon for which there were comparatively good data available.
However, Durkheim's most important reason for studying suicide was to
prove the power of the new science of sociology. Sucide is generally
considered to be one of the most private and personal acts. Durkheim
believed that if he could show that sociology had a role to play in explaining
such a seemingly individualistic act as suicide, it would be relatively easy to
extend sociology's domain to phenomena that are much more readily seen as
open to sociological analysis.
As a sociologist, Durkheim was not concerned with studying why any
specific individual committed suicide. That was to be left to the psychologists.
Instead, Durkheim was interested in explaining differences in suicide rates;
that is, he was interested in why one group had a higher rate of suicide than
did another. Psychological or biological factors may explain why a particular
individual in a group commits suicide, but Durkheim assumed that only social
facts could explain why one group had a higher rate of suicide than did
Durkheim proposed two related ways of evaluating suicide rates. One
way is to compare different societies or other types of collectivities. Another
way is to look at the changes in the suicide rare in the same collectivity over
time. In either case, cross-culturally or historically, the logic of the argument is
essentially the same. If there is variation in suicide rates from one group to
another or from one time period to another, Durkheim believed that the
difference would be the consequence of variations in sociological factors, in
particular, social currents. Durkheim acknowledged that individuals may have
reasons for committing suicide, but these reasons are not the real cause:
"They may be said to indicate the individual's weak points, where the outside
current bearing the impulse to self-destruction most easily finds introduction.
But they are no part of this current itself, and consequently cannot help us to
understand it" (1897/1951:151 ).
Durkheim began Suicide by testing and rejecting a series of alternative
ideas about the causes of suicide. Among these are individual
psychopathology, alcoholism, race, heredity, and climate. Not all of
Durkheim's arguments are convincing (see, for example, Skog, 1991 fur an
examination of Durkheim's argument against alcoholism). However, what is
important is his method of empirically dismissing what he considered
extraneous factors so that he could get to what he thought of as the most
important causal variables.
In addition, Durkheim examined and rejected the imitation theory
Chapter 6
associated with one of his contemporaries, the French social psychologist
Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904).The theory of imitation argues that people commit
suicide (and engage in a wide range of other actions) because they are
imitating the actions of others. This social psychological approach was the
most important competitor to Durkheim's focus on social facts. As a result,
Durkheim took great pains to discredit it. For example, Durkheim reasoned
that if imitation were truly important, we should find that nations that border on
a country with a high suicide rate would themselves have high rates, but an
examination of the data showed that no such relationship existed. Durkheim
admitted that some individual suicides may be the result of imitation, but it is
such a minor factor that it has no significant effect on the overall suicide rate.
Durkheim concluded that the critical factors in differences in suicide rates
were to be found in differences at the level of social facts. Different groups
have different collective sentiments4 that produce different social currents. It
is these social currents that affect individual decisions about suicide. In other
words, changes in the collective sentiments lead to changes in social currents,
which, in. turn, lead to changes in suicide rates.
The Four Types of Suicide
Durkheim's theory of suicide can be seen more clearly if we examine the
relation between the types of suicide and his two underlying social
facts-integration and regulation (Pope, 1976). Integration refers to the
strength of the attachment that we have to society. Regulation refers to the
degree of external constraint on people. For Durkheim, the social currents are
continuous variables, and suicide rates go up when either of these currents
are too low or too high. We therefore have four types of suicide, as shown in
Table 6.2. If integration is high, Durkheim calls that type of suicide aItruistic.
Low integration results in an increase in egoistic suicides. Fatalistic suicide is
associated with high regulation, and anomic suicide with low regulation.
Egoistic suicide
Altruistic suicide
Anomic suicide
Fatalistic suicide
Egoistic Suicide High rates of egoistic suicide are likely to be found in
those societies or groups in which the individual is not well integrated into the
larger social unit.This lack of integration leads to a feeling that the individual is
not part of society, but this also means that society is not part of the individual.
Durkheim believed that the best parts of a human being--our morality, values,
and sense of purpose-come from society. An integrated society provides us
with these things, as well as a general feeling of moral support to get us
through the daily small indignities and trivial disappointments. Without this,
we are liable to commit suicide at the smallest frustration.
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
The lack of social integration produces distinctive social currents, and
these currents cause differences in suicide rates. For example, Durkheim
talked of societal disintegration leading to "currents of depression and
disillusionment" (l 897/1951:214). Politics is dominated by a sense of futility,
morality is seen as an individual choice, and popular philosophies stress the
meaninglessness of life. In contrast, strongly integrated groups discourage
suicide. The protective, enveloping social currents produced by integrated
societies prevent the widespread occurrence of egoistic suicide by, among
other things, providing people with a sense of the broader meaning of their
lives. Here is the way Durkheim puts it regarding religious groups:
Religion protects man against the desire for
self-destruction What constitutes religion is the existence of a certain
number of beliefs and practices common to all the faithful, traditional and thus
obligatory. The more numerous and strong these collective states of mind are,
the stronger the integration of the religious community, also the greater its
preservative value.
(Durkheim, 189711951:170)
However, Durkheim demonstrated that not all religions provide the same
degree of protection from suicide. Protestant religions with their emphasis on
individual faith over church community and their lack of communal rituals tend
to provide less protection. His principal point is that it is not the particular
beliefs of the religion that are important, but the degree of integration.
Durkheim's statistics also showed that suicide rates go up for those who
are unmarried and therefore less integrated into a family, whereas the rates
go down in times of national political crises such as wars and revolutions,
when social causes and revolutionary or nationalist fervor give people's life a
greater meaning. He argues that the only thing that all of these have in
common is the increased feeling of integration.
Interestingly, Durkheim affirms the importance of social forces even in
the case of egoistic suicide, where the individual might be thought to be free
of social constraints. Actors are never free of the force of the collectivity:
"However individualized a man may be, there is always something collective
remaining--the very depression and melancholy resulting from this same
exaggerated individualism. He effects communion through sadness when he
no longer has anything else with which to achieve it" (Durkheim,
1897/1951:214). The case of egoistic suicide indicates that in even the most
individualistic, most private of acts, social facts are the key determinant.
Altruistic Suicide The second type of suicide discussed by Durkheim is
altruistic suicide. Whereas egoistic suicide is more likely to occur when social
integration is too weak, altruistic suicide is more likely to occur when "social
integration is too strong" (Durkheim, 1g97/195/:217). The individual is literally
forced into committing suicide.
One notorious example of altruistic suicide was the mass suicide of the
followers of the Reverend Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. They
Chapter 6
knowingly took a poisoned drink and in some cases had their children drink it
as well. They clearly were committing suicide because they were so tightly
integrated into the society of Jones's fanatical followers. Durkheim notes that
this is also the explanation for those who seek to be martyrs (Durkheim,
1897/1951:225), as in the terrorist attack of September 11,200I. More
generally, those who commit altruistic suicide do so because they feel that it
is their duty to do so. Durkheim argued that this is particularly likely in the
military, where the degree of integration is so strong that the individual will feel
that he has disgraced the entire group by the most trivial of failures.
Whereas higher rates of egoistic suicide stem from "incurable weariness
and sad depression," the increased likelihood of altruistic suicide "springs
from hope, for it depends on the belief in beautiful perspectives beyond this
life" (Durkheim, 1997/1951:225). When integration is low, people will commit
suicide because they have no greater good to sustain them. When integration
is high, they commit suicide in the name of that greater good.
Anomie Suicide The third major form of suicide discussed by
Durkheim is anomic suicide, which is more likely to occur when the regulative
powers of society are disrupted. Such disruptions are likely to leave
individuals dissatisfied because there is little control over their passions,
which are free to ran wild in an insatiable race for gratification. Rates of
anomic suicide are likely to rise whether the nature of the disruption is
positive (for example, an economic boom) or negative (an economic
depression). Either type of disruption renders the collectivity temporarily
incapable of exercising its authority over individuals. Such changes put
people in new situations in which the old norms no longer apply but new ones
have yet to develop. Periods of disruption unleash currents of anomie--moods
of rootlessness and normlessness--and these currents lead to an increase
in rates of anomic suicide. This is relatively easy to envisage in the case of
an economic depression. The closing of a factory because of a depression
may lead to the loss of a job, with the result that the individual is cut adrift
from the regulative effect that both the company and the job may have had.
Being cut off from these structures or others (for example, family, religion,
and state) can leave an individual highly vulnerable to the effects of currents
of anomie.
Somewhat more difficult to imagine is the effect of an economic boom. In
this case, Durkheim argued that sudden success leads individuals away from
the traditional structures in which they are embedded. They may lead
individuals to quit their jobs, move to a new community, perhaps even find a
new spouse. All these changes disrupt the regulative effect of extant
structures and leave the individual in boom periods vulnerable to anomic
social currents, in such a condition, people's activity is released from
regulation and even their dreams are no longer restrained. People in an
economic boom seem to have limitless prospects, and "reality seems
valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imaginations" (Durkheim,
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
The increases in rates of anomic suicide during periods of deregulation
of social life are consistent with Durkheim's views on the pernicious effect of
individual passions when freed of external constraint. People thus freed will
become slaves to their passions and as a result, in Durkheim's view, commit a
wide range of destructive acts, including killing themselves.
Fatalistic Suicide
There is a little-mentioned fourth type of
suicide--fatalistic--that Durkheim discussed only in a footnote in Suicide
(Besnard, 1993). Whereas anomic suicide is more likely to occur in situations
in which regulation is too weak,fatalistic suicide is more likely to occur when
regulation is excessive. Durkheim (1897/i951:276) described those who are
more likely to commit fatalistic suicide as "persons with futures pitilessly
blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline." The classic
example is the slave who takes his own life because of the hopelessness
associated with the oppressive regulation of his every action. Too much
regulation--oppression--unleashes currents of melancholy that, in turn, cause
a rise in the rate of fatalistic suicide.
Durkheim argued that social currents cause changes in the rates of
suicides. Individual suicides are affected by these underlying currents of
egoism, altruism, anomie, and fatalism. This proved, for Durkheim, that these
currents are more than just the sum of individuals, but are sui generis forces,
because they dominate the decisions of individuals. Without this assumption,
the stability of the suicide rate for any particular society could not be
Suicide Rates and Social Reform
Durkheim concludes his study of suicide with an examination of what reforms
could be undertaken to prevent it. Most attempts to prevent suicide have
failed because it has been seen as an individual problem. For Durkheim,
attempts to directly convince individuals not to commit suicide are futile, since
its real causes are in society.
Of course, the first question to be asked is whether suicide should be
prevented or whether it counts among those social phenomena that Durkheim
would call normal because of its widespread prevalence. This is an especially
important question for Durkheim because his theory says that suicides result
from social currents that, in a less exaggerated form, are good for society. We
would not want to stop all economic booms because they lead to anomic
suicides, nor would we stop valuing individuality because it leads to egoistic
suicide. Similarly, altruistic suicide results from our virtuous tendency to
sacrifice ourselves for the community. The pursuit of progress, the belief in
the individual, and the spirit of sacrifice all have their place in society, and
cannot exist without generating some suicides.
Durkheim admits that some suicide is normal, but he argues that modern
society has seen a pathological increase in both egoistic and anomic suicides.
Here his position can be traced back to The Division of Labor, where he
Chapter 6
argued that the anomie of modern culture is due to the abnormal way in which
labor is divided so that it leads to isolation rather than interdependence. What
is needed, then, is a way to preserve the benefits of modernity without unduly
increasing suicides--a way of balancing these social currents. In our society,
Durkheim believes, these currents are out of balance. In particular, social
reguIation and integration are too low, leading to an abnormal rate of anomic
and egoistic suicides.
Many of the existing institutions for connecting the individual and society
have failed, and Durkheim sees little hope of their success. The modern state
is too distant from the individual to influence his or her life with enough force
and continuity. The church cannot exert its integrating effect without at the
same time repressing freedom of thought. Even the family, possibly the most
integrative institution in modern society, will fail in this task since it is subject
to the same corrosive conditions that are increasing suicide.
Instead, what Durkheim suggests is the need of a different institution
based on occupational groups. We will discuss these occupational
associations more later, but what is important here is that Durkheim proposes
a social solution to a social problem.
As mentioned above, Durkheim's reception into .American sociology was
strongly influenced by Talcott Parsons, who presented him as both a
functionalist and a positivist. Although we don't feel that these labels fairly
characterize Durkheim's position, a number of criticisms have been directed
at his ideas on the basis of these characterizations. Since the sociology
student is bound to come across these criticisms, we feel we should briefly
address them here.
Functionalism and Positivism
Durkheim's focus on macro-level social facts was one of the reasons why his
work played a central role in the development of structural functionalism,
which has a similar, macro-level orientation (see Chapter 15 on Parsons).
However, whether Durkheim was himself a functionalist is open to debate and
depends upon how one defines functionalism. Functionalism can be defined
in two different ways: a weak sense and a strong sense. When Kingsley
Davis (1959) said that all sociologists are functionalists, he referred to the
weak sense: that functionalism is an approach that attempts "to relate the
parts of society to the whole, and to relate one part to another." A stronger
definition of functionalism is given by Turner and Maryanski (1988), who
define it as an approach that is based on seeing society as analogous to a
biological organism and attempts to explain particular social structures in
terms of the needs of society as a whole.
In this second sense, Durkheim was only an occasional and, one might
say, accidental functionalist. Durkheim was not absolutely opposed to
drawing analogies between biological organisms and social structures
(Lehmann, 1993a: 15), but he did not believe that sociologists can infer
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
sociological laws by analogy with biology. Durkheim (1898/1974:1) called
such inferences "worthless."
Durkheim urged that we distinguish functions from the historical causes
of social facts. The historical study is primary because social needs cannot
simply call structures into existence. Certainly, Durkheim's initial hypothesis
was always that enduring social facts probably perform some sort of function,
but he recognized that some social facts are historical accidents. Furthermore,
we see in Durkheim no attempt to predefine the needs of society. Instead, the
needs of a particular society can be established only by studying that society.
Consequently, any functionalist approach must be preceded by a historical
Despite this theoretical injunction, it must be admitted that Durkheim did
sometimes slip into functional analysis (Turner and Maryanski, 1988:111-112).
Consequently, there are many places where one can fairly criticize Durkheim
for assuming that societies as a whole have needs and that social structures
automatically emerge to respond to these needs.
Durkheim also is often criticized for being a positivist, and indeed, he
used the term to describe himself. However, as Robert Hall notes, the
meaning of the term has changed:
The term "positive" was needed to distinguish the new approach from
those of the philosophers who had taken to calling their ethical theories
"scientific" and who used this term to indicate the dialectical reasoning
they employed. In an age in which one could still speak of the "science"
of metaphysics, the term "positive" simply indicated an empirical
(Hall, 1987:137)
Today, positivism refers to the belief that social phenomena should be
studied with the same methods as the natural sciences, and it is likely that
Durkheim would accept this. However, it has also come to mean a focus on
invariant laws (Turner, 1993), and we find little of that in Durkheim. Social
facts were, for Durkheim, autonomous from their substrate, but also
autonomous in their relation to other social facts. Each social fact required
historical investigation, and none could be predicted on the basis of invariant
Other Criticisms
There are some other problems with Durkheim's theory- that need to be
discussed. The first has to do with the crucial idea of a social fact. It is not at
all clear that social facts can be approached in the objective manner that
Durkheim recommends. Even such seemingly objective evidence for these
social facts as a suicide rate can be seen as an accumulation of
interpretations. In other words, whether a particular death is a suicide
depends upon ascertaining the intention of a dead person (Douglas, 1967).
This may be especially difficult in such cases as drag overdoses. In addition,
the interpretation may be biased in a systemic manner so that, for example,
Chapter 6
deaths among those of high status may be less likely to be interpreted as
suicides, even if the body is found clutching the fatal gun. Social facts and the
evidence for them should always be approached as interpretations, and even
the sociologist's own use of the social fact should be seen as such.
There are also some problems with Durkheim's view of the individual.
Despite having made a number of crucial assumptions about human nature,
Durkheim denied that he had done so. He argued that he did not begin by
postulating a certain conception of human nature in order to deduce a
sociology from it. Instead, he said that it was from sociology that he sought an
increasing understanding of human nature. However, Durkheim may have
been less than honest ~with his readers, and perhaps even with himself.
One of Durkheim's assumptions about human natur-one that we have
already encountered--may be viewed as the basis of his entire sociology.
That assumption is that people are impelled by their passions into a mad
search for gratification that always leads to a need for more. If these passions
are unrestrained, they multiply to the point where the individual is enslaved by
them and they become a threat to the individual as well as to society. It can be
argued that Durkheim's entire theoretical edifice, especially his emphasis on
collective morality, was erected on this basic assumption about people's
passions. However, Durkheim provides no evidence for this assumption, and
indeed, his own theories would suggest that such an insatiable subject may
be a creation of social structures rather than the other way around.
In addition, Durkheim failed to give consciousness an active role in the
social process. He treated the actor and the actor's mental processes as
secondary factors or, more commonly, as dependent variables to be
explained by the independent and decisive variables--social facts. Individuals
are. in general, controlled by social forces in his theories; they do not actively
control those forces. Autonomy, for Durkheim, meant nothing more than freely
accepting those social forces. However, even if we accept that consciousness
and some mental processes are types of social facts, there is no reason to
suppose that they cannot develop the same autonomy that Durkheim
recognized in other social facts. Just as science has developed its own
autonomous roles, making its religious roots almost unrecognizable, couldn't
consciousness do the same?
The final set of criticisms that we will discuss have to do with the
centrality of morality in Durkheim's sociology. All sociologists are driven by
moral concerns, but for Durkheim, morality was more than just the driving
force behind sociology, it was also its ultimate goal. Durkheim believed that
the sociological study of morality would produce a science of morality. As
Everett White (1961:xx) wrote, "To say that the moral is an inevitable aspect
of the social--is a far c12~ from asserting, as Durkheim does, that there can
be a science of morality."
Furthermore, even without the fantasy of a science of morality, a
sociology that attempts to determine what should be done from what now
Emile Durkheim: Leader of the sociology doctrine
exists is inherently conservative. This conservatism is the most frequently
cited criticism of Durkheim (Pearce,1989). this is often attributed to his
functionalism and positivism, but it is more correctly traced to the connection
that he sees between morality and sociology. Whatever value there is in the
scientific study of morality, it cannot relieve us of making moral choices.
Indeed, it is likely that such study will make moral choice more difficult even
as it makes us more flexible and responsive to changing social situations.
We should note, however, that Durkheim is not alone in having failed to
work out the proper relation between morality and sociology. This problem
disturbs modem sociology at least as much as it does Durkheim's theories. In
an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is clear that we cannot just accept our
moral traditions. For one thing, it is impossible to say whose moral traditions
we should accept. It is equally clear, thanks in part to Durkheim's insight, that
we cannot just create a new morality that is separate from our moral traditions.
A new morality must emerge, and it must emerge from our moral traditions,
but what role sociology can and should play in this is a question that appears
to be both unanswerable and unavoidable.
The two main themes in Durkheim's sociology were the priority of the social
over the individual and the idea that society can be studied scientifically.
These themes led to his concept of social facts. Social facts can be
empirically studied, are external to the individual, are coercive of the
individual, and are explained by other social facts. Durkheim differentiated
between two basic types of social facts material and nonmaterial. The most
important focus for Durkheim was on nonmaterial social facts. He dealt with a
number of them, including morality, collective conscience, collective
representations, and social currents.
Durkheim's first major work was The Division of Labor in Society, in which
he argued that the collective conscience of societies with mechanical
solidarity had been replaced by a new organic solidarity based on mutual
interdependence in a society organized by a division of labor. He investigated
the difference between mechanical and organic solidarity through an analysis
of their different legal systems. He argued that mechanical solidarity is
associated with repressive laws while organic solidarity is associated with
legal systems based on restitution.
Durkbeim's next book, a study of suicide, is a good illustration of the
significance of nonmaterial social facts in his work. In his basic causal model,
changes in nonmaterial social facts ultimately cause differences in suicide
rates. Durkheim differentiated among four types of suicide---egoistic, altruistic,
anomic, and fatalistic and showed bow each is affected by different changes
in social currents. The study of suicide was taken by Durkheim and his
supporters as evidence that sociology has a legitimate place in the social
sciences. After all, it was argued, if sociology could explain so individualistic
an act as suicide, it certainly could be used to explain other, less individual
Chapter 6
aspects of social life.
In his last major work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim
focused on another aspect of culture: religion. In his analysis of primitive
religion, Durkheim sought to show the roots of religion in the social structure
of society. It is society that defines certain things as sacred and others as
profane. Durkheim demonstrated the social sources of religion in his analysis
of primitive totemism and its roots in the social structure of the clan. Durkheim
concluded that religion and society are one and the same, two manifestations
of the same general process. He also presented a sociology of knowledge in
this work. He claimed that concepts and even our most fundamental mental
categories are collective representations that society produces, at least
initially, through religious rituals.
In a number of works, Durkheim discussed the idea of a cult of the
individual, which provides modem culture with a collective representation that
is able to integrate and regulate society. This cult of the individual should be
distinguished from egoism. In the latter individuals care only about their
selfish interests, while in the former people are prepared to sacrifice their own
interests in the name of an individuality that they believe all humans to have in
Although Durkheim was against any radical change, his central concern
with morality led him to propose two reforms in society that he hoped would
lead to a stronger collective morality. For children, he successfully
implemented a new program for moral education in France that focused on
teaching children discipline, attachment to society, and autonomy. For adults,
he proposed occupational associations to restore collective morality and to
cope with some of the curable pathologies of the modem division of labor.
We conclude the chapter by presenting some criticisms of Durkheim's
theories. We find serious problems with his basic idea of the social fact, with
his assumptions about human nature, and with his sociology of morality.
Max Weber and Rationalization
Chapter7 :Max Weber and Rationalization
Ideal Types
What Is Sociology?
Social Action
Class, Stares, and Party
Structures of Authority
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Max Weber (1864-1920) is probably the best known and most influential figure
in sociological theory (Burgle, 1993; R. Collins, 1985; Kalberg, 2000; Sica
2001; Whimster,2001 )) Weber's work is so varied and subject to so many
interpretations that it has influenced a wide array of sociological theories. It
certainly had an influence on structural functionalism, especially through the
work of Talcott parsons. It has also come to be seen as important to the
conflict tradition (R. Collins, 1975,1990) and to critical theory, which was
shaped almost as much by Weber's ideas as it was by Marx's orientation, as
well as to Jurgen Habermas, the major inheritor of the critical-theory tradition
(Outhwaite. 1994). Symbolic interactionists have been affected by Weber's
ideas on verstehen, as well as by others of Weber's ideas. Alfred Schutz was
powerfully affected by Weber's work on meanings and motives, and he, in
turn, played a crucial role in the development of ethnomethodology . Recently,
rational choice theorists have acknowledged their debt to Weber (Norloas,
2000). Weber was and is a widely influential theorist.
We begin this chapter with a discussion of Weber's (1903-17/1949) ideas
on the methodology of the social sciences, which remain remarkably relevant
and fruitful even today (Ringer. 1997:171). A clear understanding of these
ideas is necessary in dealing with Weber's substantive and theoretical ideas.
Weber was opposed to pure abstract theorizing. Instead, his theoretical ideas
are embedded in his empirical, usually historical. research. Weber's
methodology shaped his research, and the combination of the two lies at the
base of his theoretical orientation.
Max Weber: A Biographical Sketch
Max Weber(1864-1920) was born in Erfurt, Germany, on April 21, 1864, into a
decidedly middle-class family. Important differences between his parents had a
profound effect upon both his intellectual orientation and his psychological
development. His father was a bureaucrat who rose to a relatively important
political position. He was clearly a part of the political establishment and as a
result eschewed any activity or idealism that would require personal sacrifice
or threaten his position within the system. In addition, the senior Weber was a
Chapter 7
man who enjoyed earthly pleasures, and in this and many other ways he stood
in sharp contrast to his wife. Max Weber's mother was a devout Calvinist, a
woman who sought to lead an ascetic life largely devoid of the pleasures
craved by her husband. Her concerns were more otherworldly; she was
disturbed by the imperfections that were signs that she was not destined for
salvation. These deep differences between the parents led to marital tension,
and both the differences and the tension had an immense impact on Weber.
Because it was impossible to emulate both parents, Weber was presented
with a clear choice as a child (Marianne Weber). He first seemed to opt for his
father's orientation to life, but later he drew closer to his mother's approach.
Whatever the choice, the tension produced by the need to choose between
such polar opposites negatively affected Max Weber's psyche.
At age eighteen, Max Weber left home for a short time to attend the
University of Heidelberg. Weber had already demonstrated intellectual
precocity, but on a social level he entered Heidelberg shy and underdeveloped.
However, that quickly changed after he gravitated toward his father's way of life
and joined his father's old dueling fraternity. There he developed socially, at
least in part because of the huge quantities of beer he consumed with his
peers. In addition, he proudly displayed the dueling scars that were the
trademarks of such fraternities. Weber not only manifested his identity with his
father's way of life in these ways but also chose, at least for the time being, his
father's career-- the law.
After three terms, Weber left Heidelberg for military service, and in 1884
he returned to Berlin and to his parents' home to take courses at the University
of Berlin. He remained there for most of the next eight years as he completed
his studies, earned his Ph.D., became a lawyer, and started teaching at the
University of Berlin. In the process, his interests shifted more toward his
lifelong concerns economics, history, and sociology. During his eight years in
Berlin, Weber was financially dependent on his father, a circumstance he
progressively grew to dislike. At the same time, he moved closer to his
mother's values, and his antipathy to his father increased. He adopted an
ascetic life and plunged deeply into his work. For example, during one
semester as a student, his work habits were described as follows, "He
continues the rigid work discipline, regulates his life by the clock, divides the
daily routine into exact sections for the various subjects, saves in his way, by
feeding himself evenings in his room with a pound of raw chopped beef and
four fried eggs" (Mitzman, Marianne Weber). Thus Weber, following his mother,
had become ascetic and diligent, a compulsive worker--in contemporary terms
a "workaholic."
This compulsion for work led in 1896 to a position as professor of
economics at Heidelberg. But in 1897, with Weber's academic career
blossoming, his father died following a violent argument between them. Shortly
thereafter Weber began to manifest symptoms that were to culminate in a
nervous breakdown. Often unable to sleep or to work, Weber spent the next six
Max Weber and Rationalization
or seven years in near-total collapse. After a long hiatus, some of his powers
began to return in 1903, but it was not until 1904, when he delivered (in the
United States) his first lecture in six and one-half years, that Weber was able to
begin to return to active academic life. In 1904 and 1905, published one of his
best--known works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this
work, Weber announced the ascendance of his mother's religion on an
academic level. Weber devoted much of his time to the study of religion,
though he was not personally religious.
Although he continued to be plagued by psychological problems, after
1904 Weber was able to function, indeed to produce some of his most
important work. In these years, Weber published his studies of the world's
religions in world-historical perspective (for example, China, India, and ancient
Judaism). At the time of his death (June 14, 1920), he was working on his most
important work, Economy and Society. Although this book was published, and
subsequently translated into many languages, it was unfinished.
In addition to producing voluminous writings in this period. Weber
undertook a number of other activities. He helped found the German
Sociological Society in 1910. His home became a center for a wide range of
intellectuals, including sociologists such as Georg Simmel and Robert Michels
and the philosopher and literary critic Georg Luk&cs (Scarf, 1989:186 222).
In addition, Weber was active politically and wrote essays on the issues of the
There was a tension in Weber's life and, more important, in his work,
between the bureaucratic mind, as represented by his father, and his mother's
religiosity. This unresolved tension permeates Weber's work as it permeated
his personal life.
Ideal Types
The ideal type is one of Weber's best-known contributions to contemporary
sociology (Drysdale, 1996; Hekman, 1983; Lindbekk, 1992; McKinney, 1966).
As we have seen, Weber believed it was the responsibility of sociologists to
develop conceptual tools, which could be used later by historians and
sociologists. The most important such conceptual tool was the ideal type:
An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more
points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete,
more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual
phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized
viewpoints into a unified analyticaI construct..., in its conceptual
purity, this mental construct.., cannot be found empirically anywhere in
(Weber, 1903-17/1949:90)
in spite of this definition, Weber was not totally consistent in the way he
used the ideal type. To grasp what the concept means initially, we will have to
overlook some of the inconsistencies. At its most basic level, an Meal type is a
Chapter 7
concept constructed by a social scientist, on the basis of his or her interests
arid theoretical orientation, to capture the essential features of some social
The most important thing about ideal types is that they are heuristic devices;
they are to be useful and helpful in doing empirical research and ill
understanding a specific aspect of the social world (or a "historical individual").
As Lachman said, an ideal type is "essentially a measuring red" (1971:26), or
in Kalberg's terms, a "yardstick" (1994:87).Here is the way Weber put it: "its
function is the comparison with empirical reality in order to establish its
divergences or similarities, to describe them with the most unambiguously
intelligible concepts, and to understand and explain them causally"
(1903-17/1949:43). Ideal types are heuristic devices to be used in the study of
slices of historical reality. For example, social scientists would construct an
ideal-typical bureaucracy on the basis of their immersion in historical data. This
ideal type can then be compared to actual bureaucracies. The researcher
looks for divergences in the real case from the exaggerated ideal type. Next,
the social scientist must look for the causes of the deviations. Some typical
reasons for these divergences ate:
1. Actions of bureaucrats that are motivated by misinformation.
2. Strategic errors, primarily by the bureaucratic leaders.
3. Logical fallacies undergirding the actions of leaders and followers.
4. Decisions made in the bureaucracy on the basis of emotion.
5. Any irrationality in the action of bureaucratic leaders and followers.
To take another example, an ideal typical military battle delineates the principal
components of such a battle-opposing armies, opposing strategies, materiel at
the disposal of each, disputed land ("no-man's-land"), supply and support
forces, command centers, and leadership qualities. Actual battles may not
have all these elements, and that is one thing a researcher wants to know. The
basic point is that the elements of any particular military battle may be
compared with the elements identified in the ideal type.
The elements of an ideal type (such as the components of the ideal-typical
military battle) are not to be thrown together arbitrarily; they are combined on
the basis of their compatibility. As Hekman puts it, "Ideal types are not the
product of the whim or fancy of a social scientist, but are logically constructed
concepts" (1983:32). (However, they can and should reflect the interests of the
social scientist.)
In Weber's view, the ideal type was to be derived inductively from the real
world of social history. Weber did not believe that it was enough to offer a
carefully defined set of concepts, especially if they were deductively derived
from an abstract theory. The concepts had to be empirically adequate (Roth,
1971). Thus, in order to produce ideal types, researchers had first to immerse
themselves in historical reality and then derive the types from that reality.
In line with Weber's efforts to find a middle ground between nomothetic
and idiographic knowledge, he argued that ideal types should be neither too
Max Weber and Rationalization
general nor too specific. For example, in the case of religion he would reject
ideal types of the history of religion in general, but he would also be critical of
ideal types of very specific phenomena, such as an individual's religious
experience. Rather, ideal typos are developed of intermediate phenomena
such as Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and Baptism (Weber, 19044)511958).
Although ideal types are to be derived from the real world, they are not to
be mirror images of that world. Rather, they are to be one-sided exaggerations
(based on the researcher's interests) of the essence of what goes on in the
real world. In Weber's view, the more exaggerated the ideal type, the more
useful it will be for historical research.
The use of the word ideal or utopia should not be construed to mean that
the concept being described is in any sense the best of all possible worlds. As
used by Weber, the term meant that the form described in the concept was
rarely, if ever, found in the real world. In fact, Weber argued that the ideal type
need not be positive or correct; it can just as easily be negative or even morally
repugnant (1903-17/1949).
Ideal types should make sense in themselves, the meaning of their
components should be compatible, and they should aid us in making sense of
the real world. Although we have come to think of ideal types as describing
static entities, Weber believed that they could describe either static or dynamic
entities. Thus we can have an ideal type of a structure, such as a bureaucracy,
or of a social development, such as bureaucratization.
Ideal types also are not developed once and for all. Because society is
constantly changing, and the interests of social scientists are as well, it is
necessary to develop new typologies to tit the changing reality. This is in line
with Weber's view that there can be no timeless concepts in the social
sciences (Roth, 1968).
Although we have presented a relatively unambiguous image of the ideal
type, there are contradictions in the way Weber defined the concept. In
addition, in his own substantive work, Weber used the ideal type in ways that
differed from the ways he said it was to be used. As Burger noted, 'The ideal
types presented in Economy and Society are a mixture of definitions,
classification, and specific hypotheses seemingly too divergent to be
reconcilable with Weber's statements" (1976:118). Although she disagrees
with Burger" on Weber's inconsistency in defining ideal types, Hekman
(1983:38-59) also recognizes that Weber offers several varieties of ideal types:
1. Historical ideal types. These relate to phenomena found ha some
particular historical epoch (for example, the modem capitalistic marketplace).
2. General sociological ideal types. These relate to phenomena that
cut across a number of historical periods and societies (for example,
3. Action ideal types. These are pure types of action based on the
motivations of the actor (for example, affectual action).
4, Structural ideal types. These are forms taken by the causes and
Chapter 7
consequences of social action (for example, traditional domination).
Clearly Weber developed an army of varieties of ideal types, and some of
the richness in ins work stems from their diversity, although common to them
all is their mode of construction.
Kalberg (1994) argues that while the heuristic use of ideal types in
empirical research is important, it should not be forgotten that they also play a
key theoretical role ha Weber's work. Although Weber rejects the idea of
theoretical laws, he does use ideal types in various ways to create theoretical
models. Thus, ideal types constitute the theoretical building blocks for the
construction of a variety of theoretical models (for example, the routinization of
charisma and the rationalization of society both of which are discussed later
in this chapter), and these models are then used to analyze specific historical
We turn now to Weber's substantive sociology. We will begin, as did Weber in
his monumental Economy and Society, at the levels of action and interaction,
but we will soon encounter the basic paradox in Weber's work: despite his
seeming commitment to a sociology of small-scale processes, ins work is
primarily at the large scale levels of the social world. (Many Weberians would
disagree with this portrayal of paradox in Weber's work, Kalberg [1994], for
example, argues that Weber offers a more fully integrated micro-macro, or
agency structure, theory.)
What is Sociology?
In articulating his view on sociology, Weber often took a stance against the
large-scale evolutionary sociology, the organicism, that was preeminent in the
field at the time. For example, Weber said: "I became one [a sociologist] ill
order to put an end to collectivist notions. In other words, sociology, too, can
only be practiced by proceeding from the action of one or more, few or many,
individuals, that means, by employing a strictly 'individualist' method" (Roth,
1976:3061. Despite his stated adherence to an "individualist" method, Weber
was forced to admit that it is impossible to eliminate totally collective ideas
from sociology. But even when he admitted the significance of collective
concepts, Weber ultimately reduced them to patterns and regularities of
individual action: "For the subjective interpretation of action in sociological
work these collectives must be treated as solely the resultants and modes of
organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since these alone can
be treated as agents in a course of subjectively understandable action"
At the individual level, Weber was deeply concerned with meaning, and
the way in which it was formed. There seems little doubt that Weber believed in,
and intended to undertake, a microsociology, But is that, in fact, what he did?
Guenther Roth, one of Weber's foremost interpreters, provides us with an
unequivocal answer in his description of the overall thrust of Economy and
Society: "the first strictly empirical comparison of social structure and
Max Weber and Rationalization
normative order in world-historical depth" (1968:xxvii).Mary Fulbrook directly
addresses the discontinuity in Weber's work:
Weber's overt emphasis on the importance of [individual] meanings and
motives in causal expiration of social action does not correspond
adequately with the hale mode of explanation involved in his
comparative-historical studies. of the worm religions. Rabbet, the
ultimate level of causal expiration in Weber's substantive writings is
that of the social-structural conditions under which certain forms of
meaning, and motivation can achieve historical efficacy.
(Fulhrook, 1978:71)
Lars Udehn (1981) has east light on this problem in interpreting Weber's
work by distinguishing between Weber's methodology and his substantive
concerns and recognizing that there is a conflict or tension between them. In
Udehn's view, Weber uses an "individualist and subjectivist methodology"
1981:131). In terms of the latter, Weber is interested in what individuals do and
why they do it (their subjective motives). In the former, Weber is interested in
reducing collectivities to the actions of individuals. However, in most of his
substantive sociology (as we will see), Weber focuses on large-scale structure
(such as bureaucracy or capitalism) and is not focally concerned with what
individuals do or why they do it. Such structures are not reduced by Weber to
the actions of individuals, and the actions of those in diem are determined by
the structures, not by their motives. "there is little doubt that there is an
enormous contradiction in Weber's work, and it will concern us through much
of this chapter.
With this as background, we are now ready for Weber's definition, of
sociology:" Sociology . . . is a science concerning itself with the interpretive
understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its
course and consequences"(192111968:4). Among the themes discussed
earlier that are mentioned or implied in this definition are:
Sociology should be a science.
Sociology should be concerned with causality. (Here, apparently, Weber
was combining sociology and history.)
Sociology should utilize interpretive understanding (verstehen).
We are now ready for what Weber meant by social action.
Social Action
Weber's entire sociology, if we accept his words at face value, was based on
his conception of social action (S. Turner, 1983). He differentiated between
action and purely reactive behavior. The concept of behavior is reserved, then
as now. for automatic behavior that involves no thought processes. A stimulus
is presented and behavior occurs, with little intervening between stimulus and
response. Such behavior was not of interest in Weber's sociology. He was
concerned with action that clearly involved die intervention of thought
processes (and the resulting meaningful action) between the occurrence of a
stimulus and the ultimate response. To put it slightly differently, action was said
Chapter 7
to occur when individuals attached subjective meanings to their action. To
Weber. the task of sociological analysis involved "the interpretation of action in
terms of its subjective meaning" (1921/1968:g). A good. and more specific,
example of Weber's thinking on action is found in his discussion of economic
action, which he defined as "a conscious, primary orientation to economic
consideration.., for what matters is not the objective necessity of making
economic provision, but the belief that it is necessary"(192111968:64).
In embedding his analysis in mental processes and the resulting
meaningful action, Weber (1921/1968) was careful to point out that it is
erroneous to regard psychology as the foundation of the sociological
interpretation of action. Weber seemed to be making essentially the same
point made by Durkheim in discussing at least some nonmaterial social facts.
That is, sociologists are interested in mental processes, but this is not the
same as psychologists' interest in the mind, personality, and so forth.
Although Weber implied that he had a great concern with mental processes,
he actually spent little time on them. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills called
attention to Weber's lack of concern with mental processes: "Weber sees in the
concept of personality a much abused notion referring to a profoundly irrational
center of creativity, a center before which analytical inquiry comes to a halt"
(1958:55). Schutz (1932/1967) was quite correct when he pointed out that
although Weber's work on mental processes is suggestive, it is hardly the
basis for a systematic microsociology. But it was the suggestiveness of
Weber's work that made him relevant to those who developed theories of
individuals and their behavior--symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and
so forth.
In his action theory, Weber's clear intent was to focus on individuals and
patterns and regularities of action and not on the collectivity. "Action in the
sense of subjectively understandable orientation of behavior exists only as the
behavior of one or more individual human beings" (Weber, 1921/1968:13).
Weber was prepared to admit that for some purposes we may have to treat
collectivities as individuals, "but for the subjective interpretation of action in
sociological work these collectivities must be treated as solely the resultants
and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since
these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively
understandable action"(1921/1968:13). It would seem that Weber could hardly
be more explicit: the sociology of action is ultimately concerned with individuals,
not collectivities.
Weber utilized his ideal-type methodology to clarify the meaning of action
by identifying four basic types of action. Not only is this typology significant for
understanding what Weber meant by action, but it is also, in part, the basis for
Weber's concern with larger social structures and institutions. Of greatest
importance is Weber's differentiation between the two basic types of rational
action. The first is means-ends rationality, or action that is "determined by
expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and of other
Max Weber and Rationalization
human beings; these expectations are used as 'conditions' or 'means' for the
attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends" (Weber,
1921/1968:24). The second is value rationality, or action that is "determined by
a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic,
religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects for success"
(Weber,1921/1968:24-25). Affectual action (which was of little concern to
Weber) is determined by the emotional state of the actor. Traditional action
(which was of far greater concern to Weber) is determined by the actor's
habitual and customary ways of behaving.
It should be noted that although Weber differentiated four ideal typical
forms of action, he was well aware that any given action usually involves a
combination of all four ideal types of action. In addition, Weber argued that
sociologists have a much better chance of understanding action of the more
rational variety than they do of understanding action dominated by affect or
We turn now to Weber's thoughts on social stratification, or his famous
ideas on class, status, and party (or power). His analysis of stratification is one
area in which We bet does operate, at least at first, as an action theorist.
Class, Status, arid Party
One important aspect of this analysis is that Weber refused to reduce
stratification to economic factors (or class, in Weber's terms) but saw it as
multidimensional. Thus, society is stratified on the bases of economics, status,
and power. One resulting implication is that people can rank high on one or two
of these dimensions of stratification and low on the other (or others), permitting
a far more sophisticated analysis of social stratification than is possible when
stratification is simply reduced(as It was by some Marxists) to variations in
one's economic situation.
Starting with class, Weber adhered to his action orientation by arguing that
a class is not a community. Rather, a class is a group of people whose shared
situation is a possible, and sometimes frequent, basis for action by the group.
Weber contends that a "class situation" exists when three conditions are met:
(1) A number of people have in common a specific causal component of
their life chances, insofar as (2) this component is represented
exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and
opportunities for income, and (3) is represented under the conditions of
the commodity or labor markets. This is "class situation."
(Weber, 192111968:927)
The concept of "class" refers to any group of people found in the same class
situation. Thus a class is not a community but merely a group of people in the
same economic, or market, situation.
in contrast to class, status does normally refer to communities; status
groups are ordinarily communities, albeit rather amorphous ones. "Status
situation" is defined by Weber as "every typical component of the life of men
that is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of
Chapter 7
honor" (1921/1968:932). As a general rule, status is associated with a style of
life. (Status relates to consumption of goods produced, while class relates to
economic production.) Those at the top of the status hierarchy have a different
lifestyle than do those at the bottom. In this case, lifestyle, or status, is related
to class situation. But class and status are not necessarily linked to one
another: "Money and an entrepreneurial position are not in themselves status
qualifications, although they may lead to them; and the lack of property is not in
itself a status disqualification, although this may be a reason for it" (Weber,
192111968:306), There is a complex set of relationships between class and
status, and it is made even more complicated when we add the dimension of
While classes exist ill the economic order and status groups in the social
order, parties can be found in the political order. To Weber, parties "are always
structures struggling for domination" (cited in Gerth and Mills, 1958:195; italics
added). Thus patties are the most organized elements of Weber's stratification
system. Weber thinks of parties very broadly as including not only those that
exist in the state but also those that may exist in a social club. Parties usually,
hut not always, represent class and/or status groups. Whatever they represent
parties are oriented to the attainment of power.
While Weber remained close to his action approach in his ideas on social
stratification, these ideas already indicate a movement in the direction of
macro-level communities and structures. In most of his other work, Weber
focused on such large-scale units of analysis. Not that Weber lost sight of the
action; the actor simply moved from being the focus of his concern to being
largely a dependent variable determined by a variety of large-scale forces. For
example, as we will see, Weber believed that individual Calvinists are impelled
to act in various ways by the norms, values, and beliefs of their religion, but his
focus was not on the individual but on the collective forces that impel the actor.
Structures of Authority
Weber's sociological interest in the structures of authority was motivated, at
least in part, by his political interests (Eliaeson, 2000). Weber was no political
radical; in fact, he was often called the "bourgeois Marx" to reflect the
similarities in the intellectual interests of Marx and Weber as well as their very
different political orientations. Although Weber was almost as critical of modern
capitalism as Marx was, he did not advocate revolution. He wanted to change
society gradually, not overthrow it. He had little faith in the ability of the masses
to create a "better" society. But Weber also saw little hope in the middle
classes, which he felt were dominated by shortsighted, petty bureaucrats.
Weber was critical of authoritarian political leaders like Bismarck. Nevertheless,
for Weber the hope-if indeed he had any hominy with the great political leaders
rather than with the masses or the bureaucrats. Along with his faith in political
leaders went his unswerving nationalism. He placed the nation above all else:
"The vital interests of the nation stand, of course, above democracy anti
parliamentarianism" (Weber,1921/1968:1383). Weber preferred democracy as
Max Weber and Rationalization
a political form not because be believed in the masses but because it offered
maximum dynamism and the best milieu to generate political leaders
(Mommsen, 1974). Weber noted that authority structures exist in every social
institution, and his political views were related to his analysis of these
structures in all settings. Of course, they were most relevant to its views on the
Weber began his analysis of authority structures in a way that was
consistent with its assumptions about the nature of action. He defined
domination as the "probability that certain specific commands (or all
commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons" (Weber,
1921/1968:212). Domination can have a variety of bases, legitimate as well as
illegitimate, but what mainly interested Weber were the legitimate forms of
domination, or what he called authority. What concerned Weber, and what
played a central role in much of his sociology, were the three bases on which
authority is made legitimate to followers rational, traditional, anti charismatic.
In defining these three bases, Weber remained fairy close to his ideas on
individual action, but be rapidly moved to the large-scale structures of authority.
Authority legitimized on rational grounds rests "on a belief in the legality of
enacted rules and the fight of those elevated to authority under such rules to
issue commands" (Weber, 1921/1968:215). Authority legitimized on traditional
grounds is based on "an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial
traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them"(Weber,
1921/1968:215). Finally, authority legitimized by charisma rests on the
devotion of followers to the exceptional sanctity, exemplary character, heroism,
or special powers (for example, the ability to work miracles) of leaders, as well
as on the normative order sanctioned by them. All these modes of legitimizing
authority clearly imply individual actors, thought processes (beliefs), and
actions. But from this point, Weber, in his thinking about authority, did move
quite far from an individual action base, as we will see when we discuss the
authority structures erected on the basis of these types of legitimacy.
Legal Authority legal authority can take a variety of structural forms, but the
one that interested Weber most was file bureaucracy, which he considered
"the purest type of exercise of legal authority" (192111968:220).
ldea-Typical Bureaucracy Weber depicted bureaucracies in ideal-typical
From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of
attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense focally
the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.
It is superior to any other form in precision, in stablity, in the
stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability. It thus makes
possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for file
heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it. It is
finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the Mope of its
operations and is really capable of application to all kinds of
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administrative tasks.
(Weber, 1921/1968:223)
Despite his discussion of the positive characteristics of bureaucracies, here
and elsewhere in his work, there is a fundamental ambivalence in his attitude
toward them. Although he detailed their advantages, he was well aware of their
problems. Weber expressed various reservations about bureaucratic
organizations. For example, he was cognizant of the "red tape" that often
makes dealing with bureaucracies so trying and so difficult. His major fear,
however, was that the rationalization that dominates all aspects of bureaucratic
life was a threat to individual liberty. As Weber put it:
No machinery in the world functions so precisely as this apparatus of
men and, moreover, so cheaply.... Rational calculation.., reduces every
worker to a cog in this bureaucratic machine and, seeing himself in this
light, he will merely ask how to transform himself into a somewhat bigger
cog.... The passion for bureaucratization drives us to despair.
(weber, 1921/1968:1iii)
Weber was appalled by the effects of bureaucratization and, more generally, of
the rationalization of the world of which bureaucratization is but one
component, but he saw no way out. He described bureaucracies as "escape
proof," "practically unshatterable," and among the hardest institutions to
destroy once they are established. Along the same lines, he felt that individual
bureaucrats could not "squirm out" of the bureaucracy once they were
"harnessed" in it (for a less ominous view of bureaucratization, see Klagge,
1997). Weber concluded that "the future belongs to bureaucratization"
(1921/1968:1401), and time has borne out his prediction.
Weber would say that Iris depiction of the advantages of bureaucracy is
part of his ideal typical image of the way it operates. The ideal-typical
bureaucracy is a purposeful exaggeration of the rational characteristics of
bureaucracies. Such an exaggerated model is useful for heuristic purposes
and for studies of organizations in the real world, but it is not to be mistaken for
a realistic depiction of the way bureaucracies actually operate.
Weber distinguished the ideal-typical bureaucracy from the ideal-typical
bureaucrat. He conceived of bureaucracies as structures and of bureaucrats
as positions within those structures. He did not, as his action orientation might
lead us to expect, offer a social psychology of organizations or of the
individuals who inhabit those bureaucracies (as modern symbolic
interactionists might).
The ideal-typical bureaucracy is a type of organization. Its basic units are
offices organized in a hierarchical manner with rules, tractions, written
documents, and means of compulsion. All these are, to varying degrees,
large-scale structures that represent the thrust of Weber's thinking. He could,
after all, have constructed an ideal-typical bureaucracy that focused on the
thoughts and actions of individuals within the bureaucracy. There is a whale
school of thought in the study of organizations that focuses precisely on this
Max Weber and Rationalization
level rather than on the structures of bureaucracies (see, for example,
Blankenship, 1977).
The following are the major characteristics of the ideal-typical bureaucracy:
1. It consists of a continuous organization of official functions (offices) bound
by rules.
2. Each office has a specified sphere of competence. The office carries with it a
set of obligations to perform various functions, the authority to carry out these
functions. and the means of compulsion required to do the job.
3. The offices are organized into a hierarchical system.
4. The offices may carry with them technical qualifications that require that the
participants obtain suitable training.
5. The staff that fills these offices does not own the means of production
associated with them; staff members are provided with the use of those things that
they need to do the job.
6. The incumbent is not allowed to appropriate the position; it always remains
part of the organization.
7. Administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in
Any Alternatives? A bureaucracy is one of the rational structures that is
playing an ever-increasing role in modern society, but one may wonder
whether there is any alternative to the bureaucratic structure. Weber's clear
and unequivocal answer was that there is no possible alternative: "the needs
of mass administration make it today completely indispensable. The choice is
only between bureaucracy and dilettantism in the field of administration"
Although we might admit that bureaucracy is an intrinsic part of modern
capitalism, we might ask whether a socialist society might be different, is it
possible to create a socialist society without bureaucracies and bureaucrats?
Once again, Weber was unequivocal "When those subject to bureaucratic
control seek to escape the influence of existing bureaucratic apparatus, this is
normally possible only by creating an organization of their own which is equally
subject to the process of bureaucratization"(192111968:22A). In fact, Weber
believed that in the case of socialism we would see an increase, not a
decrease, in bureaucratization. If socialism were to achieve a level of efficiency
comparable to capitalism, "it would mean a tremendous increase in the
importance of professional bureaucrats" (Weber, 1921/1968:224). In capitalism,
at least the owners are not bureaucrats and therefore would be able to restrain
the bureaucrats, but in socialism, even the top-level leaders would be
bureaucrats. Weber thus believed that even with its problems "capitalism
presented the best chances for the preservation of individual freedom and
creative leadership in a bureaucratic world" (Mommsen,1974:xv). We are once
again at a key theme in Weber's work: his view that there is really no hope for a
better world. Socialists can, in Weber's view, only make things worse by
expanding the degree of bureaucratization in society. Weber noted: "Not
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summer's bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and
hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now" (cited in Gerth
and Mills, 1958:128).
Any Hope? A ray of hope in Weber's work-- and it is a small one----is that
professionals who stand outside the bureaucratic system can control it to some
degree, in this category, Weber included professional politicians, scientists,
intellectuals (Sadri, 1992), and even capitalists, as well as the supreme heads
of the bureaucracies. For example, Weber said that politicians "must be the
countervailing force against bureaucratic domination" (192//1968:1417). His
famous essay "Politics as a Vocation" is basically a plea for the development of
political leaders with a culling to oppose the rule of bureaucracies and of
bureaucrats. But in the end these appear to be rather feeble hopes. In fact, a
good case can be made that these professionals are simply another aspect of
the rationalization process and that their development serves only to
accelerate that process (Nass, 1986; Ritzer, 1975c; Ritzer and Walczak,
In Weber's "'Churches' and 'Sects' in North America: An Ecclesiastical
Socio --Political Sketch" (190611985), Colin Loader and Jeffrey Alexander
(1985) see a forerunner of Weber's thoughts on the hope provided by an ethic
of responsibility in the face of the expansion of bureaucratization. American
sects such as the Quakers practice an ethic of responsibility by combining
rationality and larger values. Rogers Brubaker defines the ethic of
responsibility as "the passionate commitment to ultimate values with the
dispassionate analysis of alternative means of pursuing them" (1984:108). He
contrasts this to die ethic of conviction, in which a rational choice of means is
foregone and the actor orients "his action to the realization of some absolute
value or unconditional demand" (1984:106; for a somewhat different view, see
Gane, 1997). The ethic of conviction often involves a withdrawal from the
rational world, whereas the ethic of responsibility involves a struggle within that
world for greater humanness. The ethic of responsibility provides at least a
modicum of hope in the face of the onslaught of rationalization and
Traditional Authority Whereas legal authority stems from the legitimacy
of a rational-legal system, traditional authority is based on a claim by die
leaders, and a belief on the part of the followers, that there is virtue in die
sanctity of age-old rules and powers. The leader in such a system is not a
superior but a personal master. The administrative staff, ff any, consists not of
officials but mainly of personal retainers. In Weber's words, "Personal loyalty,
not the official's impersonal duty, determines the relations of the administrative
staff to the master" (1921/1968:227). Although the bureaucratic staff owes its
allegiance and obedience to enacted rules and to the leader, who acts in their
name, the staff of the traditional leader obeys because the leader carries the
weight of tradition-he or she has been chosen for that position in the traditional
Max Weber and Rationalization
Weber was interested hi the staff of the traditional leader and how it
measured up to the ideal-typical bureaucratic staff. He concluded that it was
lacking on a number of counts. The traditional staff lacks offices with clearly
defined spheres of competence that are subject to impersonal rules, it also
does not have a rational ordering of relations of superiority and inferiority; it
lacks a clear hierarchy. There is no regular system of appointment and
promotion on the basis of free contracts. Technical training is not a regular
requirement for obtaining a position or all appointment. Appointments do not
carry with them fixed salaries paid in money.
Weber also used his ideal-type methodology to analyze historically the
different forms of traditional authority. He differentiated between two very early
forms of traditional authority. A gerontocracy involves rule by elders, whereas
pimary patriarchalism involves leaders who inherit their positions. Both of
these forms have a supreme chief but lack an administrative staff. A more
modern form is patrimonialism, which is traditional domination with an
administration and a military force that are purely personal instruments of the
master (Eisenberg, 1998). Still more modern is feudalism, which limits the
discretion of the master through the development of more routinized, even
contractual, relationships between leader and subordinate. This restraint, in
turn, leads to more stabilized power positions than exist in patrimonialism. All
four of these forms may be seen as structural variations of traditional authority,
and all of them differ significantly from rational-legal authority.
Weber saw structures of traditional authority, in any form, as barriers to
the development of rationality. This is our first encounter with an overriding
theme in Weber's work factors that facilitate or impede the development of
(formal) rationality (see the next section). Over and over we find Weber
concerned, as he was here, with the structural factors conducive to rationality
in the Western world and the structural and cultural impediments to the
development of a similar rationality throughout the rest of the world. In this
specific case, Weber argued that the structures and practices of traditional
authority constitute a barrier to tile rise of rational economic structures-in
particular, capitalism--as well as to various other components of a rational
society. Even patrimonialism—a more modem form of traditionalism---while
permitting the development of certain forms of "primitive" capitalism, does not
allow for the rise of the highly rational type of capitalism characteristic of the
modem West.
Charismatic Authority Charisma is a concept that has come to be used
very broadly (Oakes, 1997; Werbner and Basu, 1998). The news media and
the general public are quick to point to a politician, a movie star, or a rock
musician as a charismatic individual By this they most often mean that the
person in question is endowed with extraordinary qualities. The concept of
charisma plays an important role in the work of Max Weber, but his conception
of it was very different from that held by most laypeople today. Although Weber
did not deny that a charismatic leader may have outstanding characteristics,
Chapter 7
his sense of charisma was more dependent on the group of disciples and the
way that they define the charismatic leader (D. Smith, 1998). To put Weber's
position bluntly, if the disciples define a leader as charismatic, then he or she is
likely to be a charismatic leader irrespective of whether he or she actually
possesses any outstanding traits. A charismatic leader, then, can be someone
who is quite ordinary. What is crucial is the process by which such a leader is
set apart from ordinary people and treated as if endowed with supernatural,
superhuman, or at least exceptional powers or qualities that are not accessible
to the ordinary person (Miyahara, 1983).
Charisma and Revolution To Weber, charisma was a revolutionary force,
one of the most important revolutionary forces in the social world. Whereas
traditional authority clearly is inherently conservative, the rise of a charismatic
leader may well pose a threat to that system (as well as to a rational-legal
system) and lead to a dramatic change in that system. What distinguishes
charisma as a revolutionary force is that it leads to changes in the minds of
actors; it causes a "subjective or internal reorientation?' Such changes may
lead to "a radical alteration of the central attitudes and direction of action with a
completely new orientation of all attitudes toward different problems of the
world" (Weber, 1921/1968:245). Although Weber was here addressing
changes in the thoughts and actions of individuals, such changes are clearly
reduced to the status of dependent variables. Weber focused on changes in
the structure of authority, that is, the rise of charismatic authority. When such a
new authority structure emerges, it is likely to change people's thoughts and
actions dramatically.
The other major revolutionary force in Weber's theoretical system, and the
one with which he was much more concerned, is (formal) rationality. Whereas
charisma is an internal revolutionary force that changes the minds of actors,
Weber saw (formal) rationality as an external revolutionary force changing the
structures of society first and then ultimately the thoughts and actions of
individuals. We will have more to say about rationality as a revolutionary force
later, but this closes our discussion of charisma as a revolutionary factor,
because Weber had very little to say about it. Weber was interested in the
revolutionary character of charisma as well as its structure and the necessity
that its basic character be transformed and routinized in order for it to survive
as a system of authority.
Charismatic Organizations and the Routinization of Charisma In his
analysis of charisma, Weber began, as he did with traditional authority, with the
ideal typical bureaucracy. He sought to determine to what degree the structure
of charismatic authority, with its disciples and staff, differs from the
bureaucratic system. Compared to that of the ideal-typical bureaucracy, the
staff of the charismatic leader is lacking on virtually all counts. The staff
members are not technically trained but are chosen instead for their
possession of charismatic qualities or, at least, of qualities similar to those
possessed by the charismatic leader. The offices they occupy form no clear
Max Weber and Rationalization
hierarchy. Their work does not constitute a career, and there are no promotions,
clear appointments, or dismissals. The charismatic leader is flee to intervene
whenever he or she feels that the staff cannot handle a situation. The
organization has no formal rules, no established administrative organs, and no
precedents to guide new judgments. In these and other ways, Weber found the
staff of the charismatic leader to be "greatly inferior" to the staff in a bureau
cratic form of organization.
Weber's interest in the organization behind the charismatic leader and the
staff that inhabits it led him to the question of what happens to charismatic
authority when the leader dies. After all, a charismatic system is inherently
fragile; it would seem to be able to survive only as long as the charismatic
leader lives. But is it possible for such an organization to live after the leader
dies? The answer to this question is of the greatest consequence to the staff
members of the charismatic leader, for they are likely to live on after the leader
dies. They are also likely to have a vested interest in the continued existence
of the organization: if the organization ceases to exist, they are out of wore
Thus the challenge for the staff is to create a situation in which charisma in
some adulterated form persists even after the leader's death. It is a difficult
struggle because, for Weber, charisma is by its nature unstable; it exists in its
pure form only as long as the charismatic leader lives.
In order to cope with the departure of the charismatic leader, the staff (as
well as the followers) may adopt a variety of strategies to create a more lasting
organization. The staff may search out a new charismatic leader, but even if
the search is successful, the new leader is unlikely to have the same aura as
his or her predecessor. A set of roles also may be developed that allows the
group to identify future charismatic leaders. But such rules rapidly become
tradition, and what was charismatic leadership is on the way toward becoming
traditional authority. In any case, the nature of leadership is radically changed
as the purely personal character of charisma is eliminated, Still another
technique is to allow the charismatic leader to designate his or her successor
and thereby to transfer charisma symbolically to the next in line. Again it is
questionable whether this is ever very successful or whether it can be
successful in the long run. Another strategy is having the staff designate a
successor and hating its choice accepted by the larger community. The staff
could also create ritual tests, with the new charismatic leader being the one
who successfully undergoes the tests. However, all these efforts are doomed
to failure. In the long run, charisma cannot be routinized and still be charisma;
it must be transformed into either traditional or rational-legal authority (or into
some sort of institutionalized charisma like the Catholic Church).
Indeed, we find a basic theory of history in Weber's work. If successful,
charisma almost immediately moves in the direction of routinization. But once
routinized, charisma is en route to becoming either traditional or rational-legal
authority. Once it achieves one of those states, the stage is set for the cycle to
begin all over again. However, despite a general adherence to a cyclical theory,
Chapter 7
Weber believed that a basic change has occurred in the modem world and that
we are more and more likely to see charisma routinized in the direction of
rational-legal authority. Furthermore, he saw rational systems of authority as
stronger and as increasingly impervious to charismatic movements. The
modern, rationalized world may well mean the death of charisma as a
significant revolutionary force (Seligman. 1993). Weber contended that
rationality-not charisma--is the most irresistible and important revolutionary
force in the modem world.
Types of Authority and the "Real World" In this section, we have
discussed the three types of authority as ideal types, but Weber was well
aware that in the real world, any specific form of authority involves a
combination of all three, Thus we can think of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a
president of the United States who ruled on all three bases. He was elected
president in accordance with a series of rational legal principles. By the time he
was elected president for the fourth time, a good part of this rule had traditional
dements. Finally, many- disciples and followers regarded him as a charismatic
leader McCann, 1997).
Although we have presented the three forms of authority as parallel
structures, in the real world there is constant tension and, sometimes, conflict
among them. The charismatic leader is a constant threat to the other forms of
authority. Once in power, the charismatic leader must address the threat posed
to him or her by the other two forms. Even if charismatic authority is successful
routinized, there then arises the problem of maintaining its dynamism and its
original revolutionary qualities. Then there is the conflict produced by the
constant development of rational-legal authority and the threat it poses to the
continued existence of the other forms, if Weber was right, however, we might
face a future in which the tension among the three forms of authority is
eliminated, a world of the uncontested hegemony of the rational-legal system.
This is the 'iron cage" of a totally rationalized society that worried Weber so
much. In such a society, the only hope lies with isolated charismatic individuals
who manage somehow to avoid the coercive power of society. But a small
number of isolated individuals hardly represent a significant hope in the face of
an increasingly powerful bureaucratic machine.
There has been a growing realization in recent years that rationalization lies at
the heart of Weber's substantive sociology (Blubaker, 1984; R. Collins, 1980;
Eisen, 1978;Kalberg, 1980, 1990; Levine, 1981a; Ritzer, 2000a, 2002; Scarf,
1989; Schhichter,1981; Sica, 1988). As Kalberg put it, "It is the case that
Weber's interest in a broad and overarching theme-the 'specific and peculiar
"rationalism" of Western culture' and its unique origins and
development--stands at the center of his sociology" (1994:18). However, it is
difficult to extract a clear definition of rationalization from Weber's work. In fact,
he operated with a number of different definitions of the term, and he of ten
failed to specify which definition he was using in a particular discussion
Max Weber and Rationalization
(Brubaker, 1984:1). As we saw earlier, Weber did define rationality; indeed, he
differentiated between two types---means-ends and value rationality. However,
these concepts refer to types of action. They are the basis of, but not
coterminous with, Weber's larger-scale sense of rationalization. Weber is
interested in far more than fragmented action orientations; his main concern is
with regularities and patterns of action within civilizations, institutions,
organizations, strata, classes, and groups. Donald Levthe (1981a) argues that
Weber is interested in "objectified" rationality, that is, action that is in accord
with some process of external systematization. Stephen Kalberg (1980)
performs a useful service by identifying four basic types of ("objective")
rationality in Weber's work. (Levine offers a very similar differentiation.) These
types of rationality were "the basic heuristic tools [Weber] employed to
scrutinize the historical fates of rationalization as socio cultural processes"
(Kalberg, 1980:1172; for an application, see Takay area, 1998).
Types of Rationality The first type is practical rationality, which is
defined by Kalberg as "every way of life that views and judges worldly activity
in relation to the ihdividual's purely pragmatic and egoistic interests"
(1980:1151). People who practice practical rationality accept given realities
and merely calculate the most expedient ways of dealing with the difficulties
that they present. This type of rationality arose with the severing of the bonds
of primitive magic, and it exists trans-civilizationally and trans-historically; that
is, it is not restricted to the modern Occident. This type of rationality stands in
opposition to anything that threatens to transcend everyday routine. It leads
people to distrust all impractical values, either religious or secular-utopian, as
well as the theoretical rationality of the intellectuals, the type of rationality to
which we now turn.
Theoretical rationality involves a cognitive effort to master reality through
increasingly abstract concepts rather than through action. It involves such
abstract cognitive processes as logical deduction, induction, attribution of
causality, and the like. This type of rationality was accomplished early in history
by sorcerers and ritualistic priests and later by philosophers, judges, and
scientists. Unlike practical rationality, theoretical rationality leads the actor to
transcend daily realities in a quest to understand the world as a meaningful
cosmos. Like practical rationality, it is trans-civilizational and trans-historical
The effect of intellectual rationality on action is limited. In that it involves
cognitive processes, it need not affect action taken, and it has the potential to
introduce new patterns of action only indirectly.
Substantive rationality (like practical rationality but not theoretical rationality)
directly orders action into patterns through clusters of values. Substantive
rationality involves a choice of means to ends within the context of a system of
values. One value system is no more (substantively) rational than another.
Thus, this type of rationality also exists trans civilizationally and
trans-historically, wherever consistent value postulates exist.
Finally, and most important from the author's point of view, is formal
Chapter 7
rationality, which involves means-ends calculation (Coakerham, Abel, and
Luschen, 1993). But whereas in practical rationality think calculation occurs in
reference to pragmatic self-interests, in formal rationality it occurs with
reference to "universally applied rules, laws, and regulations." As Brubaker
puts it, "Common to the rationality of industrial capitalism, formalistic law and
bureaucratic administration is its objectified, institutionalized, supra-individual
form; in each sphere, rationality is embodied in the social structure and
confronts individuals as something external to them" (1984:9). Weber makes
this quite clear in the specific case of bureaucratic rationalization:
Bureaucratic rationalization.., revolutionizes with technical means,
in principle, as does every economic reorganization, 'from without": it
first changes the material and social order, and through them the people,
by changing the eonditions of adaptation, and perhaps the opportunities
for adaptation, through a rational determination of means and ends.
Weber, 1921/1968:1116
Although all the other types of rationality are trans-civilizational and
epoch-transcending, formal rationality arose only in the West with the coming
of industrialization. The universally applied rules, laws, and regulations that
characterize formal rationality in the West are found particularly in the
economic, legal, and scientific institutions, as well as in the bureaucratic form
of domination. Thus, we have already encountered formal rationality in our
discussion of rational-legal authority and the bureaucracy.
An Overarching Theory? Although Weber had a complex, multifaceted
sense of rationalization, he used it most powerfully and meaningfully in his
image of the modern Western world, especially in the capitalistic economy (R.
Collins, 1980;Weber, 1927/1981) and bureaucratic organizations (I. Cohen,
1981:xxxi; Weber,1921/1968:956-1005), as an iron cage (Mitzman, 1969/1971;
Tiryakian, 1981) of for-really rational structures. Weber described capitalism
and bureaucracies as "two great rationalizing forces" (1921/I 968:698). in fact,
Weber saw capitalism and bureaucracies as being derived from the same
basic sources (especially innerworldly asceticism), involving similarly rational
and methodical action, and reinforcing one another and in the process
furthering the rationalization of the Occident}~ in Weber's (192111968:227,994)
view, the only real rival to the bureaucrat in technical expertise and factual
knowledge was the capitalist.
However, if we take Weber at his word, it is difficult to argue that he had an
overarching theory of rationalization. He rejected the idea of general
evolutionary sequence (Weber, 192711981:34). He was critical of thinkers
like Hegel and Marx, who he felt offered general, teleological theories of
society. In his own work, he tended to shy away from studies of, or
proclamations about, whole societies. Instead, he tended to focus in turn, on
social structures and institutions such as bureaucracy, stratification, law, the
city, religion, the polity, and the economy. Lacking a sense of the whole, he was
unlikely to make global generalizations, especially about future directions.
Max Weber and Rationalization
Furthermore, the rationalization process that Weber described in one social
structure or institution was usually quite different from the rationalization of
another structure or institution. As Weber put it, the process of rationalization
assumes "unusually varied forms" (1922-23/1958:293; see also Weber,
1921/1958:30; 1904-05/1958:78), and "the history of rationalism shows a
development which by no means follows parallel lines in the various
departments of life" (19044)5/1958:77; see also Brubaker, 1984:9; Kalberg,
1980: 1147). Weber also looked at many things other than rationalization in his
comparative-historical studies (Kalberg, 1994).
This being said, it is clear that Weber does have a deep concern for the
overarching effect of the formal rationalization of the economy and
bureaucracies on the Western world (Brubaker, 1984). For example, in
Economy and Society, Weber says:
This whole process of rationalization in the factory as elsewhere,
and especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the
centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands
of the master. Thus, discipline inexorably takes over ever larger areas
as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly
rationalized. This universal phenomenon more and more restricts the
importance of charisma and of individually differentiated conduct.
(Weber, 1921/1968:1156)
Formal rationalization will be our main, but certainly not only, concern in this
Formal and Substantive Rationality Various efforts have been made to
delineate the basic characteristics of formal rationality. In our view, formal
rationality may be defined in terms of six basic characteristics (Ritzer, 1983,
200On). First, formally rational structures and institutions emphasize
calculability or those things that can be counted or quantified. Second, there is
a focus on efficiency, on finding the best means to a given end. Third, there is
great concern with ensuring predictability, Or that things operate in the same
way from one time or place to another. Fourth, a formally rational system
progressively reduces human technology and ultimately replaces human
technology with nonhuman technology. Nonhuman technologies (such as
computerized systems) are viewed as more calculable, more efficient, and
more predictable than human technologies. Fifth, formally rational systems
seek to gain control over an array of uncertainties, especially the uncertainties
posed by human beings who work in, or are served by, them. Finally, rational
systems tend to have a series of irrational consequences for the people
involved with them and for the systems themselves, as well as for the larger
society(Sica, 1988). One of the irrationalities of rationality, from Weber's point
of view, is that the world tends to become less enchanted, less magical, and
ultimately less meaningful to people (MacKtonon, 2001; Ritzer, 1999; M.
Schneider, 1993).
Formal rationality stands in contrast to all the other types of rationality but is
Chapter 7
especially in conflict with substantive rationality (Brubaker, 1984:4). Kalberg
argues that Weber believed that the conflict between these two types of
rationality played "a particularly fateful role in tile unfolding of rationalization
processes in the West" (198thl 157).
In addition to differentiating among the four types of rationality, Kalberg
deals with their capacity to introduce methodical ways of life. Practical
rationality lacks this ability because it involves reactions to situations rather
than efforts to order them. Theoretical rationality is cognitive and therefore has
a highly limited ability to suppress practical rationality and seems to be more of
an end product than a producer. To Weber, substantive rationality is the only
type with the "potential to introduce methodical ways of life" (Kalberg,
1980:1165). Thus. in the West, a particular substantive rationality with an
emphasis on a methodical way of life-calvinism-subjugated practical rationality
and led to the development of formal rationality.
Weber's fear was that substantive rationality was becoming less
significant than the other types of rationality, especially formal rationality, in the
West. Thus practitioners of formal rationality, like the bureaucrat and the
capitalist, were coming to dominate the West, and the type that "embodied
Western civilization's highest ideals: the autonomous and free individual
whose actions were given continuity hy their reference to ultimate values"
(Kalberg, 1980:1176) was fading away (for an alternative view on this, see
Titunik 1997).
Rationalization in Various Social Settings Although we have
emphasized the differences among Weber's four types of rationalization, there
are a number of commonalities among them. Thus, as we move from setting to
setting, we, like Weber, focus sometimes on rationalization in general and at
other times on the specific types of rationalization.
Economy Engedman (2000:258) argues that, although this is rarely cited,
"Weber laid out much of the methodological underpinning to what is
conventionally called neo-classical economics." This includes the ideal type,
methodological individualism, and, most important, rationality and
rationalization. The most systematic presentation of Weber's thoughts on the
rationalization of the economic institution is to be found in his General
Economic History. Weber's concern is with the development of the rational
capitalistic economy in the Occident, which is a specific example of a rational
economy defined as a "functional organization oriented to money prices which
originate in the interest-struggles of men in the market' (Weber,
1915/1958:331). Although there is a general evolutionary trend, Weber, as
always, is careful to point out that there are various sources of capitalism,
alternative routes to it, and a range of results emanating from it (Swedberg,
1998). In fact, in the course of rejecting the socialistic theory of evolutionary
change, Weber rejects the whole idea of a "general evolutionary sequence"
Weber begins by depicting various irrational and traditional forms, such as
Max Weber and Rationalization
the household, clan, village, and manorial economies. For example, the lord of
the manor in feudalism was described by Weber as being traditionalistic, "too
lacking in initiative to build up a business enterprise in a large scale into which
the peasants would have fitted as a labor force" ( 1927/1981:72). However, by
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Occident, feudalism began to break
down as the peasants and die land were freed from control by the lord and a
money economy was introduced. With this breakdown, the manorial system
"showed a strong tendency to develop in a capitalistic direction" (Weber,
At the same time, in the Middle Ages, cities were beginning to develop.
Weber focuses on the largely urban development of industry involved in the
transformation of raw materials. Especially important to Weber is the
development of such industrial production beyond the immediate needs of the
house community. Notable here is the rise of free craftsmen in the cities. They
developed in the Middle Ages in the Occident because, for one thing, this
society had developed consumptive needs greater than those of any other, in
general, there were larger markets and more purchasers, and the peasantry
had greater purchasing power. On the other side, forces operated against the
major alternative to craftsmen slaves. Slavery was found to be too unprofitable
and too unstable, and it was made increasingly more unstable by the growth
of the towns that offered freedom to the slaves.
In the Occident, along with flee craftsmen came the development of the
guild, defined by Weber as "an organization of craft workers specialized in
accordance with the type of occupation... [with] internal regulation of work and
monopolization against outsiders" (1927/1981:136). Freedom of association
was also characteristic of the guilds. But although rational in many senses,
guilds also had traditional, anticapitalistic aspects. For example, one master
was not supposed to have more capital than another. and this requirement was
a barrier to the development of large capitalistic organizations.
As the Middle Ages came to a close, the guilds began to disintegrate. This
disintegration was crucial because the traditional guilds stood in the way of
technological advance. With the dissolution of the guild system came the rise
of the domestic system of production, especially the "putting out" system in the
textile industry. In such a system, production was decentralized, with much of it
taking place within the homes of the workers. Although domestic systems were
found throughout the world, it was only in the Occident that the owners
controlled the means of production (for example, tools, raw materials) and
provided them to the workers in exchange for the right to dispose of the
product, Whereas a fully developed domestic system developed in the West, it
was impeded in other parts of the world by such barriers as the clan system
(China), the caste system (India), traditionalism, and the lack of free workers.
Next, Weber details the development of the workshop (a central work
setting without advanced machinery) and then the emergence of the factory in
the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. In Weber's view, the factory did riot
Chapter 7
arise out of craft work or the domestic system, but alongside them. Similarly,
the factory was not called into existence by advances in machinery; the two
developments were correlated with each other The factory was characterized
by free labor that performed specialized and coordinated activities, ownership
of the means of production by the entrepreneur, the fixed capital of the
entrepreneur, and the system of accounting that is indispensable to such
capitalization. Such a factory was, in Weber's view, a capitalistic organization.
In addition to the development of the factory, Weber details the rise of other
components of a modern capitalistic economy, such as advanced machinery,
transportation systems, money, banking, interest, bookkeeping systems, and
so on.
What most clearly defines modem rational capitalistic enterprises for
Weber is their calculability, which is best represented in their reliance on
modem bookkeeping. Isolated calculable enterprises existed in the past in the
Occident as well as in other societies. However, an entire society is considered
capitalistic only when the everyday requirements of the population are supplied
by capitalistic methods and enterprises. Such a society is found only in the
Occident, and there only since the mid-nineteenth century.
The development of a capitalistic system hinged on a variety of
developments within the economy as well as within the larger society. Within
the economy, some of the prerequisites included a flee market with large and
steady demand, a money economy, inexpensive and rational technologies, a
free labor force, a disciplined labor force, rational capital-accounting
techniques, and the commercialization of economic life involving the use of
shares, stocks, and the like. Many of the economic prerequisites were found
only in the Occident. Outside the economy, Weber identified a variety of
needed develop merits, such as a modem state with "professional
administration, specialized officialdom, and law based on the concept of
citizenship" (1927/1981:313), rational law "made by jurists and rationally
interpreted and applied" (1927/1981:313), cities, and modern science and
technology. To these Weber adds a factor that will concern us in the next
section: "a rational ethic for the conduct of life.., a religious basis for the
ordering of life which consistently followed out must lead to explicit rationalism"
(1927/1981:319314). Like the economic prerequisites, these noneconomic
presuppositions occurred together only in the Occident. The basic point is that
a rational economy is dependent upon a variety of noneconomic forces
throughout the rest of society in order to develop.
Religion Although we will focus on the rationalization of religion in this
section, Weber spent much time analyzing the degree to which early, more
primitive religions and religions in much of the world acted as impediments to
the rise of rationality. Weber noted that "the sacred is the uniquely unalterable"
(1921/1968:406). Despite this view, religion in the West did prove to be
alterable; it was amenable to rationalization, and it did play a key role in the
rationalization of other sectors of society (Kalberg, 1990).
Max Weber and Rationalization
Early religion was composed of a bewildering array of gods, but with
rationalization, a clear and coherent set of gods (a pantheon) emerged. Early
religions had household gods, kin-group gods, local political gods, and
occupational and vocational gods. We get the clear feeling that Weber did
believe that a cultural force of (theoretical) rationality impelled the emergence
of this set of gods: "Reason favored the primacy of universal gods; and every
consistent crystallization of a pantheon followed systematic rational principles"
(1921/1968:417). A pantheon of gods was not the only aspect of the
rationalizalion of religion discussed by Weber. He also considered the
delimitation of the juisdiction of gods, monotheism, and the
anthropomorphization of gods as part of this development. Although the
pressure for rationalization exists in many of the world's religions, in areas
outside the Western world, the barriers to rationalization more than
counterbalance the pressures for rationalization.
Although Weber had a cultural conception of rationalization, he did not
view it simply as a force "out there" that impels people to act. He did not have a
group-mind concept. In religion, rationalization is tied to concrete groups of
people, in particular to priests. Specifically, the professionally trained
priesthood is the carrier and the expediter of rationalization, in this, priests
stand in contrast to magicians, who support a more irrational religious system.
The greater rationality of the priesthood is traceable to several factors.
Members go through a systematic training program, whereas the training of
magicians is unsystematic. Also, priests are fairly highly specialized, whereas
magicians tend to be unspecialized. Finally, priests possess a systematic set of
religious concepts, and this, too, sets them apart from magicians. We can say
that priests are both the products and the expediters of the process of
The priesthood is not the only group that plays a key role hi rationalization.
Prophets and a laity are also important in the process. Prophets can be
distinguished from priests by their personal calling, their emotional preaching,
their proclamation of a doctrine, and the fact that they tend to be unpopular
and to work alone. The key role of the prophet is the mobilization of the laity,
because there would be no religion without a group of followers. Unlike priests,
prophets do not tend to the needs of a congregation. Weber differentiated
between two types of prophets: ethical and exemplary. Ethical prophets
(Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and the Old Testament prophets) believe that they
have received a commission directly from God and demand obedience from
followers as an ethical duty. Exemplary prophets (Buddha is a model)
demonstrate to others by personal example the way to religious salvation. In
either case, successful prophets are able to attract large numbers of followers,
and it is this mass, along with the priests, that forms the heart of religion.
Prophets are likely at first to attract a personal following, but it is necessary that
that group be transformed into a permanent congregation. Once such a laity
has been formed, major strides have been made in the direction of the
Chapter 7
rationalization of religion.
Prophets play a key initial role, but once a congregation is formed, they are
no longer needed. In fact, because they are largely irrational, they represent a
barrier to that rationalization of religion. A conflict develops between priests
and prophets, but it is a conflict that must be won in the long run by the more
rational priesthood, fn their conflict the priests are aided by the rationalization
proceeding in the rest of society. As the secular world becomes more and more
literate and bureaucratized, the task of educating the masses falls increasingly
to the priests, whose literacy gives them a tremendous advantage over the
prophets. In addition, while the prophets tend to do the preaching, the priests
take over the task of day-to-day pastoral care. Although preaching is important
during extraordinary times, pastoral care, or the daily religious cultivation of the
laity, is an important instrument in the growing power of the priesthood. It was
the church in the Western world that combined a rationalized pastoral
character with an ethical religion to form a peculiarly Influential and rational
form of religion. This rationalized religion proved particularly well suited to
winning converts among the urban middle class, and it was there that it played
a key role in the rationalization of economic life as well as all other sectors of
Law is defined by Weber not in terms of people's definitions, attitudes,
and beliefs but rather as a body of norms (Kronman, 1983:12). Additionally,
this body of norms is seen as being external to, and coercive of, individuals
and their thoughts and actions. The emphasis is not on how people create law,
interpret it, and daily re-create it but on its coercive effect on the individual.
As with his analysis of religion, Weber began his treatment of law with the
primitive, winch he saw as highly irrational. Primitive law was a rather
undifferentiated system of norms. For example, no distinction was made
between a civil wrong (a tort) and a crime. Thus cases involving differences
over a piece of land and homicide were likely to be handled, and offenders
punished, in much the same way. In addition, primitive law tended to Jack any
official machinery. Vengeance dominated reactions to a crime, and law was
generally free from procedural formality or rules. Leaders, especially, were
virtually unrestrained in what they could do to followers. From this early
irrational period, Weber traced a direct line of development to a formalized
legal procedure. And as was usual in Weber's thinking, it is only In the West
that a rational, systematic theory of law is held to have developed.
Weber traced several stages in the development of a more rational legal
system (Shamir, 1993). An early stage involves charismatic legal revelation
through law prophets. Then there is the empirical creation and founding of law
by honorary legal officials. Later there is the imposition of law by secular or
theocratic powers. Finally, in the most modern case, we have the systematic
elaboration of law and professionalized administration of justice by persons
who have received their legal training formally and systematically.
In law, as in religion, Weber placed great weight on the process of
Max Weber and Rationalization
professionalization: the legal profession is crucial to the rationalization of
Western law. There are certainly other factors (for example, the influence of
Roman law), but the legal profession was central to his thinking: "Formally
elaborated law constituting a complex of maxims consciously applied in
decisions has never come into existence without the decisive cooperation of
trained specialists" (Weber, 1921/1968:775). Although Weber was aware that
there was a series of external pressures---especially from the rationalizing
economy impelling law toward rationalization, his view was that the most
important force was the internal factor of the professionalization of the legal
profession (192111968:776).
Weber differentiated between two types of legal training but saw only one
as contributing to the development of rational law. The first is craft training, in
which apprentices learn from masters, primarily during the actual practice of
law. This kind of training produces a formalistic type of law dominated by
precedents. The goal is not the creation of a comprehensive, rational system of
law but, instead, the production of practically useful precedents for dealing with
recurring situations. Because these precedents are tied to specific issues in
the real world, a general, rational, and systematic body of law cannot emerge.
In contrast, academic legal training laid the groundwork for the rational law
of the West. In this system, law is taught in special schools where the
emphasis is placed on legal theory and science hi other words, where legal
phenomena are given rational and systematic treatment. The legal concepts
produced have the character of abstract norms. Interpretation of these laws
occurs in a rigorously formal and logical manner. They are general, in contrast
to the specific, precedent-bound laws produced in the case of craft training.
Academic legal training leads to the development of a rational legal system
with a number of characteristics, including the following:
1. Every concrete legal decision involves the application of abstract legal
propositions to concrete situations.
2. It must be possible in every concrete case to derive the decision logically
from abstract legal propositions.
3. Law must tend to be a gapless system of legal propositions or at least be
treated as one.
4. The gapless legal system should be applicable to all social actions.
Weber seemed to adopt the view that history has seen law evolve from a
cultural system of norms to a more structured system of formal laws. In general,
actors are increasingly constrained by a more and more rational legal system.
Although this is tree, Weber was too good a sociologist to lose sight completely
of the independent significance of the actor. For one thing, Weber
(1921/1968:754-755) saw actors as crucial in the emergence of, and change in,
law. However, the most important aspect of Weber's work In this area for the
purposes of this discussion is the degree to which law is regarded as part of
the general process of rationalization throughout the West.
Polity the rationalization of the political system is intimately linked to the
Chapter 7
rationalization of law and, ultimately, to the rationalization of all elements of the
social system. For example, Weber argued that the more rational the political
structure becomes, the more likely it is to eliminate systematically the irrational
elements within the law. A rational polity cannot function with an irrational legal
system, and vice versa. Weber did not believe that political leaders follow a
conscious policy of rationalizing the law; rather, they are impelled in that
direction by the demands of their own increasingly rational means of
administration. Once again, Weber took the position that actors are being
impelled by structural (the state) and cultural (rationalization) forces.
Weber defined the polity as "a community whose social action is aimed at
subordinating to orderly domination by the participants a territory and the
conduct of the persons within it, through readiness to resort to physical force,
including normally force of arms" (1921/1968:901). This type of polity has
existed neither everywhere nor always. It does not exist as a separate entity
where the task of armed defense against enemies is assigned to the
household, the neighborhood association, an economic group, and so forth.
Although Weber clearly viewed the polity as a social structure, he was more
careful to link his thinking here to his individual action orientations. In his view,
modem political associations rest on the prestige bestowed upon them by their
As was his usual strategy, Weber went back to the primitive case in order
to trace the development of the polity. He made it clear that violent social
action is primordial. However, the monopolization and rational ordering of
legitimate violence did not exist in early societies but evolved over the
centuries. Not only is rational control over violence lacking in primitive society,
but other basic functions of the modem state either are totally absent or are not
ordered in a rational manner. Included here would be functions like legislation,
police, justice, administration, and the military. The development of the polity in
the West involves the progressive differentiation and elaboration of these
functions. But the most important step is their subordination under a single,
dominant, rationally ordered state.
The City Weber was also interested in the rise of the city in the West.
The city provided an alternative to the feudal order and a setting in which
modem capitalism and, more generally, rationality could develop. He defined a
city as having the following characteristics:
1 It is a relatively closed settlement.
2. It is relatively large.
3. It possesses a marketplace.
4. It has partial political autonomy.
Although many cities in many societies gad these characteristics, Western
cities developed a peculiarly rational character with, among other things, a
rationally organized marketplace and political structure.
Weber looked at various other societies in order to determine why they did
not develop the rational form of the city. He concluded that barriers like the
Max Weber and Rationalization
traditional community in China and the caste system in India impeded the rise
of such a city. But in the West, a number of rationalizing forces coalesced to
create the modern city. For example, the development of a city requires a
relatively rational economy. But of course the converse is also true: the
development of a rational economy requires the modem city.
Art Forms To give the reader a sense of the breadth of Weber's thinking,
we need to say a few words about his work on the rationalization of various art
forms. For example, Weber (192111958) viewed music in the West as having
developed in a peculiarly rational direction. Musical creativity is reduced to
routine procedures based on comprehensive principles. Music in the Western
world has undergone a "transformation of the process of musical production
into a calculable affair operating with known means, effective instruments, and
understandable rules" (Weber, 1921/1958:1i). Although the process of
rationalization engenders tension in all the institutions in which it occurs, that
tension is nowhere more noticeable than in music. After all, music is supposed
to be an arena of expressive flexibility, but it is being progressively reduced to
a rational, and ultimately mathematical, system.
Weber (1904-05/1958) sees a similar development in other art forms. For
example, in painting, Weber emphasizes "the rational utilization of lines and
spatial perspective--which the Renaissance created for us" (1904-05/1958:15).
In architecture, "the rational use of the Gothic vault as a means of distributing
pressure and of roofing spaces of all forms, and above all as the constructive
principle of great monumental buildings and the foundation of a style extending
to sculpture and painting, such as that created by our Middle Ages. does not
occur elsewhere [in the world]" (Weber, 1904-05/1958:15).
We have now spent a number of pages examining Weber's ideas on
rationalization in various aspects of social life. Although nowhere does he
explicitly say so, we believe that Weber adopted the view that changes in the
cultural level of rationality are leading to changes in the structures as well as in
the individual thoughts and actions of the modem world. The rationalization
process is not left to float alone above concrete phenomena but is embedded
in various social structures and in the thoughts and actions of individuals. To
put it slightly differently, the key point is that the cultural system of rationality
occupies a position of causal priority in Weber's work. We can illustrate this in
still another way by looking at Weber's work on the relationship between
religion and economics---more specifically, the relationship between religion
and the development. or lack of development, of a capitalist economy.
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Weber spent much of his life studying religion this in spite of, or perhaps
because of, his being religious, or, as he once described himself, "religiously
unmusical" (Gerth and Mills, 1958:25). One of his overriding concerns was the
relationship among a variety of the world's religions and the development only
in the West of a capitalist economic system (Schlucter, 1996). It is clear that
the vast bulk of this work is done at the social-structural and cultural levels; the
Chapter 7
thoughts and actions of Calvinists, Buddhists, Conincians, Jews, Muslims (B.
Turner, 1974; Nafassi, 1998), and others are held to be affected by changes in
social structures and social institutions. Weber was interested primarily in the
systems of ideas of the world's religions, in the "spirit" of capitalism, and in
rationalization as a modem system of norms and values. He was also very
interested in the structures of the world's religions, the various structural
components of the societies in which they exist that serve to facilitate or
impede rationalization, and the structural aspects of capitalism and the rest of
the modern wor;d.
Weber's work on religion and capitalism involved an enormous body of
cross cultural historical research; here, as elsewhere, he did
comparative-historical sociology (Kalberg, 1997). Freund summarized the
complicated interrelationships involved in this research:
1. Economic forces influenced Protestantism.
2. Economic forces influenced religions other than Protestantism (for example,
Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism).
3. Religious idea systems influenced individual thoughts and actions--in
particular, economic thoughts and actions.
4. Religious idea systems have been influential throughout the world.
5. Religious idea systems (particularly Protestantism) have had the unique
effect in the West of helping to rationalize the economic sector and virtually every
other institution.
(Pmund, 1968:213)
To this we can add:
6. Religious idea systems in the non-Western world have created overwhelming
structural barriers to rationalization.
By according the religions factor great importance, Weber appeared to be
simultaneously building on and criticizing his image of Marx's work. Weber, like
Marx, operated with a complicated model of the interrelationship of primarily
large-scale systems: "Weber's sociology is related to Marx's thought in the
common attempt to grasp the interrelations of institutional orders making up a
social structure: In Weber's work. Military and religious, political and juridical
institutional systems are functionally related to the economic order in a variety
of ways" (Gerth and Mills, 1958:49). In fact, Weber's affinities with Marx are
even greater than is often recognized. Although Weber, especially early in his
career, gave primacy to religious ideas, he later came to see that material
forces, not idea systems, are of greater importance (Kalberg, 1985:61 ). As
Weber said, "Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's
conduct. Yet very frequently the 'world images' that have been created by
'ideas' have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has
been pushed by the dynamic of interest"(cited in Gerth and Mills, 1958:280).
Paths to Salvation ln analyzing the relationship between the world's
religions and the economy, Weber (1921/1963) developed a typology of the
paths of salvation. Asceticism is the first broad type of religiosity, and it
Max Weber and Rationalization
combines an orientation toward action with the commitment of believers to
denying themselves the pleasures of the world. Ascetic religions are divided
into two subtypes. Otherworldly asceticism involves a set of norms and values
that command the followers not to work within the secular world and to fight
against its temptations (Kalberg, 2001). Of greater interest to Weber, be cause
it encompasses Calvinism, was innerworldly asceticism. Such a religion does
not reject the world; instead, it actively urges its members to work within the
world so that they can tied salvation, or at least signs of it. The distinctive goal
here is the strict, methodical control of the members' patterns of life, thought,
and action. Members are urged to reject everything unethical, esthetic, or
dependent on their emotional reactions to the secular world, lnnerworldly
ascetics are motivated to systematize their own conduct.
Whereas both types of asceticism involve some type of action and
self-denial, mysticism involves contemplation, emotion, and inaction. Weber
subdivided mysticism in the same way as asceticism. World rejecting
mysticism involves total flight from the world. lnnerworldly mysticism leads to
contemplative efforts to understand the meaning of the world, but these efforts
are doomed to failure, because the world is viewed as being beyond individual
comprehension, in any case, both types of mysticism and world-rejecting
asceticism can be seen as idea systems that inhibit the development of
capitalism and rationality. In contrast, innerworldly asceticism is the system of
norms and values that contriibuted to the development of these phenomena in
the West.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in Max Weber's
best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1904-05/1958), he traced the impact of ascetic Protestantism--primarily
Calvinism--on the rise of the spirit of capitalism (H. Jones, 1997). This work is
hut a small part of a larger body of scholarship that traces the relationship
between religion and modern capitalism throughout much of the world.
Weber, especially later in his work, made it clear that his most general
interest was in the rise of the distinctive rationality of the West. Capitalism, with
its rational organization of free labor, its open market, and its rational
bookkeeping system, is only one component of that developing system. He
directly linked it to the parallel development of rationalized science, law,
polities, art, architecture, literature, universities, and the polity.
Weber did not directly link the idea system of the Protestant ethic to the
structures of the capitalist system; instead, he was content to link the
Protestant ethic to another system of ideas, the "spirit of capitalism." In other
words, two systems of ideas are directly linked in this work. Although links of
the capitalist economic system to the material world are certainly implied and
indicated, they were not Weber's primary concern. Thus, The Protestant Ethic
is not about the rise of modern capitalism but is about the origin of a peculiar
spirit that eventually made modem rational capitalism (some form of capitalism
had existed since early times) expand and come to dominate the economy.
Chapter 7
Weber began by examining and rejecting alternative explanations of why
capitalism arose in the West in tile sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (for an
alternative view on this, see R. Collins, 1997a). To those who contended that
capitalism arose because the material conditions were right at that time, Weber
retorted that material conditions were also ripe at other times and capitalism
did not arise. Weber also rejected the psychological theory that the
development of capitalism was due simply to the acquisitive instinct. in his view,
such an instinct always has existed, yet it did not produce capitalism in other
Evidence for Weber's views on the significance of Protestantism was found
in an examination of countries with mixed religious systems, in looking at these
countries, he discovered that the leaders of the economic system business
leaders, owners of capital, high-grade skilled labor, and more advanced
technically and commercially trained personnel--were all ovelwhelmingly
Protestant. This suggested that Protestantism was a significant cause in the
choice of these occupations and, conversely, that other religions (for example,
Roman Catholicism) failed to produce idea systems that impelled individuals
into these vocations.
In Weber's view, the spirit of capitalism is not defined simply by economic
greed; it is in many ways the exact opposite. It is a moral and ethical system,
an ethos, that among other things stresses economic success. In fact, it was
the turning of profit making into an ethos that was critical in the West. In other
societies, the pursuit of profit was seen as an individual act motivated at least
in part by greed. Thus it was viewed by many as morally suspect. However,
Protestantism succeeded in turning the pursuit of profit into a moral crusade. It
was the backing of the moral system that led to the unprecedented expansion
of profit seeking and, ultimately, to the capitalist system. On a theoretical level,
by stressing that he was dealing with the relationship between one ethos
(Protestantism) and another (the spirit of capitalism), Weber was able to keep
his analysis primarily at the level of systems of ideas.
The spirit of capitalism can be seen as a normative system that involves a
number of interrelated ideas. For example, its goal is to instill an "attitude
which seeks profit rationally and systematically" (Weber, 1904-05/1958:64). in
addition, it preaches an avoidance of life's pleasures: "Seest thou a man
diligent in business? He shall stand before kings" (Weber, 1904-05/1958:53).
Also included hi the spirit of capitalism are ideas such as '`time is money," "be
industrious," "be frugal," "be punctual," "be fair," and "earning money is a
legitimate end in itself" Above all, there is the idea that it is people's duty to
increase their wealth ceaselessly. This takes the spirit of capitalism out of the
realm of individual ambition and into the category of an ethical imperative.
Although Weber admitted that a type of capitalism (for example, adventurer
capitalism) existed in China, India, Babylon, and the classical world and during
the Middle Ages, it was different from Western capitalism, primarily because it
lacked "tiffs particular ethos" (1904-05/1958:52).
Max Weber and Rationalization
Weber was interested not simply in describing this ethical system but also
in explaining its derivations. He thought that Protestantism, particularly
Calvinism, was crucial to the rise of the spirit of capitalism. Calvinism is no
longer necessary to the continuation of that economic system, in fact, in many
senses modem capitalism, given its secularity, stands in opposition to
Calvinism and to religion in general. Capitalism today has become a real entity
that combines norms, values, market, money, and laws. It has become, hi
Durkheim's terms, a social fact that is external to, and coercive of, the
individual. As Weber put it:
Capitalism is today an immense cosmos into which the individual is
born, and which presents itself to him, at least as individual, as an
unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual,
in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationship, to conform
to capitalist roles of achon.
(Weber, 19044)5/1958:54)
Another crucial point here is that Calvinists did not consciously seek to
create a capitalist system, hi Weber's view, capitalism was an unanticipated
consequence of the Protestant ethic. The concept of unanticipated
consequences has broad significance in Weber's work, for he believed that
what individuals and groups intend by their actions often leads to a set of
consequences that are at variance with their intentions. Although Weber did
not explain this point, it seems that it is related to his theoretical view that
people create social structures but that those structures soon take on a life of
their own, over which the creators have little or no control. Because people
lack control over them, structures are free to develop in a variety of totally
unanticipated directions. Weber's line of thinking led Arthur Mitzman (1970) to
argue that Weber created a sociology of reification. Reified social structures
are free to move in unanticipated directions, as both Marx and Weber showed
in their analyses of capitalism.
Calvinlsm and the Spirit of Capitalism Calvinism was the version of
Protestantism that interested Weber most. One feature of Calvinism was the
idea that only a small number of people are chosen for salvation. In addition,
Calvinism entailed the idea of predestination; people were predestined to ha
either among the saved or among the damned. There was nothing that the
individual or the religion as a whole could do to affect that fate. Yet the idea of
predestination left people uncertain about whether they were among the saved.
To reduce this uncertainty, the Calvinists developed the idea that signs could
be used as indicators of whether a person was saved. People were urged to
work hard, because if they were diligent, they would uncover the signs of
salvation, which were to be found in economic success. In sum, the Calvinist
was urged to engage in intense, worldly activity and to become a "man of
However, isolated actions were not enough. Calvinism, as an ethic,
required self-control and a systematized style of life that involved an integrated
Chapter 7
round of activities, particularly business activities. This stood in contrast to the
Christian ideal of the Mid-die Ages, in which individuals simply engaged in
isolated acts as the occasion arose in order to atone for particular sins and to
increase their chances of salvation. "The God of Calvinism demanded of his
believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a
unified system" (Weber, 1904-05/1958:117). Calvinism produced an ethical
system and ultimately a group of people who were nascent capitalists.
Calvinism "has the highest ethical appreciation of the sober, middle-class, self
made man" (Weber,1904-05/1958:163). Weber nearly summarized his own
position on Calvinism and its relationship to capitalism as follows:
The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in
a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same
time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must
have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of. the
spirit of capitalism.
(Weber, 1904-05/1958:172)
In addition to its general link to the spirit of capitalism, Calvinism had some
more specific links. First, as already mentioned, capitalists could ruthlessly
pursue their economic interests and feel that such pursuit was not merely
self-interest but was, in fact, their ethical duty. This not only permitted
unprecedented mercilessness in business but also silenced potential critics,
who could not simply reduce these actions to self-interest. Second, Calvinism
provided the rising capitalist "with sober, conscientious and unusually
industrious workmen who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by god"
(Weber, 1904-05/1958:117). With such a work force, the nascent capitalist
could raise the level of exploitation to unprecedented heights. Third, Calvinism
legitimized an unequal stratification system by giving the capitalist the
"comforting assurances that the unequal distribution of the goods of tiffs world
was a special dispensation of Divine Providence" (Weber, 1904-05/1958:117).
Weber also had reservations about the capitalist system, as he did about all
aspects of the rationalized world. For example, he pointed out that capitalism
tends to produce "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this
nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved"
(Weber, 1904-05/1958:182).
Although in The Protestant Ethic Weber focused Oil the effect of Calvinism
on the spirit of capitalism, he was well aware that social and economic
conditions have a reciprocal impact on religion. He chose not to deal with such
relationships in this book, but he made it clear that his goal was not to
substitute a one-sided spiritualist interpretation for the one-sided materialist
explanation that he attributed to Marxists. (The same is true of much of the rest
of his work, including his essays on the Russian Revolution; see Walls and
Baehr, 1995:22.) As Kalberg (1996) has pointed out, The Protestant Ethic
raises a wide number of issues that go to the heart of contemporary
sociological theory.
Max Weber and Rationalization
if Calvinism was one of the causal factors in the rise of capitalism in the
West, then the question arises: Why didn't capitalism arise in other societies?
in his effort to answer this question, Weber dealt with spiritual and material
barriers to the rise of capitalism. Let us look briefly at Weber's analysis of those
barriers in two societies-china and India.
Religion and Capitalism in China One crucial assumption that allowed
Weber to make legitimate the comparison between the West and China is that
both had the pre-requisites for the development of capitalism. In China, there
was a tradition of intense acquisitiveness and unscrupulous competition. There
was great industry and an enormous capacity for work in die populace.
Powerful guilds existed. The population was expanding. And there was a
steady growth in precious metals. With these and other material prerequisites,
why didn't capitalism arise in China? As has been pointed out before, Weber's
general answer was that social, structural, and religious barriers in China
prevented the development of capitalism. This is not to say that capitalism was
entirely absent in China (Love, 2000). There were moneylenders and
purveyors who sought high rates of profit. But a market, as well as various
other components of a rational capitalistic system, was absent. In Weber's view,
the rudimentary capitalism of China "pointed in a direction opposite to the
development of rational economic corporate enterprises" (1916/1964:86).
Structural Barriers Weber listed several structural barriers to the rise of
capitalism in China. First there was the structure of the typical Chinese
community. It was held together by rigid kinship bonds in the form of sibs. The
sibs were ruled by elders, who made them bastions of traditionalism. The sibs
were self-contained entities, and there was little dealing with other albs. This
encouraged small, encapsulated land holdings and a household-based, rather
than a market, economy. The extensive partitioning of the land prevented
major technological developments, because economies of scale were
impossible. Agricultural production remained in the hands of peasants,
industrial production in the hands of small-scale artisans. Modern cities, which
were to become the centers of Western capitalism, were inhibited in their
development because the people retained their allegiance to the sibs. Because
of the sibs' autonomy, the central government was never able to govern these
units effectively or to mold them into a unified whole.
The structure of the Chinese state was a second barrier to the rise of
capitalism. The state was largely patrimonial and governed by tradition,
prerogative, and favoritism. In Weber's view, a rational and calculable system
of administration and law enforcement, which was necessary for industrial
development, did not exist. There were very few formal laws covering
commerce, there was no central court, and legal formalism was rejected. This
irrational type of administrative structure was a barrier to the rise of capitalism,
as Weber made clear: "Capital investment in industry is far too sensitive to
such irrational role and too dependent upon the possibility of calculating the
steady and rational operation of the state machinery to emerge within an
Chapter 7
administration of this type" (1916/1964:103). In addition to its general structure,
a number of more specific components of the state acted against the
development of capitalism. For example, the officials of the bureaucratic
administration had vested material interests that made them oppose capitalism.
Officials often bought offices primarily to make a profit, and this kind of
orientation did not necessarily make for a high degree of efficiency.
A third structural barrier to die rise of capitalism was the nature of the
Chinese Ianguage, in Weber's view, it militated against rationality by making
systematic thought difficult. It remained largely in the realm of die "pictorial"
and the "descriptive." Logical thinking was also inhibited because intellectual
thought remained largely in the form of parables, and this hardly was the basis
for the development of a cumulative body of knowledge.
Although there were other structural barriers to the rise of capitalism (for
example, a country without wars or overseas trade), a key factor was the lack
of the required "mentality," the lack of the needed idea system. Weber looked
at the two dominant systems of religious ideas in China-Confucianism and
Taoism--and the characteristics of both that militated against the development
of a spirit of capitalism.
Confucianism A central characteristic of Confucian thinking was its
emphasis on a literary education as a prerequisite for office and for social
status. To acquire a position in the ruling strata, a person had to be a member
of the literati. Movement up the hierarchy was based on a system of ideas that
tested literary knowledge, not the technical knowledge needed to conduct the
office in question. What was valued and tested was whether the individual's
mind was steeped in culture and whether it was characterized by ways of
thought suitable to a cultured man. in Weber's terms, Confucianism
encouraged "a highly bookish literary education." The literati produced by this
system came to see the actual work of administration as beneath them, mere
tasks to be delegated to subordinates. Instead. the literati aspired to clever
puns, euphemisms, and allusions to classical quotations---a purely literary kind
of intellectuality. With this kind of orientation, it is easy to see why the literati
were unconcerned with the state of the economy or with economic activities.
The world view of die Confucians ultimately grew to be the policy of the state.
As a result, the Chinese state came to be only minimally involved in rationally
influencing the economy and the rest of society. The Confucians maintained
their influence by having the constitution decree that only they could serve as
officials, and competitors to Confucians (for example, the bourgeoisie,
prophets, and priests) were blocked from serving in the government. In fact, if
the emperor dared to deviate from this rule, he was thought to be toying with
disaster and his potential downfall.
Many other components of Confucianism militated against capitalism. It
was basically an ethic of adjustment to the world and to its order and its
conventions. Rather than viewing material success and wealth as a sign of
salvation as the Calvinist did, the Confucian simply was led to accept things as
Max Weber and Rationalization
they were. In fact, there was no idea of salvation in Confucianism, and this lack
of tension between religion and the world also acted to inhibit the rise of
capitalism. The snobbish Confucian was urged to reject thrift, cause it was
something that commoners practiced. In contrast to the Puritan work ethic, it
was not regarded as proper for a Confucian gentleman to work, although
wealth was prized. Active engagement in a profitable enterprise was regarded
as morally dubious and unbecoming to a Confucian's station. The acceptable
goal for such a gentleman was a good position, not high profits. The ethic
emphasized the abilities of a gentleman rather than the highly specialized skills
that could have proved useful to a developing capitalist system. In sum, Weber
contended that Confucianism became a relentless canonization of tradition.
Taoism Weber perceived Taoism as a mystical Chinese religion hi which
the supreme good was deemed to be a psychic state, a state of mind, and not
a state of grace to be obtained by conduct in the real world. As a result, Taoists
did not operate in a rational way to affect the external world. Taoism was
essentially traditional, and one of its basic tenets was "Do not introduce
innovations" (Weber, 1916/1964:203). Such an idea system was unlikely to
produce any major changes, let alone one as far-reaching as capitalism.
One wait common to Taoism and Confucianism is that neither produced
enough tension, or conflict, among die members to motivate them to much
innovative action hi this world:
Neither in its official state cult nor in its Taoist aspect could
Chinese religiosity produce sufficiently strong motives for a religiously
oriented life for the individual such as the Puritan method represents.
Both forms of religion lacked even the traces of the Satanic force or evil
against which [the] pious Chinese might have struggled for his salvation.
(Weber, 1916/1964:206)
As was true of Confucianism, there was no inherent force in Taoism to impel
actors to change the world or, more specifically, to build a capitalist system.
Religion and Capitalism In India For our purposes, a very brief discussion
of Weber's (1916-17/1958) thinking on the relationship between religion and
capitalism in India will suffice. The argument, though not its details, parallels
the Chinese case. For example, Weber discussed the structural barriers of the
caste system (Gellner, 1982:534). Among other things, the caste system
erected overwhelming barriers to social mobility, and it tended to regulate even
the most minute aspects of people's lives. The idea system of the Brahmans
had a number of components. For example, Brahmans were expected to avoid
vulgar occupations and to observe elegance in manners and proprieties in
conduct, indifference to the world's mundane affairs was the crowning idea of
Brahman religiosity. The Brahmans also emphasized a highly literary kind of
education. Although there certainly were important differences between
Brahmans and Confucians, the ethos of each presented overwhelming barriers
to the rise of capitalism.
The Hindu religion posed similar ideational barriers. Its key idea was
Chapter 7
reincarnation. To the Hindu, a person is born into the caste that he or she
deserves by virtue of behavior in a past life. Through faithful adherence to the
ritual of caste, the Hindu gains merit for the next life. Hinduism, unlike
Calvinism, was traditional in the sense that salvation was to be achieved by
faithfully following the rules; innovation, particularly in the economic sphere,
could not lead to a higher caste in the next life. Activity in this world was not
important, because the world was seen as a transient abode and an
impediment to the spiritual quest. In these and other ways. the idea system
associated with Hinduism failed to produce the kind of people who could create
a capitalist economic system and, more generally, a rationally ordered society.
There have been numerous criticisms of Weber. We will deal with four of the
most important. The first criticism has to do with Weber's verstehen method.
Weber was caught between two problem in regards to verstehen On the one
hand, it could not simply mean all a subjective intuition because this would not
be scientific. On the other hand, the sociologist could not just proclaim the
"objective" meaning of the social phenomenon. Weber declared that his
method fell between these two choices, but he never fully explained how
(Herva, 1988). The deficiencies in his methodology are not always clear when
we are reading Weber's insightful analysis based on his own interpretations,
but it becomes perfectly clear when we try to apply his method to our own
research or, even more so, when we attempt to teach verstehen to others.
Clearly, the method involves systemic and rigorous research, but the magic of
turning that research into Weber's illuminating in sights eludes us. This has led
some (Abel, 1948) to relegate verstehen to a heuristic operation of discovery
that precedes the real scientific work of sociology. Others have suggested that
versteben needs to be seen as itself a social process and that our
understanding of others always proceeds out of a dialogue (Shields, 1996).
The second criticism is that Weber lacks a fully theorized macrosociology.
We have already spent some time discussing the contradiction between
Weber's individualistic method and his focus on large-scale social structures
and world-historical norms. In Weber's method, class is reduced to a collection
of people in the same economic situation. Political structure is reduced to the
acceptance of domination because of subjectively perceived legitimacy in
terms of rationality, charisma, or traditions. Weber certainly recognizes that
class and political structures gave effects on people not to mention such
macrophenomena as religion and rationalization--but he has no way to
theorize these effects except as a collection of unintended consequences. He
has no theory of how these work as systems behind the back of individuals and,
in some cases, even to determine the intention of actors (Turner, 1981).
The third criticism of Weber is that he lacks a critical theory. In other words,
others have said that Weber's theory cannot be used to point out opportunities
for constructive change. We can demonstrate this criticism through examining
Weber's theory of rationalization.
Max Weber and Rationalization
Weber used the term rationalization in a number of ways, but of these,
Weber was primarily concerned with two types. One concerns the
development of bureaucracy and its legal form of authority (see pp. 214-215).
The other refers to the subjective changes in attitude that he called formal
rationality (see pp. 221-223). In the confluence of bureaucracy and formal
rationality we see what Weber described as unintended consequences. The
creation of bureaucracy and the adaptation of formal rationality ends up
undermining the very purposes that the rationalization was meant to serve.
This is what we have called the irrational consequences of rationality. Weber's
famous iron cage is one of these irrational consequences. Bureaucracy and
formal rationality were initially developed because of their efficiency,
predictability, calculability, and control in achieving a given goal (for example,
to help the poor). But as rationalization proceeds, the original goal tends to be
forgotten and the organization increasingly devotes itself to efficiency,
predictability, calculability, and control for their own sakes. For example,
welfare bureaucracies measure their success by their efficiency in "dealing"
with clients, even their efficiency in getting them off welfare, regardless of
whether doing so actually serves the original goal of helping the poor to better
their situations.
In some of his most quoted passages, Weber implies that this process is
inevitable, as for example in his metaphor of the iron cage. However, as
argued above, it would be wrong to see this as a general evolutionary
sequence of inevitable rationalization. Johannes Weiss (1987) maintains that
rationalization is only inevitable to the extent that we want it to be so. It is
simply that our world is so complex that it is difficult to conceive of
accomplishing any significant task without the efficiency, calculability,
pre-dictability, and control of rationalization----even if it inevitably ends in its
own peculiar irrationality. We may dream of a world without bureaucracies, but,
"the real question is whether with due regard to the obligations of intellectual
honesty -we seriously strive to attain it or ever could" (Weiss, 1987:162).
Many people prefer to ignore their own complicity and to see rationalization
as something that is imposed on them. Indeed, one of the most cited criticisms
of Weber is that he did not provide a strategy for opposing this rationalization
(Marcuse, 1971). Since both of the authors work in bureaucracies (universities),
deal with them everyday, and will complain when they are not efficient or
predictable enough, we are not in a position to make such a strong criticism of
Weber. Nevertheless, part of the reason for our complicity is the lack of fully
developed alternatives to an increasingly bureaucratized world. Consequently,
it is quite fair to criticize Weber for not offering such an alternative, and it is
right for those who follow Weber to work a| providing a theory of an alternative.
The final criticism is of the unremitting pessimism of Weber's sociology. We
can see from Weber's sociological method that be firmly believed hi the
centrality of individual meaning; however, his substantive work on
rationalization and domination indicated that we are trapped in an increasingly
Chapter 7
meaningless and disenchanted world. It could be said that anyone who still
fells optimistic about our culture after reading the closing pages of The
Protestant Ethic simply hasn't understood them. This alone is not a criticism of
Weber. It is shortsighted to criticize someone who points out your cage, if in
fact you are in one. Nevertheless, not only did Weber not attempt to provide us
with alternatives, he seems to have missed the fact that some of the
unintended consequences may he beneficial
Max Weber has had a more powerful positive impact on a wide range of
sociological theories than any other sociological theorist. This influence is
traceable to the sophistication, complexity, and sometimes even confusion of
Weberian theory. Despite its problems, Weber's work represents a remarkable
fusion of historical research and sociological theorizing.
We open this chapter with a discussion of the theoretical roots and
methodological orientations of Weberian theory. We see that Weber, over the
course of ins career, moved progressively toward a fusion of history and
sociology, that is, toward the development of a historical sociology. One of his
most critical methodological concepts is verstehen. Although this is often
interpreted as a tool to be used to analyze individual consciousness, in
Weber's hands it was more often a scientific tool to analyze structural and
institutional constraints on actors. We also discuss other aspects of Weber's
methodology, including his propensity to think in terms of causality and to
employ ideal types. In addition, we examine his analysis of the relationship
between values and sociology.
The heart of Weberian sociology lies in substantive sociology, not in
methodological statements. Although Weber based his theories on his
thoughts about social action and social relationships, his main interest was the
large-scale structures and institutions of society. We deal especially with his
analysis of the three structures of authority legal, traditional, and charismatic.
In the context of legal authority, we deal with his famous ideal-typical
bureaucracy and show how he used that tool to analyze traditional and
charismatic authority. Of particular interest is Weber's work on charisma. Not
only did he have a clear sense of it as a structure of authority, he was also
interested in the processes by winch such a structure is produced.
Although his work on social structures--such as authority is important, it
is at the cultural level, in his work on the rationalization of the world, that
Weber's most important insights lie. Weber articulated the idea that the world
is becoming increasingly dominated by norms and values of rationalization. In
this context, we discuss Weber's work on the economy, religion, law. the polity,
the city, and art forms. Weber argued that rationalization was sweeping across
all these institutions in the West, whereas there were major barriers to this
process in the rest of the world.
Weber's thoughts on rationalization and various other issues are
illustrated in his work on the relationship between religion and capitalism. At
Max Weber and Rationalization
one level, this is a series of studies of the relationship between ideas (religious
ideas) and the development of the spirit of capitalism and, ultimately,
capitalism itself. At another level, it is a study of how the West developed a
distinctively rational religious system (Calvinism) that played a key role in the
rise of a rational economic system {capitalism}. Weber also studied other
societies, in winch he found religious systems (for example. Confucianism,
Taoism, and Hinduism) that inhibit the growth of a rational economic system. It
is this kind of majestic sweep over the history of many sectors of the world that
helps give Weberian theory its enduring significance.
Chapter 8
Chapter8: Vilfredo Pareto: the
Sound from Italy
On Logical and Non-Loglcal Action
Residue: Combinations and Group Persistence
Vilfredo Pareto: A Biographical Sketch
Vilfredo Pareto(1848-1923) An Italian economist and sociologist, known for
his application of mathematics to economic analysis and for his theory of the
division of logical action and non-logical action. Born in 1848, the son of a
Genoese father and a French mother, Pareto studied engineering at the
University of Turin. The five-year course in civil engineering, the first two
years of which were devoted to mathematics, deeply influenced Pareto's
future intellectual outlook. In 1870 he graduated with a thesis on "The
Fundamental Principles of Equilibrium in Solid Bodies." His later interest in
equilibrium analysis in economics and sociology is prefigured in this thesis.
From 1870 until 1893 he worked as an engineer (like his father). Residing in
Florence, he studied philosophy and politics and wrote many periodical
articles in which he was one of the first to analyze economic problems with
mathematical tools. In 1893 he was chosen to succeed ~on Walras in the
chair of political economy at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He died
in 1923 in Geneva.
Pareto's first work, Cours d'economie politique (1896-97), included his
famous "law" of income distribution, a complicated mathematical formulation
in which he attempted to prove that the distribution of incomes and wealth in
society is not random and that a consistent pattern appears throughout history,
in all parts of the world and in all societies.
In his Manuale di economia politica (1906) and Manuale d'economie
politique (1909—a translation of the preceding item but with a completely
redone mathematical appendix) he further developed his theory of pure
economics. In this book he laid the foundation of modern welfare economics
with his concept of the so-called Pareto optimum, stating that the optimum
allocation of the resources of a society is not attained so long as it is possible
to make at least one individual better off in his own estimation while keeping
others as well off as before in their own estimation.
His most important sociological writing is The Mind and Society (1916). In
the book Pareto divided two actions of human being: the logical and
non-logical. For Pareto, if economics was the science of logical actions,
sociology was the science of non-logical actions. According Raymond
Boudon, Pareto's definition of sociology is very important to the extent that it
expresses in depth one of the fundamental intentions of sociologists to
analyse and explain actions and, more generally, behaviour which seem
irrational to the observer.
On Logical and Non-Loglcal Action
Vilfredo Pareto: the Sound from Italy
THIS is the first step we take along the path of induction . If we were to find,
instance, that all human actions.corresponded to logico-experimental
or that such actions were the most important, others having to be
regarded as phenomena of social pathology deviating from a normal type, our
course evidently would be entirely different from what it would be if many of
the more important human actions proved to correspond to theories
that are not logico-experimental.
Let us accordingly examine actions from the standpoint of their
logico-experimental character. But in order to do that we must first try to
classify them, and in that effort we propose to follow the principles of the
classification called natural in botany and zoology, whereby objects on the
whole presenting similar characteristics are grouped together. In the case
of botany Tournefort's classification was wisely abandoned, It divided plants
into "herbs" and "trees," and so came to separate entities that as a matter of
fact present close resemblances. The so-called natural method nowadays
preferred does away with all divisions of that kind and takes as its norm the
characteristics of plants in the mass, putting like with like and keeping the
unlike distinct. Can we find similar groupings to classify the actions of human
It is not actions as we find them in the concrete that we are called
upon to classify, but the elements constituting them. So the chemist
classifies elements and compounds of elements, whereas in nature what
he finds is mixtures of compounds. Concrete actions are syntheticthey originate in mixtures, in varying degrees, of the elements we are to
Every social phenomenon may be considered under two aspects:
as it is in reality, and as it presents itself to the mind of this or that human
being. The first aspect we shall call objective, the second subjective. Such a
division is necessary, for we cannot put in one same class the operations
performed by a chemist in his laboratory and the operations performed by a
person practising magic the conduct of Greek sailors in plying their oars to
drive their ship over the water and the sacrifices they offered to Poseidon to
make sure of a safe and rapid voyage. In Rome the Laws of the XII Tables
punished anyone casting a spell on a harvest. We choose to distinguish such
an act from the act of burning a field of grain.
We must not be misled by the names we give to the two classes. In reality
both are subjective, for all human knowledge is subjective. They are to be
distinguished not so much by any difference in nature as in view of the greater
or lesser fund of factual knowledge that we ourselves have. We know, or
think we know, that sacrifices to Poseidon have no effect whatsoever upon a
voyage. We therefore distinguish them from other acts which (to our best
knowledge, at least) are capable of having such effect. If at some future time
Chapter 8
we were to discover that we have been mistaken, that sacrifices to Poseidon
are very influential in securing a favourable voyage, we should have to
reclassify them with actions capable of such influence. All that of course is
pleonastic. It amounts to saying that when a person makes a classification, he
does so according to the knowledge he has. One cannot imagine how things
could be otherwise.
There are actions that use means appropriate to ends and which
logically link means with ends. There are other actions in which those traits
are missing. The two sorts of conduct are very different according as they are
considered under their objective or their subjective aspect. From the
subjective point of view nearly all human actions belong to the logical class. In
the eyes of the Greek mariners sacrifices to Poseidon and rowing with oars
were equally logical means of navigation.To avoid verbosities which could
only prove annoying, we had better give names to these types of conduct.
Suppose we apply the term logical actions to actions that logically conjoin
means to ends not only from the standpoint of the subject performing them,
but from the standpoint of other persons who have a mere
extensive knowledge--in other words, to actions that arc logical both
subjectively and objectively in the sense just explained. Other actions we
shall call nonlogical (by no means the same as "illogical"). This latter class we
shall subdivide into a number of varieties.
A synoptic picture of the classification will prove useful:
(The objective end and the subjective purpose are identical. )
(The objective end differs from the subjective purpose. )
Genus 1
Genus 2
Genus 3
Genus 4
3α, 4α
The objective end would be accepted by the subject if he knew it.
3β, 4β
The objective end would be rejected by the subject if he knew it.
The ends and purposes here in question are immediate ends
and purposes. We choose to disregard the indirect. The objective end is a
real one, located within the field of observation and experience, and not an
imaginary end, located outside that field. An imaginary end may, on the other
hand, constitute a subjective purpose.
Logical actions are very numerous among civilized peoples. Actions
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connected with the arts and sciences belong to that class, at least for artists
and scientists. For those who physically perform them in mere execution of
orders from superiors, there may be among them non-logical actions of our
II-4 type. The actions dealt with in political economy also belong in very great
part in the class of logical actions. In the same class must be located, further,
a certain number of actions connected with military, political, legal, and
similar activities.
So at the very first glance induction leads to the discovery that non-logical
actions play an important part in society. Let us therefore proceed with our
examination of them.
First of all, in order to get better acquainted with these non-logical actions,
suppose we look at a few examples. Many others will find their proper places
in chapters to follow. Here are some illustrations of actions of Class II:
Genera 1 and 3, which have no subjective purpose, are of scant
importance to the human race. Human beings have a very conspicuous
tendency to paint a varnish of logic over their conduct. Nearly all human
actions therefore work their way into genera 2 and 4. Many actions
performed in deference to courtesy and custom might be put ill genus 1. But
very very often people give some reason or other to justify such conduct, and
that transfers it to genus 2. Ignoring the indirect motive involved in the fact
that a person violating common usages incurs criticism and dislike, we
might find a certain number of actions to place in genera t and 3.
Says Hesiod:"Do not make water at the mouth of a river emptying into the
sea, nor into a spring. You must avoid that. Do not lighten your bowels there,
for it is not good to do so." The precept not to befoul rivers at their mouths
belongs to genus 1. No objective or subjective end or purpose is apparent in
the avoidance of such pollution. The precept not to befoul
drinking-water belongs to genus 3. It has an objective purpose that Hesiod
may not have known, but which is familiar to moderns:
contagion from certain diseases.
It is probable that not a few actions of genera 1 and 3 are common among
savages and primitive peoples. But travellers are bent on learning at all costs
the reasons for the conduct they observe. So in one way or another they
finally obtain answers that transfer the conduct to genera 2 and 4.
Another very important difference between human conduct and the
conduct of animals lies in the fact that we do not observe human conduct
wholly from the outside as we do ill the case of animals. Frequently we know
the actions of human beings through the judgments that people pass upon
them, through the impressions they make, and in the light of the motives that
people are pleased to imagine for them and assign as their causes. For that
reason, actions that would otherwise belong to genera 1 and 3 make their
way into 2 and 4.
Operations in magic when unattended by other actions belong to genus 2.
Thle sacrifices of the Greeks and Romans have to be classed in the same
Chapter 8
genus--at least after those peoples lost faith in the reality of their gods.
Hesiod, Opera et dies, vv. 235 - 39, warns against crossing a river without first
washing one's hands in it and uttering a prayer. That would be an action of
genus 1. But he adds that the gods punish anyone who crosses a river
without so washing his hands, That makes it an action of genus 2.
This rationalizing procedure is habitual and very wide-spread. Hesiod
says also, that grain should not be sown on the thirteenth of a month, but that
that day is otherwise very auspicious for planting, and he gives many
other precepts of the kind. They all belong to genus 2.In Rome a soothsayer
who had observed signs in the heavens was authorized to adjourn the comitia
to some other day. Towards the end of the Republic, when all faith in augural
science had been lost, that was a logical action, a means of attaining a
desired end. But when people still believed in augury, it was an action of
genus 4. For the soothsayers who, with the help of the gods, were so enabled
to forestall some decision that they considered harmful to the Roman People,
it belonged to our species 4a, as is apparent if one consider that in general
such actions correspond, very roughly to be sure, to the provisions used in
our time for avoiding ill-considered decisions by legislative bodies:
requirements of two or three consecutive readings, of approvals by two
houses, and so on.
Most acts of public policy based on tradition or on presumed
missions of peoples or individuals belong to genus 4.William I, King of
Prussia, and Napoleon Ill, Emperor of the French, both considered
themselves "men of destiny." But William I thought his mission lay in
promoting the welfare and greatness of his country, Louis Napoleon believed
himself destined to achieve the happiness of mankind. William's
policies were of the 4a type; Napoleon's, of the 4B.
Human beings as a rule determine their conduct with reference to certain
general rules (morality, custom, law), which give rise in greater or lesser
numbers to actions of our 4a and even 4B varieties.
Logical actions are at least in large part results of processes of reasoning.
Non-logical actions originate chiefly in definite psychic states, sentiments,
subconscious feelings, and the like. it is the province of psychology to
investigate such psychic states. Here we start with them as data of fact,
without going beyond that.
Residue: Combinations and Group Persistence
SINCE SOCIAL PHENOMENA appear in complex form in the concrete, we
saw at once that it would be helpful to divide them into at least two
elements, distinguishing logical from non-logical conduct; and that
gave us a first conception of the nature of non-logical conduct and of its
importance in human society. But at that point a question arose: If
non-logical conduct plays such an important role in human life, why
has it been so generally neglected? We found in reply that almost all writers
on social or political subjects have indeed observed such conduct, or at least
Vilfredo Pareto: the Sound from Italy
caught glimpses of it. Many elements, therefore, of the theory we are framing
in these volumes are to be found scattered about here and there in the works
of various writers, though often under hardly recognizable forms.
But we saw that all such writers had ideas of their own to which they very
expressly attached capital importance-ideas on religion, morality, law, and the
like, which have been battle-grounds for centuries. So, if they did recognize
non-logical conduct implicitly, explicitly they glorified logical conduct, and
most of them regarded it as the only conduct worth considering in social
phenomena. We were therefore called upon to see what truth there was in
theories of that type, and to decide whether we were to abandon the course
on which we had set out or take heart and push on.
We then proceeded to examine those various
social phenomena, and we saw that from the
logico-experimental standpoint they were devoid of all exactness and of any
strict accord with the facts~ though from another standpoint, we could not
deny the great importance that they had had in history and in determining the
social equilibrium. That discovery lent force to a suspicion which had already
occurred to us, and which will acquire greater and greater prominence in the
course of these volumes: that the experimental "truth" of certain theories is
one thing and their social "utility" quite another, and that the two things are
not only not one and the same but may, and often do, stand in flat
We found that it was as important to separate those two things as it bad
been to distinguish
non-logical conduct, and our
inductive survey showed that the failure to make such a distinction had been
the main cause of error, from the scientific standpoint, in most social
So we looked at them a little more closely and saw bow and why they
went astray, and how and why, though fallacious, they enjoyed arid still enjoy
such great prestige. In the course of that investigation we came upon
things which we had not thought of at the outset. But we went on analyzing,
distinguishing, and soon we observed another distinction that struck us as
being quite as important as the others we had made--on the one hand an
instinctive, non-logical element that was constant, on the other, a deductive
element that was designed to explain, justify, demonstrate, the constant
element. Arriving at that point, we found that induction had given us the
elements of a theory.
Here, now, we are called upon to frame it, that is to say, we must now drop
the inductive for the deductive method, and see what consequences
result from the principles that we have found, or think we have found. After
that we shall have to compare our inferences with the facts. If they fit, we shall
keep our theory. If they fail to fit, we shall discard it.
In this chapter (and since the subject is a vast one, in the next two) we are
to study the constant element a, going on, after that, to the deductive element
Chapter 8
b. But we are dealing with a very difficult matter, and a few more remarks in
general on the elements a and b, and their resultant c, will not come amiss.
We saw in [an earlier section] that in the theories of the
Iogico-experimental sciences one may discern a basic element A, and a
deductive clement B, which in some respects are analogous to, in some
respects different from, the elements a and b in theories that are not strictly
The social sciences as hitherto cultivated show elements that bear a
closer resemblance to a than to A, through their failure to avoid intrusions of
sentiments, prejudices, creeds, or other predilections, tendencies,
that carry
logico-experimental domain.
The deductive element in the social sciences as hitherto cultivated
sometimes comes very close to B, and there are cases where the logic
is so adequate that coincidence with B would be exact were it not for a
lack of definiteness in the premises a, which deprives the reasoning of strict
validity. But oftentimes in the social sciences the deductive element stands
very close to b, as containing many non-logical and non-experimental
principles and showing great susceptibility to inclinations, bias, and the
So let us make the elements a and b our main concern. The element a
corresponds, we may guess, to certain instincts of man, or more exactly, men,
because a has no objective existence and differs in different individuals; and it
is probably because of its correspondence to instincts that it is virtually
constant in social phenomena. The element b represents the work of the mind
in accounting for a. That is why b is much more variable, as reflecting the play
of the imagination,
But if the element a corresponds to certain instincts, it is far from reflecting
them all; and that is evident from the very manner in which we found it. We
analyzed specimens of thinking on the look-out for a constant element. We
may therefore have found only the instincts that underlay those reasonings.
There was no chance of our meeting along that road instincts which were not
so logicalized. Unaccounted for still would be simple appetites, tastes,
inclinations, and in social relationships the very important class called
We may also have found only a part of one of the things a, the other part
being a mere appetite. If the sex instinct tended only to unite the sexes it
would not figure in our investigations. But that instinct is often enough
logicalized and dissembled under guise of asceticism; there are people who
preach virtue as a way of lingering, in their thoughts, on sex matters.
Examining their thinking, we accordingly find an element a
to the sex instinct, and an clement b that is the reasoning under which it
hides. Diligent search might reveal similar elements corresponding to
the appetites for food and drink. But in those cases the role played by simple
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instinct is far more considerable, at any rate, than in the case of sex.
The fact of being provident or improvident depends upon certain instincts,
certain tastes, and from that point of view it would not figure in a. But in the
United States the improvident instinct has fathered a theory that people ought
to spend all they can earn; and so analysis of that theory yields a quantum a,
which will be improvidence.
A politician is inspired to champion the theory of "solidarity" by an ambition
to obtain money, power, distinctions. Analysis of that theory would reveal but
scant trace of his motives, which are, after all, the motives of virtually all
poIiticians, whether they preach white or black. First prominence would be
held by principles a that are effective in influencing others. If the politician
were to say, "Believe in 'solidarity' because if you do it means money for me,"
he would get many laughs and few votes. He therefore has to take his stand
on principles that are acceptable to his prospective constituents.
If we stopped at that, it might seem that in the case before us the a's were
located not in the principles that suggested championing the theory to the
politician, but in the principles that inspired acceptance of it by his hearers.
But going a little deeper, such a distinction is seen not to hold. Oftentimes the
person who would persuade others begins by persuading himself and even if
he is moved in the beginning by thoughts of personal advantage, he comes
eventually to believe that his real interest is the welfare of others. Unbelieving
apostles are rare and ineffective, but ubiquitous and ubiquitously effective is
the apostle who believes, and he is the more effective, the more sincere his
belief. The element a in a theory c is present both in the persons who accept
and in the persons who propound it, but not to be overlooked in either case
are the advantages accruing from the theory c, to the ones and the others.
In analyzing a theory c, we must keep the objective standpoint sharply
distinguished from the subjective. The two researches are very often
confused, and so two errors, in chief, arise. In the first place, as we have so
often cautioned, the logico-experimental value of a theory is not kept distinct
from its persuasive force or its social utility. Then again and this is a peculiarly
modern error the obiective study of a theory is replaced by a subjective
research as to how and why it was evolved or adopted by its author. This
second research certainly has its importance, but it ought to supplement the
other, not replace it. Whether a theorem of Euclid is true or false, and how
and why he came to discover it, are two separate questions, and the one
does not preclude the other. If the Principia of Newton had been written by an
unknown writer, would that in any way affect the value of the book? So two of
the aspects under which a writer's theory may be considered become
confused, (1) his manner of thinking, his psychic state, and how he came by
it(2) what he meant in a given passage. The first aspect, which is personal,
subjective to him, is mixed in with the second, which is impersonal, objective.
A factor in the confusion oftentimes is regard for the writer's authority. In
deference to that sentiment it is assumed a priori that everything he thinks
Chapter 8
and believes must necessarily be "true," and that to determine his thought is
tantamount to testing the "truth" (or when the logico-experimental sciences
are concerned, the accord with experience) of what he thought.
Long prevalent was an inclination to consider theories exclusively
the standpoint of their intrinsic merit (sometimes their
logico-experimental soundness), which, much more often, was determined
with reference to the sentiments of the critic or to certain metaphysical
or theological principles.
Nowadays the tendency is to consider them
exclusively from the extrinsic standpoint, as to the manner of their genesis,
that is, and the reasons for their acceptance. Both methods, if used
exclusively, are equally incomplete and to that extent erroneous.
The second error ( §855) is the opposite of the first. The first considered
only the intrinsic merit of the theory; the second only its extrinsic merit. It
appears in the abuse of the historical method, which is frequent enough
nowadays, especially in the social and economic sciences. In the beginning,
in their eagerness to free their science of contingencies of time and place, the
fathers of political economy made the mistake of viewing their findings
as absolutes. It was a salutary reaction, therefore, when just such
contingencies came to be taken into account, and from that point of view the
historical method was a notable contribution to the progress of science. And
a forward step no less important was taken when the effort to derive the forms
of social institutions from dogmatic absolutes was abandoned in favour
of historical studies that made it possible to learn how institutions had
developed, and their bearing on other social phenomena. We are
altogether within the domain of logico-experimental science when we ask not
what the family ought to be, but what it has actually been. But the historical
study is to be thought of as supplementing, not as replacing, our inquiry into
the relations between the constitution of the family and other social
phenomena. It is useful to know how, historically, theories of income have
been evolved but it is also useful to know the relations of such theories
to the facts their logico-experimental value.
However, this latter type of research is much more difficult than the mere
writing of history~ and there arc plenty of people who are utterly incapable of
understanding, let alone of creating, a !ogico-experimental theory in
political economy, yet who blithely presume to write histories of that science.
In the literary field historical studies often degenerate into mere
collections of anecdotes that are easy to write and agreeable to read. To
find out what a
writer ate and drank, how he slept, the clothes he wore, is intellectually
and scientifically easier than to deal with the relations between his theories
and experimental realities. And if a critic can find something to say about a
writer's love affairs, he is certain to make a very entertaining book indeed.
To study the element b is to study the subjective element in a theory. But
the subjective element may be further subdivided into two the general
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causes and the special causes that account for the genesis and success of a
theory. General causes would be causes operative over fairly extensive
periods of time and affecting considerable numbers of individuals.
Special causes operate in an essentially contingent manner. If a theory
comes into vogue because it serves the interests of a social class it has, in
that fact, a general cause. If a writer invents a theory because he is paid to do
so or because he wants to spite a rival, the cause is special.
Things that exert powerful effects upon the social order give rise to
theories, and we shall find them, therefore, in the course of our quest for
a's. In addition to such a's there are, as we have just seen, appetites and
interests. Taking them all together we have the sum of the things that operate
to any appreciable extent towards determining the social order (§851),
bearing in mind of course that the social order reacts upon them, so that we
are all along dealing not with a relationship of cause and effect, but with an
interrelation or a relationship of interdependence. If we assume, as in fact
seems probable, that animals have no theories, they cannot have an element
a of any kind and perhaps not even interest all that is left in their case is
instincts. Uncivilized peoples, however close to animals they may seem to
stand, do have theories of one sort or another, and an element a has to be
considered in dealing with them. And beyond a doubt they have instincts and
interests. Civilized peoples have theories for very very many of their instincts
and interests. An Element a figures through virtually the whole range of their
social life.
In this volume we are to go looking for the element a. In many cases
already we have distinguished a elements and b elements that we
found combined and confused in some single phenomenon, c. That was in
itself a start towards finding a norm for making such analyses. Suppose we
get a still clearer view of the method from an example or two and then
proceed with our systematic study.
Example 1. Christians have the custom of baptism. If one knew the
Christian procedure only one would not know whether and how it
could be analyzed. Moreover, we have an explanation of it: We are told that
the rite of baptism is celebrated in order to remove original sin. That still is not
enough. If we had no other facts of the same class to go by, we should find it
difficult to isolate the elements in the complex phenomenon of baptism. But
we do have other facts of that type. The pagans too had lustral water, and
they used it for purposes of purification. If we stopped at that, we might
associate the use of water with the fact of purification. But other cases of
baptism show that the use of water is not a constant element. Blood may be
used for purification, and other substances as well. Nor is that all; there
are numbers of rites that effect the same result. In cases where taboos have
been violated, certain rites remove the pollution that a person has incurred in
one set of circumstances or another. So the circle of similar facts widens,
and in the great variety of devices and in the many explanations
Chapter 8
that are given for their use the thing which remains constant is the feeling, the
sentiment, that the integrity of an individual which has been altered by certain
causes, real or imaginary, can be restored by certain rites. The given case,
therefore, is made up of that constant element, a, and a variable element, b,
the latter comprising the means that are used for restoring the individual's
integrity and the reasonings by which the efficacy of the means is presumably
explained. The human being has a vague feeling that water somehow
cleanses moral as well as material pollutions. However, he does not, as a rule,
justify his conduct in that manner. The explanation would be far too simple.
So he goes looking for something more complicated, more pretentious,
and readily finds what he is looking for.
The nucleus a, now that we have found it, is seen to be made up of a
number of elements: first of all an instinct for combinations; people want "to
do something about it"--they want to combine certain things with certain acts.
It is a curious fact, also, that the ties so imagined persist in time. It would be
easy enough to try some new combination every day. Instead there is one
combination, fantastic though it be, that tends to prevail and sometimes does
prevail over all competitors. Discernible, finally, is an instinct which inclines
people to believe that certain combinations are suited to attaining certain
objectives. 2
Example II. We |Lave seen many cases where people believed that they
could raise or avert tempests. If we knew only one such case, we could
make little or nothing of it. However, we know many cases and can identify a
constant nucleus in them Ignoring, for the moment, the element in the nucleus
that relates, as in the case of baptism, to the persistence of certain
combinations and the faith in their efficacy, we find a constant
element, a corresponding to the feeling, the sentiment, that a divinity exists
and that, by a variable means, b, he (or "it") may be made to interfere
and influence the weather. And then, right away, there is another sort of
belief, the belief that it is possible to produce the desired effect by certain
rites or practices, which mean nothing in themselves the practice, for
instance, of tearing a white cock asunder and carrying the two halves around
a field to protect it from drought. So the circle widens, and another constant a
appears: an instinct for combinations, whereby things and acts designed for
producing given effects are brought together haphazard.
Example IIl. Catholics believe that Friday is a day of evil <)men as
so it is averred the day of the Passion. If we knew just that, and nothing
else of the kind, it would be difficult to determine which of the two facts, the
evil omen or the Passion, was the main, and which the secondary, fact. But
we do have other facts of the kind, many of them. The Romans had their
"black" or "vicious" days (dies atri or vitiosi), which were days of evil omenfor instance, the eighteenth of July, the anniversary of their defeat by the
Gauls at Allia, A. U.C. 365. That is one kind of a--the feeling that the day
which is associated with some catastrophe is a day of evil omen. But
Vilfredo Pareto: the Sound from Italy
there are other facts. Both the Romans and the Greeks had days of evil omen
and days of good omen without there being any special causes in the nature
of public successes or disasters.
Hence there has to be a more
comprehensive class of a's, which includes the a just mentioned and
expresses an impulse to combine days (and other things too) with good or
evil omens.
These examples give us an inkling as to how a composite situation, c,
may be broken up into a elements and b elements
Before going any farther it might perhaps be advisable to give
word-names to the things we have been calling a, b, and c. To designate
them by mere letters of the alphabet in a measure embarrasses our
discussion and makes it harder to follow. For that reason, and for no other,
suppose we call the things a, residues, the things b, derivations, and the
things c, derivatives. But we must always and at all times remember that
nothing, absolutely nothing, is to be inferred from the proper meanings of
those words or their etymologies, that they mean respectively the things a, b,
and c and nothing else.
As we have already seen, the residues a constitute a multifarious mass of
facts, which have to be classified according to the mutual analogies they
present. In that way we get "classes," "genera," and "specie." And so for the
derivations B.
Residues correspond to certain instincts in human beings, and for that
reason they are usually wanting in definiteness, in exact delimitation. That
trait, indeed, nearly always serves to distinguish them from scientific facts or
principles A, which otherwise bear some resemblance to them. Many times
A's have come out of a's as a reult of making the a's more exact. The term
"warm" is indefinite. Using it, it has been possible to say that well-water is
"warm" in winter and "cold" in summer. But as used by physicists the term
"warm" corresponds to certain degrees of heat as registered by a
thermometer; it is definite. That made it evident that the water in wells is not in
that sense warmer in winter than in summer, for a thermometer
lowered into a well registers about the same temperature in winter as in
summer, or if anything a lower one.
Curious the number of different meanings the term " warm "
has in Macrobius, Saturnalia, VII, 6 8, all of them showing as their
residue the sentiments that the term "warm" awakens in the minds now of
this, now of that, individual. The doctors say that wine is warm; but a
character in the Saturnalia disagrees, finding wine by nature cold. A woman's
body, says another, contains a large amount of cold. No, answers a
companion, the female body is naturally warmer than the male--it is so warm,
in fact, that when is was the custom to dispose of dead bodies by
cremation, a female corpse was commonly burned with each ten males so
that the latter might
more quickly be consumed. Women have so much
heat in their bodies that they are able to wear light clothing in winter. Heat,
Chapter 8
moreover, is the principle of conception. All that is disputed by
another, except as regards conception, the cause of which seems really to be
heat. Why is it that in a very hot country wine has the property of cold instead
of heat? The reason is that when the air is hot it drives the cold into the
ground. The air is always hot in Egypt, so the cold permeates the soil and
reaches the vine-roots, imparting its own properties to the wine. And we
are told why a fan cools.
That is the type of the metaphysical reasoning, whether ancient or
modern. The premises contain terms altogether devoid of exactness,
and from the premises, as from mathematical axioms presumably
trustworthy, conclusions are drawn by strict logic. They serve, after all, to
probe not things but the notions that given individuals have of things.
The Macrobius example again shows how inexact terms may readily be
used to prove both the pro and the contra. Women can wear lighter clothing
than men because of the heat in their bodies. No, someone objects, it is
because of the cold in their bodies. In general terms, it is the indefiniteness of
the residues a, chiefly, that unsuits them to serve as premises in
strict reasonings, whereas A propositions can be and are constantly being so
used in the sciences.
The residues a must not be confused with the sentiments or instincts to
which they correspond. The residues are the manifestations of sentiments
and instincts just as the rising of the mercury in a thermometer is a
manifestation of the rise in temperature. Only elliptically and for the sake of
brevity do we say that residues, along with appetites, interests, etc. are
the main factors in determining the social equilibrium, just as we say that
water boils at 100 Centigrade. The completed statements would be: "
The sentiments or instincts that correspond to residues, along with those
corresponding to appetites, interests, etc., are the main factors in
determining the social equilibrium." "Water boils when its calorific state
attains the temperature of 100 as registered by a Centigrade thermometer. "
It is only by way of analysis and for the sole purposes of study that we
distinguish various residues al, a2, a3 What is at work in the individual
is sentiments corresponding to the groups (a1, a2, a3) ; (al, a3, a4); (a3, a5);
and so on. These are composites as compared with the residues a1,
a2... which are simpler. We might go on and break up a1 a2... as well into
simpler elements; but we must know how to stop in time, because if made too
general propositions end by meaning nothing. So the multifarious
circumstances conditioning life on our globe may, in general, be reduced to
solar light, the presence of an atmosphere, and so on; but the biologist needs
conditions that are much less general than that as a basis for a greater
number of biological laws.
It sometimes happens that a derivative, c, reached from a residue, a, by
way of derivation, b, becomes in its turn the residue of other phenomena and
itself subject to deviations. The bad omen, for instance,
Vilfredo Pareto: the Sound from Italy
associated with the presence of thirteen persons at a table may be a
derivative from a sentiment of horror at Judas's betrayal followed by his
suicide; but that derivative has become a residue by this time, and people feel
ill at ease at a table of thirteen without the least thought of Judas.
All the pointers just given must be kept in mind at all times in the
investigations following. Anyone forgetting them will get everything askew.
This research as so far outlined has certain points of analogy with the
ordinary researches of philology that deal with the roots and derivatives in
which the words of a language originate. The analogy is not altogether
artificial. It arises in the fact that products of the mental activity of the human
being are involved in both cases, that their processes are the same. Take, for
instance, Greek. The words in that language may be grouped in families,
each family having its own root. There are the nouns meaning "anchor",
"fish-hook", "curved object" "bent arm", "bend of the arm" "elbow" ; the
adjectives "curved"and "hook-shaped"; the verbs "to fish with a hook" o) and
"to bend" They all have the same root (residue), which originates in, and
expresses, the rather vague notion of something curved, hooked, crooked. By
processes of derivation, which have their rules, words are derived from these
roots, just as the derivatives, c, are derived from the residues, a. We find
combinations of roots just as we find combinations of residues. The adjective
"biting a hook" has and for its roots, the first referring to something vaguely
hook-shaped, the second to eating. There are some very common
derivations in Greek. The suffix, for instance, combining with various roots,
gives large numbers of words designating the effects of the actions indicated
by the roots. So in social phenomena, certain derivations are very common.
The Will of the Divinity, for instance, serves to justify no end of prescriptions.
Combined with the residue of filial love, it yields the precept: " Honour thy
father and the mother, for God so ordains. "
Actually observable in society are certain derivatives, c, that derive from
residues, a, by way of derivations, b. Other derivatives may be as
regularly deducible from the residues as the c's but are not observable in the
That situation has its philological counterpart in regular and
irregular verbs. In point of fact such terms must not be taken literally. A
so-called irregular verb is as regular as any other. The difference lies in the
differing methods of derivation. A process of derivation used for certain roots
gives a class of verbs that actually occur in the language. Used for other roots,
it gives verbs that do not occur in the language. Conversely, the process of
derivation used for these second roots yields verbs that occur in the language,
but non-existent verbs when used for the other roots.
That is not all. The philologists of our time know that the language is an
organism which has developed according to its own laws and is not an
artificial invention. Only a relatively few technical terms, such as "oxygen,"
"meter," "thermometer," and the like, are products of logical activity on the
Chapter 8
part of scholars. Such terms would correspond to "logical actions" in society.
The majority of the words in ordinary usage correspond in their formation to
"non-logical" actions We have noted these analogies merely to facilitate a
clear comprehension of the theories that we are expounding. They of course
are not and could not be offered as proofs. Proof must come from
direct examination of the facts and in no other way. The method that relies on
analogies is a very bad method.
Investigations into the "origins" of social phenomena, which have so far
concerned sociology in the main, have often times been, though their authors
were not aware of the fact, searches for residues. It was taken for granted,
more or less vaguely, that the simple must have preceded the complex- that
the residue must have been anterior to the derivative. When Herbert Spencer
locates the chronological origin of religion in the deification of human
beings, he thinks he has found the residue of all religious phenomena, the
simple phenomenon from which the complex religious observable in
our day derive.
Two criticisms are to be made of that view. 1. No proof is offered of the
hypothesis that knowledge of the residue is chronologically anterior to
knowledge of the derivative. That has been the case in some instances, but
certainly not in others. So in chemistry certain chemical compounds have
been discovered later in time than the elements of which they are
compounded, but many other compounds have been known earlier in time.
In sociology the "latent" principles of law are an excellent example of
derivatives that were known before their residues. An illiterate peasant
woman in the mountains around Pistoia knows the conjugations of many
Italian verbs by practice perfectly well and much better than any number of
educated peoples but she has not the remotest idea of the rules that govern
the derivation of those conjugations from their roots. 2. Even if knowledge of
the residue is anterior in time to knowledge of the derivative, it is better to
follow a course directly opposite to the one that has so far been followed. A
chronological quest for the residue a is difficult, often impossible, because
there are no documents for times so remote from ours; and it is illegitimate to
take the imagination and the "common sense" of the modern man as
substitutes for them. Imagination and common sense may, to be sure,
yield fascinating theories, but they have little or nothing to do with the facts. To
try to discover in primitive periods the residue, a, from which the phenomena,
c, observable today, are derived is to try to explain the known by the
unknown. To the precise contrary, the less well known must be inferred from
the better known; one must try to discover the residues, a, in the phenomena,
c, that are observable today and then see whether there are traces of a in
documents of the past. If in so doing we find that a existed before c was
known we might conclude that a is anterior in time to c, and that, in the
particular case, the origin is one and the same with the residue. Where such
proof is lacking no such identity can legitimately be assumed.
Vilfredo Pareto: the Sound from Italy
So far in these volumes we have tried, and we shall continue at all times
trying, to explain facts of the past by other facts that we are able to observe in
the present; and in any event, we shall always be at the greatest pains to
work from the better known to the less known. We are not dealing with
"origins" here, not because origins are not important historically, but because
the question of origins has little or no bearing on the inquiry into the
conditions determining the social equilibrium with which we are at
present engaged. Of great moment, instead, are the instincts and sentiments
that correspond to residues.
Chapter 9
Chapter 9:Structural
The Functional Theory of Stratification and lts Critics
Talcott Parsons's Structural Functionalism
Robert Merton's Structural Functionalism
The Major Criticisms
Structural functionalism, especially in the work of Talcott Parsons, Robert
Merton, and their students and followers, was for many years the dominant
sociological theory. However, in the last three decades it has declined
dramatically in importance (Chriss,1995) and, in at least some senses, has
receded into the recent history of sociological theory. This decline is reflected
in Colomy's (1990a) description of structural functionalism as a theoretical
"tradition." Structural functionalism is now mainly of historical significance,
although it is also notable for the role it played in the emergence of
neofunctionalism in the 1980. After offering an overview of structural
functionalism, we will discuss neofunctionalism as a possible successor to it
as well as an example of the recent movement toward synthesis within
sociological theory (Abrahamson, 2001) However, the future of
neofunctionalism itself has been cast into doubt by the fact that its founder,
Jeffrey Alexander (personal communication, October 17,1994), has arrived at
the conclusion that neofunctionalism "is no longer satisfactory to me." He
states, "I am now separating myself from the movement I started."
For many years, the major alternative to structural functionalism was
conflict theory. We will discuss Ralf Dahrendorf's traditional version of conflict
theory, as well as a more recent integrative and synthetic effort by Randall
Collins. Before turning to the specifics of structural functionalism and conflict
theory, we need, following Thomas Bernard (1983), to place these theories in
the broader context of the debate between consensus theories (one of which
is structural functionalism) and conflict theories (one of which is the
sociological conflict theory that will be discussed in this chapter). Consensus
theories see shared norms and values as fundamental to society, focus on
social order based on tacit agreements, and view social change as occurring
in a slow and orderly fashion. In contrast, conflict theories emphasize the
dominance of some social groups by others, see social order as based on
manipulation and control by dominant groups, and view social change as
occurring rapidly and in a disorderly fashion as subordinate groups overthrow
dominant groups.
Although these criteria broadly define the essential differences between
the sociological theories of structural functionalism and conflict theory,
Bernard's view is that the disagreement is far broader and has "been a
recurring debate that has taken a variety of different forms throughout the
history of Western thought" (1983:6). Bernard traced the debate back to
ancient Greece (and the differences between Plato [consensus] and Aristotle
[conflict]) and through the history of philosophy. Later, in sociology the debate
was joined by (the conflict theorist is listed first) Marx and Comte, Simmel and
Durkheim, and Dahrendorf and Parsons. We already have examined briefly
the ideas of the first two pairs of sociologists (although. as we have seen.
their work is far broader than is implied by the label "conflict" or "consensus"
theorist); in this chapter we examine Dahrendorf's conflict theory and
Parsons's consensus theory, among others.
Although we emphasize the differences between structural functionalism
and conflict theory, we should not forget that they have important similarities,
in fact, Bernard argues that "the areas of agreement among them are more
extensive than the areas of disagreement" (1983:214). For example, they are
both macro level theories focally concerned with large-scale social structures
and social institutions. As a result, in Ritzer's 0980) terms, both theories exist
within the same sociological ("social facts") paradigm (see the Appendix).
Robert Nisbet argued that structural functionalism was "without any doubt,
the single most significant body of theory in the social sciences in the present
century" (cited in Turner and Maryanski, 1979:xi). Kingsley Davis (1959) took
the position that structural functionalism was, for all intents and purposes,
synonymous with sociology. Alvin Gotldner (1970) implicitly took a similar
position when he attacked Western sociology largely through a critical
analysis of the structure-functional theories of Talcott Parsons.
Despite its undoubted hegemony in the two decades after World War lI,
structural functionalism has declined in importance as a sociological theory.
Even Wilber t Moore, a man who was intimately associated with this theory,
argued that it had "become an embarrassment in contemporary theoretical
sociology" (1978:321 ). Two observers even stated: 'Thus, functionalism as
an explanatory theory is, we feel, 'dead' and continued efforts to use
functionalism as a theoretical explanation should be abandoned in favor of
more promising theoretical perspectives" (Turner and Maryansld, 1979:141).l
Nicholas Demerath and Richard Peterson (1967) took a more positive view,
arguing that structural functionalism is not a passing fad. However, they
admitted that it is likely to evolve into another sociological theory, just as this
theory itself evolved out of the earlier organicism. The rise of
neofunctionalism (which we will discuss later in this chapter) seems to
support Demerath and Peterson's position rather than the more negative
perspective of Turner and Maryanski.
In structural functionalism, the terms structural and functional need not
be used in conjunction, although they typically are conjoined. We could study
the structures of society without being concerned with their functions (or
consequences) for other structures. Similarly, we could examine the functions
of a variety of social processes that may not take a structural form. Still, the
Chapter 9
concern for both elements characterizes structural functionalism. Although
structural functionalism takes various forms (Abrahamson, 1978), societal
functionalism is the dominant approach among sociological structural
functionalists (Sztompka, 1974) and as such will be the focus of this chapter.
The primary concern of societal functionalism is the large-scale social
structures and institutions of society, their interrelationships, and their
constraining effects on actors.
The Functional Theory of Stratification and Its Critics
The functional theory of stratification as articulated by Kingsley Davis and
Wilbert Moore (1945) is perhaps the best known single piece of work in
structural-functional theory. Davis and Moore made it clear that they regarded
social stratification as both universal and necessary. They argued that no
society is ever unstratified, or totally classless. Stratification is, in their view, a
functional necessity. All societies need such a System, and this need brings
into existence a system of stratification. They also viewed a stratification
system as a structure, pointing out that stratification refers not to the
individuals in the stratification system but rather to a system of positions. They
focused on how certain positions come to carry with them different degrees of
prestige, not on how individuals come to occupy certain positions.
Given this focus, the major functional issue is how a society motivates and
places people in their "proper" positions in the stratification system. This is
reducible to two problems. First, bow does a society instill in the "proper"
individuals the desire to fill certain positions? Second, once people are in the
right positions, how does society then instill in them the desire to fulfill the
requirements of those positions?
Proper social placement in society is a problem for three basic reasons.
First, some positions are more pleasant to occupy than others. Second, some
positions are more important to the survival of society than others. Third,
different social positions require different abilities and talents.
Although these issues apply to all social positions, Davis and Moore were
concerned with the functionally more important positions in society. The
positions that rank high within the stratification system are presumed to be
those that are less pleasant to occupy but more important to the survival of
society and that require the greatest ability and talent. In addition, society must
attach sufficient rewards to these positions so that enough people will seek to
occupy them and the individuals who do come to occupy them will work
diligently. The converse was implied by Davis and Moore but was not
discussed. That is, low-ranking positions in the stratification system are
presumed to be more pleas ant and less important and to require less ability
and talent. Also, society has less need to be sure that individuals occupy these
positions and perform their duties with diligence.
Davis and Moore did not argue that a society consciously develops a
stratification system in order to be sure that the high-level positions are filled,
and filled adequately. Rather, they made it clear that stratification is an
"unconsciously evolved device." However, it is a device that every society does,
and must, develop if it is to survive.
To be sure that people occupy the higher ranking positions, society must,
in Davis and Moore's view, provide these individuals with various rewards,
including great prestige, a high salary, and sufficient leisure. For example, to
ensure enough doctors for our society, we need to offer them these and other
rewards. Davis and Moore implied that we could not expect people to
undertake the "burdensome" and "expensive" process of medical education if
we did not offer such rewards. The implication seems to be that people at the
top must receive the rewards that they do. If they did not, those positions
would remain understaffed or unfilled and society would crumble.
The structural-functional theory of stratification has been subject to much
criticism since its publication in 1945 (see Turn, 1953, for die first important
criticism; Huaco,1966, for a good summary of the main criticisms to that date;
and McLaughlin, 2001 for a philosophical overview).
One basic criticism is that the functional theory of stratification simply
perpetuates the privileged position of those people who already have power,
prestige, and money. It does this by arguing that such people deserve their
rewards; indeed, they need to be offered such rewards for the good of society.
The functional theory also can be criticized for assuming that simply
because a stratified social structure existed in the past, it must continue to
exist in the future. It is possible that future societies will be organized in other,
nonstratified ways.
In addition, it has been argued that the idea of functional positions
varying in their importance to society is difficult to support. Are garbage
collectors really any less important to the survival of society than advertising
executives? Despite the lower pay and prestige of the garbage collectors,
they actually may be more important to the survival of the society. Even in
cases where it could be said that one position serves a more important
function for society, the greater rewards do not necessarily accrue to the more
important position. Nurses may be much more important to society than
movie stars are, but nurses have far less power, prestige, and income than
movie stars have.
Is there really a scarcity of people capable of filling high-level positions? In
fact, many people are prevented from obtaining the training they need to
achieve prestigious positions even though they have the ability. In the medical
profession, for example, there is a persistent effort to limit the number of
practicing doctors. In general, many able people never get a chance to show
that they can handle high-ranking positions even though there is a clear need
for them and their contributions. Those in high-ranking positions have a
vested interest in keeping their own numbers small and their power and
income high.
Structure of the General Action System
Chapter 9
Cultural system
Social system
Behavioral organism
Personality system
Finally, it can be argued that we do not have to offer people power,
prestige, and income to get them to want to occupy high level positions.
People call be equally motivated by the satisfaction of doing a job well or by
tile opportunity to be of service to others.
Talcott Parsons's Structural Functionalism
Over the course of his life, Talcott Parsons did a great deal of theoretical work
(Holm-wood, 1996; Lidz, 2000). There are important differences between his
early work and his later work. In this section we deal with his later,
structural-functional theorizing. We begin this discussion of Parsons's
structural functionalism with die four functional imperatives for all "action"
systems, his famous AGIL scheme. After this discussion of the four functions,
we will turn to an analysis of Parsons's ideas on structures and systems.
Talcott Parsons:A Biographical Sketch
Talcott Parsons (1902 - 1979) Talcott Parsons is considered the
founder of American sociological theory. Among his many former students,
Parsons's name is a virtual synonym for theoretical brilliance; among a
comparable number of younger sociologists, the same name is synonymous
with abstract, conservative, and incomprehensible scientism After graduating
with an economics degree from Amherst College in 1924, Parsons studied in
England at the London School of Economics, then at Heidelberg from 1925 to
1926. in England, Parsons studied the economics of Alfred Marshall; in
Germany, he discovered the writings of Max Weber. Parsons translated
Protestant Ethic and other works by Weber. He first taught economies at
Harvard in 1927. Later, he began teaching sociology at the invitation of the
Russian 6migr6, Pitirim Sorokin (1889- 1968), who was instrumental in
establishing sociology's reputation at Harvard. Parsons came into his own
with the publication of The Structure of Social Action in 1937. This two-volume
tour de force carefully analyzed those whom Parsons considered the classical
social theorists (Weber, Durkheim, Marshall, and ViLfredo Pareto) in order to
renew sociological theory and research. His goal was to establish a general
theory of social action that encompassed all the behavioral sciences,
including biology. In the 1940s, Parsons's theoretical synthesis formed the
intellectual basis for Harvard's Department of Social Relations, which, in the
1950s, was considered by many the major department in the field. Parsons
chaired the department from 1946 to 1956, but the experiment at synthesis
collapsed when Parsons retired and times changed.
"The Unit Act of Action Systems," from Structure of Social Action, may be
difficult reading, but it is an important sample of Parsons's theoretical
intention to define the elements in a theory of social action~ the actor, the
actor's ends (or goats), the social situation, and the structured relation among
these elements. Though this is a different sort of writing from that of Keynes
(who was also an influence on Parsons) or of Lukbca or the others in this
period, readers should be able to see a common theoretical concern for the
fate of the individual in modem, structured society.
In "Action Systems and Social Systems," his summary of that theory as he
worked it between 1961 and 1971, two of the most distinctive features of
Parsons's social theory are illustrated. First, he understands the social
system to be a distinct entity, different from but interdependent with three
other action systems~ culture, personality, and the behavioral organism.
Second, parsons makes exp))cit reference to Durkheim in his view that social
systems are sui generis things in which values serve to maintain the
patterned integrity of the system. Some have argued that these theoretical
convictions were traceable to the Golden Age culture, in which it was widely
believed America was the exemplification of society itself because of the
power of its values.
AGIL A function is "a complex of activities directed towards meeting a
need or needs of the system" (Rocher, 1975:40). Using this definition,
Parsons believes that there are four functional imperatives that are necessary
for (characteristic of) all systems-adaptation (A), goal attainment (G),
integration (I), and latency (L), or pattern maintenance. Together, these four
functional imperatives are known as the AGIL scheme, In order to survive, a
system must perform these four functions:
1. Adaptation: A system must cope with external situational exigencies.
It must adapt to its environment and adapt the environment to its needs.
2. Goal attainment: A system must define and achieve its primary
3. lntegration: A system must regulate the interrelationship of its
component parts. It also must manage the relationship among the other three
functional imperatives (A, G. L).
4. Latency (pattern maintenance): A system must furnish, maintain, and
renew both the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that create
and sustain that motivation.
FIGURE 9.2 :Parsons's Action Schema
High information
High information
1,.Environment of action
ultimate reality
2. Cultural system
Hierarchy of
3. Social system
4. Personality system
5. Behavioral organism
6. Environment of action:
physical-organic environment
High energy (conditions)
Hierarchy of
High energy
Chapter 9
Parsons designed the AGIL scheme to be used at all levels in Iris theoretical
system (for one example, see Paulsen and Feldman, 1995). In the discussion
below on the four action systems, we will illustrate how Parsons uses AGIL.
The behavioral organism is the action system that handles the adaptation
function by adjusting to and transforming the external world. The personality
system performs the goal-attainment function by defining system goals and
mobilizing resources to attain them. The social system copes with the
integration function by controlling its component parts. Finally, the cultural
system performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and
values that motivate them for action. Figure 9.1 summarizes the structure of
the action system in terms of the AGIL schema.
The Action System We ale now ready to discuss the overall shape of
Parsons's action system. Figure 9.2 is an outline of Parsons's schema.
It is obvious that Parsons had a clear notion of "levels" of social analysis
as well as their interrelationship. The hierarchical arrangement is clear, and
the levels are integrated in Parsons's system in two ways. First, each of the
lower levels provides the conditions, the energy, needed for the higher levels.
Second, the higher levels control those below them in the hierarchy.
In terms of the environments of the action system, the lowest level, the
physical and organic environment, involves the nonsymbolic aspects of the
human body, its anatomy and physiology. The highest level, ultimate reality,
has, as Jackson Toby suggests "a metaphysical flavor," but Toby also argues
that Parsons "is not referring to the super-natural so much as to the universal
tendency for societies to address symbolically the uncertainties, concerns,
and tragedies of human existence that challenge the meaningfulness of
social organization" (1977:3).
The heart of Parsons's work is found in his four action systems. In the
assumptions that Parsons made regarding his action systems we encounter
the problem of order that was his overwhelming concern and that has
become a major source of criticism of his work (Schwanenberg, 1971 ). The
Hobbesian problem of order what prevents a social war of all against
all--was not answered to Parsons's (1937) satisfaction by the earlier
philosophers. Parsons found his answer to the problem of order in structural
functionalism, which operates in his view with the following set of
1. Systems have the property of order and interdependence of parts.
2. Systems tend toward self-maintaining order, or equilibrium.
3. The system may be static or involved in an ordered process of change.
4. The nature of one part of the system has an impact on the form that the other
pare can take.
5. Systems maintain boundaries with their environments.
6. Allocation and integration are two fundamental processes necessary for a
given state of equilibrium of a system.
7. Systems tend toward self-maintenance involving the maintenance of
boundaries and of the relationships of parts to the whole, control of environmental
variations, and control of tendencies to change the system from within.
These assumptions led Parsons to make the analysis of the ordered
structure of society his first priority. In so doing, he did little with the issue of
social change, at least until later in his career:
We feel that it is uneconomical to describe changes in systems of
variables before the variables themselves have been isolated and
described; therefore, we have chosen to begin by studying particular
combinations of variables and to move towed description of how these
combinations change only when a firm foundation for such has been laid.
(Parsons and Shils, 1951:6)
Parsons was so heavily criticized for his static orientation that he devoted
more and more attention to change; in fact, as we will see, he eventually
focused on the evolution of societies. However, in the view of most
observers, even his work on social change tended to be highly static and
In reading about the four action systems, the reader should keep in mind
that they do not exist in the real world but are, rather, analytical tools for
analyzing the real world.
Social System Parsons's conception of the social system begins at the
micro level with interaction between ego and alter ego, defined as the most
elementary form of the social system. He spent little time analyzing this level,
although he did argue that features of this interaction system are present in
the more complex forms taken by the social system. Parsons defined a
social .system thus:
A social system consists in a plurality of individual actor
interacting with each other in a situation which has at lest a physical
or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency
to the "optimization of gratification" and whose relation to their
situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of
a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.
(Parsons, 1951:5-6)
This definition seeks to define a social system in terms of many of the
key concepts in Parsons's work--actors, interaction, environment,
optimization of gratification, and culture.
Despite his commitment to viewing the social system as a system of
interaction, Parsons did not take interaction as his fundamental unit in the
study of the social system.Rather, he used tile status-role complex as the
basic unit of the system. This is neither an aspect of actors nor an aspect of
interaction but rather a structural component of the social system. Status
refers to a structural position within the social system, and role is what the
actor does in such a position, seen in the context of its functional significance
for the larger system. The actor is viewed not in terms of thoughts and actions
but instead (at least in terms of position in the social system) as nothing
Chapter 9
more than a bundle of statuses and roles.
In his analysis of the social system, Parsons was interested primarily in its
structural components. In addition to a concern with the status role, Parsons
(1966:11) was interested in such large-scale components of social systems
as collectivities, norms, and values. In his analysis of the social system,
however. Parsons was not simply a structuralist but also a functionalist. He
thus delineated a number of the functional prerequisites of a social system.
First, social systems must be structured so that they operate compatibly with
other systems. Second, to survive, the social system must have the requisite
support from other systems. Third, the system must meet a significant
proportion of the needs of its actors. Fourth, the system must elicit adequate
participation from its members. Fifth, it must have at least a minimum of
control over potentially disruptive behavior. Sixth, if conflict becomes
sufficiently disruptive, it must be controlled. Finally, a social system requires a
language in order to survive.
It is clear in Parsons's discussion of the functional prerequisites of the
social system that his focus was large-scale systems and their relationship to
one another (societal functionalism). Even when he talked about actors, it
was from the point of view of the system. Also, the discussion reflects
Parsons's concern with the maintenance of order within the social system.
Actors and the Social System However, Parsons did not completely
ignore the issue of the relationship between actors and social structures in his
discussion of the social system. In fact, be called the integration of value
patterns and need-dispositions 'the fundamental dynamic theorem of
sociology" (Parsons, 1951:42). Given Iris central concern with the social
system, of key importance in this integration are the processes of
internalization and socialization. That is, Parsons was interested in the ways
in which the norms and values of a system are transferred to the actors within
tile system. In a successful socialization process these norms and values are
internalized; that is, they become part of the actors' "consciences." As a result,
in pursuing their own interests, the actors are in fact serving the interests of
the system as a whole. As Parsons put it, "The combination of
value-orientation patterns which is acquired [by the actor in socialization]
must in a very important degree be a function of the fundamental role
structure and dominant values of the social system" (1951:227).
In general, Parsons assumed that actors usually are passive recipients
in the socialization process.4 Children learn not only how to act but also the
norms and values, the morality, of society. Socialization is conceptualized as
a conservative process in which need-dispositions (which are themselves
largely molded by society) bind children It the social system, and it provides
the means by which the need-dispositions can be satisfied. There is little or
no room for creativity; the need for gratification ties children to the system as
it exists. Parsons sees socialization as a lifelong experience. Because the
norms and values inculcated in childhood tend to be very general, they do not
prepare children for the various specific situations they encounter in
adulthood. Thus socialization must be supplemented throughout the life cycle
with a series of more specific socializing experiences. Despite this need later
in life, the norms and values learned in childhood tend to be stable and, with a
little gentle reinforcement, tend It remain in force throughout life.
Despite the conformity induced by lifelong socialization, there is a wide
range of individual variation in the system. The question is: Why is this
normally not a major problem for the social system, given its need for order?
For one thing, a number of social control mechanisms can be employed to
deduce conformity. However, as far as Parsons was concerned, social control
is strictly a second line of defense. A system runs best when social control is
used only sparingly. For another thing, the system must be able to tolerate
some variation, some deviance. A flexible social system is stronger than a
brittle one that accepts no deviation. Finally. the social system should provide
a wide range of role opportunities that allow different personalities to express
themselves without threatening the integrity of the system.
Socialization and social control are the main mechanisms that allow the
social system to maintain its equilibrium. Modest amounts of individuality and
deviance are accommodated, but more extreme forms must be met by
reequilibrating mechanisms. Thus, social order is built into the structure of
Parsons's social system:
Without deliberate planning on anyone's part there have developed
in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms
which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the
deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase
which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval disapproval and
reward punishment sanctions.
(Parsons, t951:319)
Again, Parsons's main interest was the system as a whole rather than the
actor in the system--how the system controls the actor, not how the actor
creates and maintains the system. This reflects parsons's commitment on this
issue to a structural-functional orientation.
Society Although the idea of a social system encompasses all types of
collectivities, one specific and particularly important social system is society,
"a relatively selfsufficient collectivity the members of which are able to satisfy
all their individual and collective needs and to live entirely within its
framework" (Rocher, 1975:60). As a structural functionalist, Parsons
distinguished among four structures, or subsystems, in society in terms of the
functions (AGIL) they perform (see Figure 9.3). The economy is the
subsystem that performs the function for society of adapting to the
environment through labor, production, and allocation. Through such work,
the economy adapts the environment to society's needs, and it helps society
adapt to these external realities. The polity (or political system) performs the
function of goal attainment by pursuing societal objectives and mobilizing
Chapter 9
actors and resources to that end. The fiduciary system (for example, in the
schools, the family) handles the latency function by transmitting culture
(norms and values) to actors and allowing it to be internalized by them. Finally.
The integration function is performed by the societal community (for example,
the law), winch coordinates the various components of society (Parsons and
Platt, 1973).
Society, Its Subsystems, and the Functional Imperatives
As important as the structures of the social system were to Parsons, the
cultural system was more important. In fact, as we saw earlier, the cultural
system stood at the top of Parsons's action system, and Parsons (1966)
labeled himself a "cultural determinist."
Cultural System Parsons conceived of culture as the major force
binding the various elements of the social world, or, in his terms, the action
system. Culture mediates interaction among actors and integrates the
personality and the social systems. Culture has the peculiar capacity to
become, at least in part, a component of the other systems. Thus, in the
social system culture is embodied in norms and values, and in the personality
system it is internalized by the actor. But the cultural system is not simply a
part of other systems; it also has a separate existence in the form of the social
stock of know]edge, symbols, and ideas. These aspects of the cultural
system are available to the social and personality systems, but they do not
become part of them (Morse,1961:105; Parsons and Shils, 1951:6).
parsons defined the cultural system, as he did his other systems, in
terms of its relationship to the other action systems. Thus culture is seen as a
patterned, ordered system of symbols that are objects of orientation to actors,
internalized aspects of the personality system, and institutionalized patterns
(Parsons, 1990) in the social system. Because it is largely symbolic and
subjective, culture is transmitted readily from one system to another. Culture
can move from one social system to another through diffusion and from one
personality system to another through learning and socialization. However,
the symbolic (subjective) character of culture also gives it another
characteristic, the ability to control Parsons's other action systems. This is
one of the reasons Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist.
However, if the cultural system is preeminent in Parsonsian theory, we
must question whether he offers a genuinely integrative theory. As pointed out
in the Appendix, a truly integrative theory gives rough equivalency to all major
levels of analysis. Cultural determinism, indeed any kind of determinism, is
highly suspect from the point of view of an integrated sociology. (For a more
integrated conception of Parsons's work, see Camic, 1990.) This problem is
exacerbated when we look at the personality system and see how weakly it is
developed in parsons's work.
Personality System The personality system is controlled not only by
the cultural system but also by the social system. That is not to say that
Parsons did not accord some independence to the personality system:
My view will be that, while the main content of file structure of
the personality is derived from social systems and culture through
socialization, the personality becomes an independent system through its
relations to its own organism and through the uniqueness of its own life
experience; it is not a mere epiphenomenon.
(Parsons, 1970:82)
We get the feeling here that Parsons is protesting too much. If the
personality system is not an epipbenomenon, it is certainly reduced to a
secondary or dependent states in his theoretical system.
The personality is defined as the organized system of orientation and
motivation of action of the individual actor. The basic component of the
personality is the "need-disposition." Parsons and Shils defined
need-dispositions as the "most significant units of motivation of action"
(1951:113). They differentiated need-dispositions from drives, which are
innate tendencies--"physiological energy that makes action possible"
(Parsons and Shils, 1951:111). In other words, drives are better seen as part
of the biological organism. Need-dispositions are then defined as "these
same tendencies when they are not innate but acquired through the process
of action itself' (Parsons and Shils, 1951:111 ). In other words,
need-dispositions are drives that are shaped by the social setting.
Need-dispositions impel actors to accept or reject objects presented in
file environment or to seek out new objects if the ones that are available do
not adequately satisfy need-dispositions. Parsons differentiated among three
basic types of need-dispositions. The first type impels actors to seek love,
approval, and so forth, from their social relationships. The second type
includes internalized values that lead actors to observe various cultural
standards. Filmily. there are the role expectations that lead actors to give and
get appropriate responses.
This presents a very passive image of actors. They seem to be impelled
by drives, dominated by the culture, or, more usually, shaped by a
combination of drives and culture (that is, by need-dispositions). A passive
personality system is clearly a weak link in an integrated theory, and Parsons
seemed to be aware of that, On various occasions, he tried to endow the
personality with some creativity. For example, he said: "We do not mean.., to
imply that a person's values are entirely 'internalized culture' or mere
adherence to rules and laws. The person makes creative modifications as he
Chapter 9
internalizes culture; but the novel aspect is not the culture aspect" (Parsons
and Shils, 1951:72). Despite claims such as these, the dominant impression
that emerges from Parsons's work is one of a passive personality system.
Parsons's emphasis on need-dispositions creates other problems.
Because it leaves out so many other important aspects of personality, iris
system becomes a largely impoverished one. Alfred Baldwin, a psychologist,
makes precisely this point:
It seems fair to say that Parsons fails in his theory to provide the
personality with a reasonable set of pries or mechanisms sins aside from
need-dispositions, and gets himself into trouble by not endowing the
personality with enough characteristics and enough different kinds of
mechanisms for it to be able to function.
(A. Baldwin, 1961:186)
Baldwin makes another telling point about Parsons's personality system,
arguing that even when Parsons analyzed the personality system, he was
really not focally interested in it: "Even when he is writing chapters on
personality structure, Parsons spends many more pages talking about social
systems than he does about personality" (1961:180). This is reflected in the
various ways Parsons linked the personality to the social system. First, actors
must learn to see themselves in a way that fits with the place they occupy in
society (parsons and Shils, 1951:147), Second, role expectations are
attached to each of the roles occupied by individual actors. Then there is the
learning of self-discipline, internalization of value orientations, identification,
and so forth. All these forces point toward the integration of the personality
system with the social system, which Parsons emphasized. However, he also
pointed out the possible malintegration, which is a problem for the system that
needs to be overcome.
Another aspect of Parsons's work his interest in internalization as the
personality system's side of the socialization process reflects the passivity of
the personality system. Parsons (1970:2) derived this interest from
Durkheim's work on internalization, as well as from Freud's work, primarily
that on the superego. In emphasizing internalization and the superego.
Parsons once again manifested his conception of the personality system as
passive and externally controlled.
Although Parsons was wilting to talk about the subjective aspects of
personality in his early work, he progressively abandoned that perspective, In
so doing, he limited his possible insights into the personality system. Parsons
at one point stated clearly that he was shifting his attention away from the
internal meanings that the actions of people may have: "The organization of
observational data in terms of die theory of action is quite possible and fruitful
in modified behaviouristic terms, and such formulation avoids many of the
difficult questions of introspection or empathy" (Parsons and Shils, 1951:64).
Behavioral Organism Though he included the behavioral organism as
one of the four action systems, Parsons had very little to say about it. It is
included because it is the source of energy for the rest of the systems.
Although it is based on genetic constitution, its organization is affected by the
processes of conditioning and learning that occur during the individual's life?
The behavioral organism is clearly a residual system in Parsons's work. but at
the minimum Parsons is to be lauded for including it as a part of his sociology,
if for no other reason than that he anticipated the interest in sociology and the
sociology of the body (B. Turner, 1985) by some sociologists.
Change and Dynamism in Parsonsian Theory Parsons's work with
conceptual tools such as the four action systems and the functional
imperatives led to the accusation that he offered a structural theory that was
unable to deal with social change. Parsons had long been sensitive to this
charge, arguing that although a study of change was necessary, it must be
preceded by a study of structure. But by the 1960s he could resist the attacks
no longer and made a major shift in his work to the study of social change,
particularly the study of social evolution (Parsons, 1977:50).
Evolutionary Theory Parsons's (1966) general orientation to the study
of social change was shaped by biology. To deal with this process, Parsons
developed what he called "a paradigm of evolutionary change."
The first component of that paradigm is the process of differentiation.
Parsons assumed that any society is composed of a series of subsystems
that differ in terms of both their structure and their functional significance for
the larger society. As society evolves, new subsystems me differentiated. This
is not enough, however; they also must be more adaptive than earlier
subsystems. Thus. the essential aspect of Parsons's evolutionary paradigm
was the idea of adaptive upgrading. Parsons described this process:
If differentiation is to yield a balanced, more evolved system, each
newly differentiated substructure.,, must have increased adaptive
capacity for performing its primary function, as compared to the
performance of that function in the previous, more diffuse structure....
We may call this process the adaptive upgrading aspect of the
evolutionary change cycle.
(Parsons. 1966:22)
This is a highly positive model of social change (although Parsons
certainly had a sense of its darker side). It assumes that as society evolves,
it grows generally better able to cope with its problems. In contrast, in
Marxian theory social change leads to the eventual destruction of capitalist
society. For this reason, among others, Parsons often is thought of as a very
conservative sociological theorist. In addition, while he did deal with change,
he tended to focus on the positive aspects of social change in the modem
world rather than on its negative side.
Next. Parsons argued that the process of differentiation leads to a new
set of problems of integration for society. As subsystems proliferate, the
society is confronted with new problems in coordinating the operations of
these units.
Chapter 9
A society undergoing evolution must move from a system of ascription to
one of achievement. A wider array of skills and abilities is needed to handle
the more diffuse subsystems. The generalized abilities of people must be
freed from their ascriptive bonds so that they can be utilized by society. Most
generally, this means that groups formerly excluded from contributing to the
system must be freed for inclusion as full members of the society.
Finally. the value system of the society as a whole must undergo change
as social structures and functions grow increasingly differentiated. However,
since die new system is more diverse, it is harder for the value system to
encompass it. Thus a more differentiated society requires a value system that
is "couched at a higher level of generality in order to legitimize the wider
variety of goals and functions of its subunits"(Parsons, 1966:23). However,
this process of generalization of values often does not proceed smoothly as it
meets resistance from groups committed to their own narrow value systems.
Evolution proceeds through a variety of cycles, but no general process
affects all societies equally. Some societies may foster evolution, whereas
others may "be so beset with internal conflicts or other handicaps" that they
impede the process of evolution. or they may even "deteriorate" (Parsons,
1966:23). What most interested Parsons were those societies in which
developmental "breakthroughs" occur, since he believed that once they
occurred, the process of evolution would follow his general evolutionary
Although Parsons conceived of evolution as occurring in stages, he was
careful to avoid a unilinear evolutionary theory: "We do not conceive societal
evolution to be either a continuous or a simple linear process, but we can
distinguish between broad levels of advancement without overlooking the
considerable variability found in each"(1966:26). Making it clear that he was
simplifying matters, Parsons distinguished three broad evolutionary
stages--primitive, intermediate, and modem. Characteristically, he
differentiated among these stages primarily on the basis of cultural
dimensions. The crucial development in the transition from primitive to
intermediate is the development of language, primarily written language. The
key development in the shift from intermediate to modem is "the
institutionalized codes of normative order," or law (parsons,1966:26).
Parsons next proceeded to analyze a series of specific societies in the
context of the evolution from primitive to modern society. One particular point
is worth underscoring here: Parsons turned to evolutionary theory, at least in
part, because he was accused of being unable to deal with social change.
However, his analysis of evolution is not in terms of process; rather, it is an
attempt to "order structural types and relate them sequentially" (Parsons,
1966:111). This is comparative structural analysis, not really a study of the
processes of social change. Thus, even when he was supposed to be looking
at change, Parsons remained committed to the study of structures and
Generalized Media of Interchange One of the ways in which Parsons
introduces some dynamism, some fluidity (Alexander, 1983:115), into his
theoretical system is through his ideas on the generalized media of
interchange within and among the four action systems (especially within the
social system) discussed above. The model for the generalized media of
interchange is money, which operates as such a medium within the
economy. But instead of focusing on material phenomena such as
money, Parsons focuses on symbolic media of exchange. Even when
parsons does discuss money as a medium of interchange within the
social .system, he focuses on its symbolic rather than its material qualifies. In
addition to money, and more clearly symbolic, are other generalized media of
interchange-political power, influence, and value commitments, parsons
makes it quite clear why he is focusing on symbolic media of interchange:
"The introduction of a theory of media into the kind of structural perspective
I have in mind goes far, it seems to me, to refute the frequent allegations
that this type of structural analysis is inherently plagued with a static bias,
which makes it impossible to do justice to dynamic problems" (1975:98-99).
Symbolic media of interchange have the capacity, like money, to be
created and to circulate in the larger society. Thus, within the social system,
those in the political system are able to create political power. More
importantly, they can expend that power, thereby allowing it to circulate freely
in, and have influence over, the social system.Through such an expenditure
of power, leaders presumably strengthen the political system as well as the
society as a whole. More generally, it is the generalized media that circulate
between the four action systems and within the structures of each of those
systems. It is their existence and movement that give dynamism to Parsons's
largely structural analyses.
As Alexander (1983:115) points out, generalized media of interchange
lend dynamism to parsons's theory in another sense. They allow for the
existence of "media entrepreneurs" (for example, politicians) who do not
simply accept the system of exchange as it is. That is, they can be creative
and resourceful and in this way alter not only the quantity of the generalized
media but also the manner and direction in which the media flow.
Robert Merton's Structural Functionalism
While Talcott Parsons is the most important structural-functional theorist, his
student Robert Merton authored some of the most important statements on
structural functionalism in sociology (Sztompha, 2000; Tiryakian, 199/).
Merton criticized some of the more extreme and indefensible aspects of
structural functionalism. But equally important, his new conceptual insights
helped give structural functionalism a continuing usefulness (Jasso, 2000).
Although both Merton and Parsons are associated with structural
functionalism, there are important differences between them. For one thing,
while parsons advocated the creation of grand, overarching theories, Merton
favored more limited, middle-range theories. For another, Merton was more
Chapter 9
favorable toward Marxian theories than Parsons was. In fact, Merton and
some of his students (especially Alvin Gouldner) can be seen as having
pushed structural functionalism more to the left politically.
Robert K. Merton :A Biographical Sketch
Robert K. Merton (1910- ) It is easy enough to identify the principal teachers,
both close at hand and at a distance, who taught me most. During my
graduate studies, they were: P.A. Sorokin, who oriented me more widely to
European social thought and with whom, unlike some other students of the
time, I never broke although I could not follow him in the directions of inquiry
he began to pursue in the late 1930s; the then quite young Talcott Parsons,
engaged in thinking through the ideas which first culminated in his magisterial
Structure of Social Action; the biochemist and sometime sociologist L.J.
Henderson, who taught me something about the disciplined investigation of
what is first entertained as an interesting idea; the economic historian E. F.
Gay, who taught me about the workings of economic development as
reconstructible from archival sources; and, quite consequentially, the then
dean of the history of science, George Sarton, who allowed me to work under
his guidance for several years in his famed (not to say, hallowed) workshop in
the Widener Library of Harvard. Beyond these teachers with whom I studied
directly, I learned most from two sociologists: Emile Durkheim, above all
others, and Georg Simmel who could teach me only through the powerful
works they left behind, and from that sociologically sensitive humanist, Gilbert
Murray. During the latter period of my life, I learned most from my colleague,
Paul F. Lazarsfeld, who probably had no idea of how much he taught me
during our uncountable conversations and collaborations during more than a
third of a century.
Looking back over my work through the years, I find more of a pattern in
it than I had supposed was there. For almost from the beginning of my own
work, after those apprenticeship years as a graduate student, I was
determined to follow my intellectual interests as they evolved rather than
pursue a predetermined lifelong plan. I chose to adopt the practice of my
master-at-a-distance, Durkheim, rather than the practice of my master
at-close-range, Sarton. Durkheim repeatedly changed the subjects he chose
to investigate.Starting with his study of the social division of labor, he
examined methods of sociological inquiry and then turned successively to the
seemingly unrelated subjects of suicide, religion, moral education, and
socialism, all the while developing a theoretical orientation which, to his mind,
could be effectively developed by attending to such varied aspects of life in
society. Sarton had proceeded quite the other way: in his earliest years as a
scholar, he had worked out a program of research in the history of science
that was to culminate in his monumental five-volume Introduction E sic ~ to
the History of Science (which carried the story through to the close of the
fourteenth century! ).
The first of these patterns seemed more suitable for me. I wanted and
still want to advance sociological theories of social structure and cultural
change that will help us understand how social institutions and the character
of life in society come to be as they are. That concern with theoretical
sociology has led me to avoid the kind of subject specialization that has
become (and, in my opinion, has for the most part rightly become) the order of
the day in sociology, as in other evolving disciplines. For my purposes, study
of a variety of sociological subjects was essential.
In that variety, only one special field--the sociology of science--has
persistently engaged my interest. During the 1930s, I devoted myself almost
entirely to the social contexts of science and technology, especially in
seventeenth-century England, and focused on the unanticipated
consequences of purposive social action. As my theoretical interests
broadened, I turned, during the |940s and afterward, to studies of the social
sources of nonconforming and deviant behavior, of the workings of
bureaucracy, mass persuasion, and communication in modern complex
society, and to the role of the intellectual, both within bureaucracies and
outside them. In the 1950s, I centered on developing a sociological theory of
basic units of social structure the role-set and status-set and the role models
people select not only for emulation but also as a source of values adopted as
a basis for self-appraisal (this latter being "the theory of reference groups"). I
also undertook, with George Reader and Patricia Kendall, the first large-scale
sociological study of medical education, aiming to find out bow, all apart
from explicit plan, different kinds of physicians are socialized in the same
schools of medicine, this being linked with the distinctive character of
professions as a type of occupational activity. In the 1960s and 1970s, I
returned to an intensive study of the social structure of science and its
interaction with cognitive structure, these two decades being the time in which
the sociology of science finally came of age, with what's past being only
prologue. Throughout these studies, my primary orientation was toward the
connections between sociological theory, methods of inquiry, and substantive
empirical research.
I group these developing interests by decades only for convenience.
Of course, they did not neatly come and go in accord with such conventional
divisions of the calendar. Nor did all of them go, after the first period of
intensive work on them. I am at work on a volume centered on the
unanticipated consequences of purposive social action, thus following up a
paper first published almost half a century ago and intermittently developed
since. Another volume in the stocks, entitled The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,
follows out in a half-dozen spheres of social life the workings of this pattern as
first noted in my paper by the same title, a mere third of a century ago. And
should time, patience, and capacity allow, there remains the summation of
work on the analysis of social structure, with special reference to status-sets,
role-sets, and structural contexts on the structural side, and manifest and
latent functions, dysfunctions, functional alternatives, and social mechanisms
Chapter 9
on the functional side.
Mortality being the rule and painfully slow composition being my
practice, there seems small point in looking beyond this series of works in
A Structural-Functional Model Merton criticized what he saw as the
three basic postulates of functional analysis as it was developed by
anthropologists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The first is the
postulate of the functional unity of society. This postulate holds that all
standardized social and cultural beliefs and practices are functional for
society as a whole as well as for individuals in society. This view implies that
the various parts of a social system must show a high level of integration.
However, Merton maintained that although it may be true of small, primitive
societies, this generalization cannot be extended to larger, more complex
Universal functionalism is the second postulate. That is, it is argued that
all standardized social and cultural forms and structures have positive
functions. Merton argued that this contradicts what we find in the real world. It
is clear that not every structure, custom, idea. belief, and so forth, has
positive functions. For example, rabid nationalism can be highly dysfunctional
in a world of proliferating nuclear arms.
Third is the postulate of indispensability. The argument here is that all
standardized aspects of society not only have positive functions but also
represent indispensable parts of the working whole. This postulate leads to
the idea that all structures and functions are functionally necessary for society.
No other structures and functions could work quite as well as those that are
currently found within society. Merton's criticism, following Parsons, was that
we must at least be willing to admit that there are various structural and
functional alternatives to be found within society.
Merton's position was that all these functional postulates rely on
nonempirical assertions based on abstract, theoretical systems. At a
minimum, it is the responsibility of the sociologist to examine each empirically,
Merton's belief that empirical tests, not theoretical assertions, are crucial to
functional analysis led him to develop his "paradigm" of functional analysis as
a guide to the integration of theory and research.
Merton made it clear from the outset that structural-functional analysis
focuses on groups, organizations, societies, and cultures. He stated that any
object that can be subjected to structural-functional analysis must "represent
a standardized (that is, patterned and repetitive) item" (Merton,
1949/1968:104). He had in mind such things as "social roles, institutional
patterns, social processes, cultural patterns, culturally patterned emotions,
social norms, group organization, social structure, devices for social control,
etc." (Merton, 1949/1968:104).
Early structural functionalists tended to focus almost entirely on the
functions of one social structure or institution for another. However, in
Merton's view, early analysts tended to confuse the subjective motives of
individuals with the functions of structures or institutions. The focus of the
structural functionalist should be on social functions rather than on individual
motives. Functions, according to Melton, are defined as "those observed
consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given
system" (1949/1968:105). However, there is a clear ideological bias when
one focuses only on adaptation or adjustment, fur they are always positive
consequences. It is important to note that one social fact can have negative
consequences for another social fact. To rectify tiffs serious omission in early
structural functionalism, Merton developed the idea of a dysfunction. Just as
structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of other parts of
the social system, they also could have negative consequences for them.
Slavery in the southern United States, for example, clearly had positive
consequences for white southerners, such as supplying cheap labor, support
for the cotton economy, and social status. It also had dysfunctions, such as
making southerners overly dependent on an agrarian economy and therefore
unprepared for industrialization. The lingering disparity between the North
and the South in industrialization can be traced, at least in part, to the
dysfunctions of the institution of slavery in the South.
Merton also posited the idea of non functions, which he defined as
consequences that are simply irrelevant to the system under consideration.
Included here might be social forms that are "survivals" from earlier historical
times. Although they may have had positive or negative consequences in the
past, they have no significant effect on contemporary society. One example,
although a few might disagree, is the Women's Christian Temperance
To help answer the question of whether positive functions outweigh
dysfunctions, or vice versa, Merton developed the concept of net balance.
However, we never can simply add up positive functions and dysfunctions
and objectively determine which outweighs the other, because the issues are
so complex and are based on so much subjective judgment that they cannot
be calculated and weighed easily. The usefulness of Merton's concept comes
from the way it orients the sociologist to the question of relative significance.
To return to the example of slavery, the question becomes whether, on
balance, slavery was more functional or dysfunctional to the South. Still, this
question is too broad and obscures a number of issues (for example, that
slavery was functional for groups such as white slaveholders).
To cope with problems like these, Merton added the idea that there must
be levels of functional analysis. Functionalists had generally restricted
themselves to analysis of the society as a whole, but Merton made it clear
that analysis also could be done on an organization, institution, or group.
Returning to the issue of the functions of slavery for the South, it would be
necessary to differentiate several levels of analysis and ask about the
functions and dysfunctions of slavery for black families, white families, black
Chapter 9
political organizations, white political organizations, and so forth. In terms of
net balance, slavery was probably more functional for certain social units and
more dysfunctional for other social units. Addressing the issue at these more
specific levels helps in analyzing die functionality of slavery for the South as a
Merton also introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions.
These two terms have also been important additions to functional analysis.9
In simple terms, manifest functions are those that are intended, whereas
latent functions are unintended. The manifest function of slavery, for example,
was to increase the economic productivity of the South, but it had the latent
function of providing a vast underclass that served to increase the social
status of southern whites, both rich and poor. This idea is related to another of
Merton's concepts unanticipated consequences. Actions have both intended
and unintended consequences. Although everyone is aware of the intended
consequences, sociological analysis is required to uncover the unintended
consequences; indeed, to some this is the very essence of sociology. Peter
Berger (1963) has called this "debunking," or looking beyond stated intentions
to real effects.
Merton made it clear that unanticipated consequences and latent
functions are not the same. A latent function is one type of unanticipated
consequence, one that is functional for the designated system. But there are
two other types of unanticipated consequences:"those that are dysfunctional
for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions," and
'those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally
or dysfunctionally.., non-functional consequences" (Merton, 1949/1968:105).
As further clarification of functional theory, Merton pointed out that a
structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole yet may continue to
exist. One might make a good case that discrimination against blacks,
females, and other minority groups is dysfunctional for American society, yet it
continues to exist because it is functional for a part of the social system; for
example, discrimination against females is generally functional for males.
However, these forms of discrimination are not without some dysfunctions,
even for the group for which they are functional. Males do suffer from their
discrimination against females; similarly, whites are hurt by their
discriminatory behavior toward blacks. One could argue that these forms of
discrimination adversely affect those who discriminate by keeping vast
numbers of people under productive and by increasing the likelihood of social
Merton contended that not all structures are indispensable to the
workings of the social system. Some parts of our social system ran be
eliminated. This helps functional theory overcome another of its conservative
biases. By recognizing that some structures are expendable, functionalism
opens the way for meaningful social change. Our society, for example, could
continue to exist (and even be improved) by the elimination of discrimination
against various minority groups.
Merton's clarifications are of great utility to sociologists (for example,
Guns, 1972,1994) who wish to perform structural-functional analyses.
Social Structure and Anomie Before leaving this section, we must
devote some attention to one of the best-known contributions to structural
functionalism, indeed all of sociology (Adler and Laufer, 1995; Merton, 1995;
Menard, 1995)-Merton's (1968) analysis of the relationship between culture,
structure, and anomie. Merton defines culture as "that organized set of
normative values governing behavior which is common to members of a
designated society or group" and social structure as "that organized set of
social relationships in which members of the society or group are variously
implicated" (1968:216; italics added). Anomie occurs "when there is an acute
disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured
capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them" (Merton,
1968:216). That is, because of their position in the social structure of society,
some people are unable to act in accord with normative values. The curare
calls for some type of behavior that the social structure prevents from
For example, in American society, the culture places great emphasis on
material success. However, by their position within the social structure, many
people are prevented from achieving such success. If one is born into the
lower socioeconomic classes and as a result is able to acquire, at best, only a
high school degree, one's chances of achieving economic success in the
generally accepted way (for example, through succeeding in the conventional
work world) are slim or nonexistent. Under such circumstances (and they are
widespread in contemporary American society) anomie can be said to exist,
and as a result, there is a tendency toward deviant behavior. In this context,
deviance often takes the form of alternative, unacceptable, and sometimes
illegal means of achieving economic success. Thus, becoming a drug dealer
or a prostitute in order to achieve economic success is an example of
deviance generated by the disjunction between cultural values and
social-structural means of attaining those values. This is one way in which the
structural functionalist would seek to explain crime and deviance.
Thus, in this example of structural functionalism, Merton is looking at
social (and cultural) structures, but he is not focally concerned with the
functions of those structures. Rather, consistent with his functional paradigm,
he is mainly concerned with dysfunctions, in this case anomie. More
specifically, as we have seen, Merton links anomie with deviance and thereby
is arguing that disjunctions between culture and structure have the
dysfunctional consequence of leading to deviance within society.
It is worth noting that implied in Merton's work on anomie is a critical
attitude toward social stratification (for example, for blocking the means of
some to socially desirable goals). Thus, while Davis and Moore wrote
approvingly of a stratified society, Merton's work indicates that structural
Chapter 9
functionalists can be critical of social stratification.
The Major Criticisms
No single sociological theory in the history of the discipline has been the
focus of as much interest as structural functionalism. By the 1960s, however,
criticisms of the theory had increased dramatically, and ultimately they
became more prevalent than praise.Mark Abrahamson depicted this situation
quite vividly: "Thus, metaphorically, functionalism has ambled along like a
giant elephant, ignoring the stings of gnats, even as the swarm of attackers
takes its toll" (1978:37).
Substantive Criticisms One major criticism is that structural
functionalism does not deal adequately with history--that it is inherently
ahistorical. In fact, structural functionalism was developed, at least in part, in
reaction to the historical evolutionary approach of certain anthropologists. In
its early years in particular, structural functionalism went too far in its criticism
of evolutionary theory and came to focus on either contemporary or abstract
societies. However, structural functionalism need not be ahistorical (Turner
and Maryanski, 1979). In fact, Parsons's (1966, 1971) work on social change,
as we have seen, reflects the ability of structural functionalists to deal with
change if they so wish.
Structural functionalists also are attacked for being unable to deal
effectively with the process of social change (Abrahamson, 1978; P. Cohen,
1968; Mills, 1959; Turner and Maryanski, 1979). Whereas the preceding
criticism deals with the seeming inability of structural functionalism to deal
with the past, this one is concerned with the parallel incapacity of the
approach to deal with the contemporary process of social change. Percy
Cohen (1968) sees the problem as lying in structural- functional theory, in
which all the elements of a society are seen as reinforcing one another as
well as the system as a whole. This makes it difficult to see how these
elements can also contribute to change. While Cohen sees the problem as
inherent in the theory, Turner and Maryanski believe,again, that the problem
lies with the practitioners and not with the theory.
Perhaps the most often voiced criticism of structural functionalism is that it
is unable to deal effectively with conflict (Abrahamson, 1978; P. Cohen, /968;
Goaldner, 1970; Horowitz, 1962/1967; Mills, 1959; Turner and Maryanski,
1979). This criticism takes a variety of forms. Alvin Gouldner argues that
Parsons, as the main representative of structural functionalism, tended to
overemphasize harmonious relationships. Irving Louis Horowitz contends that
structural functionalists tend to see conflict as necessarily destructive and as
occurring outside the framework of society. The issue once again is whether
this is inherent in the theory or in the way practitioners have interpreted and
used it (P. Cohen, 1968; Turner and Maryallski, 1979).
The overall criticisms that structural functionalism is unable to deal with
history, change, and conflict have led many (for example, P. Cohen, 1968;
Gouldner 1970) to argue that structural functionalism has a conservative bias.
It may indeed be true that there is a conservative bias in structural
functionalism that is attributable not only to what it ignores (change, history,
conflict) but also to what it chooses to focus on. For one thing, structural
functionalists have tended to focus on culture, norms, and values (P.Cohen,
1968; Mills, 1959; Lockwood, 1956). People are seen as constrained by
cultural and social forces. As Gouldner says, to emphasize his criticism of
structural functionalism, "Human beings are as much engaged in using social
systems as in being used by them" (1970:220).
Related to their cultural focus is the tendency of structural functionalists
to mistake the legitimizations employed by elites in society for social reality
(Gouldner, /970;Harre, 2002; Horowitz, 1962/1967; Mills, 1959). The
normative system is interpreted as reflective of the society as a whole, when it
may in fact be better viewed as an ideological system promulgated by, and
existing for. the elite members of the society.
These substantive criticisms point in two basic directions. First, it seems
clear that structural functionalism has a rather narrow focus that prevents it
from addressing a number of important issues and aspects of the social
world. Second, its focus tends to give it a very conservative flavor; structural
functionalism has operated in support of the status quo and the dominant
elites (Huaco, 1986).
Methodological and Logical Criticisms One of the often expressed
criticisms (see. for example, Abrahamson, I978; Mills, 1959) is that
structural functionalism is basically vague, unclear, and ambiguous. Part of
the ambiguity is traceable to the fact that structural functionalists choose to
deal with abstract social systems instead of real societies.
A related criticism is that although no single grand scheme ever can be
used to analyze all societies throughout history (Mills, 1959), structural
functionalists have been motivated by the belief that there is a single theory or
at least a set of conceptual categories that could be used to do this. Many
critics regard this grand theory as an illusion, believing that the best sociology
can hope for is more historically specific, "middle range" (Merton, 1968)
Among the other specific methodological criticisms is the issue of
whether there are adequate methods to study the questions of concern to
structural functionalists. Percy Cohen (1968). for instance, wonders what
tools can be used to study the contribution of one part of a system to the
system as a whole. Another methodological criticism is that structural
functionalism makes comparative analysis difficult. If the assumption is that a
part of a system makes sense only in the context of the social system in
which it exists, how can we compare it with a similar part in another system?
Cohen asks, for example: If the English family makes sense only in the
context of English society, how can we compare it to the French family?
Teleology and Tautology Percy Cohen (1968) and Turner and
Maryanski (1979) see teleology and tautology as the two most important
Chapter 9
logical problems confronting structural functionalism. Some tend to see
teleology as an inherent problem (Abrahamson, 1978; P. Cohen, 1968), but
we believe that Turner and Maryanski (1979) are correct when they argue
that the problem with structural functionalism is not teleology perse, but
illegitimate teleology. In this context, teleology is defined as the view that
society (or other social structures) has purposes or goals. In order to achieve
these goals, society creates, or causes to be created, specific social
structures and social institutions. 'Turner and Maryanski do not see this view
as necessarily illegitimate; in fact, they argue that social theory should take
into account the teleological relationship between society and its component
The problem, to Turner and Maryanski. is the extension of teleology to
unacceptable lengths. An illegitimate teleology is one that implies "that
purpose or end states guide human affairs when such is not the case" (Turner
and Maryanski. 1979:118). For example, it is illegitimate to assume that
because society needs procreation and socialization it will create the family
institution. A variety of alternative structures could meet these needs; society
does not "need" to create the family. The structural functionalist must define
and document the various ways in which the goals do, in fact, lead to the
creation of specific substructures. It also would be useful to be able to show
why other substructures could not meet the same needs. A legitimate
teleology would be able to define and demonstrate empirically and
theoretically the links between society's goals and the various substructures
that exist within society. An illegitimate teleology would be satisfied with a
blind assertion that a link between a societal end and a specific substructure
must exist.
The other major criticism of the logic of structural functionalism is that it is
tautological. A tautological argument is one in which the conclusion merely
makes explicit what is implicit in the premise or is simply a restatement of the
premise. In structural functionalism, this circular reasoning often takes the
form of defining the whole in terms of its parts and then defining the parts in
terms of the whole. Thus, it would be argued that a social system is defined
by the relationship among its component parts and that the component parts
of the system are defined by their place in the larger social system. Because
each is defined in terms of the other, neither the social system nor its parts
are in fact defined at all, We really learn nothing about either the system or its
Under the barrage of criticisms, structural functionalism declined in
significance from the mid-1960s to the present day. However, by the mid
1980s, a major effort was undertaken to revive the theory under the heading
"neofunctionalism." The term neofunctionalism was used to indicate
continuity with structural functionalism but also to demonstrate that an effort
was being made to extend structural functionalism and overcome its major
difficulties. Jeffrey Alexander and Paul Colomy define neofunctionalism as "a
self critical strand of functional theory that seeks to broaden functionalism's
intellectual scope while retaining its theoretical core" ( 1985:11 ). Thus, it
seems clear that Alexander and Colomy see structural functionalism as
overly narrow and that their goal is the creation of a more synthetic theory,
winch they prefer to label "neofunedonalism.''
It should be noted that while structural functionalism in general, and
Talcott Parsons's theories in particular, did become extremist, there was a
strong synthetic core in the theory from its beginnings. On the one hand,
throughout his intellectual life parsons sought to integrate a wide range of
theoretical inputs. On the other hand, he was interested in the
interrelationship of the major domains of the social world, most notably the
cultural, social, and personality systems. However, in the end, Parsons
adopted a narrow structural-functionalist orientation and came to see the
cultural system as determining
the other systems. Thus, Parsons
abandoned his synthetic orientation, and neofunctionalism can be viewed as
an effort to recapture such an orientation.
Jeffrey C. Alexander :A Biographical Sketch
Jeffrey C. Alexander (1947-) Since my earliest days as an intellectual I
have been preoccupied with the problems of social action and social order
and with the possibilities of developing approaches to these problems that
avoid the extremes of one-dimensional thought. I have always been
convinced that tense dichotomies, while vital as ideological currents in a
democratic society, can be overcome in the theoretical realm.
My theoretical concerns first took form during the late 1960s and early
1970s, when I participated in the student protest movements as an
undergraduate at Harvard College and as a graduate student at University of
California, Berkeley. New Left Marxism represented a sophisticated effort to
overcome the economism of vulgar Marxism, as it tried to reinsert the actor
into history. Because it described how material structures are interpenetrated
with culture, personality, and everyday life, New Left Marxism-which for better
or worse we largely taught ourselves--provided my first important training in
the path to theoretical synthesis which has marked my intellectual career.
In the early 1970s, I became dissatisfied with New Left Marxism, in part
for political and empirical reasons. The New Left's turn toward sectarianism
and violence frightened and depressed me, whereas the Watergate crisis
demonstrated America's capacity for self-criticism. I decided that capitalist
democratic societies provided opportunities for inclusion, pluralism, and
reform that could not be envisioned even within the New Left version of
Marxian thought.
Yet there were also more abstract theoretical reasons for leaving the
Marxian approach to synthesis behind. As I more fully engaged classical and
contemporary theory, I realized that this synthesis was achieved more by
Chapter 9
phenomenologicaI-Marxism--than by opening up the central categories of
action and order. In fact, the neo-Marxist categories of consciousness, action,
community, and culture were black boxes. This recognition led me to the
traditions which supplied the theoretical resources upon which New Left
Marxism had drawn. I was fortunate in this graduate student effort to be
guided by Robert Bellah and Nell Smelser, whose ideas about culture, social
structure, and sociological theory made an indelible impression upon me and
continue to be intellectual resources today.
In Theoretical Logic in Sociology (1982 -1983), I published the results of
this effort.The idea for this multivolume work began germinating in 1972, after
an extraordinary encounter with Talcott Parsons's masterpiece, The Structure
of Social Action, allowed me to see my problems with Marxism in a new way.
Later, under the supervision of Bellah, Smelser, and Leo Lowenthal, I worked
through classical and contemporary theory with this new framework in mind.
My ambition in Theoretical Logic was to show that Durkheim and Weber
supplied extensive theories of the culture that Marx had neglected and that
Weber actually developed the first real sociological synthesis. I concluded,
however, that Durkheim ultimately moved in an idealistic direction and that
Weber developed mechanistic view of modem society. suggested that
Parsons's work should be seen as a masterly modem effort at synthesis
rather than as theory in the functionalist mode. Yet Parsons, too, failed to
pursue synthesis in a truly determined way, allowing his theory to become
overly formal and normatively based.
In my work over the last decade I have tried to re-create the framework for
synthesis which I take to be the unfulfilled promise of earlier work. In Twenty
Lectures : Sociological Theory since World War ]] (1987), I argued that the
divisions in post-Parsonsian sociology--between conflict and order theories,
micro and macro approaches, structural and cultural views--were not fruitful.
These groupings obscured basic social processes, like the continuing play of
order and conflict and the dichotomized dimensions of society, that are
always intertwined.
My response to this dead end has been to return to the original concerns
of Parsons and to the earlier classics.
Yet, in trying to push theory into a new, "post-Parsonsian" phase, I have
also tried to go beyond classical and modern theory. My encounters with the
powerful group of phenomenologists in my home department at UCLA,
particularly those with Harold Garfinkel, were an important stimulus. In "Action
and its Environments" (1987), which I still regard as my most important piece
of theoretical work, I laid out the framework for a new articulation of the
micro-macro link.
I have also concentrated on developing a new cultural theory. An early
reading of Clifford Geertz convinced me that traditional social-science
approaches to culture are too limited. Since that time, my approach has been
powerfully affected by semiotics, hermeneutics, and poststructuralist thought.
Incorporating theories from outside of sociology, I have tried to theorize the
manifold ways in which social structure is permeated by symbolic codes and
I believe this movement toward theoretical synthesis is being pushed
forward by events in the world at large, In the postcommunist world, it seems
important to develop models that help us understand our complex and
inclusive, yet very fragile, democracies. I am presently at work on a theory of
democracy that emphasizes the communal dimension which call "civil
society". I am also publishing a collection of essays which I have written
criticizing the growing relativism in the human studies. I would like to believe,
despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that progress is possible not
only in society but in sociology as well. It is only through a multidimensional
and synthetic view of society that such progress can be achieved.
Jeffrey C. Alexander’s Point
Alexander (1985a: 10) has enumerated the problems associated with
structural functionalism that neofuncfionalism needs to surmount, including
"anti-individualism," "antagonism to change," "conservatism." "idealism," and
an "antiempirical bias." Efforts were made to overcome these problems
programmatically (Alexander, 1985a) and at more specific theoretical levels,
for example Colomy's (1986; Alexander and Colomy, 1990b; Colomy and
Rhoades, 1994) attempt to refine differentiation theory. Despite his
enthusiasm for neofunctionalism, in file mid 1980s Alexander was forced to
conclude that "neofunctionalism is a tendency rather than a developed
Although neofunctionalism may not be a developed theory, Alexander
(1985a; see also Colomy, 1990b) has outlined some of its basic orientations.
First, neofunctionalism operates with a descriptive model of society that sees
society as composed of elements which, in interaction with one another, form
a pattern. This pattern allows the system to be differentiated from its
environment, parts of tile system are "symbiotically connected," and their
interaction is not determined by some overarching force. Thus,
neofunctionalism rejects any monocausal determinism and is open-ended
and pluralistic.
Second, Alexander argues that neofunctionalism devotes roughly equal
attention to action and order. It thus avoids the tendency of structural
functionalism to focus almost exclusively on the macro-level sources of order
in social structures and culture and to give little attention to more micro-level
action patterns (Schwinn, 1998). Neofunctinnalism also purports to have a
broad sense of action, including not only rational but also expressive action.
Third, neofunctionalism retains the structural-functional interest in
integration, not as an accomplished fact but rather as a social possibility/It
recognizes that deviance and social control are realities within social systems.
There is concern for equilibrium within neofunctionalism, but it is broader than
the structural-functional concern, encompassing both moving and partial
Chapter 9
equilibrium. There is a disinclination to see social systems as characterized
by static equilibrium. Equilibrium, broadly defined, is seen as a reference
point for functional analysis but not as descriptive of the lives of individuals in
actual social systems.
Fourth, neofunctionalism accepts the traditional Parsonsian emphasis on
personality, culture, and social system. In addition to being vital to social
structure, the interpenetration of these systems also produces tension that is
an ongoing source of both change and control.
Fifth, neofunctionalism focuses on social change in the processes of
differentiation within the social, cultural, and personality systems. Thus,
change is not productive of conformity and harmony but rather "individuation
and institutional strains" (Alexander,1985a:10).
Finally, Alexander argues that neofunctionalism "implies the commitment
to the independence of conceptualization and theorizing from other levels of
sociological analysis" (1985a:10).
Alexander and Colomy (1990a) staked out a very ambitious claim for
neofunetionalism. They did not see neofunctionalism as, in their terms, a
mere modest "elaboration," or "revision," of structural functionalism but rather
as a much more dramatic "reconstruction" of it in which differences with the
founder (Parsons) are clearly acknowledged and explicit openings are made
to other theorists and theories. Efforts were made to integrate into
neofunctionalism insights from the masters, such as Marx's work on material
structures and Durkheim's on symbolism. In an attempt to overcome the
idealist bias of Parsonsian structural functionalism, especially its emphasis on
macro-subjective phenomena such as culture, more materialist approaches
were encouraged. The structural-functional tendency to emphasize order was
countered by a call for rapprochement with theories of social change. Most
important, to compensate for the macro-level biases of traditional structural
functionalism, efforts were made to integrate ideas from exchange theory,
symbolic interactionism, pragmatism, phenomenology, and so on. In other
words, Alexander and Colomy endeavored to synthesize structural
functionatism with a number of other theoretical traditions. Such a
reconstruction was supposed to both revive structural functionalism and
provide the base for the development of a new theoretical tradition
Alexander and Colonry recognized an important difference between
neofunctionalism and structural functionalism:
Earlier functional research was guided by... envisioning a single,
all embracing conceptual scheme that tied areas of specialized research
into a tightly wrought package. What neofunctionalist empirical work
points to. by contrast, is a loosely organized package, one organized
around a general logic ~d possessing a number of rather autonomous
"proliferations" and '*variations" at different levels and in different
empirical domains.
(Alexander and Colomy. 1990a:52)
The thoughts of Alexander and Colomy indicate movement away from the
Parsonsian tendency to see structural functionalism as a grand overarching
theory. Instead, they offer a more limited, a more synthetic, but still a holistic
However, as pointed out in the beginning of this chapter, the future of
neofunctionalism has been cast into doubt by the fact that its founder and
leading exponent, Jeffrey Alexander, has made it clear that he has outgrown
a neofunctionalist orientation. This shift in thinking is apparent in the title of his
book Neofunctionalism and After (Alexander, 1998). Alexander argues in this
work that one of his major goals was the (re)establishment of the legitimacy
and importance of Parsonsian theory. To the degree that neofunctionalism
has succeeded in this effort, Alexander regards the neofunctionalist project as
completed. Thus, he is ready to move beyond parsons, beyond neofunction
alism, although be makes it plain that his future theoretical directions will be
deeply indebted to both. Neofunctionalism has grown too confining for
Alexander, and he now sees it, as well as his own work, as part of what he
has called "the new theoretical movement" (see Seidman and Alexander.
2001). As he puts it. "1 am pointing to a new wave of theory creation that
goes beyond the important achievements of neofunctionalism" (Alexander.
1998:228). Such a theoretical perspective would be even more synthetic than
neofunctionalism, and more eclectic, drawing on a wide range of theoretical
resources, and it would use those synthetic and eclectic resources in more
opportunistic ways. Specifically, Alexander is seeking to do much more with
developments in microsociological and cultural theory.
Chapter 10
Chapter10: Conflict Theory
Early Conflict Theory
Ralf Dahrendorf's Dialectical Theory
Lewis Coser's Conflict Functionalism
Early Conflict Theory
A long with functionalism, conflict theory was sociology's first theoretical
orientation. Even some early functional theorists, such as Herbert spencer,
developed conceptualizations of conflict; yet, over the years, these functional
approaches increasingly came under attack for underemphasizing conflict and
change. In seeking "the function" of sociocultural forces for meeting needs for
integration and other requisites, functionalists tended to underemphasize the
effects of inequality in systematically generating conflict, disintegration, and
Conflict theory in sociology began with Karl Marx (1818 1883), but the
development of the approach owes a debt to two other early German
sociologists, Max Weber (1864-1920) and Georg simmel (1858-1918). Weber
and Simmel also articulated conflict theories, but they were suspicious of
Marx's polemics and, as a result, added necessary qualifications and
refinements to Marx's ideas. Taken together, Marx, Weber, and Simmel
provided the core ideas that still inspire contemporary conflict approaches.
Despite the genius of these early masters, conflict theory remained recessive
during the first half of the twentieth century, although considerable research
and limited theorizing was performed on particular instances of conflict, such
as ethnic tensions or colonialism. The ideas of Marx, Weber, and Simmel on
conflict began to resurface in America and assume a central place in
sociological theory during the 1950s in the works of two German-horn
sociologists, Ralf Dahrendorf and Lewis Coser. Although others were also
involved in the development of the new conflict approach, Dahrendorf and
Coser set the tone for tiffs revival in the United States. In Europe, conflict
sociology had always been more prominent, and so, it should not be surprising
that Europeans sparked interest in conflict theorizing. In this chapter, we will
first explore the key insights of Marx, Weber, and Simmel and then we will
review Dahrendorf's and Coser's ideas. From this conceptual base, conflict
theory has gone in many interesting directions during the last fifty years.
We will encounter Marx's work in analyzing several theoretical perspectives
in present-day sociology; here, it is not necessary to present his entire
theoretical corpus here. For the present, the goal is to describe the more
general,abstracted model of conflict that is packaged between the polemics of
the Marxian scheme. Table 10.1 summarizes Marx's assumptions about the
social world and the key forces behind conflict and change in societies.
Table 10.1 Marx's Abstracted Propositions on Conflict Processes
Ⅰ. The more unequal is the distribution of scarce resources in a society, the
greater is the basic conflict of interest between its dominant and subordinate
Ⅱ. The more subordinate segments become aware of their true collective
interests,the more likely they are to question the legitimacy of the existing
pattern of distribution of scarce resources.
Ⅲ Subordinates are more likely to become aware of their true collective
interests when
A, Changes wrought by dominant segments disrupt existing relations
among subordinates.
B. Practices of dominant segments create alienative dispositions.
C. Members of subordinate segments can communicate their grievances
to one another, which, in turn, is facilitated by
1. The ecological concentration among members of subordinate groups.
2. The expansion of educational opportunities for members of
subordinate groups.
D. Subordinate segments can develop unifying ideologies, which, in turn,
is facilitated by
1. The capacity to recruit or generate ideological spokespeople.
2. The inability of dominant groups to regulate socialization processes and
communication networks among subordinates.
Ⅳ, The more that subordinate segments of a system become aware of their
collective interests and question the legitimacy of the distribution of scarce
resource. the more likely they are to join in overt conflict against dominant
segments of a system, especially when
A. Dominant groups cannot clearly articulate, nor act in, their collective
B, Deprivations of subordinates move from an absolute to a relative basis,
or escalate rapidly,
C, Subordinate groups can develop a political leadership structure.
Ⅴ. The greater is the ideological unification of members of subordinate
segments of a system and the more developed is their political leadership
structure, the more likely are the interests and relations between dominant and
subjugated segments of a society to become polarized and irreconcilable.
Ⅵ.The more polarized are the dominant and subjugated, the more will the
conflict be violent.
Ⅶ.The more violent is the conflict, the greater is the amount of the structural
change within a society and the greater is the redistribution of scarce
Chapter 10
As shown in Proposition I, Marx argued that the degree of inequality in the
distribution of resources generates inherent conflicts of interest between those
who have and those who do not have valued resources. PropositionⅡthen
emphasizes that when members of subordinate segments of the society
become aware of their true interests in redistributing resources and, thereby,
reducing inequality, they will begin to question the legitimacy of the system.
Next. Proposition 1II specifies the conditions that facilitate subordinates'
awareness of their true conflict of interest. PropositionsⅢ-A, B, C, and D deal,
respectively, with the disruption in the social situation of deprived populations,
the amount of alienation people feel as a result of their situation, the capacity
of members of deprived segments to communicate with one another, and their
ability to develop a unifying ideology that codifies their true interests. Marx saw
these conditions as factors that increase and heighten awareness of
subordinates' collective interests and, hence, decrease their willingness to
accept as legitimate the right of superordinates to command a disproportionate
share of resources.
In turn, some of these forces heightening awareness are influenced by
such structural conditions as ecological concentration (Ⅲ-C-1), educational
opportunities (Ⅲ-C-2), the availability o~ ideological spokespeople Ⅲ-D-1),
and the control of socialization processes and communication networks by
superordinates (Ⅲ-D-2). Marx hypothesized (shown in Proposition IV) that the
increasing awareness by deprived classes of their true interests and the
resulting questioning of the legitimacy of resource distribution increases the
likelihood that the disadvantaged strata will begin to organize collectively their
opposition against the dominant segments of a system. This organization is
seen as especially likely under several conditions: disorganization among the
dominant segments with respect to articulating their true interests (IV-A),
sudden escalation of subordinates' sense of deprivation as they begin to
compare their situation with that of the privileged (IV-B), and mobilization of
political leadership to carry out the organizational tasks of pursuing conflict
(IV-C).Marx emphasized (shown in Proposition V) that, once deprived groups
possess a unifying ideology and political leadership, their true interests begin
to take on clear focus and their opposition to superordinates begins to
increase-polarizing the interests and goals of superordinates and subordinates.
As polarization increases, the possibilities for reconciliation, compromise, or
mild conflict decrease because the deprived are sufficiently alienated,
organized, and unified to press for a complete change in the pattern of
resource distribution.As Proposition VI underscores, subordinates begin to
see violent confrontation as the only way to overcome the inevitable resistance
of superordinates. Finally, Marx noted (shown in Proposition Ⅶ) that violent
conflict will cause great changes in patterns of social organization, especially
its distribution of scarce resources. The propositions in Table 10.1 are stated
much more abstractly than Marx would have considered appropriate, but his
ideas began to tilter back into contemporary sociology in tiffs form. As theorists
sought explanations for the forces generating conflict and change, they
implicitly drew from Marx this image of society as filled with conflicts of
interests in the distribution of scarce resources, with inequality in the
distribution of valued resources setting into motion the mobilization of the
subordinates to pursue conflict against superordinates. Yet, few borrowed only
from Marx; as conflict theories came to the forefront in sociology during the
1950s and 1960s, both Max Weber and Georg Simmel were also consulted.
Max Weber was implicity critical of Marx's theory of conflict, arguing that the
unfolding of history is contingent on specific empirical conditions. Conflicts of
interests do not, Weber believed, inexorably cause the revolutionary
crescendo described by Marx. Yet, like Marx, Weber developed a theory of
conflict, and despite a convergence in their theories, Weber saw conflict as
highly contingent on the emergence of"charismatic leaders" who could
mobilize subordinates. Unlike Marx, Weber saw the emergence of such
leaders as far from inevitable, and hence, revolutionary conflict would not
always be produced in systems of inequality Nonetheless, when Weber's
implicit propositions shown in Table 10.2 are compared with those of Mare in
Table 10.1,considerable overlap is evident.
Most of the principles in Table 10.2 can be found in Weber's discussion of
the transition from societies based on traditional authority to those organized
around rational-legal authority. In societies where the sanctity of tradition
legitimates political and social activity, the withdrawal of legitimacy from these
traditions is a crucial condition of conflict, as is emphasized in Proposition I of
Table10.2. What, then, causes subordinates to withdraw legitimacy? As
indicated in Proposition Ⅱ-A, one cause is a high degree of correlation among
power, wealth, and prestige or, in Weber's terms, among positions of political
power (party), occupancy in advantaged economic positions (class), and
membership in high-ranking social circles (status groups). When economic
elites, for example, are also social and political elites, and vice versa, then
those who are excluded from power, wealth, and political become resentful
and receptive to conflict alternatives. Another condition (Proposition Ⅱ-B) is
dramatic discontinuity in the distribution of rewards, or the existence of large
gaps in social hierarchies that give great privilege to some and very little to
other. When only a few hold power, wealth, and prestige and the rest are
denied these rewards, tensions and resentments exist. Such resentments
become a further inducement for those without power, prestige, and wealth to
withdraw legitimacy from those who hoard these resources. A final condition
(Proposition ⅡC) is low rates of social mobility. When those of low rank have
little chance to move up social hierarchies or to enter a new class, party, or
status group, then resentments accumulate. Those denied opportunities to
increase their access to resources become restive and unwilling to accept the
system of traditional authority.
Chapter 10
Table 10.2 Weber's Abstracted Propositions on Conflict Processes
Ⅰ. Subordinates are more likely to pursue conflict with superordinates when
they withdraw legitimacy from political authority.
Ⅱ. Subordinates are more likely to withdraw legitimacy from political authority
A. The correlation among memberships in class, status group, and
political hierarchies is high.
B. The discontinuity or degrees of inequality in t he resource distributions
within social hierarchies is high.
C. Rates of social mobility up social hierarchies of power, prestige, and
wealth are low.
Ⅲ. Conflict between superordinates and subordinates~ becomes~ more likely
when charismatic leaders can mobilize resentments of subordinates.
Ⅳ. When charismatic leaders are successful in conflict, pressures mount to
routinize authority through new systems of rules and administration.
Ⅴ. As a system of rules and administrative authority is imposed, the more
likely are conditionsⅡ-A,Ⅱ-B, andⅡ-C to be met, and hence, the more likely
are new subordinates to withdraw legitimacy from political authority and to
pursue conflict with the new subordinates, especially when new traditional and
ascriptive forms of political domination are imposed by elites.
As stressed in Proposition Ⅲ in Table 10.2, the critical force that
galvanizes the resentments inhering in these three conditions is charisma.
Weber felt that whether or not charismatic leaders emerge is, to a great extent,
a matter of historical chance, but if such leaders do emerge to challenge
traditional authority and to mobilize resentments caused by the hoarding of
resources by elites and the lack of opportunities to gain access to wealth,
power, or prestige, then conflict and structural change can occur.
When successful, however, such leaders confront organizational
problems of consolidating their gains. As stated in Proposition IV, one result is
that charisma becomes routinized as leaders create formal rules, procedures,
and structures for organizing followers after their successful mobilization to
pursue conflict. And, as is emphasized in Proposition V, if routinization creates
new patterns of ascription-based inequalities, thus emoting a new system of
traditional authority, renewed conflict can be expected as membership in class,
status, and party becomes highly correlated, as the new elites hoard resources,
and as social mobility up hierarchies is blocked. Yet, if rational-legal
routidization occurs, authority is based on equally applied laws and rules, and
performance and ability become the basis for recruitment and promotion in
bureaucratic structures. Under these conditions, conflict potential will be
Unlike Marx, who tended to overemphasize the economic basis of
inequality and to argue for a simple polarization of societies into propertied and
nonpropertied (exploited) classes, Weber's Propositions I and II show more
theoretical options. Weber believed that variations in the distribution of power,
wealth, and prestige arid the extent to which holders of one resource control
the other resources become critical. Unlike Marx, who saw this correlation as
inevitable, Weber saw more diverse relations among class, status, and party.
Moreover, the degree of discontinuity in the distribution of these resources--in
other words, the extent to which there are clear gaps and lines demarking
privilege and nonprivilege-can also vary. Unlike Max,Weber did not see the
complete polarization of superordinates and subordinates as inexorable.
Finally, the degree of mobility--the chance to gain access to power, wealth, and
prestige-becomes a crucial variable in generating the resentments and
tensions that make people prone to conflict; unlike Marx, Weber did not see a
drop in mobility rates as always accompanying inequality
In addition to the propositions in Table 10-2, which pertain primarily to
intra-societal conflict processes, Weber developed theoretical ideas on
inter-societal processes. Because conflict between societies is. as Herbert
Spencer recognized early in his work, a basic condition of human societies that
have settled in territories and developed political leadership, it is not surprising
that Weber also analyzed intersocietal conflict, or the "geopolitics" between
societies. This emphasis has been a prominent theme in the dramatic revival
of historical sociology in both its neo-Marxian and neo-Weberian forms and will
be explored in later chapter. Weber believed the degree of legitimacy
accorded political authority within a system very much depends on that
authority's capacity to generate prestige in the wider geopolitical system, or
what today we might term "world system'Thus, withdrawal of legitimacy is not
just the result of conditionsⅡ-A, B. and C in Table 10.2; legitimacy also
depends on the "success" and "prestige" of a state in relation to other states.
Political legitimacy is a precarious situation because it relies on the
capacity of political authority to meet the needs among system members for
defense and attack against external enemies, even during periods of relative
peace. Without this sense of "threat" and a corresponding "success" in dealing
with this threat, legitimacy lessens. Weber did not argue that legitimacy is
always necessary for superordinates to dorminate; indeed, there are periods of
apathy among members of a population, supported by tradition and routine.
There can also be periods of coercive force by superordinates to quell potential
rebellion, Nor did Weber argue that "external enemies" must always be present
to keep legitimacy revved up; rather, internal conflicts that pose threats can
also give legitimacy to political authority. Thus, the very processes that might
lead some to withdraw legitimacy and initiate conflict under charismatic
leadership can sometimes bolster the legitimacy of political authority, if enough
other groupings in a society feel threatened. Indeed, Weber argued, political
authorities often stir up internal or external "enemies" as a ploy for increasing
their legitimacy and power to control the distribution of resources.
But the attention of those with political authority to the external system is
Chapter 10
not always political. Prestige, per se, can motivate some groupings to
encourage military and other forms of contact with other societies. More
important, however, are economic interests. Those economic interests colonial
and booty capitalists, privileged traders, financial dealers, arms exporters,
and the like--who rely on the state to sustain their viability encourage foreign
military expansion, whereas those economic interests that rely on market
dynamics and free trade will usually resist military expansionism because it
can hurt domestic productivity, or profits in external markets. Instead, these
interests will encourage co-optive efforts through trade relations and market
dependencies of external populations on commodities and services provided
by these interests.
Table 10.3 Weber's Abstracted Propositions on Geopolitics and Conflict
Ⅰ. The capacity of political authority to dominate a society depends on its
Ⅱ The more those with power can sustain a sense of prestige and success
in relations with external societies, the greater will be the capacity of leaders to
be viewed as legitimate.
Ⅲ. When productive sectors of a society depend on political authority for their
viability, they encourage political authority to engage in military expansion to
augment their interests. When successful, such expansion increases the
prestige and, hence, the legitimacy of political authority.
Ⅳ. When productive sectors do not depend on the state for their viability, they
encourage political authority to rely on co-optation rather than on military
expansion, and when successful, such co-optation increases prestige and,
hence, the legitimacy of political authority.
Ⅴ. The more those with power can create a sense of threat from external
forces, the greater is their capacity to be viewed as legitimate.
Ⅵ. The more those with power ran create a sense of threat among the
majority by internal conflict with a minority, the greater is their capacity to be
viewed as legitimate,
Ⅶ, When political authority cannot sustain a sense of legitimacy, it becomes
vulnerable to outbreaks of internal conflict, and when political authority loses
prestige n the external system, it loses legitimacy and becomes more
vulnerable to internal conflict.
Table10,3 presents Weber's argument in mote abstract terms; these
propositions supplement those in Table 10.2 where Weber sees the loss of
legitimacy as increasing the likelihood of conflict. The essential point is not so
much that Weber developed a mature theory but, rather, that he stimulated a
conflict approach that examined tile relationship between internal and external
conflict processes.
Georg Simmel was committed to developing theoretical statements that
captured the form of basic social processes, an approach he labeled formal
sociology Primarily through his own observations, Simmel sought to extract the
essential properties from processes and events in a wide variety of empirical
contexts. In turn, abstract statements about these essential properties could be
Table 1 0.4 Simmel's Abstracted Propositions on Conflict Processes
Ⅰ. The level of violence in conflict increases when
A. The parties to the conflict have a high degree of emotional
involvement, which, in turn, is related to the respective levels of solidarity
among parties to the conflict.
B. The membership of each conflict party perceives the conflict to
transcend their individual self-interests, which, in turn, is related to the extent
to which the conflict is about value-infused issues.
Ⅱ The level of violence in conflict is reduced when the conflict is instrumental
and perceived by the conflict parties to be a means to clear-cut and delimited
Ⅲ Conflict will generate the following among the parties to a conflict:
A. Clear group boundaries.
B. Centralization of authority and power.
C. Decreased tolerance of deviance and dissent.
D. Increased internal solidarity among memberships of each party, but
particularly for members of minority parties and for groups engaged in self
Ⅳ. Conflict wig have integrative consequences for the social whole when
A. Conflict is frequent, low in intensity, and low in violence, which, in turn,
allows disputants to release hostilities.
B, Conflict occurs in a system whose members and subunits reveal high
levels of functional interdependence, which, in turn, encourages the creation of
normative agreements to regulate the conflict so that the exchange of
resources is not disrupted.
C. Conflict produces coalitions among various conflicting parties.
Much like Marx, Simmel viewed conflict as ubiquitous and, hence, subject
to analysis in formal terms. In his most famous essay on conflict, Simmnel
devoted considerable effort to analyzing the positive consequences of conflict
for the maintenance of social wholes and their subunits. Simmel recognized, of
course, that an overly cooperative, consensual, and integrated society would
show "no life process;' but his analysis of conflict is still loaded in the direction
of how conflict promotes solidarity and unification. Thus. unlike Marx, who saw
conflict as ultimately becoming violent and revolutionary and leading to the
structural change of the system, Simmel quite often analyzed the opposite
phenomena--less intense and violent conflicts that promote the solidarity,
integration, and orderly change.
Chapter 10
Simmel's key ideas on the violence of conflict are summarized in Table
10.4. PropositionⅠ-A somewhat overlaps those developed by Marx. Like Marx,
Simmel emphasized that violent conflict is the result of emotional arousal.
Such arousal is particularly likely when conflict groups possess a great deal of
internal solidarity. As shown in PropositionⅠ-B, Simmel indicated that, coupled
with emotional arousal, the extent to which members see the conflict as
transcending their personal aims and self-interests increses the likelihood of
violent conflict, proposition Ⅱ is Simmel's most important because it contra
diets Marx's hypothesis that objective consciousness of interests will lead to
organization for violent conflict. Simmel argued that the more clearly
articulated are the interests of conflict parties, the more clear-cut and focused
are their goals; with clearly articulated goals, less combative means, such as
bargaining and compromise, are more likely to be used to meet the specific
objectives of the group. Thus, for Simmel, consciousness of common interests
can, under unspecified conditions, lead to highly instrumental and nonviolent
conflict. In the context of labor-management relations, for example, Simmel's
proposition is more accurate than Marx's prediction because violence has
more often accompanied labor-management disputes in the initial formation of
unions, when interests and goals are not well articulated. As interests become
citified, violent conflict has been increasingly replaced by less violent forms of
social negotiation.
The consequences of conflict for (1) the conflict parties and (2) the
systemic whole in which the conflict occurs are summarized in Propositions Ⅲ
and 1V Propositions Ⅲ-A, B, C, and D summarize Simmel's ideas about the
functions of conflict for the respective parties to the conflict. Conflict increases
the formation of clear-cut group boundaries, the centralization of authority,
the control of deviance and dissent, and the enhancement of social solidarity
within conflict parties.
Proposition Ⅳ on the consequences of conflict for the social whole,
provides an important qualification to Marx's analysis. Marx visualized initially
mild conflicts as intensifying as the combatants become increasingly polarized,
ultimately resulting in violent conflict that would lead to radical social change
in the system. In contrast, Simmel argued that conflicts of low intensity and
high frequency in systems of high degrees of interdependence do not
necessarily intensify or lead to radical social change. On the contrary, these
conflicts release tensions and become normatively regulated, thereby
promoting stability in social systems. Further, with the increasing organization
of the conflicting groups, and the formation of coalitions among conflict groups,
violence will decrease as their goals become better articulated. The
consequence of such organization and articulation of interests will be a greater
disposition to initiate milder forms of conflict, involving competition,
bargaining, and compromise.
Ralf Dahrendorf's Dialectical Theory
For the first halt-of the twentieth century, the conflict ideas contained in the
German masters had not been explicitly incorporated into the mainstream of
sociological theory, especially in America. Marxist scholarship was particularly
recessive, being repressed in America by the anti-communism of the Cold
Warera. The reinvigoration of conflict theory was couched as a critique of the
excesses of functionalism, which was often accused of being a conservative
and supportive ideology of the status quo.
In the late 1950s, Rail Dahrendorf persistently argued that the Parsonian
scheme, and functionalism in general, presented an overly consensual,
integrated, and static vision of society--in his words a "utopia."13 In
Dahrendorf's view, society has two faces-one of consensus, the other of
conflict. It was time, Dahrendorf asserted, to begin analysis of society's ugly
face and abandon the utopian image created by functionalism.
The model that emerged from this theoretical calling is a dialectical conflict
perspective, which still represents one of the best efforts to incorporate the
insights of Marx~ and (to a lesser extent)Weber and Simmel into a coherent
set of theoretical propositions. Dahrendorf believed that the process of
institutionalization involves the creation of imperatively coordinated
associations (here-after referred to as ICAs) that, in criteria not
specified, represent a distinguishable organization of roles. This organization
is characterized by power relationships, with some clusters of roles having
power to extract conformity from others. Dahrendorf was somewhat vague on
tiffs point, but it appears that any social unit--from a small group or formal
organization to a community or an entire society--could be considered an ICA
for analytical purposes if an organization of roles displaying power differentials
exists. Furthermore, although power denotes the coercion of some by others,
these power relations in ICAs tend to become legitimated and can therefore be
viewed as authority relations in which some positions have the "accepted" or
"normative right" to dominate others. Dahrendorf thus conceived of the social
order as maintained by processes creating authority relations in the various
types of ICAs existing throughout all layers of social systems.
At the same time, however, power and authority are the scarce resources
over which subgroups within a designated ICA compete and fight. They are
thus the major sources of conflict and change in these institutionalized patterns.
Tiffs conflict is ultimately a reflection of where clusters of roles in an ICA stand
in relation to authority, because the "objective interests" inherent ha any role
are a direct function of whether that role possesses authority and power over
other roles. However, even though roles in ICAs possess varying degrees of
authority, any particular ICA can be typified as just two basic types of roles,
ruling and ruled. The ruling cluster of roles has an interest in preserving the
status quo, and the ruled cluster has an interest in redistributing power, or
authority. Those who are ruled constitute only a quasi group because they are
not fully aware of their interests to challenge the system of authority, nor are
Chapter 10
they organized to pursue conflict with those in authority.
Under certain specified conditions, however, awareness of these
contradictory interests increases, with the result that ICAs polarize into two
conflict groups, each now aware of its objective interests, which then engage in
a contest for authority. The resolution of this contest or conflict involves the
redistribution of authority in the ICA, thus making conflict the source of change
in social systems. In turn, the redistribution of authority represents the
institutionalization of a new cluster of ruling and ruled roles that, under certain
conditions, polarize into two interest groups that initiate another contest for
authority. Social reality is thus typified by this unending cycle of conflict over
authority within the various types of ICAs that constitute the social world.
In Dahrendorf's theoretical scheme, the key variables are (1) the degree of
conflict-group formation, (2) the degree of intensity of the conflict, (3) the
degree of violence of the conflict, (4) the degree of change of social structure,
and (5) the rate of such change. As is evident in Table 8.5, Dahrendorf's
propositions appear to he an elaboration of those developed by Marx, but with
some important qualifications. Like Marx, Dahrendorf saw conflict as related to
subordinates' growing awareness of their interests and formation into conflict
groups (Proposition I). Such awareness and group formation are a positive
function of the degree to which (a) the technical conditions (leadership and
unifying ideology), (b) the political conditions (capacity to organize), and (c) the
social conditions (ability to communicate) are met. These ideas clearly come
from Marx's
shown in Proposition Ⅱ ,
Dahrendorf borrows from Simmel and contradicts Marx, emphasizing that if
groups are not well organized--that is, if the technical, political, and social
conditions are not met--then conflict is likely to he emotionally involving. Then
Dahrendorf borrow from Weber (Proposition Ⅲ ) by stressing that the
superimposition of rewards--that is, the degree of correlation among those who
enjoy privilege (power, wealth, and prestige) also increases the emotional
involvement of subordinates who pursue conflict. Proposition Ⅳ shows that
Dahrendorf also takes as much from Weber as from Marx. Dahrendoff
heheved that the lack of mobility into positions of authority escalates the
emotional involvement of subordinates. Proposition V is clearly from Simmel
and contradicts Marx, in that the violence of conflict is related to the lack of
organization and clear articulation of interests. But in Proposition VI,
Dahrendorf returns to Marx's emphasis that sudden escalation in people's
perception of deprivation--that is, relative deprivation--increases the likelihood
of violent conflict. In Proposition VII, however, Dahrendorf returns to Simmel
and argues that violence is very much related to the capacity of a system to
develop regulatory procedures for dealing with grievances and releasing
tension. And in PropositionsⅧ and Ⅸ, Dahrendoff moves again to Marx's
emphasis on how conflict produces varying rates and degrees of structural
change in a social system.
Dahrendorf was not the first conflict theorist of the midcentury, but he
soon became the most influential. Primarily because of his attack on Parsodian
functionalism, he gained wide notoriety and, hence, a receptive audience for
his reanalysis of Marx, which incorporated important qualifications from
Simmel and Weber. Orthodox Marxists were very critical of Dahrendrf's
abstract and analytical approach because in their view Dahrendoff had taken
much of the substance out of Marx's analysis. Dahrendoff had stripped Marx,
in their view, of the very concepts that made Marx's approach so
important--concepts like proletariat, bourgeoisie, capitalism, exploitation, value
theory of labor, and the like. Still, Dahrendorf did liberate conflict theory from
Marxian parochialism, making it appealing to a wider sociological audience. At
the same time that Marxists were criticizing Dahrendofli, another conflict
theorist--Lewis Coser--with more sympathy for functional sociology was
proposing a less extreme alternative to dialectical approaches. Drawing more
from SimmeI than Marx, Coser proposed a functional theory of conflict.
Table 10.5 Dahrendorf's Abstract Propositions
Ⅰ Conflict is likely to occur as members of quasi groups in ICAs can
become aware of their objective interests and form a conflict group, which, in
turn, are related to
A. The technical conditions of organization which, in turn, depend on
1, The formation of a leadership cadre among quasi groups,
2. The codification of an idea system, or charter.
B. The political conditions of organization, which are dependent on
dominant groups permitting organization of opposed interests.
C. The social conditions of organization, which, in turn, are related to
1. Opportunities for members of quasi groups to communicate.
2. Opportunities for recruiting member.
Ⅱ. The less the technical, political, and social conditions of organization are
met, the more~ intense the conflict will be.
Ⅲ The more the distribution of authority and other rewards are associated
with each other (superimposed), the more intense the conflict will be.
Ⅳ. The less the mobility between super- and subordinate groups, the more
intense the conflict will be.
Ⅴ, The less the technical, political, and social conditions or organizations
are met, the more violent the conflict will be.
Ⅵ The more the deprivation of the subjugated in the distribution of rewards
shifts from an absolute to a relative basis, the more violent the conflict will be.
Ⅶ The less is the ability of conflict groups to develop regulatory agreements,
the more violent the conflict will be.
Ⅷ, The more intense is the conflict, the more will be the degree of structural
change and reorganization,
Ⅸ The more intense is the conflict, the more will be the degree of structural
change and reorganization.
Lewis Coser's Conflict Functionalism
Lewis Coser published a major work on conflict before Ralf Dahrendorf did.Yet,
Chapter 10
because this work had a functional flavor and borrowed from Simmel more
than Marx, it was not initially seen as a devastating critique of functionalism in
quite the same way as Dahrendofli's early polemic. Still, in his more functional
version of conflict theory, Coser launched what became the standard polemic
against functionalism: Conflict is not given sufficient attention, and related
phenomena such as deviance and dissent are too easily viewed "pathological"
for the equilibrium of the social system. Although Coser consistently
maintained that functional theorizing "has too often neglected the dimensions
of power and interest," he did not follow either Marx's or Dahrendorf's
emphasis on the disruptive consequences of violent conflict.
Table 10.6 Coser's propositions on the Causes of Conflict
Ⅰ Subordinate members in a system of inequality are more likely to initiate
con filet as they question the legitimacy of the existing distribution of scarce
resources, which, in turn, is caused by
A. Few channels for redressing grievances.
B. Low rates of mobility to more privileged positions.
Ⅱ Subordinates are most likely to initiate conflict with superordinates as their
sense of relative deprivation and, hence, injustice increases, which, in turn, is
related to
A. The extent to which socialization experiences of subordinates do not
generate internal ego constraints.
B. The failure of superordinates to apply external constraints on
Rather, Coser sought to correct Dahrendorf's analytical excesses by
emphasizing the integrative and "adaptability" functions of conflict for social
systems, Thus, Coser justified his efforts by criticizing functionalism for
ignoring conflict and by criticizing conflict theory for underemphasizing the
functions of conflict. In so doing, he turned to Georg Simmel's view of conflict
as promoting social integration of the social systems, or at least of some of its
critical parts.
Coser's analysis then proceeded as follows: (1) Imbalances in the
integration of system parts lead to (2) the outbreak of varying types of conflict
among these parts, which in turn causes (3) temporary reintegration of the
system. which leads to (4) increased flexibility in the system's structure,
increased capability to resolve future imbalances though conflict, and
increased capacity to adapt to changing conditions. Coser executed this
approach by developing, at least implicitly in Iris discursive argument, a variety
of propositions that are extracted and presented in Tables 10.6 through 10.10.
He began with the causes of conflict (Table 10.6), turned to the issue of
violence in conflict (Table 10.7), moved next to the duration of conflict (Table
10.8), and finally explored the functions of conflict (Tables 10.9 and 10.10).
Much like Weber, Coser emphasized (shown in proposition I of Table
10.6) that the withdrawal of legitimacy from an existing system of inequality is a
critical precondition for conflict.19 In contrast, dialectical theorists such as
Dahrendoff tended to view the causes of conflict as residing in "contradictions"
or "conflicts of interest)' In such dialectical theories, as subordinates become
aware of their interests, they pursue conflict; hence, the major theoretical task
is to specify the conditions raising levels of awareness. But Coser argued that
conflicts of interest are likely to be exposed only after the deprived withdraw
legitimacy. Coser emphasized that the social order is maintained by some
degree of consensus over existing sociocultural arrangements and that
"disorder" through conflict occurs only when conditions decrease tiffs
consensus. Two such conditions are specified in Propositions ⅠA and Ⅰ-B of
Table 10.6, both of which owe their inspiration more to Weber than to Marx.
When channels for expressing grievances do not exist and when the
deprived's desire for membership in higher ranks is thwarted, the withdrawal of
legitimacy becomes more likely.
Table 10.7 Coser's Propositions on the Violence of Conflict
Ⅰ. When groups engage in conflict over realistic issues (obtainable goals),
they are more likely to seek compromises over the means to realize their
interests, and hence, the less violent the conflict will be.
Ⅱ, When groups engage in conflict over nonrealistic issues, the greater is the
level of emotional arousal and involvement in the conflict, and hence, the more
violent the conflict will he, especially when
A, Conflict occurs over core values,
B. Conflict endures over time.
Ⅲ. When functional interdependence among social units is low. the less
available are the institutional means for absorbing conflicts and tensions, and
hence, the more violent the conflict will be.
As Proposition Ⅱin Table 10.6 indicates, the withdrawal of legitimacy, in
itself, is not likely to result in conflict. People must first become emotionally
amused. The theoretical task then becomes one of specifying the conditions
that translate the withdrawal of legitimacy into emotional arousal, instead of
some other emotional state such as apathy and resignation. Here Coser drew
inspiration from Marx's notion of relative deprivation. For. as Marx observed
and as several empirical studies have documented, absolute deprivation does
not always foster revolt, When people's expectations for a better future
suddenly begin to exceed perceived avenues for realizing these expectations,
only then do they become sufficiently aroused to pursue conflict. The level of
arousal will, in turn, he influenced by their commitments to the existing sys tem,
by the degree to which they have developed strong internal constraints, and
by the nature and amount of social control in a system. Such proposition, for
example, lead to predictions that, in systems with absolute dictators who
ruthlessly repress the masses, revolt by the masses is less likely than in
Chapter 10
systems where some freedoms have been granted and where the deprived
have been led to believe that things will be getting better. Under these
conditions the withdrawal of legitimacy can be accompanied by released
passions and emotions.
Coser's most important propositions on the level of violence in a conflict are
presented in Table 10.7. As most functional theorists emphasized. Coser's
Proposition I in Table10.7 is directed at specifying the conditions under which
conflict will be less violent. In contrast, dialectical theorists, such as Marx,
often pursued just the opposite: specifying the conditions under which conflict
will be more violent. Yet, the inverse of Coser's first proposition can indicate a
condition under which conflict will be violent. The key concept in this
proposition is "realistic issues." Coser reasoned that realistic conflict involves
the pursuit of specific aims against real sources of hostility, with some
estimation of the costs to be incurred in such pursuit. As noted earlier, Simmel
recognized that, when clear goals are sought, compromise and conciliation are
likely alternatives to violence. Coser restated this proposition (shown in
PropositionⅡ in Table 10.7) on conflict over "nonrealistic issues," such as
ultimate values, beliefs, ideology, and vaguely defined class interests. When
non-realistic, the conflict will be violent. Such non-realism is particularly likely
when conflict is about core values, which emotionally mobilize participants and
make them unwilling to compromise (Proposition Ⅱ-A). Moreover, if conflict
endures for a long time, it becomes increasingly nonrealistic as parties
become emotionally involved, as ideologies become codified, and as "the
enemy" is portrayed in increasingly negative terms (Proposition Ⅱ -B).
Proposition Ⅲshows a more structural variable to the analysis of conflict
violence. In systems in which there are high degrees of functional
interdependence among actor--that is, where there are mutual exchanges
and cooperation--conflict is less likely to be violent.
Table 10.8 Coser's Propositions on the Duration of Conflict
Ⅰ. Conflict will be prolonged when
A. The goals of the opposing parties to a conflict are expansive.
B. The degree of consensus over the goals of conflict is low.
C. The parties in a conflict cannot easily interpret their adversary's symbolic
points of victory and defeat.
Ⅱ. Conflict will be shortened when
A. Leaders of conflicting parties perceive that complete attainment of goals
is possible only at very high costs, which, in turn, is related to
1. The equality of the power between conflicting groups.
2. The clarity of indexes of defeat or victory in a conflict,
B. Leaders' capacity to persuade followers to terminate conflict which, in
turn, is related to
1. Centralization of power in conflict parties.
2. Integration within conflict parties.
As shown in the propositions of Table 10.8, Coser underscored that
conflicts with a broad range of goals or with vague goals will be prolonged,
When goals are bruited and articulated, it is possible to know when they have
been attained. With perception of attainment, the conflict can be terminated.
Conversely, with a wide variety or long list of goals, a sense of attainment is
less likely to occur-thus prolonging the conflict. Coser also emphasized that
knowledge of what would symbolically constitute victory and defeat will
influence the length of conflict. If the parties do not have the ability to recognize
defeat or victory, conflict is likely to lie prolonged to a point where one party
destroys the other. Leadership has important effects on conflict processes; the
more leaders can perceive that complete attainment of goals is not possible
and the greater their ability is to convince followers to terminate conflict, the
less prolonged the conflict will be.
Table 10.9 Coser's Propositions on the Functions of Conflict for the
Respective Parties
Ⅰ The more violent or intense is the conflict, the more the conflict will
A. clear-cut boundaries for each conflict party,
B. Centralized decision-making structures for each conflict party,
especially when these parties are structurally differentiated.
C. Structural and ideological solidarity among members of each conflict
party, especially when the conflict is perceived to affect the welfare of all
segments of the conflict parties.
D. Suppression of dissent and deviance within each conflict party as well
as forced conformity to norms and values.
Ⅱ . The more conflict between parties leads centers of power to force
conformity within conflict groups, the greater is the accumulation of hostilities
and the more likely is internal group conflict to surface in the long run.
Coser divided his analysis of the functions of conflict along lines similar to
those by Simmel: the functions of conflict for (1) the respective parties to the
conflict, and (2) the systemic whole in which the conflict occurs. In the
propositions listed in Table 10.9, the intensity of conflict--that is, people's
involvement in and commitment to pursue the conflict--and its level of violence
increase the demarcation of boundaries (PropositionⅠ-A), centralization of
authority (Proposition Ⅰ-B), structural and ideological solidarity (Proposition
Ⅰ-C), and suppression of dissent and deviance (Proposition Ⅰ-D) within each
of the conflict parties. Conflict intensity is presumably functional because it
increases integration, although centralization of power as well the suppression
of deviance and dissent create malintegrative pressures in the long run (see
PropositionⅡ). Thus, there appears to be an inherent dialectic in conflict-group
unification-one that creates pressures toward disunification. Unfortunately,
Coser did not specify the conditions under which these malintegrative
Chapter 10
pressures are likely to surface. In focusing on positive functions—that is,
forces promoting integration--the analysis ignored a promising area of inquiry.
This bias becomes even more evident when Coser shifts attention to the
functions of conflict for the systemic whole within which the conflict occurs.
These propositions are listed in Table 10.10.
Table 10.10 Coser's propositions on the Functions of Conflict for the
Social Whole
Ⅰ. The more differentiated and functionally interdependent are the units in a
system. the more likely is conflict to be frequent but of low degrees of intensity
and violence.
Ⅱ. The lower are the intensity and violence of conflicts, the more likely are
conflicts to
A, Increase the level of innovation and creativity of system units.
B. Release hostilities before they polarize system units.
C. Promote normative regulation of conflict relations.
D. Increase awareness of realistic issues.
E. increase the number of associative coalitions among social units
Ⅲ The more conf ct promotes Ⅱ-A throughⅡ-E the greater will he the level of
internal social integration of the system who ~ and the greater will be its
capacity to adapt to its external environment.
Coser's propositions are not presented in their full complexity in Table
10.10, but the essentials of his analysis are clear. In PropositionⅠ, complex
systems that have a large number of interdependencies and exchanges are
more likely to have frequent conflicts that are less emotionally involving and
violent than conflicts in those systems that are less complex and in which
tensions accumulate. The nature of interdependence, Coser argued, causes
conflicts to erupt frequently, but, because they emerge periodically, emotions
do not build to the point that violence is inevitable. Conversely, systems in
which there are low degrees of functional interdependence will often polarize
into hostile camps; when conflict does erupt, it wig be intense and violent, In
Proposition Ⅱ, frequent conflicts of low intensity and violence are seen to
have certain positive functions, First, such frequent and low-intensity conflicts
will force those in conflict to reassess and reorganize their actions (Proposition
Ⅱ-A). Second, these conflicts will release tensions and hostilities before they
build to a point where adversaries become polarized around nonrealistic
issues (proposition Ⅱ-B). Third, frequent conflicts of low intensity and violence
encourage the development of normative procedures--laws, courts, mediating
agencies, and the like to regulate tensions (Proposition Ⅱ-C). Fourth, these
kinds of conflicts also increase a sense of realism over what the conflict is
about. That is, frequent conflicts in which intensity and violence are kept under
control allow conflict parties to articulate their interests and goals, thereby
allowing them to bargain and compromise (PropositionⅡ-D). Fifth, conflicts
promote coalitions among units that are threatened by the action of one party
or another. If conflicts are frequent and have low intensity and violence, such
coalitions come and go, thereby promoting flexible alliances (Proposition Ⅱ-E).
If conflicts are infrequent and emotions accumulate, however, coalitions often
polarize threatened parties into ever more hostile camps, with the result that,
when conflict does occur, it is violent. And Proposition Ⅲ simply states
Coser's functional conclusion that, when conflicts are frequent and when
violence and intensity are reduced, conflict will promote flexible coordination
within the system and increased capacity to adjust and adapt to environmental
circumstances. This increase in flexibility and adaptation is possible because
of the processes listed in PropositionⅡ-A throughⅡ-E.
Coser borrowed and extended Georg Simmel's initial insights. In its time,
Coser's functionalism represented an important corrective to more Marxian
inspired dialectical approaches. None of Coser's ideas needed to be
expressed in the language of functionalism, but the tactic was successful and
enabled Coser to postulate an alternative to Marxian sociology. Today,
Coser's and Simmel's ideas are incorporated into views of conflict processes
that have abandoned the language of functionalism, and it is difficult to see an
explicitly functional emphasis in any contemporary conflict theory.
Dahrendorf's critique ofTalcott Parsons's functional approach was, for its
time,a classic. Coser's more functional approach, borrowing from Simmel, has
had a less enduring impact. But both Coser's and Dahrendorf's work indicated
that theorizing in sociology was about to change. In particular, Dahrendorf's
critique signaled the beginning of the end to the dominance of functional
theorizing, and it ushered in a new era of conflict theorizing. For a time,
virtually all theorizing seemed to call itself a "conflict" approach, and indeed,
conflict theory in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to become almost as
hegemonic as functionalism had been in the 1950s and 1960s. All this
overemphasis on conflict eventually receded, but from this exuberance about
rediscovering that the social world is filled with conflict, several important
streams of theorizing emerged. We will focus primarily on wends inspired by
Marx and Weber, whose work sill] informs all theorizing in sociology In the area
of conflict sociology, this influence is even more dramatic.
Chapter 11
Chapter11: Critical Theory
Early Critical Theory
Jurgen Habermas’s Critical Theory:
The Reconceptualization of Action and Rationality
The Lifeworld and System Processes of Society
Evolutionary Dynamics and Societal Crises
Early Critical Theory
Virtually all early sociologists were influenced by a broad intellectual
movement, often termed "The Enlightenment," which grew out of both the
Renaissance, later, the Age of Science in the seventeenth century, The
Enlightenment still inspires thinkers, in at least two respects. First, the social
universe has often been seen as "progressing," moving from one stage of
development to another. To be sure, theorists have disagreed about the
stages, and many have had doubts about the notion of "progress," but it
would be hard to deny that sociologists see directional movement of society
or world systems as a central theme. A second legacy from The
Enlightenment has been the belief that science can be used to further social
progress. As with the idea of progress, this faith in science has not been
universal, but even those who have doubted that science is the key to social
progress still tend to believe that analysis of the human condition and its
pathologies can be used for human betterment.
These two points of emphasis from The Enlightenment were part of a
more general effort to come to terms with what is often termed "modernity" or
the transformations associated with the rise of commerce and industrial
capitalism from the debris of the old feudal order. Indeed, the central problem
for all early sociologists was to understand the dramatic transformations of
the social order being caused by the expansion of commerce and markets,
the industrialization of production, the urbanization of labor, the decline of
cohesive and local communities, the rise of the bureaucratic state, the
decreasing salience of sacred symbols as a result of expanding secular law
and science, the conflicts among new social classes, and many other
disruptive transformations. These were changes that early theorists sought to
comprehend. Some were pessimistic and worried about what was occurring;
others were optimistic about the new modern age; still others believed that
things would get better after the current turmoil subsided. But no one who
was considered a serious social thinker could ignore "modernity."
Critical theorizing in all its forms enters this old debate about modernity
from a number of different directions. As the name implies, most theorists in
this "critical" tradition view industrial capitalism in negative terms, and some
have even posited a new stage of history, "postmodernity," which is similarly
viewed in a negative light. Almost all critical theorists disparage the optimism
of The Enlightenment, seeing the use of science for constructing a better
society as naive, as pursuit of an illusion, or even as harmful. For most,
science is part of a broader culture of commerce and capitalism, which,
critical theorists believe, are the cause of the problems in the modern or
postmodern era, rather than part of their solution. Yet, ironically, these very
same critics often appear to be figures of The Enlightenment because they
address the very same problems of the earlier Enlightenment-inspired
theorists, because they use analysis and reason to pronounce the problems
of the modern or postmodern era. And because they often propose solutions
to the ills of the current era even as they drown their pronouncements in
pessimism. True, most critical theorists maintain a hearty disdain for science
and the implicit Enlightenment projects of theories examined in earlier
chapters, but they have not escaped the mood, tone, and problematic issues
of The Enlightenment.
In 1846, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels completed The German Ideology,
which was initially turned down by the publisher} Much of this work is an
attack on the "Young Hegelians," who were advocates of the German
philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831), and is of little interest today, Yet this
attack contained certain basic ideas that have served as the impetus behind
"critical theory," or the view that social theory must be critical of oppressive
arrangements and propose emancipatory alternatives. This theme exists, of
coupe, in all of Marx's work, but the key elements of contemporary critical
theory are most evident in this first statement.
Marx criticized the Young Hegelians severely because he had once been
one of them and was now making an irrevocable break. Marx saw the
Hegelians as hopeless idealists, in the philosophical sense. That is, they saw
the world as~ reflective of ideas, with the dynamics of social life revolving
around consciousness and other cognitive processes by which "ideal
essences" work their magic on humans. Marx~ saw this emphasis on the
"reality of ideas" as nothing more than a conservative ideology that supports
people's oppression by the material forces of their existence. His alternative
was "to stand Hegel on his head," but in this early work there is still an
emphasis on the relation between consciousness and self-reflection, on the
one hand, and social reality, on the other. This dualism became central to
contemporary critical theory
Actually, Marx's "standing of Hegel on his head" has been reversed by
Chapter 11
some contemporary theorists who, in essence, have put Hegel back on his
feet Indeed, for many who commented on the condition of modernity or
post-modernity near the close of the twentieth century, the world has been
transformed into a sea of symbols that have lost anchorage in material
conditions and that have, as a result, changed the very nature of society
from one driven by control of the means of material production to one
dominated by signs and texts symbolizing little but themselves. For critical
theorists schooled in the Marian tradition, even those who call themselves
postmodernists, such arguments go too far, hut there can be little doubt that
Marx's dismissal of Hegel and the Young Hegelians was not the final word
on the place of ideas, symbols, and signs in societal evolution.
Marx was a modernist, not a postmodernist; so he want a different
direction than the Young Hegelians. Marx believed humans are unique by
virtue of their conscious awareness of themselves and their situation; they
are capable of self-reflection and, hence, assessment of their positions in
society Such consciousness arises from people's daily existence and is not a
realm of ideas that is somehow independent of the material world, as much
German philosophy argued or as later versions of postmodernism implied.
According to Marx, people produce their ideas and conceptions of the world
because of social structures in which they are born, raised, and bye.
The essence of people's lives is the process of production, because, for
Marx, human "life involves, before anything else, eating and drinking, a
habitation, clothing, and many other material things” To meet these
contingencies of life, production is necessary, but, as production satisfies one
set of needs, new needs arise and encourage alterations in the ways that
productive activity is organized. The elaboration of productive activity creates
a division of labor, which, in the end, is alienating because it increasingly
deprives humans of their capacity to control their productive activities.
Moreover, as people work, they are exploited in ways that generate private
property and capital for those who enslave them. Thus, as people work as
alienated cogs in the division of labor, they produce that which enslaves them:
private property and profits for those who control the modes and means of
production. Marx provided a more detailed discussion of the evolution of
productive forces to this capitalist stage, and like any Enlightenment thinker,
he argued that this capitalist stage would lead to a new era of human
Marx believed that the capacity to use language, to think, and to analyze
their conditions would enable humans to alter their environment. People do
not merely have to react to their material conditions in some mechanical way;
they can also use their capacities for thought and reflection to construct new
material conditions and corresponding social relations. Indeed, the coupe of
history involved such processes as people actively restructured the material
conditions of their existence. The goal of sociaI theory, Marx implicitly argued,
is to use humans' unique facility to expose those oppressive social relations
and to propose alternatives, Marx's entire career was devoted to this goal,
and this emancipatory aspect of Marx's thought forms the foundation for
critical theory, even in some of its postmodern manifestations.
Marx used the somewhat ambiguous term "praxis" to describe this
blending of theory and action. The basic notion is that action to change social
conditions generates increased knowledge that can then be used to mount
more effective change-producing action. Thus, the interplay between action
and theoretical understanding can eventually lead individuals to a better
social life. Although those with power can impose their ideologies on
subordinates and, thereby, distort the latter's perceptions of their true
interests, Marx had typical Enlightenment-inspired faith that subordinates
possessed the capacity for praxis and that they would eventually use their
capacities for agency to change the nature of modernity.
Today, contemporary critical theorists appear somewhat divided on the
question of whether analysis of modernity and postmoderdity can be used to
improve the human condition. As we will see shortly, many confronted Max
Weber's pessimism about the ever tightening "cage" of rational-legal authority
and state domination. Others sustained the emancipatory faith of Marx's
belief in praxis.
Still others emphasized an inherent force articulated in Marx's analysis
of capitalism--the capacity of money-driven markets to "commodify" all things,
symbols, and ideals as a basis for a renewed pessimism about the human
condition. To commodify means that symbols, signs, objects, cultures,
relationships, and virtually anything can be turned into a marketable thing, to
be bought and sold for a price stated in monetary terms. Hence, as capitalists
seek profits, they buy and sell not just the material objects necessary for
human survival, but they produce and sell symbols and signs that, as
commodities, lose their power to provide meaning to human life. Coupled with
information technologies that Marx could never have visualized, as well as
markets for services and cultural symbols that Marx did not fully anticipate,
the social world is now dominated by the production and distribution of signs,
symbols, texts, and other cultural commodities. This transformation has
changed the very nature of humans capacities to understand and respond
to their conditions.
Max Weber was concerned with the historical transition to modern capitalist
societies, and his description and explanation of this transition represent a
devastating critique of Marx's optimism about revolutionary movements
toward a new utopian society~ Weber's analysis is complex, and the historical
detail that he presented to document his case is impressive, but his argument
is captured by the concept of rationalization.5 Weber argued that the
rationality that defines modern societies is "means/ends rationality" and,
hence, involves a search for the most efficient means to achieve a defined
Chapter 11
end. The process of rationalization, Weber felt, involves the ever-increasing
penetration of means/ends rationality into more spheres of life, thereby
destroying older traditions. As bureaucracies expand in the economic and
governmental sphere, and as markets allow individuals to pursue their
personal ends rationally, the traditional moral fabric is broken. Weber agreed
with Georg Simmel that this rationalization of life brings individuals a new
freedom from domination by religious dogmatism, community, class, and
other traditional forces, but in their place it creates a new kind of domination
by impersonal economic forces, such as markets and corporate
bureaucracies, and by the vast administrative apparatus of the
ever-expanding state. Human options were, in Weber's view, becoming ever
more constrained by the "iron cage" of rational and legal authority Unlike
Marx, Weber did not see such a situation as rife with revolutionary potential;
rather, he saw the social world as increasingly administered by impersonal
bureaucratic forces.
This pessimistic view seemed, by the early 1930s, to be a far more
reasonable assessment of modernity than was Marx's utopian dream. Indeed,
the communist revolution in Russia had degenerated into Stalinism and
bureaucratic totalitarianism by the Communist Party; in the West, particularly
the United States, workers seemed ever more willing to sell themselves in
markets and work in large scale organizations; and political fascism in
Germany and Italy was creating large authoritarian bureaucracies. How, then,
was the first generation of critical theorists to reconcile Weber's more
accurate assessment of empirical trends with Marx's optimistic and
emancipatory vision? This became the central question of early critical theory.
The first generation of critical theorists, who are frequently referred to as the
Frankfurt School because of their location in Germany and their explicit inter
disciplinary effort to interpret the oppressive events of the twentieth century,
confronted a real dilemma: how to reconcile Marx's emancipatory dream with
the stark reality of modern society as conceptualized by Max Weber. Indeed,
when the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923, there
seemed little reason to be optimistic about developing a theoretically
informed program for freeing people from unnecessary domination. The
defeat of the left-wing working-class~ movements, the rise of fascism in the
aftermath of World War I, and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into
Stalinism had, by the I930s, made it clear that Marx's analysis needed drastic
revision. Moreover, the expansion of the state, the spread of bureaucracy,
and the emphasis on means/ends rationality through the application of
science and technology all signaled that Weber's analysis had to be
The members of the Frankfurt School wanted to maintain Man's views on
praxis--that is, a blending of theory and action or the use of theory to
stimulate action, and vice versa. And they wanted theory to expose
oppression in society and to propose less constrictive options. Yet, they were
confronted with the spread of political and economic domination of the
masses. Thus, modern critical theory in sociology was born in a time when
there was little reason to be optimistic about realizing emancipatory goals.
Three members of the Frankfurt School are most central: Gyorgy Lukacs,
Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno. Lukacs' major work appeared in the
1920s, whereas Horkheimer and Adorno were active well into the 1960s. In
many ways, Lukacs was the key link in the transition from Marx and Weber to
modern critical theory because Horkheimer and Adorno were reacting to
much of Lukacs' analysis and approach.
All these scholars are important because they directly influenced the
intellectual development and subsequent work of Jurgen Habermas, the most
prolific contemporary critical theorist, whose work is examined in the next.
Antonio Gramsci's Theory of Ideological Hegemony
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Marxist who, obviously, cannot
be considered part of the Frankfurt School. Yet, he is a key figure in
continuing what the Frankfurt School emphasized: Criticism acknowledging
that the capitalist systems of the twentieth century's midpoint were generating
prosperity and that the working classes in these systems did not seem
particularly disposed to revolution. Gramsci completed the turning of Marx's
ideas back into a more Hegelian mode. That is, rather than view ideas as
reflections of the material structure of society, much greater prominence is
given to cultural forces in determining material relations in society.
Marx believed that ideology and the "false consciousness" of workers
were ideological obfuscations created and maintained by those who
controlled the material (economic) "substructure" Marx had argued that those
who control the means and modes of production also control the state that, in
turn, generates ideologies justifying this control and power. In this way, the
proletariat is kept, for a time until the hill contradictions of capitalism are
manifest, from becoming a class "for themselves" ready to pursue
revolutionary conflict with their oppressors, Gramsci simply turned this
argument around: The "superstructure" of state and ideology drives the
organization of society and the consciousness of the population.
Gramsci believed the ruling social class is hegemonic, controlling not
only property and power, but ideology as well. Indeed, the ruling class holds
onto its power and wealth by virtue of its ability to use ideologies to
manipulate workers and all others. The state is no longer a crude tool of
coercion, nor an intrusive and insensitive bureaucratic authority; it has
become the propagator of culture and the civic education of the population,
creating and controlling key institutional systems in more indirect, unobtrusive
and, seemingly, inoffensive ways. Thus, the views of capitalists become the
dominant views of all. with workers behaving in: the appropriateness of the
market-driven systems of competition; the commodification of objects, signs,
Chapter 11
and symbols; the buying and selling of their labor; the use of law to enforce
contracts favoring the interests of the wealthy; the encouragement of private
charities, the sponsorship of clubs and voluntary organizations; the state's
conceptions of a "good citizen"; the civics curriculum of the schools; and
virtually all spheres of institutional activity that are penetrated by the ideology
of the state, Culture and ideology are, in Albert Bergesen's words "no longer
the thing to be explained a thing that does the explaining?' A
dominant material class rules, to be sure, but it does so by cultural symbols,
and the real battle in capitalist societies is over whose symbols will prevail. Or,
more accurately, can subordinates generate alternative ideologies to those
controlled by the state?
This view of critical theory takes much of the mechanical menace out of
Weber's "iron cage" metaphor because the state's control is now "soft" and
"internal?' It has bars that bend flexibly around those whose perceptions of
the world it seeks to control. The Marxian view of emancipation is still alive in
Gramsci's theories because the goal of "theory" is to expose the full extent to
which ideology has been effectively used to manipulate subordinates.
Moreover, the recognition that systems of symbols become the base of
society is a theme that resonated well with later postmodernists and
structuralists who began to conceptualize modernity as the production of
signs and symbols.
Louis Althusser's Structuralism
lnitially, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) seems more strictly orthodox in his
Marxism than does Gramsci; yet he was also a French scholar in a long line
of structuralists whose emphasis is on the logic of the deeper, underlying
structure of surface empirical reality. Althusser remains close to Marx~ in tiffs
sense: The underlying structure and logic of the economy is ultimately
determinative. But, having said this, he then developed a theory of "The
Ideological State Apparatus" which gave prominence to the state's use of
ideology to sustain control within a society
For Althusser, economic, political, and ideological systems reveal their
own structures, hidden beneath the surface and operating by their own logics.
The economic might be the dominant system, circumscribing the operation of
political and ideological structures, but these latter have a certain autonomy
History is, in essence, a reshuffling of these deep structures, and the
individual actor becomes merely a vessel through which the inherent
properties of structures operate. Individual actions, perceptions, beliefs,
emotions, convictions, and other states of consciousness are somehow "less
real" than the underlying structure that cannot be directly observed. To
analogize the structuralist theories from which Althusser drew inspiration,
social control comes from individuals perceiving that they are hut words in a
grammatical system generated by an even more fundamental structure. Each
actor is at a surface place in the economic and political structures of a society,
and their perceptions of these places also put them within an ideological or
cultural sphere. But these places and spheres are only one level of reality;
people also see themselves as part of a deeper set of structures that, in
essence, defines who and what they are. Under these conditions, ideology
has even more power because it is doing much more than blinding the
subjects to some other reality, such as their objective class interests. Ideology
is also defining actors' places in a reality beyond their direct control and a
reality operating by its own logic of structure.
Thus, unlike Marx or Gramsci who believe ideology is a tool-an invidious
and insidious one--used by those in power, Althusser sees the Ideological
State Apparatus as more controlling because it is perceived not just as
conventions, rules, mores, traditions, and beliefs, but instead as the essence
of order and persons' place in tiffs order. The subject is thus trapped in the
deeper logics of economic, political, and ideological systems that erode
human capacities for praxis and agency.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Marx's emancipatory project had been
turned into something very different than he had visualized. His and Engel's
The Communist Manifesto was a call to arms, based on a view of the inherent
contradictions in the nature of capitalist systems. Within one hundred years of
this call, critical theory had become decidedly more philosopical, Indeed,
Marx's dismissal of the "Young Hegelians" in The German Ideology had
apparently not worked; they were back in different forms and guises, but they
increasingly dominated critical theorizing in the twentieth century. The "Young
Hegelians" so viciously criticized by Marx~ and Engels bad considered
themselves revolutionaries, but Marx saw them as more concerned with ideas
about realty than with reality itself. They were accused of" blowing theoretical
bubbles" about ideals and essences, and it could be imagined that he and
Engels might make the very same criticisms of the critical theories that
developed in the second half of the twentieth century, especially as these
theories began to merge with postmodernism. Nonetheless, critical theory in
both its material and cultural formulations now represents one of the more
prominent theoretical approaches in sociology.
Jurgen Habermas’s Critical Theory
The German philosopher-sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, has been the most
prolific descendant of the original Frankfurt School. As with the earlier
generation of Frankfurt School social theorists, Habermas's work revolves
around several important questions: (1) How can social theory develop
ideas that keep Karl Marx's emancipatory project alive, yet, at the same time,
recognize the empirical inadequacy of his prognosis for advanced capitalist
societies? (2) How can social theory confidant Max Weber's historical
analysis of rationalization in a way that avoids his pessimism and 'thereby
keeps Marx's emancipatory goals at the center of theory? (3) How can social
theory avoid the retreat into subjectivism of earlier critical theorists, such as
and Theodor Adorno, who increasing]y focused on states of subjective
Chapter 11
consciousness within individuals and, as~ a consequence, lost Marx's insight
that society is constructed from, and must therefore be emancipated by, the
processes that sustain social relations among individuals? (4) How can social
theory conceptualize and develop a theory that reconciles the forces of
material production and political organization with the forces of
intersubjectivity among reflective and conscious individuals in such a way that
it avoids (a) Weber's pessimism about the domination of consciousness by
rational economic and political forces, (b) Marx's naive optimism about
inevitability of class consciousness and revolt, and (c) early critical theorists'
retreat into the subjectivism of Georg Hegel's dialectic, where oppression
mysteriously mobilizes its negation through increases in subjective
consciousnesses and resistance?
At different points in his career,
Habermas has focused on one or another of these questions, but all four
have always guided his approach, at least implicit Habermas has been
accused of abandoning the critical thrust of his earlier works, but this
conclusion is too harsh. For, in trying to answer these questions, he has
increasingly recognized that mere critique of oppression is not enough. Such
critique becomes a "reified object itself." Although early critical theorists knew
this, they never developed conceptual schemes that accounted for the
underlying dynamics of societies. For critique to be useful in liberating people
from domination, it is necessary, Habermas seems to say, for the critique to
discuss the fundamental processes integrating social systems. In this way the
critique has some possibility of suggesting ways to create new types of social
relations. Without theoretical understanding about how society works, critique
is only superficially debunking and becomes an exercise in futility. This
willingness to theorize about the underlying dynamics of society, to avoid the
retreat into subjectivism, to reject superficial criticism and instead to base
critique on reasoned theoretical analysis, and to incorporate ideas from many
diverse theoretical approaches make Habermas's work theoretically
In his first major publication, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,
Habermas traced the evolution and dissolution of what he termed the public
sphere. his sphere is a realm of social life where people can discuss matters
of general interest; where they can discuss and debate these issues without
recourse to custom, dogma, and force; and where they can resolve
differences of opinion by rational argument. To say the least, this conception
of a public sphere is rather romanticized, but the imagery of free and open
discussion that is resolved by rational argumentation became a central theme
in Habermas's subsequent approach. Increasingly throughout his career,
Habermas came to see emancipation from domination as possible through
"communicative action," which is a reincarnation of the public sphere in more
conceptual clothing.
In this early work, however, Habermas appeared more interested hi
history and viewed the emergence of the public sphere as occurring in the
eighteenth century, when various forums for public debate-clubs, cafes,
journals, newspapers--proliferated. He concluded that these forums helped
erode the basic structure of feudalism, which is legitimated by religion and
custom rather than by agreements that have been reached through public
debate and discourse. The public sphere was greatly expanded, Habermas
argued, by the extension of market economies and the resulting liberation of
the individual from the constraints of feudalism. Free citizens, property
holders, traders, merchants, and members of other new sectors in society
could now be actively concerned about the governance of society and could
openly discuss and debate issues. But, in a vein similar to Weber's analysis of
rationalization, Habermas argued that the public sphere was eroded by some
of the very forces that stimulated its expansion. As mariner economies
experience instability, the powers of the state are extended in an effort to
stabilize the economy; with the expansion of bureaucracy to ever more
contexts of social life, the public sphere is constricted, And, increasingly, the
state seeks to redefine problems as technical and soluble by technologies
and administrative procedures rather than by public debate and
The details of this argument are less important than the fact that this work
established Habermas's credentials as a critical theorist. All the key elements
of critical theory are there -the decline of freedom with the expansion of
capitalism and the bureaucratized state as well as the seeming power of the
state to construct and control social life. The solution to these problems is to
resurrect the public sphere, but how is this to be done given the growing
power of the state? Thus, in this early work, Habermas had painted himself
into the same conceptual corner as his teachers in the Frankfurt School. The
next phase of his work extended this critique of capitalist society, but he also
tried to redirect critical theory so that it does not have to retreat into the
contemplative subjectivism of Lukacs, Horkheimer, and Adorno. Habermas
began this project in the late 1960s with an analysis of knowledge systems
and a critique of science.
In The Logic of the social Sciences and Knowledge and Human interest,
Habermas analyzes systems of knowledge in an effort to elaborate a
framework for critical theory~ The ultimate goal of tins analysis is to establish
the fact that science is but one type of knowledge that exists to meet only set
of human interests. To realize tins goal, Habermas posits three basic types of
knowledge that encompass the full range of human reason: (1) There is
empirical/analytic knowledge, which is concerned with understanding the
lawful properties of the material world. (2) There is hermeneutic/historical
knowledge, which is devoted to the understanding of meanings, especially
through the interpretations of historical texts. (3) There is critical knowledge,
which is devoted to uncovering conditions of constraint and domination.
Chapter 11
These three types of knowledge reflect three basic types of human interests:
(1) a technical interest in the reproduction of existence through control of the
environment, (2) a practical interest in understanding the meaning of
situations, and (3) an emancipatory interest in freedom for growth and
improvement. Such interests reside not in individuals but in more general
imperatives for reproduction, meaning, and freedom that presumably are built
into the species as it has become organized into societies, These three
interests create, therefore, three types of knowledge. The interest in material
reproduction has produced science or empirical/analytic knowledge; the
interest in understanding of meaning has led to the development of
hermeneutic/historical knowledge; and the interest in freedom has required
the development of critical theory.
These interests in technical control, practical understanding, and
emancipation generate different types of knowledge through three types of
media: (1) "work" for realizing interests in technical control through the
development of empirical/analytic knowledge, (2) "language" for realizing
practical interests in understanding through hermeneutic knowledge, and (3)
"authority" for realizing interests in emancipation through the development
of critical theory There is a kind of functionalism in this analysis: needs for
"material survival and social reproduction," for "continuity of society through
interpretive understanding," and for "utopian fulfillment" create interests. Then,
through the media of work, language, and authority" these needs produce
three types of knowledge: the scientific, hermeneutical, and critical.
Table 11.1Types of Knowledge, Interests,Media (and Functional Needs)
Functional Needs
Material survival and
technical control of
social reproduction
the environment,
knowledge, which is
generate pressures
which leads to the
achieved through
development of
Continuity of social
practical underhermeneutic and
relations generates
standing through
pressures for
interpretations of
knowledge, which is
other's subjective
achieved through
states, which leads to
the development of
Desires for utopian
emancipation from
critical theory, which
fulfillment generate
is achieved through
pressures for
domination, which
leads to the
development of
This kind of typologizing is, of course, reminiscent of Weber and is the
vehicle through which Habermas~ makes the central point: Positivism and the
search for natural laws constitute only one type of knowledge, although the
historical trend has been for the empirical/analytic to dominate the other types
of knowledge. Interests in technical control through work and the
development of science have dominated the interests in understanding and
emancipation. And so, if social life seems meaningless and cold, it is because
technical interests in producing science have dictated what kind of knowledge
is permissible and legitimate. Thus Weber's "rationalization thesis" is restated
with the typological distinction among interest, knowledge, and media.
Table11 .1 summarizes Habermas's argument.
This typology allowed Habermas to achieve several goals. First, he
attacked the assumption that science is value free because, like all
knowledge, it is attached to a set of interests, Second, he revised the
Weberian thesis of rationalization in such a way that it dictates a renewed
emphasis on hermeneutics and criticism. These other two types of knowledge
are being driven out by empirical/analytic knowledge, or science. Therefore it
is necessary to reemphasize these neglected types of knowledge. Third, by
viewing positivism in the social sciences as a type of empirical/analytic
knowledge, Habermas associated it with human interests in technical control.
He therefore visualized social science as a tool of economic and political
interests. Science thus becomes an ideology; actually, Habermas sees it as
the underlying cause of the legitimation crises of advanced capitalist societies
(more on this shortly). In distressing positivism in this way, he oriented his
own project to hermeneutics with a critical twist. That is, he visualized the
major task of critical theory as the analysis of those processes by which
people achieve interpretative understanding of one another in ways that give
social life a sense of continuity. Increasingly, Habermas came to focus on the
communicative processes among actors as the theoretical core for critical
theorizing. Goals of emancipation cannot be realized without knowledge
about how people interact and communicate. Such an emphasis represents a
restatement in a new guise of Habermas's early analysis of the public sphere,
but now the process of public discourse and debate is viewed as the essence
of human interaction in general. Moreover, to understand interaction, it is
necessary to analyze language and linguistic processes among individuals.
Knowledge of these processes can, in turn, give critical theory a firm
conceptual basis from which to launch a critique of society and to suggest
paths for the emancipation of individuals. Yet, to justify this emphasis on
hermeneutics and criticism, Habermas must first analyze the crises of
capitalist societies through the overextension of empirical/analytic systems of
As Habermas had argued in his earlier work, them are several historical
trends in modern societies: (1) the decline of the public sphere, (2) the
increasing intervention of the state into the economy, and (3) the growing
dominance of science in the service of the state's interests in technical control
These ideas are woven together in Legitimation Crisis.
Chapter 11
The basic argument in Legitimation Crisis is that, as the state
increasingly intervenes in the economy, it also seeks to translate political
issues into "technical problems." Issues thus are not topics for public debate;
rather, they represent technical problems that require the use of technologies
by experts in bureaucratic organizations. As a result, there is a
"depoliticization" of practical issues by redefining them as technical problems.
To do this, the state propagates a "technocratic consciousness" that
Habermas believed represents a new kind of ideology. Unlike previous
ideologies, however, it does not promise a future utopia; but, like other
ideologies, it is seductive in its ability to veil problems, to simplify perceived
options, ~and to justify a particular way of organizing social life. At the core of
this technocratic consciousness is an emphasis on "instrumental reason," or
what Weber termed means/ends rationality That is, criteria of the efficiency of
means in realizing explicit goals increasingly guide evaluations of social
action and people's approach to problems. This emphasis on instrumental
reason displaces other types of action, such as behaviors oriented to mutual
understanding. This displacement occurs in a series of stages: Science is first
used by the state to realize specific goals; then, the criterion of efficiency is
used by the state to reconcile competing goals of groupings; next, basic
cultural values are themselves assessed and evaluated for their efficiency
and rationality; finally, in Habermas's version of Brave New World, decisions
are completely delegated to computers, which seek the most rational and
efficient course of action.
This reliance on the ideology of technocratic consciousnesses creates,
Habermas argues~ new dilemmas of political legitimation. Habermas
believes capitalist societies can be divided into three basic subsystems: (1)
the economic, (2) the politico-administrative, and (3) the cultural (what he
later callslifeworld). From this division of societies into these subsystems,
Habermas then posits four points of crises: (1) an "economic crisis" occurs if
the economic subsystem cannot generate sufficient productivity to meet
people's needs; (2) a "rationality crisis" exists when the politico-administrative
subsystem cannot generate a sufficient number of instrumental decisions; (3)
a "motivation crisis" exists when actors cannot use cultural symbols to
generate sufficient meaning to feel committed to participate fully in the society;
and (4) a "legitimation crisis" arises when actors do not possess the "requisite
number of generalized motivations" or diffuse commitments to the political
subsystem's right to make decisions. Much of this analysis of crises is
described in Marxian terms but emphasizes that economic and rationality
crises are perhaps less~ important than either motivational or legitimation
crises. For, as technocratic consciousness penetrates all spheres of social life
and creates productive economies and an intrusive state, the crisis
tendencies of late capitalism drift from the inability to produce sufficient
economic goods or political decisions to the failure to generate (a) diffuse
commitments to political processes and (b) adequate levels of meaning
among individual actors.
Legitimation Crisis contains an early form of what becomes an
distinction: "Systemic" processes revolving around the economy and the
politico-administrative apparatus of the state must be distinguished from
"cultural" processes. This distinction will later be conceptualized as system
and lifeworld, respectively, but the central point is this: In tune with his
Frankfurt School roots, Hahermas is shifting emphasis from Marx's analysis
of the economic crisis of production to crises of meaning and commitment; if
the problems or crises of capitalist societies are in these areas, then critical
theory must focus on the communicative and interactive processes by which
humans generate understandings and meanings among themselves. If
instrumental reason, or means/ends rationality, is driving out action based on
mutual understanding and commitment, then the goal of critical theory is to
expose this trend and to suggest ways of overcoming it. especially because
legitimation and motivational crises make people aware that something is
missing horn their lives and, therefore, receptive to more emancipatory
alternatives. So the task of critical theory is to develop a theoretical
perspective that allows the restructuring of meaning and commitment in social
life .This goal will be realized, Habermas argues, by further understanding of
how people communicate, interact, and develop symbolic meanings.
The two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action pulls together into a
reasonably coherent framework various strands of Habermas's thought. yet,
true to his general style of scholarship, Habermas wandered over a rather
large intellectual landscape. In Thomas McCarthy's words, Habermas
develops his ideas through "a somewhat unusual combination of theoretical
constructions with historical reconstructions of the ideas of 'classical' social
theorists.'' Such thinkers as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead, and Parsons are,
for Habermas, "still very much alive" and are treated as "virtual dialogue
partners.' As a consequence, the two volumes meander through selected
portions of various thinkers' work critiquing and yet using key ideas. After the
dust settles, however, the result is a very creative synthesis of ideas into a
critical theoey
Habermas's basic premise is summarized near the end of volume 1:
If we assume that the human species maintains itself through the
socially coordinated activities of its members and that tiffs
coordination is established through communication-and in certain
spheres of life, through communication aimed at reaching agreement--then
the reproduction of the species also requires satisfying the conditions
of a rationality inherent in communicative action.
In other words, intrinsic to the process of communicative action, where
actors implicitly make, challenge, and accept one another's validity claims, is
a rationality that can potentially serve as the basis for reconstructing the
Chapter 11
social order in less oppressive ways. The tint volume of The Theory of
Communicative Action thus focuses on action and rationality in an effort to
reconceptualize both processes in a manner that shifts emphasis from the
subjectivity and consciousness of the individual to the process of symbolic
interaction. In a sense, volume 1 is Habermas's microsociology, whereas
volume 2 is his macrosociology. In the second volume, Habermas introduces
the concept of system and tries to connect it to microprocesses of action and
interaction through a reconceptualization of the phenomenological concept of
The Overall Project
Let us begin by briefly reviewing the overall argument, and then return to
volumes 1 and 2 with a more detailed analysis. There are four types of
action:(1) teleological, (2) normative, (3) dramaturgical, and (4)
communicative.Only communicative action contains the elements whereby
actors reach intersubjective understanding. Such communicative
action--which is, actually, interaction--presupposes a set of background
assumptions and stocks of knowledge, or, in Habermas's terms, a lifeworld.
Also operating in any society are "system" processes, which revolve around
the material maintenance of the species and its survival. The evolutionary
trend is for system processes and lifeworld processes to become internally
differentiated and differentiated from each other. The integration of a society
depends on a balance between system and lifeworld processes. As modern
societies have evolved, however, tiffs balance has been upset as system
processes revolving around the economy and the state (also law, family, and
other reproductive structures) have "colonized" and dominated lifeworld
processes concerned with mutually shared meanings, understandings, and
intersubjectivity. As a result, modern society is poorly integrated.
These integrative problems in capitalist societies are manifested in crises
concerning the "reproduction of the lifeworld"; that is, the acts of
communicative interaction that reproduce this lifeworld are~ displaced by
"delinguistified media," such as money and power, that are used in the
reproduction of system processes (economy and government). The solution
to these crises is a rebalancing of relations between lifeworld and system.
This rebalancing is to come through the resurrection of the public sphere in
the economic and political arenas and in the creation of more situations in
which communicative action (interaction) can proceed uninhibited by the
intrusion of system's media, such as power and money. The goal of critical
theory, therefore, is to document those facets of society in which the lifeworld
has been colonized and to suggest approaches whereby situations of
communicative action (interaction) can be reestablished. Such is Habermas's
general argument, and now we can fill in some of the details.
The Reconceptualization of Action and Rationality
In volume 1 of The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas undertakes a
long and detailed analysis of Weber's conceptualization of action and
rationalization. Habermas wants to reconceptualize rationality and action in
ways that allow him to view ~rational action as a potentially liberating rather
than imprisoning force. In this way, he feels, he can avoid the pessimism of
Weber and the retreat into subjectivity of Lukacs, Adorno, and Horkheimer.
There are, Habermas concludes, several basic types of action:
1. Teleological action is behavior oriented to calculating various means and
selecting the most appropriate ones to realize explicit goals. Such action
becomes strategic when other acting agents are involved in one's
calculations. Habermas also calls this action "instrumental' because it is
concerned with means to achieve ends. Most important, he emphasizes that
this kind of action is too often considered "rational action" in previous
conceptualizations of rationality. As he argues, this view of rationality is too
narrow and forces critical theory into a conceptual trap: if teleological or
means/ends rationality has taken over the modern world and has, as a
consequence, oppressed people, then how can critical theory propose
rational alternatives? Would not such a rational theory be yet one more
oppressive application of means/ends rationality? The answers to these
questions lie in recognizing that there are several types of action and that true
rationality resides not in teleological action but in communicative action.
2. Normatively regulated action is behavior that is oriented to common
values of a group, Thus. normative action is directed toward complying with
normative expectations of collectively organized groupings of individuals.
3. Dramaturgical action is action that involves conscious manipulation of
oneself before an audience or public. It is ego-centered in that it involves
actors mutually manipulating their behaviors to present their own intentions,
but it is also social in that such manipulation is done in the context of
organized activity.
4. Communicative action is interaction among agents who use speech
and nonverbal symbols as a way of understanding their mutual situation and
their respective plans of action to agree on how to coordinate their behaviors.
These four types of action presuppose different kinds of "worlds' That is,
each action is oriented to a somewhat different aspect of the udiverse, which
can he divided into the (1) "objective or external world" of manipulable
objects; (2) "social world" of norms, values, and other socially recognized
expectations; and (3) "subjective world" of experiences. Teleological action is
concerned primarily with the objective world; normatively regulated action
with the social; and dramaturgical with the subjective and external. But only
with communicative action do actors "refer simultaneously to things m the
objective, social, and subjective worlds in order to negotiate common
definitions of' the situation.'
Such communicative action is therefore potentially more~ rational than
all of the others because it deals with all three worlds and because it
proceeds as speech acts that assert three types o f validity claims. Such
speech acts assert that (1) statements are true in "propositional content," or in
Chapter 11
reference to the external and objective world; (2) statements are correct with
respect to the existing normative context, or social world and (3) statements
are sincere and manifest the subjective world of intention and experiences of
the actor. The process of communicative action in which these three types of
validity claims are made, accepted, or challenged by others is inherently more
rational than other types of action. If a validity claim is not accepted, then it~ is
debated and discussed in an effort to reach understanding without recourse
to fore and authority The process of reaching understanding through validity
claims, their acceptance, or their discussion cakes place against
The background of a culturally ingrained pre-understanding. This
background remains unproblematic as a whole; only that part of the stock
of knowledge that participants make use of and thematize at a given time
is put to the test. To the extent that definitions of situations~ are
negotiated by participants themselves, this thematic segment of the
lifeworld is at their disposal with the negotiation of each new
definition of the situation.
Thus, in the process of making validity claims through speech acts,
actors use existing definitions of situations or create new ones that establish
order in their social relations. Such definitions become part of the stocks of
knowledge in their lifeworlds, and they become the standards by which
validity claims are made, accepted, and challenged. Thus, in reaching an
understanding through communicative action, the lifeworld serves as a point
of reference for the adjudication of validity claims, which encompass the Full
range of worlds—the objective, social, and subjective. And so, in Habermas's
eyes, there is more rationality inherent in the very process of communicative
interaction than in means/ends or teleological action. As Habermas
We have . . . characterized the rational structure of the processes
of eaching understanding in terms of (a) the three world relations of
actors and the corresponding concepts of the objective, social, and
subjective worlds; (b) the validity claims of propositional truth,
normative rightness, and sincerity or authenticity; (c) the concept of
a rationally motivated agreement, that is, one based on the
intersubjective recognition of criticizable validity claims; and (d) the
concept of reaching understanding as the cooperative negotiation of
common definitions of the situation.
Thus, as people communicatively act (interact), they use and at the same
time produce common definitions of the situation. Such definitions are part of
the lifeworld of a society; if they have been produced and reproduced through
the communicative action, then they are the basis for the rational and
nonoppressive integration of a society Let us now turn to Hahermas's
discussion of this lifeworld which serves as the "court of appeals" in
communicative action.
The Lifeworld and System Processes of Society
Habermas believes the lifeworld is a "culturally transmitted and linguistically
organized stock of interpretative patterns" But what are these "interpretative
patterns" about? What do they pertain to? His anger, as one expects from
Habermas, is yet another typology. There are three different types of
interpretative patterns in the lifeworld: There are interpretative patterns with
respect to culture, or systems of symbols; there are those pertaining to
society or social institutions; and there are those oriented to personality, or
aspects of self and being. That is, (1) actors possess implicit and shared
stocks of knowledge about cultural traditions, values, beliefs, and linguistic
structures as~ well as how these are to be used in interaction; (2) actors also
know how to organize social relations and what kinds and patterns of
coordinated interaction are proper and appropriate; and (3) actors understand
what people are like, how they should act, and what is normal or aberrant.
These three types of interpretative patterns correspond, Habermas
asserts, to the following functional needs for reproducing the lifeworld (and,
by implication, for integrating society): (1) reaching understanding through
communicative action transmits, preserves, and renews cultural knowledge;
(2)communicative action that coordinates interaction meets the need for
social integration ~and group solidarity; and (3) communicative action that
socializes agents meets the need for the formation of personal identities,
Thus, the three components of the lifeworld -culture, society,
personality--meet corresponding needs of society--cultural reproduction,
social integration, and personality formation--through three dimensions along
which communicative action is conducted: reaching understanding,
coordinating interaction, and effecting socialization. As Habermas
summarizes in volume2
In coming to an understanding with one another about their situation,
participants in communication stand in a cultural tradition which they
use and at the same time renew; in coordinating their actions via
interubjective recognition of "criticizable" validity clams, they rely
upon their membership in groupings and at the same time reenforce their
integration; through participating in interaction with competent
persons, growing children internalize value orientations and acquire
generalized capacities for action.
These lifeworld processes are interrelated with system processes in a
society~ Action in economic, political, familial, and other institutional contexts
draws on, and reproduces, the cultural, societal, and personality dimensions
of the lifeworld. Yet evolutionary trends are for differentiation of the lifeworld
into separate stocks of knowledge with respect to culture, society, and
personality and for differentiation of system processes into distinctive and
separate institutional clusters, such as economy, state, family, and law. Such
differentiation creates problems of integration and balance between the
lifeworld and system. And therein reside the dilemmas and crises of modern
Chapter 11
Evolutionary Dynamics and Societal Crises
In a sense, Habermas~ blends traditional analysis by functionalists on
societal and cultural differentiation with a Marxian dialectic whereby the seeds
for emancipation are sown in the creation of an ever more rationalized and
differentiated society. Borrowing from Durkheim's analysis of mechanical
solidarity, Habermas argues that "the more cultural traditions predeeide which
validity claims, when, where, for what, from whom, and to whom must be
accepted, the less the participants themselves have the possibility of making
explicit and examining the potential groups in which their yes/no positions are
based' But "as mechanical solidarity gives way to organic solidarity based
upon functional interdependence," then "the more the worldview that
furnishes the cultural stock of knowledge is decentered" and "the less
the need for understanding is covered in advance by an interpreted lifeworld
immune from critique," and therefore "the more this need has to be met by the
interpretative accomplishments of the participants themselves.'That is, if the
lifeworld is to be sustained and reproduced, it becomes ever more necessary
with growing societal complexity for social actions to be based on
communicative processes. The ~result is that there is greater potential for
rational communicative action because less and less of the social order is
preordained by a simple and undifferentiated lifeworld. But system processes
have reduced tiffs potential, and the task of critical theory is to document how
system processes have colonized the lifeworld and thereby arrested this
potentially superior rationality inherent in the speech acts of communicative
How have system processes restricted this potential contained in
communicative action? As the sacred and traditional basis of the lifeworld
organization has dissolved and been replaced by linguistic interaction around
a lifeworld differentiated along cultural, social, and personality axes, there is a
countertrend in the differentiation of system processes. System evolution
involves the expansion of material production though the greater use of
technologies, science, and "delinguistified steering mechanisms" such as
money and power to carry out system processes. These media do not rely on
the validity claims of communicative action; when they become the media of
interaction in ever more spheres of life -markets, bureaucracies, welfare state
policies, legal systems, and even family relations--the processes of
communicative action so , essential for lifeworld reproduction are invaded and
colonized. Thus, system processes use power and money as their media of
integration, and in the process they "decouple the lifeworld" from its functions
for societal integradon. There is an irony here because differentiation of the
lifeworld facilitated the differentiation of system processes and the use of
money and power, so "the rationalized lifeworld makes possible the rise of
growth of subsystems which strike back at it in a destructive fashion"'
Through this ironical process, capitalism creates market dynamics using
money, which in turn spawn a welfare state employing power in ways that
reduce political and economic crises but that increase those cries revolving
around lifeworld reproduction. For the new crises and conflicts "arise in areas
of cultural reproduction, of social integration and of socialization"
Habermas has now circled back to his initial concerns and those of early
critical theorists. He has recast the Weberian thesis by asserting that true
rationality inheres in communicative action, not teleological (and strategic or
instrumental) action, as Weber claimed. And he has redefined the critical
theorist's view on modern crises; they are not crises of rationalization, but
crises of colonization of those truly rational processes that inhere in the
speech acts of communicative action, which reproduce the lifeworld so
essential to societal integration. Thus, built into the integrating processes of
differentiated societies (note: not the subjective processes of individuals, as
early critical theorists claimed) is the potential for a critical theory that seeks
to restore communicative rationality despite impersonal steering mechanisms.
If system differentiation occurs in delinguistified media, like money and power,
and if these reduce the reliance on communicative action, then crises are
inevitable. Critical theorists can use the resulting collective frustration over the
lack of meaning in social life to mobilize people to restore the proper balance
between system and
lifeworld processes. Thus, crises of material
production will not be the impetus for change, as Marx~ contended. Rather,
the crises of lifeworld reprodution will sere as the stimulus to societal
reorganization. And returning to his first work, Habermas sees such
reorganization as involving (1) the restoration of the public sphere in politics,
where delinguistified debate and argumentation, rather than delinguistified
power and authority, are used to make political decisions (thus reducing
"legitimation crises"), and (2) the extension of communicative action back
into those spheres--family, work, and social relations-that have become
increasingly dominated by delinguistified steering
media (thereby
eliminating "motivational crises").
The potential for tiffs reorganization inheres in the nature of societal
integration through the rationality inherent in the communicative actions that
reproduce the lifeworld. The purpose of critical theory is to release this
rational potential.
Chapter 12
Chapter12: Exchange Theory
Early Exchange Theory
Behavioristic Exchange Theory:George C. Homans
Dialectical Exchange Theory: Peter M. Blau
Exchange Network Theory
Early Exchange Theory
from its very beginnings, sociological theory focused on the market forces
that were transforming the modern social world. Adam Smith was of course,
the first to formulate the "laws of supply and demand," but what is often
forgotten is that Smith also presented to sociology one of the key questions
that guided all nineteenth century sociological theory: What force or forces are
to hold modern societies together as they differentiate and as actors pursue
their narrow and specialized interests? His answer was a combination of moral
and symbolic forces along with the "invisible hand of order" that comes when
rational actors pursue their self-interests in open and free markets.
Much of early sociology represented an effort to elaborate on this answer,
or to formulate an alternative. In either case, social scientists of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries soon found themselves developing exchange-theoretic
Given Smith's influence on sociology, and the impact of other British Isle
thinkers, most of whom were Scottish, on nineteenth century social thought, it
is perhaps best to begin with the ideas that come from this tradition. All these
early classical economists considered themselves "moralists" and, hence,
were concerned with broad ethical issues like justice, freedom, and fairness.
The label, utilitarianism, was meant to capture the broader moral concerns of
these early moralists, but the term now tends to be associated with narrow
economic models of the marketplace that have filtered into social theory. Today,
these classical economic theorists portray humans as rational persons who
seek to maximize their material benefits, or utility, from transactions or
exchanges with others in a free and competitive marketplace. Free in the
marketplace, people have access to necessary information; they can consider
all available alternatives, and. on the basis of this consideration, rationally
select the course of activity that will maximize material benefits. Entering into
these rational considerations are calculations of the costs involved in pursuing
various alternatives, with such costs being weighed against material benefits in
an effort to determine which alternative will yield the maximum payoff or profit
(benefits less costs). This view of the early utilitarians is narrow and ignores
their concerns with morality, but this portion of their ideas endures today and
inspires theory in economics and political science as well as in sociology.
With the emergence of sociology as a self-conscious discipline, there
was considerable borrowing, revision, and reaction to this conception of
humans. In the end, many sociologists muted extreme utilitarian assumptions
in the ways enumerated here:
1. Humans do not seek to maximize profits, as utilitarians argued, but they
nonetheless attempt to make some profit in their social transactions with others.
2. Humans are not perfectly rational, but they do engage in calculations of costs and
benefits in social transactions.
3. Humans do not have perfect information on all available alternatives, but they are
usually aware of at least some alternatives, which form the bails for assessments of
costs and benefits.
4. Humans always act under constraints, but they still compete with one another in
seeking to make a profit in their transactions,
5. Humans always seek to make a profit in their transactions, but they are limited by
the resources that they have when entering an exchange relation.
In addition to these alterations of utilitarian assumptions, exchange theory
removes human interaction from the limitations of material transactions in an
economic marketplace, requiring two more additions to the previous list:
6. Humans do engage in economic transactions in clearly defined marketplaces in all
societies, but these transactions are only special cases of more general exchange
relations occurring among individuals in virtually all social contexts.
7. Humans do pursue material goals in exchanges, hut they also mobilize and
exchange nonmaterial resources, such as sentiments, services, and symbols.
Aside from this revised substantive legacy, some form of modern
exchange theory have also adopted the strategy of the utihtarians for
constructing social theory. In assuming humans to be rational, utilitarians
argued that exchanges among people could also be studied by a rational
science, one in which the "laws of human nature" would stand at the top of a
deductive system of explanation.Thus utilitarians borrowed the early
physical-science conception of theory as a logico-deductive system of axioms
or laws and various layers of lower-order propositions that could be rationally
deduced from the laws of "economic man" Most exchange theories are thus
presented in a propositional format, as we will appreciate when more
contemporary approaches are reviewed.
Sir James Frazer
In 1919, Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), in his second volume of Folklore
in the Old Testament, conducted what was probably the first explicit exchange
theoretic analysis of social institutions.3 In examining a wide variety of kinship
and marriage practices among primitive societies, Frazer was struck by the
clear preference of Australian aborigines for cross-cousin over parallel-cousin
marriages: "Why is the marriage of cross-cousins so often favored? Why is the
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marriage of ortho-cousins [that is, parallel cousins] so uniformly prohibited?"
Although the substantive details of Frazer's descriptions of the aborigines'
practices are fascinating in themselves (if only for their inaccuracy), the form of
explanation marks his theoretical contribution. In a manner clearly indebted to
utilitarian economics, Frazer launched an economic interpretation of the
predominance of cross-cousin marriage patterns. In this explanation Frazer
invoked the "law" of "economic motives": By having "no equivalent in property
to give for a wife, an Australian aborigine is generally obliged to get her in
exchange for a female relative, usually a sister or daughter." Thus, the material
or economic motives of individuals in society (lack of property and desire for a
wife) explain various social patterns (cross-cousin marriages). Frazer went on
to postulate that, once a particular~ pattern emanating from economic motives
becomes established in a culture, it constrains other social patterns that can
potentially emerge.
Frazer believed that the social and structural patterns that typify a particular
culture reflect economic motives in humans, who, in exchanging commodities,
attempt to satisfy their basic economic needs. Although Frazer's specific
explanation was found to be sadly wanting by subsequent generations of
anthropologists, especially Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Levi-Strauss,
modern exchange theory in sociology invokes a similar conception of social
1. Exchange processes are the result of efforts by people to realize basic needs.
2. When yielding payoffs for those involved, exchange processes lead to the
patterning of interaction.
3. Such patterns of interaction not only serve the needs of individuals but also constrain the
kinds of social structures that can subsequently emerge.
In addition to anticipating the general profile of modern explanations
about how elementary exchange processes create more complex patterns in a
society, Frazer's analysis also foreshadowed another concern of contemporary
exchange theory: social systems' differentiation of privilege and power. Much
as Karl Marx had done a generation earlier, Frazer noted that those who
possess resources of high economic value can exploit those who have few
such resources, thereby enabling the former to possess high privilege and
presumably power, Hence, the exchange of women among the aborigines was
observed by Frazer to lead to the differentiation of power and privilege in at
least two separate ways. First, "since among the Australian aboriginals women
had a high economic and commercial value, a man who had many sisters or
daughters was rich and a man who had none was poor and might be unable to
procure a wife at all." Second, "the old men availed themselves of the system
of exchange in order to procure a number of wives for themselves from among
the young women, while the young men, having no women to give in exchange,
were often obliged to remain single or to put up with the cast-off wives of their
elders.'' Thus, at least implicitly, Frazer supplemented the conflict theory
contribution with a fourth exchange principle:
4. Exchange processes differentiate groups by their relative access to valued
commodities, resulting in differences in power, prestige, and privilege.
As provocative and seemingly seminal as~ Frazer's analysis appears, it
had little direct impact on modern exchange theory. Rather, contemporary
theory remains indebted to those in anthropology who reacted against Frazer's
Bronislaw Malinowski and Nonmaterial Exchange
Despite Malinowski's close ties with Frazer, Malinowski developed an
exchange perspective that radically altered the utditarian slant of Frazer's
analysis of cross-cousin marriage. Indeed, Frazer himself, in his preface to
Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, recognized the importance of
Malinowski's contribution to the analysis of exchange relations. In his
now-famous ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders--a group of South Seas
Island cultures--Malinowski observed an exchange system termed the Kula
Ring~ a closed circle of exchange relations among tribal peoples inhabiting a
wide ring of islands. What was distinctive in this closed circle, Malinowski
observed, was the predominance of exchange of two articles-armlets and
necklaces--that the inhabitants constantly exchanged in opposite directions.
Armlets traveling in one direction around the Kula ring were exchanged for
necklaces moving in the opposite direction around the ring. In any particular
exchange between individuals, then, an armlet would always be exchanged for
a necklace,
In interpreting this unique exchange network, Malinowski~ distinguished
material" or economic from nonmaterial or symbolic exchanges. In contrast
with the utilitarians and Frazer, who did not conceptualize nonmaterial
exchange relations, Malinowski recognized that the Kula was not only an
economic or material exchange network but also a symbolic exchange
cementing a web of social relationships: "One transaction does not finish the
Kula relationship, the rule being 'once in the Kula, always in the Kula,' and a
partnership between two men is a permanent and lifelong affair." Although
purely economic transactions did occur within the rules of the Kula, the
ceremonial exchange of armlets and necklaces was observed by Malinowski to
be the Kula's principal function.
The natives themselves, Malinowski emphasized, recognized the
distinction between purely economic commodities and the symbolic
significance of armlets and necklaces. However, to distinguish economic from
symbolic commodities does not mean that the Trobriand Islanders failed to
assign graded values to the symbolic commodities; indeed, they made
gradations and used them to express and confirm the nature of the
relationships among exchange partners as equals, superordinates, or
subordinates. But, as Malinowski noted, "in all forms of [Kula] exchange in the
Trobriands, there is not even a trace of gain, nor is there any reason for looking
at it from the purely utilitarian and economic standpoint, since there is no
enhancement of mutual utility through the exchange.'' Rather, the motives
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behind the Kula were social psychological, for the exchanges in the ring were
viewed by Malinowski to have implications for the needs of both individuals
and society. From his functionalist framework, he interpreted the Kula to mean
"the fundamental impulse to display, to share, to bestow [and] the deep
tendency to create social ties." Mafinowski, then, considered an enduring
social pattern such as the Kula Ring to have positive functional consequences
for satisfying individual psychological needs and societal needs for social
integration and solidarity.
This form of functional analysis presents many logical difficulties (see the
Wadsworth Web site on functionalism), Nevertheless, Malinowski’s analysis
made several enduring contributions to modern exchange theory:
1, In Mahnowski's words, "the meaning of the Ku/a will consist in being
instrumental to dispel [the] conception of a rational being who wants nothing but to
satisfy his simplest needs and does it according to the economic principle of least
2. Psychological rather than economic needs are the forces that initiate and
sustain exchange relations and are therefore~ critical in the explanation of social
3. Exchange relations can also have implications beyond two parties, for, as the
Kula demonstrates, complex patterns of indirect exchange can maintain extended and
protracted social networks.
4. Symbolic exchange relations are the basic social process underlying both
differentiation of ranks in a society and the integration of society into a cohesive and
solitary whole.
With tiffs emphasis, Malinowski helped free exchange theory from the
limiting confines of utilitarianism. By stressing the importance of symbolic
exchanges for both individual psychological processes and patterns of social
integration, he anticipated the conceptual base for two basic types of
exchange perspectives, one emphasizing the importance of psychological
processes and the other stressing the significance of emergent cultural and
structural forces on exchange relations.
Marcel Mauss and the Emergence of Exchange Structuralism
Reacting to what he perceived as Malinowski's tendency to
overemphasize psychological instead of social needs, Marcel Mauss
(1872-1950) reinterpreted Malinowski's analysis of the Kula. In this effort he
formulated the broad outlines of a "collectivistic" or structural-exchange,
perspective. Mauss believed the critical question in examining an exchange
network as complex as that of the Kula was, "In primitive or archaic types of
societies, what is the principle whereby the gift received has to be repaid?
What force is there in the thing which compels the recipient to make a return?"
The "force" compelling reciprocity was, Mauss believed, society or the group.
As fie noted, "It is groups, and not individuals, which carry on exchange, make
contracts, and are bound by obligations. "is The individuals actually engaged in
an exchange represent the moral codes of the group. Exchange transactions
among individuals are conducted in accordance with the rules of the group,
thereby reinforcing these rules and codes. Thus, for Mauss, utilitarians'
overconcern with individuals' self-interests and Malinowski's overemphasis
on psychological needs are replaced by a conception of individuals as
representatives of social groups. In the end, exchange relations create,
reinforce, and serve a group morality that is an entity sui generis, to borrow a
famous phrase from Mauss's mentor, Emile Durkheim. Furthermore, in a vein
similar to that of Frazer, once such a morality emerges and is reinforced by
exchange activities, it regulates other activities in the social life of a group,
beyond particular exchange transactions.
Mauss's work has received scant attention from sociologists, but he was
the first to forge a reconciliation between the exchange principles of
utilitarianism and the structural, or collectivistic, thought of Durkheim. In
recognizing that exchange transactions give rise to and, at the same time,
reinforce the normative structure of society, Mauss anticipated the structural
position of some contemporary exchange theories. Mauss's influence on
modern theory has been indirect, however. The French collectivist tradition of
Durkheim and Mauss has influenced the exchange perspectives of
contemporary sociological theory through Levi-Strauss's structuralism.
Claude Levi-Strauss and Structuralism
In 1949, Levi-Strauss launched an analysis of cross cousin marriage in his
classic work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship. In restating Durkheim's
objections to utilitarians, Levi-Strauss took exception to Frazer's utilitarian
interpretation of cross cousin marriage patterns. And, similar to Mauss's
opposition to Malinowski's emphasis on psychological needs, Levi-Strauss
developed a sophisticated structural-exchange perspective.
In rejecting Frazer's interpretation of cross-cousin marriage, Levi-Strauss
first questioned the substance of Frazer's utilitarian conceptualization. Frazer,
he noted, "depicts the poor Australian aborigine wondering how he is going to
obtain a wife since he has no material goods with which to purchase her, and
discovering exchange as the solution to this apparently insoluble problem:'men
exchange their sisters in marriage because that was the cheapest way of
getting a wife.'" In contrast, Levi-Strauss emphasizes, "it is the exchange which
counts and not the things exchanged." For Levi-Strauss, exchange must be
viewed by its functions for integrating the larger social structure. Levi-Strauss
then attacked Frazer's and the utilitarians' resumption that the first principles of
social behavior are economic, Such an assumption contradicts the view that
social structure is an emergent phenomenon that operates according to its
own irreducible laws and principles.
Levi-Strauss also rejected psychological interpretations of exchange
processes, especially the position advocated by behaviorists (see next
section). In contrast with psychological behaviorists, who see little real
difference in the laws of behavior between animals and humans, Levi-Strauss
emphasized that humans possess a cultural heritage of norms and values that
Chapter 12
separates their behavior and societal organization from that of animal species.
Human action is thus qualitatively different from animal behavior, especially in
social exchange. Animals are not guided by values and rules that specify when,
where, and how they are to carry out social transactions. Humans, however,
carry with them into any exchange situation learned definitions of how they are
to behave--thus ensuring that the principles of human exchange will be
Furthermore, exchange is more than the result of psychological needs,
even those that have been acquired through socialization. Exchange cannot
be understood solely through individual motives because exchange relations
are a reflection of patterns of social organization that exist as an entity, sui
Exchange behavior is thus regulated from without by norms and values,
resulting in processes that can be analyzed only by their consequences, or
functions, for these norms and values.
In arguing this view, Levi-Strauss posited several fundamental exchange
principles. First, all exchange relations involve costs for individuals, but, in
contrast with economic or psychological explanations of exchange, such costs
are attributed to society to those customs, rules, laws, and values that require
behaviors incurring costs. Thus, individuals do not assign the costs to
themselves, but to the "social order." Second, for all those scarce and valued
resources in society--whether material objects, such as wives, or symbolic
resources, like esteem and prestige--their distribution is regulated by norms
and values. As long as resources are in abundant supply or are not highly
valued in a society, their distribution goes unregulated, but, once they become
scarce and highly valued, their distribution is soon regulated Third, all
exchange relations are governed by a norm of reciprocity, requiring those
receiving valued resources to bestow on their benefactors other valued
resources. In Levi-Strauss's conception of reciprocity are various patterns of
reciprocation specified by norms and values. In some situations, norms dictate
"mutual" and direct rewarding of one's benefactor, whereas in other situations
the reciprocity can be "univocal," involving diverse patterns of indirect
exchange in which actors do not reciprocate directly but only through various
third (fourth, fifth, and so forth) parties. Within these two general types of
exchange reciprocity mutual and univocal--numerous subtypes of exchange
networks can be normatively regulated.
Levi-Strauss believed that these three exchange principles offer a more
useful set of concepts to describe cross-cousin marriage patterns because
these patterns can now be viewed by their functions for the larger social
structure. Particular marriage patterns and other features of kinship
organization no longer need be interpreted merely as direct exchanges among
individuals but can be conceptualized as univocal exchanges between
individuals and society. In freeing exchange from the analysis of only direct
and mutual exchanges, Levi-Strauss offered a tentative theory of societal
integration and solidarity. His explanation extended Durkheim's provocative
analysis and indicated how various subtypes of direct and univocal exchange
both reflect and reinforce different patterns of societal integration and
This theory of integration is, in itself, of theoretical importance, but it is
more significant for our present purposes to stress Levi-Strauss'ss impact on
current sociological exchange perspectives. Two points of emphasis strongly
influenced modern sociological theory
1. Various forms of social structure, rather than individual motives, are the
critical variables in the analysis of exchange relations.
2. Exchange relations in social systems are frequently not restricted to direct
interaction among individuals but are protracted into complex networks of indirect
exchange. On the one hand, these exchange processes are caused by patterns of social
integration and organization; on the other hand, they promote diverse forms of such
Levi-Strauss'ss work represents the culmination of a reaction to economic
utilitarianism as Frazer originally incorporated it into anthropology. Malinowski
recognized the limitations of Frazer's analysis of only material or economic
motives ha direct exchange transactions. As the Kula Ring demonstrates,
exchange can be generalized into protracted networks involving noneconomic
motives that have implications for societal integration. Mauss drew explicit
attention to the significance of social structure in regulating exchange
processes and to the consequences of such processes for maintaining social
structure. Finally, in this intellectual chain of events in anthropology,
Levi-Strauss began to indicate how different types of direct and indirect
exchange are linked to different patterns of social organization. This
intellectual heritage has influenced both the substance and the strategy of
exchange theory in sociology, but it has~ done so only after considerable
modification of assumptions and concepts by a particular strain of psychology:
As a psychological perspective, behaviorism began from insights derived from
observations of an accident. The Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
(1849-1936) discovered that experimental dogs associated food with the
person bringing it) He observed, for instance, that dogs on whom he was
performing secretory experiments would salivate not only when presented with
food but also when they heard their feeder's footsteps approaching. After
considerable delay and personal agonizing, Pavlov undertook a series of
experiments on animals to understand such "'conditioned responses)' From
these experiments he developed several principles that were later
incorporated into behaviorism. These include the following:
(1) A stimulus consistently associated with another stimulus producing a
given physiological response will, by itself, elicit that response. (2) Such
conditioned responses can be extinguished when gratifications associated with
Chapter 12
stimulus are no longer forthcoming. (3) Stimuli that are similar to those
producing a conditioned response can a/so elicit the same response as the
original stimulus. (4) Stimuli that increasingly differ from those used to
condition a particular response will decreasingly be able to elicit this response.
Thus, Pavlov's experiments exposed the principles of conditioned responses,
extinction, response generalization, and response discrimination. Although
Pavlov clearly recognized the significance of these findings for human behavior,
his insights came to fruition in America under the tutelage of Edward Lee
Thorndike (1874-1949) and John B, Watson (1978-1958)--the founders of
Thorndike conducted the first laboratory experiments on animals in
America. During these experiments, he observed that animals would retain
response patterns for which they were rewarded For example, in experiments
on kittens placed in a puzzle box, Thorndike found that the kittens would
engage in trial-and-error behavior until emitting the response that allowed them
to escape. And, with each placement in the box, the kittens would engage in
less trial and-error behavior, indicating that the gratifications associated with a
response allowing the kittens to escape caused them to learn and retain this
response. From these and other studies, which were conducted at the same
time as Pavlov's, Thorndike formulated three principles or laws: (1) the "law of
effect," which holds that acts in a situation producing gratification will be more
likely to occur in the future when that situation recurs; (2) the "law of use,"
which states that the situation-response connection is strengthened with
repetitions and practice; and (3) the "law of disuse," which argues that the
connection will weaken when practice is discontinued.
These laws converge with those presented by Pavlov, but there is one
important difference. Thorndike's experiments involved animals engaged in
free trial-and-error behavior, whereas Pavlov's work was on the conditioning of
physiological--typically glandular-responses in a tightly controlled laboratory
situation. Thorndike's work could thus be seen as more directly relevant to
human behavior in natural settings.
Watson was only one of several thinkers~ to recognize the significance of
Pavlov's and Thorndike's work, but he soon became the dominant advocate of
what was becoming explicitly known as behaviorism. Watson's opening shot
for the new science of behavior was~ fired in an article entitled "Psychology as
the Behaviorist Views It":
Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective
experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the
prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part
of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon
the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms
of consciousness. The behaviorist, in efforts to get a unitary scheme
of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.
Watson thus became the advocate of the extreme behaviorism against
which many vehemently reacted. For Watson, psychology is the study of
stimulus response relations, and the only admissible evidence is overt
behavior, Psychologists are to stay out of the "Pandora's box" of human
consciousness and to study only observable behaviors as they are connected
to observable stimuli.
In many ways, behaviorism is similar to utilitarianism because it operates
on the principle that humans are reward-seeking organisms pursuing
alternatives that will yield the most reward and the least punishment. Rewards
are simply another way of phrasing the economist's concept of "utility," and
"punishment" is somewhat equivalent to the notion of "cost" For the behaviorist,
reward is any behavior that reinforces or meets the needs of the organism,
whereas punishment denies rewards or forces the expenditure of energy to
avoid pain (thereby incurring costs),
Modern exchange theories have borrowed the notion of reward from
behaviorists and used it to reinterpret the utilitarian exchange heritage. In place
of utility, the concept of reward has often been inserted, primarily because it
alIows exchange theorists to view behavior as motivated by psychological
needs. However, the utilitarian concept of cost appears to have been retained
in preference to the behaviorist's formulation of punishment because the
notion of cost allows exchange theorists to visualize more completely the
alternative rewards that organisms forego in seeking to achieve a particular
Despite these modifications of the basic concepts of behaviorism, its key
theoretical generalizations have been incorporated with relatively little change
into some forms of sociological exchange theory:
1. In any given situation, organisms will emir those behaviors that will yield the
most reward and the least punishment.
2. Organisms will repeat those behaviors that have proved rewarding in the
3. Organisms will repeat behaviors in situations that are similar to those in the
past in which behaviors were rewarded.
4. Present stimuli that on past occasions have been associated with rewards will
evoke behaviors similar to those emitted in the past.
5. Repetition of behaviors will occur only as long as they continue to yield
6. An organism will display emotion ifa behavior that has previously been
rewarded in the same or similar situation suddenly goes unrewarded.
7. The more an organism receives rewards ~from a particular behavior, the less
rewarding that behavior becomes (because of satiation) and the more likely the
organism is to emit alternative behaviors in search of other rewards.
These principles were discovered in laboratory situations where
experimenters typically manipulated the environment of the organism; so, it is
difficult to visualize the experimental situation as interaction. The
experimenter's tight control of the situation precludes the possibility that the
Chapter 12
animal will affect significantly the responses of the experimenter. This has
forced modern exchange theorists using behaviorist principles to incorporate
the utilitarian's concern with transactions, or exchanges. In this way, humans
can be seen as mutually affecting one another's opportunities for rewards. In
contrast with animals in a Skinner box or some similar laboratory situation,
humans exchange rewards. Each person represents a potentially rewarding
stimulus situation for the other.
As sociological exchange theorists have attempted to apply behaviorist
principles to the study of human behavior, they have inevitably confronted the
problem of the black box: Humans differ from laboratory animals in their
greater ability to engage in a wide variety of complex cognitive processes.
Indeed, as the utilitarians were the first to emphasize, what is distinctly human
is the capacity to abstract, to calculate, to project outcomes, to weigh
alternatives, and to perform a wide number of other cognitive manipulations.
Furthermore, in borrowing behaviorists' concepts, contemporary exchange
theorists have also had to introduce the concepts of an introspective
psychology and structural sociology. Humans not only think in complex ways;
their thinking is emotional and circumscribed by many social and cultural
forces (first incorporated into the exchange theories of Mauss and
Levi-Strauss). Once it is recognized that behaviorist principles must
incorporate concepts denoting both internal psychological processes and
constraints of social structure and culture, it is also necessary to visualize
exchange as frequently transcending the mutually rewarding activities of
individuals in direct interaction. The organization of behavior by social structure
and culture, coupled with humans' complex cognitive abilities, allows
protracted and indirect exchange networks to exist.
When we review the impact of behaviorism on some forms of
contemporary exchange theory, the vocabulary and general principles of
behaviorism are evident, but concepts have been redefined and the principles
altered to incorporate the insights of the early utilitarians as well as the
anthropological reaction to utilitarianism. The result has been that proponents
of an exchange perspective employing behaviorist concepts and principles
have abandoned much of what made behaviorism a unique perspective as
they have dealt with the complexities introduced by human cognitive capacities
and their organization into sociocultural groupings.
The vocabulary of exchange theory clearly comes from utilitarianism and
behaviorism. Anthropological work forced the recognition that cultural and
social dynamics need to be incorporated into exchange theory. When we look
at early sociological work, however, the impact of early sociological theorists
on modern exchange theory is difficult to assess for several reasons. First,
much sociological theory represented a reaction against utilitarianism and
extreme behaviorism and, therefore, has been reluctant to incorporate
concepts from these fields. Second, the most developed of the early exchange
theories—that provided by Georg Simmel in his The Philosophy of Money-was
not translated into English until the 1970s. (German-reading theorists, such as
Peter Blau and Talcott Parsons, were to some degree influenced by Simmel's
ideas.) Third, the topics of most interest to many sociological exchange
theorists-differentiations of power and conflict in exchanges--have more
typically been conceptualized as conflict theory than as exchange theory. But,
as will become evident, sociological theories of exchange converge with those
on conflict processes, and Marx's and Max Weber's ideas exerted
considerable influence on sociologically oriented exchange theories.
Karl Marx's Theory of Exchange and Conflict
Most contemporary theories of exchange examine situations where actors
have unequal levels of resources with which to bargain. Those with valued
resources are in a position to strike a better bargain, especially if others who
value their resources do not possess equally valued resources to offer in
exchange. This fact of social life is the situation described in Marx's conflict
theory. Capitalists have the power to control the distribution of material rewards,
whereas all that workers have is their labor to offer in exchange. Although the
capitalist values labor, it is in plentiful supply, and thus no one worker is in a
position to bargain effectively with an employer. As a consequence, capitalists
can get labor at a low cost and can force workers to do what the capitalists
want. As capitalists press their advantage, they create the very conditions that
allow workers to develop resources--political, organizational, ideological--that
workers can then use to strike a better bargain with capitalists and, in the end,
to overthrow them.
Granted, this is simplifying Marx's implicit exchange theory, but the point is
clear: Dialectical conflict theory is a variety of exchange theory. Let us list
some of these exchange dynamics more explicitly:
1. Those who need scarce and valued resources that others possess hut who do
not have equally valued and scarce resources to offer in return will be dependent on
those who control these resources.
2. Those who control valued resources have power over those who do not. That
is, the power of one actor over another is directly related to (a) the capacity of one
actor to monopolize the valued resources needed by other actors and (b) the inability
of those actors who need these resources to offer equally valued and scarce resources
in return.
3. Those with power will press their advantage and will try to extract more
resources from those dependent on them in exchange for fewer (or the same level) of
the resources that they control.
4. Those who press their advantage in this way will create conditions that
encourage those who axe dependent on them to (a) organize in ways that increase the
value of their resources or, failing this, to (b) organize in ways that enable them to
coerce those on whom they are dependent.
If the words capitalist and proletarian are inserted at the appropriate
places in the previous list, Marx's exchange model becomes readily apparent.
Chapter 12
Dialectical conflict theory is thus a series of propositions about exchange
dynamics in systems in which the distribution of resources is unequal. And, as
will become evident in the next chapters, sociological exchange theories have
emphasized these dynamics that inhere in the unequal distribution of
resources. Such is Marx's major contribution to exchange theory.
Georg Simmel's Exchange Theory
In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel analyzed Marx's "value theory of
labor' and, in its place, provided a clear exposition of exchange theory. The
Philosophy of Money is, as its title indicates, about the impact of money on
social relations and social structure. For Simmel, social exchange involves
the following:
1. The desire for a valued object that one does not have.
2. The possession of the valued object by an identifiable other.
3.The offer of an object of value to secure the desired object from another.
4. The acceptance of this offer by the possessor of the valued object.
Contained in tiffs portrayal of social exchange are several additional points
that Simmel emphasized. First, value is idiosyncratic and is, ultimately, tied to
an individual's impulses and needs, Of course, what is defined as valuable is
typically circumscribed by cultural and social patterns, but how valuable an
object is will be a positive function of(a) the intensity of a person's needs and
b) the scarcity of the object. Second, much exchange involves efforts to
manipulate situations so that the intensity of needs for an object is concealed
and the availability of an object is made to seem less than what it actually is,
Inherent in exchange, therefore, is a basic tension that can often erupt into
other social forms, such as conflict. Third, to possess an object is to lessen its
value and to increase the value of objects that one does not possess. Fourth,
exchanges will occur only if both parties perceive that the object given is less
valuable than the one received. Fifth, collective units as well as individuals
participate in exchange relations and hence are subject to the four processes
listed. Sixth, the more liquid the resources of an actor are in an exchange-that
is, the more that resources can be used in many types of exchanges--the
greater that actor's options and power will be. For if an actor is not bound to
exchange with any other and can readily withdraw resources and exchange
them with another, then that actor has considerable power to manipulate any
Economic exchange involving money is only one case of this more
general social form, but it is a very special case. When money becomes the
predominant means for establishing value in relationships, the properties and
dynamics of social relations are transformed. This process of displacing other
criteria of value, such as logic, ethics, and aesthetics, with a monetary criterion
is precisely the long-term evolutionary trend in societies. This trend is both a
cause and effect of money as the medium of exchange. Money emerged to
facilitate exchanges and to realize even more completely humans' basic needs.
But, once established, money has the power to transform the structure of
social relations in society.
Thus, the key insight in The Philosophy of Money is that the use of
different criteria for assessing value has an enormous impact on the form of
social relations. As money replaces barter and other criteria for determining
values, social relations are fundamentally changed. Yet, they are transformed
in accordance with some basic principles of social exchange, which are never
codified by Simmel but are very clear, ln Table 12.1, these ideas are
summarized as abstract exchange principles.
Table 12.1 Georg Simmel's Exchange Principles
Ⅰ. Attraction Principle: The more actors perceive as valuable one another's
respective resources, the more likely an exchange relationship is to develop
among these actors.
Ⅱ. Value Principle: The greater is the intensity of an actor's needs for a
resource of a given type, and the less available is that resource, the greater is
the value of that resource to the actor.
Ⅲ, Power Principles:
A, The more an actor perceives as valuable the resources of another actor,
the greater is the power of the latter over the former.
B. The more liquid are an actor's resources, the greater will be the
exchange options and alternatives and, hence, the greater will be the power of
that actor in social exchanges.
Ⅳ. Tension Principle; The more actors in a social exchange manipulate the
situation in an effort to misrepresent their needs for a resource or conceal the
availability of resources, the greater is the level of tension in that exchange and
the greater is the potential for conflict.
Curiously, despite Adam Smith's influence on sociological theory hi the
nineteenth century, and behaviorists' impact on early social psychology, a clear
sociological approach to exchange theory did not emerge until the 1960s.
When it finally arrived, this approach has remained prominent within the
sociological canon since the midcentury, and today, it is one of the most
important perspectives within sociological theorizing. In the next group of
chapters, we see how economic and behaviorist ideas were brought back into
sociological theory and blended with the discipline's concern with social
structure,power, and inequality. In particular, we can emphasize the two
surviving variants of this midcentury burst of creative activity, primarily the
exchange network approaches and rational choice theories,
Behavioristic Exchange Theory:
George C. Homans
George Homans's (1910-1989) exchange scheme first surfaced in a polemical
reaction to Claude Levi-Strauss's structural analysis of cross cousin marriage
patterns. In collaboration with David Schneider, Homans previewed what
become prominent themes in his writings: (1) a skeptical view of any form of
Chapter 12
functional theorizing, (2) an emphasis on psychological principles as the
axioms of social theory, and (3) a preoccupation with exchange-theoretic
concepts.1 In their assessment of Levi-Strauss's exchange functionalism,
Homans and Schneider took exception to virtually all that made Levi-Strauss's
theory~ First, they rejected the conceptualization of different form of indirect,
generalized exchange. In so conceptualizing exchange, Levi- Strauss "thinned
the meaning out of it' Second, Levi- Strauss's position that different forms of
exchange symbolically reaffirm and integrate different patterns of social
organization was questioned, for an "institution is what it is because it results
from the drives, or meets the immediate needs, of individuals or subgroups
within a society" The result of this rejection of Levi-Strauss's thought was that
Homans and Schneider argued that exchange theory must initially emphasize
face to face interacti0n, focus primarily on limited and direct exchanges among
individuals, and recognize that social structures are created and sustained by
the behaviors of individuals.
With this critique of the anthropological tradition, Homans resurrected the
utilitarians' concern with individual self-interest in the conceptual trappings of
psychological behaviorism, Indeed, as Homans and Schneider emphasized,
"We may call this an individual self interest theory, if we remember that
interests may be other than economic." By the early 1960s,this self-interest
theory was recast in the behaviorist language of B. E Skinner. Given Homans's
commitment to axiomatic theorizing and his concern with face-to-face
interaction among individuals, it was perhaps inevitable that he would look
toward Skinner and, indirectly, to the early founders of behaviorism I, P
Pavlov, Edward Lee Thorndike, and J. B. Watson. But Homans borrowed
directly from Skinner's reformulations of early behaviorist principles. Stripped
of its subtlety, Skinnerian behaviorism states as its basic principle that, if an
animal has a need, it will perform activities that in the past have satisfied tins
need. A first corollary to this principle is that organisms will attempt to avoid
unpleasant experiences but will endure limited amounts of such experiences
as a cost in emitting the behaviors that satisfy an overriding need. A second
corollary is that organisms will continue emitting certain behaviors only as long
as they continue to produce desired and expected effects. A third corollary of
Skinnerian psychology emphasizes that, as needs are satisfied by a particular
behavior, animals are less likely m emit the behavior. A fourth corollary states
that, if in the recent past a behavior has brought rewards and if these rewards
suddenly stop, the organism will appear angry and gradually cease emitting
the behavior that formerly satisfied its needs. A final corollary holds that, if an
event has consistently occurred at the same time as a behavior that was
rewarded or punished, the event becomes a stimulus and is likely to produce
the behavior or its avoidance.
These principles were derived from behavioral psychologists' highly
controlled observations of animals, whose needs could he inferred from
deprivations imposed by the investigators. Although human needs are much
more difficult to ascertain than those of laboratory pigeons and mice and,
despite the fact that humans interact in groupings that defy experimental
controls, Homans believed that the principles of operant psychology could be
applied to the explanation of human behavior in both simple and complex
groupings. One of the most important adjustments of Skinnerian principles to fit
the facts of human social organization involved the recognition that needs are
satisfied by other people and that people reward and punish one another. In
contrast with Skinner's animals, which only indirectly interact with Skinner
through the apparatus of the laboratory and which have little ability to reward
Skinner (except perhaps to confirm his principles), humans constantly give
and take, or exchange, rewards and punishments.
The conceptualization of human behavior as exchange of rewards (and
punishments) among interacting individuals led Homans to incorporate, in
altered form, the first principle of elementary economics: Humans rationally
calculate the long-range consequences of their actions in a marketplace and
attempt to maximize their material profits in their transactions. Homans
qualified this simplistic notion, however:
Indeed we are out to rehabilitate the economic man. The trouble with
him was not that he was economic, that he used resources to some advantage,
but that he was antisocial and materialistic, interested only in money
and material goods and ready to sacrifice even his old mother to get them.
Thus. to be an appropriate explanation of human behavior, tiffs basic
economic assumption must be altered in four ways: (1) People do not always
attempt to maximize profits; they seek only to make some profit in exchange
relations. (2) Humans do not usually make either long-run or rational
calculations in exchanges, for, in everyday life, "the Theory of Games is good
advice for human behavior but a poor description of it." (3) The things
exchanged involve not only money but also other commodities, including
approval, esteem, compliance, love, affection, and other less materialistic
goods. (4) The marketplace is not a separate domain in human exchanges, for
all interaction involves individuals exchanging rewards (and punishments) and
seeking profits.
In Propositions ⅠthoughⅢ of Table 12.2, Homansian principles of Skinnerian
psychology are restated. The morn valuable an activity (Ⅲ). The more often
such activity is rewarded (Ⅰ), the more a situation approximates one in which
activity has been rewarded in the past (Ⅱ), the more likely a particular activity
will be emitted. Proposition IV indicates the condition under which the first
three propositions fall into temporary abeyance. In accordance with the
reinforcement principle of satiation or the economic law of marginal utility,
humans eventually define rewarded activities as less valuable and begin to
emit other activities in search of different rewards (again, however, in
accordance with the principles enumerated in Propositions Ⅰ through Ⅲ
Proposition Ⅴ introduces a more complicated set of conditions that qualify
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PropositionsⅠthrough Ⅳ From Skinner's observation that pigeons reveal
anger and frustration when they do not receive an expected reward. Horns
reasoned that humans will probably reveal the same behavior.
In addition to these principles, Homans introduces a "rationality
proposition," which summarizes the stimulus, success, and value propositions.
This proposition is also placed in Table 12.2 because it is so prominent in
Homans's actual construction of deductive explanations. To translate the
somewhat awkward vocabulary of Principle Ⅵ as Homans wrote it: People
make calculations about various alternative lines of action. They perceive or
calculate the value of the rewards that might be yielded by various actions. But
they also temper this calculation through perceptions of how probable the
receipt of rewards will be. Low probability of receiving highly valued rewards
would lower their reward potential. Conversely, high probability of receiving a
lower-valued reward increases their overall reward potential. This relationship
can be stated by the following formula:
Action=Value ×Probablity
Table 12.2 Homans's Exchange Propositions
Ⅰ Success Proposition: For all actions taken by persons, the more often a
particular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to
perform that action,
Ⅱ Stimulus Proposition: If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus or
set of stimuli has been the occasion on which a person's action has been
rewarded, then, the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the
more likely the person is to perform the action or some similar action now.
Ⅲ Value Proposition: The more valuable to a person the result of his or her
action is, the more likely he or she is to perform the action.
Ⅳ. Deprivation/Satiation Proposition: The more often in the recent past a
person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of
that reward becomes for that person.
Ⅴ. Aggression/Approva/ Propositions;
A. When a person's action does not receive the reward expected or
receives punishment that was not expected, he or she will be angry and
become more likely to perform aggressive behavior. The results of such
behavior become more valuable to that person.
B. When a person's actions receive the reward expected, especially
greater reward than expected, or does not receive punishment expected, he or
she will be pleased and become more likely to perform approving behavior.
The results of such behavior become more valuable to that person.
Ⅵ, Rationality Proposition: In choosing between alternative actions, a person
will choose that one for which, as perceived by him or her at the time, the value
of the result, multiplied by the probability of getting that result, is greater.
People are, Homans asserted, rational in the sense that they are likely to
emit that behavior, or action, among alternatives in which value on the right
side of the equation is largest. For example, if Action is highly valued (say, 10)
but the probability of getting it by emitting Action is low (.20) and if Action is
less valued (say, 5) but the probability of receiving it is greater (.50) than Action,
then the actor will emit Action2 (because 10×20 = 2 yields less reward than 5
X .50 = 2.5).
As summarized in Table 12.2, Homans believed these basic principles or
laws explain, in the sense of deductive explanation, patterns of human
organization. As is obvious, these "laws" are psychological in nature. What is
more, these psychological axioms are the only general sociological
propositions because "there are no general sociological propositions that hold
good of all societies or social groups as such." The fact that psychological
propositions are the most general, however, does not make any less relevant
or important the sociological propositions stating the relationships among
group properties or between group properties and those of individuals. On the
contrary, these are the very propositions that are to be deduced from the
psychological axioms. Thus, sociological propositions will be conspicuous in
the deductive system emanating from the psychological principles.
Homans himself never presented a well developed deductive explanation,
even though he championed their development.6 He tended to simply invoke,
in a rather ad hoc fashion, his axioms and to reconcile them in a very loose and
imprecise mariner with empirical regularities. Or he constructed brief deductive
schemes to illustrate his strategy. One of Homans's explanations is reproduced
below. Homans recognized that this is not a complete explanation, but he
argued that it is as good as any other that exists. Moreover, although certain
steps in the deductive scheme are omitted, Homans believed this was the
proper way to develop scientific explanations. In this scheme, Homans sought
to explain Golden's Law that industrialization and the level of literacy in the
population are highly correlated. Such empirical generalizations are often
considered to be theory, but, as a theorist, Homans correctly perceived that
this "law" is only an empirical regularity that belongs at the bottom of the
deductive scheme. Propositions move from the most abstract statement, or the
axiom(s), to the specific empirical regularity to be explained. Golden's Law is
thus explained in the following manner:
1. Individuals are more likely to perform an activity the more~ valuable they
perceive the reward of that activity to be.
2. Individuals are morn likely to perform an activity the mote successful they
perceive the activity to be in getting that reward.
3, Compared with agricultural societies, a higher proportion of individuals in
industrial societies are prepared to reward activities that involve literacy.
(Industrialists want to hire bookkeepers, clerks, and persons who can make
and read blueprints, manuals, and so forth.)
4. Therefore, a higher proportion of individuals in industrial societies will
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perceive the acquisition of literacy as rewarding.
5. And [by (1)] a higher proportion will attempt to acquire literacy.
6. The provision of schooling costs money, directly or indirectly.
7. Compared with agricultural societies, a higher proportion of individuals in
industrial societies are, by some standard, wealthy.
8. Therefore, a higher proportion of individuals are able to provide schooling
(through government or private charity), and a higher proportion of individuals
ate able to pay for their own schooling without charity.
9. And a higher proportion wiI1 perceive the effort to acquire literacy as apt to
be successful.
10. And [by (2) as well as by (1)] a higher proportion will attempt to acquire
11. Because their perceptions are generally accurate, a higher proportion of
individuals in industrial societies will acquire literacy. That is, the literacy rate is
apt to be higher in an industrial than in an agricultural society.
Propositions 1 and 2 are an earlier statement of the rationality proposition
that summarizes the success, stimulus, and value propositions. Prom these
first two propositions, or axioms, others are derived in an effort to explain
Golden's Law (Proposition Ⅱ in the previous scheme). Examining some
features of this explanation can provide insight into Homans's deductive
In this example, the transition between Propositions 2 and 3 ignores so
many necessary variables that it simply describes in the words of behavioral
psychology what Homans perceived to have occurred. Why are people in
industrial societies prepared to reward literacy? This statement does not
explain; it describes and, thus, opens a large gap in the logic of the deductive
system. Homans believed that this statement is a given. It states a boundary
condition, for the theory is not trying to explain why people are prepared to
reward literacy Another story is required to explain this event. Thus, Homans
argued that "no theory can explain everything" and that it is necessary to
ignore some things and assume them to be givens for the purposes of
explanation at hand. The issue remains, however: Has not Homans defined
away the most interesting sociological issue--what makes people ready to
reward literacy in a society's historical development? Homans believed people
are just ready to do so.
Another problem in this scheme comes with the placement of the word
therefore. This transitive is typically used immediately following a statement of
the givens that define away important classes of sociological variables. For
example, the "therefore" preceding key propositions (4 and 8) begs questions
such as the following: Why do people perceive literacy as rewarding? What
level of industrialization would make this so? What level of educational
development? What feedback consequences does desire for literacy have for
educational development? By ignoring the why anti what of these questions,
Homans could then in Proposition 5 and 10 reinsert the higher order axioms (1
and 2) of the explanation, thereby giving the scheme an appearance of
deductive continuity~ Answers to the critical sociological questions have been
avoided, such as why people perceive as valuable and rewarding certain
crucial activities.
Homans's reply to such criticisms is important to note. First, he
emphasized that tiffs deductive scheme was just an example or illustrative
sketch, leaving out many details. Second, and more important, Homans
contended that it is unreasonable for the critic to expect that a theory can and
must explain every given condition (Propositions 3 and 7, for example). He
offered the example of Newton's laws, which can help explain the movement of
the tides (by virtue of gravitational forces of the moon ~relative to the axis of
the earth), but these laws cannot explain why oceans are present and why the
earth exists. This latter argument is reasonable, in principle, because
deductive theories explain only a delimited range of phenomena. Still, even
though Homans did not need to explain the givens of a deductive scheme, all
the interesting sociological questions were contained in those givens.
Moreover, these questions beg for the development of abstract sociological
laws to explain them (Golden's Law is not an abstract principle, only an
empirical generalization).
Homans provided many illustrations of how behavioristic principles can explain
research findings in social psychology. One of the most interesting chapters in
Social Behavior comes at the end of the book, where he offered a view of
how exchange processes can explain population-level and societal level social
phenomena. Phrased as a last orgy in his explication, Homans addressed the
issue of how societies and civilizations are, ultimately, built from the face-to
face exchanges of people in groups. His scenario went something like this:
At points in history, some people have the "capital" to reinforce or provide
rewards for others, whether it conies from their possessing a surplus of food,
money, a moral code, or valued leadership qualities. With such capital,
"institutional elaboration" can occur, because some can invest their capital by
trying to induce others (through rewards or threats of punishments) to engage
in novel activities. These new activities can involve an "intermeshing of the
behavior of a large number of persons in a more complicated or roundabout
way than has hitherto been the custom" Whether this investment involves
conquering territory and organizing a kingdom or creating a new form of
business organization, . those making the investment must have the
resources--whether it be an army to threaten punishment, a charismatic
personality to morally persuade followers, or the ability to provide for people's
subsistence needs--to keep those so organized in a situation in which they
derive some profit. At some point in this process, such organizations can
become more efficient and hence rewarding to all when the rewards are clearly
specified as generalized reinforcers, such as money, and when the activities
expended to get their rewards are more clearly specified, such as when explicit
Chapter 12
norms and rules emerge. In turn, this increased efficiency allows greater
organization of activities. This new efficiency increases the likelihood that
generalized reinforcers and explicit norms will be used to regulate exchange
relations and hence increase the profits to those involved. Eventually the
exchange networks involving generalized reinforcers and an increasingly
complex body of rules require differentiation of subunits-such as a legal and
banking system--that can maintain the stability of the generalized reinforcers
and the integrity of the norms.
From this kind of exchange process, then, social organization whether at
a societal, group, organizational, or institutional level--is constructed. The
emergence of most patterns of organization is frequently buried in the
recesses of history, but such emergence is typified by these accelerating
processes: (1) People with capital (reward capacity) invest in creating more
complex social relations that increase their rewards and allow those whose
activities are organized to realize a profit. (2) With increased rewards, these
people can invest in more complex patterns of organization. (3) More complex
patterns of organization require, first, the use of generalized reinforcers and
then the codification of norms to regulate activity. (4) With this organizational
base, it then becomes possible to elaborate further the pattern of organization,
creating the necessity for differentiation of subunits that ensure the stability of
the generalized reinforcers and the integrity of norms, (5) With this
differentiation, it is possible to expand even further the networks of interaction
because there are standardized means for rewarding activities and codifying
new norms as well as for enforcing old rules.
However, these complex patterns of social organization employing formal
rules and secondary or generalized reinforcers can never cease to meet the
more primary needs of individuals. Institutions first emerged to meet these
needs, and, no matter how complex institutional arrangements become and
how ~many norms and formal rules are elaborated, these extended interaction
networks must ultimately reinforce humans' mote primary needs. When these
arrangements cede meeting the primary needs from which they ultimately
sprang, an institution is vulnerable and apt to collapse if alternative actions,
which can provide primary rewards, present themselves as a possibility. In this
situation, low- or high-status persons--those who have little to lose by
nonconformity to existing prescriptions--will break from established ways to
expose to others a more rewarding alternative. Institutions might continue to
extract conformity for a period, but they will cease to do so when they lose the
capacity to provide primary rewards, Thus, complex institutional arrangements
must ultimately be satisfying to individuals, not simply because of the weight of
culture or norms but because they are constructed to serve people:
Institutions do not keep going just because they are enshrined in
norms, and it seems extraordinary that anyone should ever talk as if they
did. They keep going because they have payoffs, ultimately payoffs~ for
individuals. Nor is society a perpetual-motion machine, supplying its own
fuel. It cannot keep itself going by planting in the young a desire for
these goods and only those goods that it happens to be in shape to provide.
It must provide goods that men find rewarding not simply because they are
sharers in a particular culture but because they are men.
That institutions of society must also meet primary needs sets the stage
for a continual conflict between institutional elaboration and the primary needs
of humans. As one form of institutional elaboration meets one set of needs, it
can deprive people of other important rewards--opening the way for deviation
and innovation by those presenting the alter native rewards that have been
suppressed by dominant institutional arrangements. In turn, the new
institutional elaborations that can ensue from innovators who have the capital
to reward others will suppress other needs, which, through processes similar
to its inception, will set off another process of institutional elaboration.
In sum, this sketch of how social organization is linked to elementary
processes of exchange represents an interesting perspective for analyzing
how patterns of social organization are built, maintained, altered, and broken
down. Moreover, other exchange theorists repeated the broad contours of this
kind of argument as they applied the principles of behaviorism or classical
economics to explanations of larger-scale patterns of human organization. Yet,
little of Homans's explicit imagery was retained, although the effort to move
from micro principles about behavior of individuals to macro-level patterns of
organization remained a critical concern in exchange theories.
Dialectical Exchange Theory: Peter M. Blau
A few years after George C. Homans' behavioristic approach appeared,
another leading sociological theorist--Peter M. Blau--explored exchange
theory. Though Blau accepted the behavioristic underpindings of' exchange as
a basic social process, he recognized that sociological theory had to move
beyond simplistic behavioristic conceptualizations of human behavior.
Similiarly, crude views of humans as wholly rational had to be modified to fit the
realities of human behavior. In the end, he developed a dialectical approach,
emphasizing that within the strains toward integration arising from exchange
are forces of opposition and potential conflict. Moreover, his analysis has a
Simmelian thrust because, much like Georg Sirmmel, Blau tried to discover the
form of exchange processes at both the micro and macro levels, and in so
doing, he sought to highlight what was common to exchanges among
individuals as well as among collective units of organization.
Although Blau never listed his principles in quite the same way as Homans did
with his "axioms," the principles are nonetheless easy to extract from his
discursive discussion. In Table 12.3, the basic principles are summarized.
PropositionⅠ which can be termed the rationality principle, states that the
frequency of rewards and the value of these rewards increase the likelihood
that actions will be emitted. PropositionsⅡ-A andⅡ-B on reciprocity borrow
Chapter 12
from Bronislaw Malinowski's and Claude Levi-Strauss's initial discussion as
reinterpreted by Alvin Gorddner. Blau postulated, "the need to reciprocate for
benefits received in order to continue receiving them serves as a 'starting
mechanism' of social interaction.'' Equally important, once exchanges have
occurred, a "fundamental and ubiquitous norm of ~reciprocity" emerges to
regulate subsequent exchanges. Thus, inherent in the exchange process is a
principle of reciprocity. Over time, and as the conditions of Principle Ⅰare met,
a social "norm of reciprocity," whose violation brings about social disapproval
and other negative sanctions, emerges in exchange relations.
Table 12.3 Blau's implicit Exchange Principles
Ⅰ Rationality Principle: The more profit people expect from one another in
emitting a particular activity, the more likely they are to emit that activity.
Ⅱ. Reciprocity Principles:
A. The more people have exchanged rewards with one another the more
likely are reciprocal obligations to emerge and guide subsequent exchanges
among these people.
B. The more the reciprocal obligations of an exchange relationship are
violated, the more disposed deprived parties are to sanction negatively those
violating the norm of reciprocity.
Ⅲ Justice Principles:
A. The more exchange relations have been established, the more likely
they are to be governed by norms of fair exchange.
B. The less norms of fairness are realized in an exchange, the more
disposed deprived babies are to sanction negatively those violating the norms.
Ⅳ Marginal Utility Principle: The more expected rewards have been
forthcoming from the emission of a particular activity, the less valuable the
activity is and the less likely its emission is.
Ⅴ. imbalance Principle: The more stabilized and balanced are one set of
exchange relations among social units, the more likely are other exchange
relations to become imbalanced and unstable.
Blau recognized that people establish expectations about what level
of"reward particular exchange relations should yield and that these
expectations are normatively regulated. These norms are termed norms of fair
exchange because they determine what the proportion of rewards to costs
should be in a given exchange relation, Blau also asserted that aggression is
forthcoming when these norms of" fair exchange are violated. These ideas are
incorporated into Principles Ⅲ -A and Ⅲ -B and are termed the justice
principles. Following economists' analyses of transactions in the marketplace,
Blau introduced a principle on "marginal utility" (Proposition Ⅳ). The more a
person has received a reward, the more satiated he or she is with that reward
and the less valuable are further increments of the reward. Proposition V on
imbalance completes the listing of Blau's abstract laws. For Blau, as for all
exchange theorists, established exchange relations are seen to involve costs
or alternative rewards foregone. Most actors must engage in more than one
exchange relation, and so the balance and stabilization of one exchange
relation is likely to create imbalance and strain in other necessary exchange
relations. Blau believes that social life is thus filled with dilemmas in which
people must successively trade off stability and balance in one exchange
relation for strain in others as they attempt to cope with the variety of relations
that they must maintain.
Blau initiated his discussion of elementary exchange processes with the
assumption that people enter into social exchange because they perceive the
possibility of deriving rewards (Principle I). Blau labeled tiffs perception social
attraction and postulated that, unless relationships involve such attraction, they
are not relationships of exchange. In entering an exchange relationship, each
actor assumes the perspective of another and thereby derives some
perception of the other's needs. Actors then manipulate their presentation of
self to convince one another that they have the valued qualities others appear
to desire. In adjusting role behaviors in an effort to impress others with the
resources that they have to offer, people operate under the principle of
reciprocity, for. By indicating that one possesses valued qualities, each person
is attempting to establish a claim on others for the receipt of rewards from them.
All exchange operates under the presumption that people who bestow rewards
will receive rewards in turn as payment for value received.
Actors attempt to impress one another through competition in which they
reveal the rewards they have to offer in an effort to force others, in accordance
with the norm of reciprocity, to reciprocate with an even more valuable reward.
Social life is thus rife with people's competitive efforts to impress one another
and thereby extract valuable rewards. But, as interaction proceeds, it inevitably
becomes evident to the parties in an~ exchange that some people have more
valued resources to offer than others, putting them in a unique position to
extract rewards from all others who value the resources that they have to offer.
At this point in exchange relations, groups of individuals become
differentiated by the resources they possess and the kinds of reciprocal
demands they can make on others. Blau then asked an analytical question:
What generic types or classes of rewards can those with resources extract in
return for bestowing their valued resources on others? Blau conceptualized
four general classes of such rewards: money, social approval, esteem or
respect, and compliance. Although Blau did not make full use of his
categorization of rewards, he offend some suggestive clues about how these
categories can be incorporated into abstract theoretical statements,
Blau first ranked these generalized reinforcers by their value in exchange
relations. In most social relations, money is an inappropriate reward and hence
is the least valuable reward. Social approval is an appropriate reward, but for
most humans it is not very valuable, thus forcing those who derive valued
services to offer with great frequency the more valuable reward of esteem or
Chapter 12
respect to those providing valued services. In many situations, the services
offered can co--and no more than respect and esteem from those receiving the
benefit of these services. At times, however, the services offered are
sufficiently valuable to require those receiving them to offer, in accordance with
the principles of reciprocity and justice, the most valuable class of
rewards--compliance with one's requests.
Table 12.4 Blau's Conditions for the Differentiation of Power in Social
Ⅰ . The fewer services people can supply in return for the receipt of
particularly valued services, the more those providing these particularly valued
services can extract compliance,
Ⅱ The fewer alternative sources of rewards people have, the more those~
providing valuable services~ can extract compliance,
Ⅲ The less those receiving valuable services from particular individuals can
employ physical force and coercion, the more those providing the services can
extract compliance,
Ⅳ. The less those receiving the valuable services can do without them, the
more those providing the services can extract compliance.
When people can extract compliance in an exchange relationship, they
have power. They have the capacity to withhold rewarding services and
thereby punish or inflict heavy costs on those who might not comply To
conceptualize the degree of power possessed by individuals, Blau formulated
four general propositions that determine the capacity of powerful individuals to
extract compliance. These are listed and reformulated inTable 12.4.
These four propositions list the conditions leading to differentiation of
members in social groups by their power. To the extent that group members
can supply some services in return, seek alternative rewards, potentially use
physical force, or do without certain valuable services, individuals who can
provide valuable services will be able to extract only esteem and approval from
group members. Such groups will be differentiated by prestige rankings but not
by power. Naturally, as Blau emphasized, most social groups reveal complex
patterns of differentiation of power, prestige, and patterns of approval, but of
particular interest to him are the dynamics involved in generating power,
authority, and opposition.
Blau believed that, power differentials in groups create two contradictory
forces: (1) strains toward integration and (2) strains toward opposition and
Strains Toward Integration
Differences in power inevitably create the potential for conflict. However, such
potential is frequently suspended by a series of forces promoting the
conversion of power into authority, in which subordinates accept as legitimate
the leaders' demands for compliance. Principles Ⅱ and Ⅲ inTable 12 3
denote two processes fostering such group integration: Exchange relations
always operate under the presumption of reciprocity and justice, forcing those
deriving valued services to provide other rewards in payment. In providing
these rewards, subordinates are guided by norms of fair exchange, in which
the costs that they incur in offering compliance are to be proportional to the
value of the services that they receive from leaders. Thus, to the extent that
actors engage in exchanges with leaders and to the degree that the services
provided by leaders are highly valued, subordination must be accepted as
legitimate in accordance with the norms of reciprocity and fairness that emerge
in all exchanges. Under these conditions, groups elaborate additional norms
specifying just how exchanges with leaders are to be conducted to regularize
the requirements for reciprocity and to maintain fair rates of exchange. Leaders
who conform to these emergent norms can usually assure themselves that
their leadership will be considered legitimate. Blau emphasized that, if leaders
abide by the norms regulating exchange of their services for compliance,
norms carrying negative sanctions typically emerge among subordinates
stressing the need for compliance to leaders' requests. Through this process,
subordinates exercise considerable social control over one another's actions
and thereby promote the integration of superordinate and subordinate
segments of groupings.
Authority, therefore, "rests on the coupon norms~ in a collectivity of
subordinates that constrain its individual members to conform to the orders of
a superior.'' In many patterns of social organization, these norms simply
emerge from the competitive exchanges among collective groups of actors.
Frequently, however, for such "normative agreements" to be struck,
participants in an exchange must be socialized into a common set of values
that define not only what constitutes fair exchange in a given situation hut also
the way such exchange should be institutionalized into norms for both leaders
and subordinates. Although it is quite possible for actors to arrive at normative
couscous in the course of the exchange process itself, an initial set of common
values facilitates the legitimation of power. Actors can now enter into
exchanges with a common definition of the situation, which can provide a
general framework for the normative regulation of emerging power differentials.
Without common values, the competition for power is likely to be severe. In the
absence of guidelines about reciprocity and fair exchange, considerable strain
and tension will persist as definitions of these are worked out. For Blau, then,
legitimation "entails not merely tolerant approval but active confirmation and
promotion of social patterns by common values, either preexisting ones or
those that emerge in a collectivity in the course of social interaction?'
With the legitimation of power through the normative regulation of
interaction, as confirmed by common values, the structure of collective
organization is altered. One of the most evident changes is the decline in
interpersonal competition, for now actors' presentations of self shift from a
concern about impressing others with their valuable qualities to an emphasis
Chapter 12
on confirming their status as loyal group members. Subordinates accept their
status and manipulate their role behaviors to ensure that they receive social
approval from their peers as a reward for conformity to group norms. Leaders
can typically assume a lower profile because they no longer must demonstrate
their superior qualities in every encounter with subordinates especially
because norms now define when and how they should extract conformity and
esteem for providing their valued services. Thus, with the legitimation of power
as authority, the interactive processes (involving the way group members
define the situation and present themselves to others) undergo a dramatic
change, reducing the degree of competition and thereby fostering group
With these events, the amount of direct interaction between leaders and
subordinates usually declines, because power and ranking no longer must be
constantly negotiated. This decline in direct interaction marks the formation of
distinct subgroupings as members interact with those of their own social rank,
avoiding the costs of interacting with either their inferiors or their superiors. In
interacting primarily among themselves, subordinates avoid the high costs of
interacting with leaders, and, although social approval from their peers is not a
particularly valuable reward, it can be extracted with comparatively few
costs--thus allowing a sufficient profit. Conversely, leaders can avoid the high
costs (of time and energy) of constantly competing and negotiating with
inferiors regarding when and how compliance and esteem are to be bestowed
on them. Instead, by having relatively limited and well-defined contact with
subordinates, they can derive the high rewards that come from compliance
and esteem without incurring excessive costs in interacting with
subordinates--thereby allowing~for a profit.
Strains Toward Opposition
Thus far, Blau's exchange perspective is decidedly functional. Social exchange
processes--attraction, competition, differentiation, and integration--are
analyzed by how they contribute to creating a legitimated set of normatively
regulated relations. Yet, Blau was keenly aware that social organization is
always rife with conflict and opposition, creating an inevitable dialectic between
integration and opposition in social structures.
Blau's exchange principles, summarized in Table 12.3, allow the
conceptualization of these strains for opposition and conflict. As PrincipleⅡ-B
on reciprocity documents, the failure to receive expected rewards in return for
various activities leads actors to attempt to apply negative sanctions that,
when ineffective, can drive people to violent retaliation against those who have
denied them an expected reward. Such retaliation is intensified by the
dynamics summarized in Principle Ⅲ-B on justice and fair exchange, because
when those in power violate such norms, they inflict excessive costs on
subordinates, creating a situation that, at a minimum, leads to attempts to
sanction negatively and, at most, to retaliation. Finally, Principle Ⅴ on the
inevitable imbalances emerging from multiple exchange relations emphasizes
that to balance relations in one exchange context by meeting reciprocal
obligations and conforming to norms of fairness is to put other relations into
imbalance. Thus, the imbalances potentially encourage a cyclical process in
which actors seek to balance previously unbalanced relations and thereby
throw into imbalance currently balanced exchanges. In turn, exchange
relations that are thrown into imbalance violate the norms of reciprocity and fair
exchange, thus causing attempts at negative sanctioning and, under some
conditions, retaliation. Blau posited, then, that sources of imbalance are built
into all exchange relationships. When severely violating norms of reciprocity
and fair exchange, these imbalances can lead to open conflict among
individuals in group contexts.
In Table 12.5, Blau's ideas are summarized as propositions. To
appreciate the degree to which these propositions resemble those in conflict
theory, we can compare these propositions with those in Tables 10.1 and 10.5
on. For, in the end, dialectical conflict theory and exchange theory are
converging perspectives. It could be argued that conflict theory is a derivative
of exchange theory, although many would argue just the reverse. In either case,
the perspectives converge.
From the discursive context in which the propositions in Table 12.5 are
imbedded comes a conceptualization of opposition, Blau hypothesized that,
the more imbalanced exchange relations are experienced collectively, the
greater is the sense of deprivation and the greater is the potential for
opposition. Although he did not explicitly state the case, Blau appeared to
argue that increasing ideological codification of deprivations, the formation of
group solidarity, and the emergence of conflict as a way of life-that is,
members' emotional involvement in and commitment to opposition to those
with power--will increase the intensity of the opposition. These propositions
offered a suggestive lead for conceptualizing inherent processes of opposition
in exchange relations.
Although the general processes of attraction, competition, differentiation,
integration, and opposition are evident in the exchange among
macrostructures, Blau saw several fundamental differences between these
exchanges and those among microstructures.
1. In complex exchanges among macrostructures, the significance of" shared
values" increases, for through such values indirect exchanges among macrostructures
are mediated.
2. Exchange networks among macrostructures are typically institutionalized.Although
spontaneous exchange is a ubiquitous feature of social life, there are usually
well-established historical arrangements that circumscribe the basic exchange
processes of attraction, competition, differentiation, integration, and even opposition
among collective units,
3. Macrostructures are themselves the product of more elementary exchange processes,
and so the analysis of macrostructures requires the analysis of more than one level of
Chapter 12
social organization.
Table 12.5 Blau's Propositions on Exchange Conflict
Ⅰ . The probability of opposition to those with power increases when
exchange relations between super- and subordinates become imbalanced,
with imbalance increasing when
A. Norms of reciprocity are violated by the superordinates.
B. Norms of fair exchange are violated by sugerordinates.
Ⅱ. The probability of opposition increases as the sense of deprivation among
subordinates escalates, with this sense of deprivation increasing when
subordinates can experience collectively their sense of deprivation, Such
collective experience increases when
A. Subordinates are ecologically and spatially concentrated.
B. Subordinates can communicate with one another.
Ⅲ The more subordinates can collectively experience deprivations in
exchange relations with superordinates, the more likely are they to codify
ideologically their deprivations and the more likely are they to oppose those
with power.
Ⅳ The more deprivations of subordinates are ideologically codified, the
greater is their sense of solidarity and the more likely are they to oppose
those with power.
Ⅴ The greater the sense of solidarity is among subordinates, the more they
can define their opposition as a noble and worthy cause and the more likely
they are to oppose those with power.
Ⅵ. The greater is the sense of ideological solidarity, the more likely are
subordinates to view opposition as an end in itself, and the more likely are they
to oppose those with power.
Mediating Values
Blau believed that the "interpersonal attraction" of elementary exchange
among individuals is replaced by shared values at the macro level. These
values can be conceptualized as "media of social transactions" in that they
provide a common set of standards for conducting the complex chains of
indirect exchanges among social structures and their individual members. Blau
views such values as providing effective mediation of complex exchanges
because the individual members of social structures have usually been
socialized into a set of common values, leading them to accept these values as
appropriate. Furthermore, when coupled with codification into laws and
enforcement procedures by those groups and organizations with power,
shared values provide a means for mediating the complex and indirect
exchanges among the macrostructures of large scale systems. In mediating
indirect exchanges among groups and organizations, shared values provide
standards for the calculation of (a) expected rewards, (b) reciprocity, and (c)
fair exchange.
Thus, because individuals are not the units of complex exchanges, Blau
emphasized that, for complex patterns of social organization to emerge and
persist, a "functional equivalent" of direct interpersonal attraction must exist.
Values assume this function and ensure that exchange can proceed in
accordance with the principles presented in Table 12.3. Even when complex
exchanges do involve people, their interactions are frequency so protracted
and indirect that one individual's rewards are contingent on others who are far
removed, requiring that common values guide and regulate the exchanges.
Whereas values facilitate processes of indirect exchange among diverse types
of social units, institutionalization denotes those processes that regularize and
stabilize complex exchange processes, As people and various forms of
collective organization become dependent on particular networks of indirect
exchange for expected rewards, pressures for formalizing exchange networks
through explicit norms increase. Tiffs formalization and regularization of
complex exchange systems can be effective in three minimal conditions: (1)
The formalized exchange networks must have profitable payoffs for most
parties to the exchange. (2) Most individuals organized into collective units
must have internalized through prior socialization the mediating values used to
build exchange networks. And, (3) those units with power in the exchange
system must receive a level of rewards that moves them to seek actively the
formalization of rules governing exchange relations.
Institutions are historical products whose norms and underlying
mediating values are handed down from one generation to another, thereby
limiting and circumscribing the kinds of indirect exchange networks that can
emerge. Institutions exert a kind of external constraint on individuals and
various types of collective units, bending exchange processes to fit their
proscriptions and proscriptions. Institutions thus represent sets of relatively
stable and general norms regularizing different patterns of indirect and
complex exchange relations among diverse social units.
Blau stressed that all institutionalized exchange systems reveal a
counter-institutional component "consisting of those basic values and ideals
that have not been realized and have not found expression in explicit
institutional forms, and which are the ultimate source of social change.'' To the
extent that these values remain unrealized in institutionalized exchange
relations, individuals who have internalized them will derive little payoff from
existing institutional arrangements and will therefore feel deprived, seeking
alternatives to dominant institutions. These unrealized values, even when
codified into an opposition ideology advocating open revolution, usually
contain at least some of the ideals and ultimate objectives legitimated by the
prevailing culture. This indicates that institutional arrangements "contain the
seeds of their potential destruction" by falling to meet all the expectations of
reward raised by institutionalized values.
Blau did not enumerate the conditions for mobilization of individuals into
conflict groups, but his scheme explicitly denoted the source of conflict and
Chapter 12
change: Counter-institutional values whose failure of realization by dominant
institutional arrangements creates deprivations that can lead to conflict and
change in social systems. Such tendencies for complex exchange systems to
generate opposition can be explained by the basic principles of exchange.
When certain mediating values are not institutionalized in a social system,
exchange relations will not be viewed as reciprocated by those who have
internalized these values. Thus, in accordance with Blau's principles on
reciprocity (see Table 12.3), these segments of a collectivity are more likely to
feel deprived and to seek ways of retaliating against the dominant institutional
arrangements, which, from the perspective dictated by their values, have failed
to reciprocate. For those who have internalized values that are not
institutionalized, it is also likely that perceptions of fair exchange have been
violated, leading them, in accordance with the principles of justice, to attempt
to sanction negatively those arrangements that violate alternative norms of fair
exchange. Finally, in institutionalized exchange networks, the balancing of
exchange relations with some segments of a collectivity inevitably creates
imbalances in relations with other segments (the imbalance principle in Table
12.3), thereby violating norms of reciprocity and fairness and setting into
motion forces of opposition.
Unlike direct interpersonal exchanges, however, opposition in complex
exchange systems is between large collective units of organization, which, in
their internal dynamics, reveal their own propensities for integration and
opposition. This requires that the analysis of integration and opposition in
complex exchange networks he attuned to various levels of social organization.
Such analysis needs to show, in particular, how exchange processes among
macrostructures, whether for integration or for opposition, are partly influenced
by the exchange processes occurring among their constituent substructures.
Levels of Social Organization
Blau believes the "dynamics of macrostructures rest on the manifold
interdependences between the social forces within and among their
substructures,'' Blau simplifies the complex analytical tasks of examining the
dynamics of substructures by positing that organized collectivities, especially
formal organizations, are the most important substructures in the analysis of
macrostructures.Thus, the theoretical analysis of complex exchange
systems among macrostructures requires that primary attention be drawn to
the relations of attraction, competition, differentiation, integration, and
opposition among various types of complex organizations. In emphasizing the
pivotal significance of complex organizations, Blau posited a particular image
of society that should guide the ultimate construction of sociological theory.
Organizations in a society must typically derive rewards from one another, thus
creating a situation in which they are both attracted to, and in competition with,
one another, Hierarchical differentiation between successful and less
successful organizations operating in the same sphere emerges from this
cometition. Such differentiation usually creates strains toward specialization in
different fields among less successful organizations as they seek new sources
of resources. To provide effective means for integration, separate political
organizations must also emerge to regulate their exchanges. These political
organizations possess power and are viewed as legitimate only as long as they
are considered by individuals and organizations to follow the dictates of shared
cultural values. Typically, political organizations arc charged with several
objectives: (1) regulating complex networks of indirect exchange by the
enactment of laws; (2) controlling through law competition among dominant
organizations, thereby ensuring the latter of scarce resources; and (3)
protecting existing exchange networks among organizations, especially those
with power, from encroachment on these rewards by organizations opposing
the current distribution of resources.
Strains toward integration
(creation of organized
1. Legitimation of power
through authority
2. Subordinate
social control
Social ~ Exchange
Competition for Differentation
attraction of rewards
1. Esteem
1. Impression 2. Power
Potential conflict
1. Intrinsic
2 Displays of
2. Extrinsic
Strains toward opposion
1. Denial of expected
2 Violation of norms
of fair exchange
3. Failure to reciprocate
4. Blau's conditions
listed in Table 8.3
Norrms of
into common
" fair
and legal
From other
FIGURE 12.3 Blau's Image of Social Organization
Chapter 12
Exchange Competition
of rewards for power
Strains for integration
among organization
1.Political coalitions
2.Resistance to change
Potential conflict
Strains for opposition to
new levels of
organized among
1. Norms of
values provide "fair
basis for
2 Political~
3. Laws
FIGURE 12.3 continued
Blau believes that differentiation and specialization occur among
macrostructures because of the competition among organizations in a society.
Although mediating values allow differentiation and specialization among
organizations to occur, it is also necessary for separate political organizations
to exist and regularize, through laws and the use of force, existent patterns of
exchange among other organizations. Such political organizations will be
viewed as legitimate as long as they normatively regulate exchanges that
reflect the tenets of mediating values and protect the payoffs for most
organizations, especially the most powerful. The existence of political authority
inevitably encourages opposition movements, however, for now opposition
groups have a clear target--the political organizations--against which to
address their grievances. As long as political authority remains diffuse,
opposition organizations can only compete unsuccessfully against various
dominant organizations. With the legitimation of clear-cut political
organizations charged with preserving current patterns of organization,
opposition movements can concentrate their energies against one
organization, the political system,
In addition to providing deprived groups with a target for their
aggressions, political organizations inevitably must aggravate the deprivations
of various segments of a population because political control involves exerting
constraints and distributing resources unequally. Those segments of the
population that must bear the brunt of such constraint and unequal distribution
usually experience great deprivation of the principles of reciprocity and fair
exchange. which, under various conditions, creates a movement against the
existing political authorities. To the extent that this organized opposition forces
redistribution of rewards, other segments of the population are likely to feel
constrained and deprived, leading them to organize into an opposition
movement. The organization of political authority ensures that, in accordance
with the principle of imbalance, attempts to balance one set of exchange
relations among organizations throw into imbalance other exchange relations,
causing the formation of opposition organizations. Thus, built into the structure
of political authority in a society are inherent forces of opposition that give
society a dialectical and dynamic character.
Figure 12.3 summarizes Blau's view of social organization at the micro level
and the macro-organizational level. Clearly, the same processes operate at
both levels of exchange: (1) social attraction, (2) exchange of rewards, (3)
competition for power, (4) differentiation, (5) strains toward integration, and (6)
strains toward opposition. Thus, the Simmelian thrust of Blau's effort is clear
because he sees the basic form of exchange as much the same, regardless of
whether the units involved in the exchange are individuals or collective units of
organization. There are, of course, some differences between exchange
among individuals and organizational units, and these are noted across the
bottom of the figure.
Despite Blau's effort to synthesize elements of functional and conflict theory,
his approach did not endure. Indeed, even Blau himself increasingly believed
that the isomorphism between micro-level and macro-level exchange
processes was forced. And in the end, he abandoned the exchange approach
at the macro-structural level (his alternative theory is presented on the Web
site for this book), but still, more than any theorist of the time, Blau recognizes
that exchange and conflict theory converge. Exchange processes produce
both institutionalized patterns and forces of opposition to these patterns,
primarily because exchange generates inequalities in power. But subsequent
theorists-- who drew more from either network theory or more purely economic
approaches--never followed these leads. Let us now turn to the profile of these
Exchange Network Theory
In the early 1960s, Richard M. Emerson followed Georg Simmel's lead in
seeking a formal sociology of basic exchange processes. In essence, Emerson
asked this: Could exchange among individual and collective actors be
understood by the same basic principles? Emerson provided a creative answer
to this question by synthesizing behaviorist psychology and sociological
network analysis. The psychology gave him the driving force behind
Chapter 12
exchanges, whereas the network sociology allowed him to conceptualize the
form of social relations among both individual and collective actors in the same
terms. What emerged was exchange network analysis that, after Emerson's
early death, was carried forward by colleagues and students, particularly
Karen S. Cook.
Emerson borrowed the basic ideas of behaviorist psychology, but unlike
many working in this tradition, he became more concerned with the form of
relationships among the actors rather than the properties and characteristics of
the actors themselves. This simple shift in emphasis profoundly affected how
he built his exchange theory. The most significant departure from earlier
exchange theories is the concern with why actors entered an exchange
relationship in the first place given their values and preferences was replaced
by an emphasis on the existing exchange relationship and what is likely to
transpire in this relationship in the future. Emerson believed that if an
exchange relationship exists, this means that actors~ are willing to exchange
valued resources, and the goal of theory is not so much to understand how this
relationship originally came about but, instead, what will happen to it over time.
Thus, the existing exchange relationship between actors--rather than the
actors themselves--becomes the unit of sociological analysis. In Emerson's
eye, then, social structure is composed of exchanges among actors seeking to
enhance the value of their resources. And so behaviorism, which posited a
dynamic but atomized actor, was blended with network sociology, which
conceptualized structure without dynamic actors.
The key dynamics in Emerson's theory are (1) power, (2) power use, and (3)
balancing. Actors have power to the extent that others depend on them for
resources; hence, the power of Actor A over actor B is determined by the
dependence of B on A for a resource that B values, and vice versa.
Dependence, which is the ultimate source of power in Emerson's scheme, is
determined by the degree to which (a) resources sought from other actors are
highly valued and (b) alternatives for these resources are few or too costly to
pursue. Under these conditions, where B values A’s resources and where no
attractive alternatives are~ available, the B'S dependence on A is high; hence,
the power of A over B is high. Conversely, where B has resources that A values
and where alternatives for A are limited, B has power over A. Thus, both actors
can reveal a high degree of mutual dependence, giving each absolute power
over the other and, thereby, increasing structural cohesion because of the high
amounts of total or average power in the exchange relationship.
When one actor has more~ power than an exchange partner, however,
this actor will engage in power use and exploit its exchange partner's
dependence to secure additional resources or to reduce the costs it must incur
in getting resources from this dependent partner. If A has power over B
because of B's dependency on A, then A has the power advantage and will use
Such relations are power imbalanced, and Emerson felt that imbalance
and power use would activate what he termed balancing operations. In a
situation where A has a power advantage over B, B has four options:
1. Actor B can value less the resources provided by A.
2. B can find alternative sources for the resources provided by A.
3. B can increase the value of the resources it provides A.
4. B can find ways to reduce A'S alternatives for the resources that B provides.
All these balancing mechanisms are designed to reduce dependency on A,
or alternatively, to increase A's dependency on B in ways that balance the
exchange relationship and give it a certain equilibrium.
Exchange in networks can be of two general types: (1) those where actors
negotiate and bargain over the distribution of resources; and (2) those where
actors do not negotiate but, instead, sequentially provide resources with the
expectation that these rewards will be reciprocated. This distinction between
what can be termed negotiated exchanges and reciprocal exchanges is
important because it reflects different types of exchanges in the real world.
When actors negotiate, they try to influence each other before the resources
are divided, as when labor and management negotiate a contract or when
individuals argue about whether to go to the movies or to the beach. The
dynamics of negotiated exchange are distinctive because they typically take
longer to execute, because they generally involve considerably more explicit
awareness and calculation of costs and benefits, and because they are often
part of conflicts among parties who seek a compromise acceptable to all. In
contrast, reciprocal exchanges involve the giving of resources unilaterally by
one party to another with, of course, some expectation that valued resources
will be given back, as occurs when a person initiates affection with the intent
that the other will respond with the same emotion. Reciprocal exchanges are
thus constructed in sequences of contingent rewarding, whereas as negotiated
exchanges unfold in a series of offers and counter-offers before resources are
These seminal ideas form the core of Emerson's theoretical scheme.
Before his untimely death, Emerson had been collaborating with Karen Cook
~and their mutual students to test the implications of these ideas for different
types of networks. The basic goal was to determine how the structure of the
network--that is, the pattern of connections among actors--influences, and is
influenced by, the distribution of power, power use. and balancing.
Emerson's portrayal of social networks will be simplified; for our purposes here
the full details of his network terminology need not be addressed. Although
Emerson followed the conventions of graph theory and developed a number of
definitions, only two definitions are critical:
Actors: Points A, B, C, n in a network of relations. Different letters
represent actors with different resources to exchange. The same letters-- that
is, A1, A2, A3, and so forth--represent different actors exchanging similar~
Chapter 12
Exchange relations: A--B, A--B---C, A1--A2. and other patterns of ties that
can connect different actors to each other, forming a network of relations.
The next conceptual task was to visualize the forms of networks that could
be represented with these two definitions. For each basic form. new corollaries
and theorems were added as Emerson documented the way in which the basic
processes of dependence, power, and balance operate. His discussion was
only preliminary, but it illustrated his perspective's potential.
FIGURE 12.6 A Unilateral Monopoly
Several basic social forms are given special treatment: (a) unilateral
monopoly, (b) division of labor, (c) social circles, and (d) stratification.
Unilateral Monopoly
1n the network illustrated in Figure 12.6, actor A is a source of valuable
resources for actors B1, B2, and B3. Actors B1, B2, and B3. provide rewards for
A, but, because A has multiple sources for rewards and the Bs have only A as
a source for their rewards, the situation is a unilateral monopoly
Such a structure often typifies interpersonal as~ well as intercorporate
units. For example, A could be a female date for three different men, B1, B2,
and B3.Or A could be a corporation that is the sole supplier of raw resources for
three other manufacturing corporations, B1, B2, and B3. Or A could be a
governmental body and the Bs could be dependent agencies. An important
feature of the unilateral monopoly is that, by Emerson's definitions, it is
imbalanced, and thus, its structure is subject to change.
Emerson developed additional corollaries and theorems to account for the
various ways this unilateral monopoly can change and become balanced. For
instance, if no A2, A3,... , An exist and the 13s cannot communicate with each
other, the following proposition would apply (termed by Emerson Exploitation
The more an exchange relation between A and multiple Bs approximates a
unilateral monopoly, the more additional resources each B will introduce into the
exchange relation, with A's resource utilization remaining constant or decreasing.
Emerson saw this adaptation as short-lived because the network will
become even more unbalanced. If the Bs can survive as an entity without
resources from A, then a new proposition applies (termed by Emerson
Exploitation TypeⅡ):
The more an exchange relation between A and multiple Bs approximates a
unilateral monopoly, the less valuable to Bs are the resources provided by A across
continuing transactions.
This proposition thus predicts that balancing operation 1-a decrease
in the value of the reward for those at a power disadvantage -~will balance a
unilateral monopoly where no alternative sources of rewards exist and
where~Bs cannot effectively communicate.
Other balancing operations are possible if other conditions exist. If Bs can
communicate, they might form a coalition (balancing operation 4) and require~
A to balance exchanges with a united coalition or Bs. If one B can provide a
resource not possessed by the other Bs, then a division of labor among Bs
(operations 3 and 4) would emerge. Or if another source of resources, A 2,
can be found (operation 2). then the power advantage of A1 is decreased.
Each of these possible changes will occur under varying conditions, but these
propositions provide a reason for the initiation of changes--a reason derived
from basic principles of operant psychology (the details of these derivations
are not discussed here).
Division of Labor
The emergence of a division of labor is one of many ways to balance
exchange relations in a unilateral monopoly. If each of the Bs can provide
different resources for A, then they are likely to use these in the exchange with
A and to specialize in providing A with these resources. This decreases the
power of A and establishes a new type of network. For example, in Figure 12.7,
the unilateral monopoly at the left is transformed to the division of labor form at
the right, with BI becoming a new type of actor, C, with its own resources; with
B2 also specializing and becoming a new actor, D; and with B3 doing the same
and becoming actor E.
Emerson developed an additional proposition to describe tiffs kind of
change, in which each B has its own unique resources:
The more resources are distributed nonuniformly across Bs in a unilateral
monopoly with A, the more likely is each B to specialize and establish a
exchange relation with A.
Several points should be emphasized. First, the units in this
transformation can be individual or collective actors. Second, the change in the
structure or form of the network is described as a proposition systematically
derived from operant principles, corollaries, and other theorems. The
proposition could thus apply to a wide variety of micro and macro contexts. For
example, it could apply to workers in an office who specialize and provide A
with resources not available from others. This proposition could also apply to a
division in a corporation that seeks to balance its relations with the central
authority by reorganizing itself in ways that distinguish it, and the services it
can provide, from other divisions. Or this proposition could apply to relations
between a colonial power (A) and its colonized nations (B 1, B2, B3), which
specialize (become C, D, and E) in their predominant economic activities in
order to establish a less dependent relationship with A.
Chapter 12
Unilateral monopoly at time1
Division of labor at time2
Changes to
FIGURE 12,7 Transformation of Unilateral Monopoly to Division of Labor
Social Circles
Emerson emphasized that some exchanges are intercategory and others
intracategory. An intercategory exchange is one in which one type of resource
is exchanged for another type--money for goods, advice for esteem, tobacco
for steel knives, and so on. The networks discussed thus far have involved
intercategory exchanges between actors with different resources (A, B, C, D,
E). An interacategory is one in which the same resources are being
exchanged--affection for affection, advice for advice, goods for goods, and so
on. As indicated earlier, such exchanges are symbolized in Emerson's graph
approach by using the same letter--A1, A2, A3, and so forth--to represent actors
with similar resources. Emerson then developed another proposition to
describe what will occur in these interacategory exchanges:
The more an exchange approximates an interacategory exchange, the
more likely are exchange relations to become closed.
Emerson defined "closed" either as a circle of relations (diagrammed on
the left in Figure 12.8) or as a balanced network in which all actors exchange
with one another (diagrammed on the right in Figure 12.8). Emerson offered
the example of tennis networks to illustrate this balancing process. If two tennis
players of equal ability, A1 and A2, play together regularly, this is a balanced
interacategory exchang--tennis for tennis. However, if A3enters and plays with
A2, then A2 now enjoys a power advantage, ~as is diagrammed in Figure 12.9.
This is a unilateral monopoly, but, unlike those discussed earlier, it is an
interacategory monopoly. A1and A3 are dependent on A2 for tennis. This
relation is unbalanced and sets into motion processes of balance. A 4 might be
recruited, creating either the circle or balanced network diagrammed in Figure
12.8. Once this kind of closed and balanced network is achieved, it resists
entry by others, A5. A6, A7, . . . , An, because, as each additional actor enters,
the network becomes unbalanced. Such a network, of course, is not confined
to individuals; it can apply to nations forming a military alliance or common
market, to cartels of corporations, and to other collective units.
Closed circle
Close network
FIGURE 12.8 Closure of Intracateaorv Exchanges
FIGURE 12.9 Imbalanced Intracategory Exchange
Stratified Networks
The discussion about how interacategory exchanges often achieve balance
through closure can help us understand processes of stratification. If, for
example, tennis players AI, A2, A3, and A4 are unequal in ability, with AI and
A2,having more ability than A3 and A4, an initial circle might form among AI, A2,,
A3 and A4, but, over time, AI and A2, will find more gratification in playing each
other, and A3 anti A4might have to incur too many costs in initiating invitations
to AI and A2,. An AI and A3 tennis match is unbalanced; A3will have to provide
additional resources--the tennis balls, praise, esteem, self-deprecation. The
result will be for two classes to develop:
Upper social class AI -- A2,
Lower social class A3-- A4
Moreover, AI and A2, might enter into new exchanges with A5and A6 at their
ability level, forming a new social circle or network. Similarly, A 3 and A4 might
form new tennis relations with A7 and A8, creating social circles and networks
with players at their ability level. The result is stratification that
reveals the pattern in Figure 12.10
Upper sooial class
Lower social class
FIGURE l2,10 Stratification and Closure Exchanges
Emerson's discussion of stratification processes was tentative, but he
developed a proposition to describe these stratifying tendencies:
The more resources are equally valued and the more resources are
unequally distributed across a number of actors, the more likely is the
network to stratify by resource magnitudes and the more likely are actors
with a given level of resources to form closed exchange networks.
Again, this theorem can apply to corporate units as well as to individuals.
Nations become stratified and form social circles, as is the case with the
distinctions between the developed and underdeveloped nations and the
alliances among countries within these two classes. Or this theorem can apply
to traditional sociological definitions of class, because closed networks tend to
form among members within, rather than across, social classes.
Since Emerson's pioneering work, network exchange theory has gone in many
directions. Two additional approaches within Emerson's tradition are reviewed
Chapter 12
in the Web site for this book (see the theories of Linda D. Molm and Edward
Lawler). Emerson's key insight was borrowed from Georg Simmel: Study the
nature of social relations because these are driven by exchange forces. This
insight has allowed theorists to talk about social structures-conceptualized as
social networks--while still referring to the psychological forces that drive
actors in these networks. Moreover, because the actors can be individual
people or collective actors such as corporations or nations, the micro-macro
problem of connecting people to structure is obviated. Work in exchange
networks continues and represents one of the leading edges of theorizing in
Chapter13: Interaction Theory
Early Interactionist
William James's Analysis of "Self"
Charles Horton Cooley's Analysis of Self
John Dewey's Pragmatism
Mead's Thought on Pragmatism,Darwinism, and Behaviorism
George Herbert Mead's Synthesis
Conceptualizing Structure and Role
Robert Park's Role Theory
Jacob Moreno's Role Theory
Ralph Linton's Role Theory
Ethnomethodological Theory
Early Interactionist
The first sociological theorists in Europe were concerned primarily
with macro-level phenomena, but with the beginning of the twentieth century,
theorists in Europe and America turned to the analysis of micro-level
processes. They began to understand that the structure of society is, in some
ultimate sense, created and maintained by the actions and interactions of
individuals; so increasingly, they sought to discover the fundamental
processes of interaction among people. This burst of creative activity
generated a wide range of micro-level theories that will, for the sake of
simplicity, be labeled "interactionism" The rise of interactionism also marks
the beginning of American theory as an active contributor to the theoretical
canon of sociology" Hence, it is appropriate that we begin with the American
contribution to interactionism, turning later to the European micro-oriented
tradition that emerged in the early decades of this century.
A philosopher at the University of Chicago,
George Herbert Mead
(1863-1931), made the great breakthrough in understanding the basic
properties of human social interaction. His was not a blazing new insight but,
rather, a synthesis of ideas that had been developed by others. Yet, without
his synthesis, the study of interaction would have been greatly retarded. To
appreciate Mead's genius, let us first review those from whom he drew
inspiration, then explore how he pieced their ideas into a model of interaction
that still serves as the basic framework for most interactionist theories.
William James's Analysis of "Self"
The Harvard psychologist William James (1842-1910) was perhaps the first
social scientist to develop a clear concept of self James recognized that
humans have the capacity to view themselves as objects and to develop
Chapter 13
self-feelings and attitudes toward themselves. Just as humans can (a) denote
symbolically other people and aspects of the world around them, (b) develop
attitudes and feelings toward these objects, and (c) construct typical
responses toward objects, so they can denote themselves, develop self
feelings and attitudes, and construct responses toward themselves. James
called these capacities se/f and recognized their importance ha shaping the
way people respond in the world.
James developed a typology of selves: the "material self;' which includes
those physical objects that humans view as part of their being and as crucial
to their identity; the "social self," which involves the self-feelings that
individuals derive from associations with other people; and the "spiritual self,"
which embraces the general cognitive style and capacities typifying an
individual, This typology was never adopted by subsequent interactionists,
hut James' notion of the social self became a part of all interactionists'
James's concept of the social self recognized that people's feelings
about themselves arise flora interaction with other. As he noted, "a man has
as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him" Yet, James
did not carry this initial insight very far. He was, after all, a psychologist who
was more concerned with internal psychological functioning of Individuals
than with the social processes from which the capacities of individuals arise.
Charles Horton Cooley's Analysis of Self
Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) offered two significant extensions in the
analysis of self. First, he refined the concept, viewing self as the process in
which individuals see themselves as objects, along with other objects, in their
social environment. Second, he recognized that self emerges from
communication with others. As individuals interact ~with each other, they
interpret each other's gestures and thereby see themselves from the
viewpoint of others. They imagine how others evaluate them, and they derive
images of themselves or self-feelings and attitudes. Cooley termed this
process the looking glass self: The gestures of others sere as mirrors in which
people see and evaluate themselves, just as they see and evaluate other
objects in their social environment.
Cooley also recognized that self arises from interaction in group
contexts. He developed the concept of "primary group" to emphasize that
participation in front of the looking glass in some groups is more important in
the genesis and maintenance of self than participation in other groups. Those
small groups in which personal and intimate ties exist are the most important
in shaping people's self-feelings and attitudes.
Cooley thus refined and narrowed James's notion of self and forced the
recogniition that it arises from symbolic communication with others in group
contexts. These insights profoundly influenced Mead.
John Dewey's Pragmatism
John Dewey (t859-1952) was, for a brief period, a colleague of Cooley's at the
University of Michigan. But more important was Dewey's enduring association
with Mead, whom he brought to the University of Chicago. As the chief
exponent of a school of thought known as pragmatism, Dewey stressed the
process of human adjustment to the world, in which humans constantly seek
to master the conditions of their environment. Thus, the unique characteristics
of humans arise from the process of adjusting to their life conditions.
What is unique to humans, Dewey argued, is their capacity for thinking.
Mind is not a structure but a process that emerges from humans' efforts to
adjust to their environment, Mind for Dewey is the process of denoting objects
in the environment, ascertaining potential lines of conduct, imagining the
consequences of pursuing each line, inhibiting "inappropriate responses, and,
then, selecting a line of conduct that will facilitate adjustment. Mind is thus the
process of thinking, which involves deliberation:
Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various
competing possible fines of action … Deliberation is an experiment in
finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like.
It is an experiment in making various combinations of selected elements..,
to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon.
Dewey's conception of mind as a process of adjustment, rather than as
a thing or entity, was critical in shaping Mead's thoughts. Much as Cooley had
done for the concept of self, Dewey demonstrated that mind emerges and is
sustained through interactions in the social world.
Mead's Thought on Pragmatism,Darwinism, and Behaviorism
At the time that Mead began to formulate Iris synthesis, the convergence of
several intellectual traditions was crucial because it appears to have
influenced the direction of his thought. Mead considered himself a behaviorist,
but not of the mechanical stimulus/response type. Many of Iris ideas actually
were intended as a refutation of such prominent behaviorists as John B.
Watson. Mead accepted the basic premise of behaviorism--that is, the view
that reinforcement guides and directs action. However, he used this principle
in a novel way. Moreover, he rejected as untenable the methodological
presumption of early behaviorism that it was inappropriate to study the
internal dynamics of the human mind. James's, Cooley's, and Dewey's
influence ensured that Mead would rework the principle of reinforcement in
ways that allowed for the consideration of mind and self.
Another strain of thought that shaped Mead's synthesis is pragmatism,
as it was acquired through exposure with Dewey. Pragmatism sees
organisms as practical creatures that come to terms with the actual
conditions of the world. Coupled with behaviorism, pragmatism offered a
new way of viewing human life: Human beings seek to cope with their actual
conditions, and they learn
those behavioral patterns that provide
gratification. The most important type of gratification is adjustment to social
This argument was buttressed in Mead's synthesis by yet another
Chapter 13
related intellectual tradition, Darwinism. Mead recognized that humans are
organisms seeking a niche in which they can adapt. Historically, this was true
of humans as an evolving species; more important, it is true of humans as
they discover a niche in the social world. Mead's commitment to behaviorism
and pragmatism thus allowed him to apply the basic principle of Darwinian
theory to each human: That which facilitates survival or adaptation of the
organism will be retained.
In this way, behaviorist, pragmatist, and Darwinian principles blended
into an image of humans as attempting to adjust to the world around them
and as retaining those characteristics--particularly mind and self--that enable
them to adapt to their surroundings. Mind, self, and other unique features of
humans evolve from efforts to survive in the social environment. They are
thus capacities that arise from the processes of coping, adjusting, adapting,
and achieving the ultimate gratification or reinforcement: survival. For this
reason, Mead's analysis emphasizes the processes by which the infant
organism acquires mind and self as an adaptation to society. But Mead did
much more; he showed how society is viable only from the capacities for mind
and self among individuals. From Mead's perspective, then, the capacities for
mind, self, and society are intimately connected.
George Herbert Mead's Synthesis
The names of James, Cooley, and Dewey figure prominently in the
development of interactionism, hut Mead brought their related concepts
together into a coherent theoretical perspective that linked the emergence of
the human mind, the social self, and the structure of society to the process of
social interaction, Mead appears to have begun his synthesis with two basic
assumptions: (1) the biological frailty of human organisms forces their
cooperation with one another in group contexts to survive; and (2) those
actions within and among human organisms that facilitate their cooperation,
and hence their survival or adjustment, will be retained. Starting from these
assumptions, Mead reorganized the concepts of others so that they denoted
how mind, the social self, and society arise and are sustained through
Mind Following Dewey's lead, Mead recognized that the unique feature of the
human mind is its capacity to (1) use symbols to designate objects in the
environment, (2) rehearse covertly" alternative lines of action toward these
objects, and (3) inhibit inappropriate Iines of action and select a proper course
of overt action. Mead termed this process of using symbols or language
covertly imaginative rehearsal, revealing his conception of mind as a process
rather than as a structure. Further, Mead viewed the existence and
persistence of society, or cooperation in organized groups, as dependent on
this capacity of humans to imaginatively rehearse lines of action toward one
another and thereby select those behaviors that facilitate cooperation.
Much of Mead's analysis focused not so much on the mind of mature
organisms as on how this capacity first develops in individuals. Unless mind
emerges in infants, neither society nor self can exist. In accordance with
principles~ of behaviorism, Darwinism, and pragmatism, Mead stressed that
mind arises from a selective process in which an infant initially wide
repertoire of random gestures is narrowed as some gestures bring favorable
reactions from those on whom the infant depends for survival. Such selection
of gestures facilitating adjustment can occur either through trial and error or
through conscious coaching by those with whom the infant must cooperate.
Eventually, through either of these processes, gestures come to have
common meanings for both the infant and those in its environment. With this
development, gestures now denote the same objects and carry similar
disposition for all the parties to an interaction. Gestures that have such
common meanings are termed conventional gestures by Mead. These
conventional gestures have increased efficiency for interaction among
individuals because they allow more precise communication of desires and
wants as well as~ intended courses of action thereby increasing the capacity
of organisms to adjust to one another.
The ability to use and to interpret conventional gestures with common
meanings represents a significant step in the development of mind, self, and
society By perceiving and interpreting gestures, humans can now assume the
perspective (dispositions, needs, wants, and propensities to act) of those with
whom they must cooperate for survival. By reading and then interpreting
covertly conventional gestures, individuals can imaginatively rehearse
alternative lines of action that will facilitate adjustment to others. Thus, by
being able to put oneself in another's place, or to "take the role of the other,"
to use Mead's concept, the covert rehearsal of action reaches a new level of
efficiency, because actors can better gauge the consequences of their actions
for others and thereby increase the probability of cooperative interaction.
Thus, when an organism develops the capacity (1) to understand
conventional gestures, (2) to employ these gestures to take the role of others,
and (3) to imaginatively rehearse alternative lines of action, Mead believed
that such an organism~ possesses "mind."
Self Drawing from James and Cooley, Mead stressed that, just as humans
can designate symbolically other actors in the environment, so they can
symbolically represent themselves as objects. The interpretation of gestures,
then, facilitates human cooperation and serves as the basis for
self-assessment and evaluation. This capacity to derive images of oneself as
an object of evaluation in interaction depends on the processes of mind. What
Mead saw as significant about this process is that, as organisms mature, the
transitory "self-images" derived from specific others in each interactive
situation eventually become crystallized into a more or less stabilized
"self-conception" of oneself as a certain type of object. With these
self-conceptions, individuals' actions take on consistency because they are
now mediated through a coherent and stable set of attitudes, dispositions,
or meanings about oneself as a certain type of person.
Chapter 13
Mead chose to highlight three stages in the development of self, each
stage marking not only a change in the kinds of transitory self-images an
individual can derive from role taking but also an increasing crystallization of
a more stabilized self-conception. The initial stage of role taking in which
self-images can be derived is termed play In play, infant organisms are
capable of assuming the perspective of only a limited number of others, at
first only one or two. Later, by virtue of biological maturation and practice at
role taking, the maturing organism becomes capable of taking the role of
several others engaged in organized activity. Mead termed this stage the
game because it designates the capacity to derive multiple self-images from,
and to cooperate with, a group of individuals engaged in some coordinated
activity~ (Mead typically illustrated this stage by giving the example of a
baseball game in which all individuals must symbolically assume the role of
all others on the team to participate effectively.) The final stage in the
development of self occurs when ~an individual can take the role of the
"generalized other" or "community of attitudes" evident in a society. At this
stage, individuals are seen as capable of assuming the overall perspective of
a community, or general beliefs, values, and norms. This means that humans
can both (1) increase the appropriateness of their responses to others with
whom they must interact and (2) expand their evaluative self-images from the
expectations of specific others to the standards and perspective of the
broader community. Thus, it is this ever-increasing capacity to take roles with
an ever-expanding body of others that marks the stages in the development
of self.
Society Mead believed society or restitutions represent the organized and
patterned interactions among diverse individuals. Such organization of
interactions depends on mind. Without the capacities of mind to take roles
and imaginatively rehearse alternative lines of activity, individuals could not
coordinate their activities. Mead emphasized,
The immediate effect of such role-taking lies in the control which
the individual is able to exercise over his own response. The control
of the action of the individual in a co-operative process can take place
in the conduct of the individual himself he can take the role of the other.
It is this control of the response of the individual himself through
taking the role of the other that leads to the value of tins type of
communication from the point of view of the organization of the conduct
in the group.
Society also depends on the capacities of self, especially the process of
evaluating oneself from the perspective of the generalized other. Without the
ability to see and evaluate oneself as an object from this community of
attitudes, social control would rest solely on self-evaluations derived from role
taking with specific and immediately present others--thus making coordination
of diverse activities among larger groups extremely difficult.
Although Mead was vitally concerned with how society and its
institutions are maintained and perpetuated by the capacities of mind and self,
these concepts also allowed trim to view society as constantly in flux and rife
with potential change. That role taking and imaginative rehearsal are ongoing
processes among the participants in any interaction situation reveals the
potential these processes give individuals for adjusting and readjusting their
responses. Furthermore, the insertion of self as an object into the interactive
process underscores that the outcome of interaction will be affected by the
ways in which self-conceptions alter the initial reading of gestures and the
subsequent rehearsal of alternative lines of behavior Such a perspective thus
emphasizes that social organization is both perpetuated by and altered
through the adjustive capacities of mind and the mediating impact of self:
Thus, the institutions of society are organized forms of group or
social activity--forms so organized that the individual members of
society can act adequately and socially by taking the attitudes of others
toward these activities [But] there is no necessary or inevitable
reason why social institutions should be oppressive or rigidly
conservative, or why they should not rather be, as many are, flexible
and progressive, fostering individuality rather than discouraging it.
Tins passage contains a clue to Mead's abiding distaste for rigid and
oppressive patterns of social organization. He viewed society as a
constructed phenomenon that arises from the adjustive interactions among
individuals. As such, society can be altered or reconstructed through the
processes denoted by the concepts of mind and self. However, Mead went
one step further and stressed that change is frequently unpredictable, even
by those emitting the change-inducing behavior. To account for this
indeterminacy of action, Mead used two concepts first developed by James,
the "I" and the "me" For Mead, the "I" points to the impulsive tendencies of
individuals, and the "me" represents the self-image of behavior after it has
been emitted. With these concepts Mead emphasized that the "1," or
impulsive behavior, cannot be predicted because the individual can only
"know in experience" (the "me") what has actually transpired and what the
consequences of the "I" have been.
In sum, then, Mead believed society represents those constructed
patterns of coordinated activity that are maintained by, and changed through,
symbolic interaction among and within actors, Both the maintenance and the
change of society, therefore, occur through the processes of mind and self
Although Mead views many of the interactions causing both stability and
change in groups as predictable, the possibility for spontaneous and
unpredictable actions that alter existing patterns of interaction is also likely
This conceptual legacy had a profound impact on a generation of American
sociologists after the posthumous publication of Mead's lectures in 1934.Yet,
despite the suggestiveness of Mead's concepts, they failed to address some
important theoretical issues.
The most important of these issues concerns the vagueness of his
Chapter 13
concepts in denoting the nature of social organization or society and the
precise points of articulation between society and the individual. Mead viewed
society as organized activity, regulated by the generalized other, in which
individuals make adjustments and cooperate with one ~another. Such
adjustments and the cooperation are seen as possible by virtue of the
capacities of mind and self. Whereas mind and self emerged from existent
patterns of social organization, the maintenance or change of such
organization was viewed by Mead as a reflection of the processes of mind
and self.~ Although these and related concepts of the Meadian scheme point
to the mutual interaction of society and the individual and although the
concepts of mind and self denote crucial processes through which this
dependency is maintained, they do not allow the analysis of variations in
social organization and in the ways that individuals are implicated in these
Conceptualizing Structure and Role
Though Mead's synthesis provided the initial conceptual breakthrough, it did
not satisfactorily resolve the problem of how participation in the structure of
society shapes individual conduct, and vice versa. In an effort to resolve this
vagueness, sociological inquiry began to focus on the concept of role.
Individuals were seen as playing roles associated with positions in larger
networks of positions. With this vision, efforts to understand more about social
structures and how individuals are implicated in them intensified during the
1920s and 1930s. This line of inquiry became known as role theory.
Robert Park's Role Theory
Robert Park (1864-1944), who came to the University of Chicago near the
end of Mead's career, was one of the first to extend Mead's ideas through an
emphasis on roles. As Park observed, "everybody is always and everywhere,
more or less consciously, playing a role." But Park stressed that roles are
linked to structural positions in society and that self is intimately linked to
playing roles within the confines of the positions of social structure:
The conceptions which men form of themselves seem to depend upon their
vocations, and in general upon the role they seek to play in communities~
and social groups in which they live, as well as upon the recognition
and status which society accords them in these roles. It is status, i.e.,
recognition by the co--unity, that confers upon the individual the
character of a person, since a person is an individual who has status,
not necessarily legal, but social.
Park's analysis stressed that self emerges from the multiple roles that
people play. In turn, roles are connected to positions~ in social structures.
This kind of analysis shifts attention to the nature of society and how its
structure influences the processes outlined in Mead's synthesis.
Jacob Moreno's Role Theory
Inspired in part by Mead's concept of role taking and by his own earlier
studies in Europe, Jacob Moreno (1892-1974) was one of the first to
develop the concept of role playing. In Who Shall Survive and in many
publications in the journals that he founded in America, Moreno began to view
social organization as a network of roles that constrain and channel behavior .
In his early works, Moreno distinguished different types of roles: (a)
"psychosomatic roles," in which behavior is related to basic biological needs,
as conditioned by culture, and in which role enactment is typically
unconscious; (b)"psychodramatic roles," in which individuals behave in
accordance with the specific expectations of a particular social context; and (c)
"social roles," in which individuals conform to the more~ general expectations
of various conventional social categories (for example, worker, Christian,
mother, and father).
Despite the suggestiveness of these distinctions, their importance
comes not so much from their substantive content as from their intent: to
conceptualize social structures as organized networks of expectations that
require varying types of role enactments by individuals. In this way, analysis
can move beyond the vague Meadian conceptualization of society as
coordinated activity ~regulated by the generalized other to a
conceptualization of social organization as various types of interrelated role
enactments regulated by varying types of expectations.
Ralph Linton's Role Theory
Shortly after Moreno's publication of Who Shall Survive, the anthropologist
Ralph Linton (1893-1953) further conceptualized the nature of social
organization, and the individual's embeddedness in it, by distinguishing
among the concepts of role, status, and individuals:
A status, as distinct from the individual who may occupy it, is simply
a collection of rights and duties.... A role represents the dynamic
aspect of status. The individual is socially assigned to a status and
occupies it with relation to other statuses. When he puts the rights and
duties which constitute the status into effect, he is performing a role.
This passage contains several important conceptual distinctions. Social
structure reveals several distinct elements: (a) a network of positions, (b) a
corresponding system of expectations, and (c) patterns of behavior that are
enacted for the expectations of particular networks of interrelated positions. In
retrospect, these distinctions might appear self-evident and trivial, but they
made possible the subsequent elaboration of many interactionist concepts:
1. Linton's distinctions allow us to conceptualize society as dear-cut variables: the
nature and kinds of interrelations among positions and the types of expectations
attending these positions.
2. The variables Mead denoted by the concepts of mind and self can be analytically
distinguished from both social structure (positions and expectations) and behavior
(role enactment).
3. BY conceptually separating the processes o f role taking and imaginative
rehearsal from both social structure~ and behavior, the points of articulation between
society and the individual can be move clearly marked, because role taking pertains
Chapter 13
to covert interpretations of the expectations attending networks of statuses and role
denotes the enactment of these expectations as mediated by self.
Thus, by offering move conceptual insight into the nature of social
organization, Park, Morono, and Linton provided a needed supplement to
Mead's suggestive concepts. Now, it would be possible to understand more
precisely the interrelations among mind, serf, and society.
The first well-developed theoretical perspective to emerge from Mead's
synthesis was "symbolic interactionism," a term coined by Herbert Blumer
(1900-1987) who took over Mead's social psychology course after Mead's
death and who for some fifty years championed a particular interpretation of
Mead's ideas. Blumer's advocacy did not go unchallenged, however, and an
alternative school of thought emerged at the State University of Iowa, a
challenge led by several scholars but principal]y by Manford Kuhn. The poles
around which these two and their aides debated have been labeled the Iowa
and Chicago Schools of symbolic interactionism. These labels are misleading
because Blumner had left Chicago by midcentury, and Kuhn died shortly
thereafter. Moreover, much of the Iowa School tradition had shined to
symbolic interactionists at Indiana University by the 1960s, and so the
Iowa-Chicago School dichotomy is more a label of convenience than a real
indication of where the debate occurred. Still, in the 1950s and 1960s, the
debate about how to develop theoretical explanations among those who
identified with Mead's legacy was intense, if somewhat dispersed among
universities. Indeed, today this very same debate has been repliicated by new
Despite points of disagreement, all symbolic interactionists share a
common legacy of assumptions taken from Mead. These points of
convergence are what make symbolic interactionism a distinctive theoretical
Humans as Symbol Users Symbolic interactionists, as their name implies,
place enormous emphasis on the capacity of humans to create and use
symbols. In contrast with other animals, whose symbolic capacities~ are
limited or nonexistent, the very essence of humans and the world that they
create flows from their ability to symbolically represent one another, objects,
ideas, and virtually any phase of their experience. Without the capacity to
create symbols and to use them in human affairs, patterns of social
organization among humans could not be created, maintained, or
changed. Humans have become, to a very great degree, liberated from
instinctual and biological programming and thus must rely on their
symbol-using powers to adapt and survive in the world.
Symbolic Communication Humans use symbols to communicate with one
another. By virtue of their capacity to agree on the meaning of vocal and
bodily gestures, humans can effectively communicate. Symbolic
communication is, of course, extremely complex, because people use more
than word or language symbols in communication. They also use facial
gestures, voice tones, body countenance, and other symbolic gestures that
have common meaning and understanding,
Interaction and Role Taking By reading and interpreting the gestures
of others, humans communicate and interact. They become able to mutually
read each other, to anticipate each other's responses, and to adjust to each
other. Mead termed this basic capacity "taking the role of the other," or role
taking-- the ability to see the other's attitudes and dispositions to act.
Interactionists still emphasize the process of role taking as the basic
mechanism by which interaction occurs. For example, the late Arnold Rose,
who was one of the leaders of contemporary interactionism, indicated that
role taking "means that the individual communicator imagines--evokes within
himself--how the recipient understands that communication." Or, as another
modern interactionist, Sheldon Stryker, has emphasized, role taking is
"anticipating the responses of others with one in some social act.''19 And,
as Alfred
Lindesmith and Anselm Strauss stressed, role taking is
"imaginatively assuming the position or point of view of another person."
Without the ability to read gestures and to use these gestures as a basis
for putting oneself in the position of others, interaction could not occur. And,
without interaction, social organization could not exist.
Interaction, Humans, and Society Just as Mead emphasized that mind,self,
and society are intimately connected, so symbolic interactionists ~analyzed
the relation between the genesis of "humanness" and patterns of
interaction.What makes humans unique as a species and enables each
individual to possess distinctive characteristics is the result of interaction in
society. Conversely, what makes society possible are the capacities that
humans acquire as they grow and mature in society
Symbolic interactionists tended to emphasize the same human
capacities as Mead: the genesis of mind and self~ Mind is the capacity to
think to symbolically denote, weigh, assess, anticipate, map, and construct
courses of action.Although Mead's term. mind, is rarely used today, the
processes that this term denotes are given great emphasis. As Rose
indicated, "Thinking is the process by which possible symbolic solutions and
other future courses of action ate examined, assessed for their relative
advantages and disadvantages in terms~ of the values of the individual, and
one of them chosen for action.''
Moreover, the concept of mind has been reformulated to embrace what
W I. Thomas (1863-1947) termed the definition of the situation, With the
capacities of mind, actors can name, categorize, and orient themselves to
constellations of objects--including themselves as objects--in all situations. In
this way they can assess, weigh, and sort out appropriate lines of conduct.
Table 13.1 Covergence and Divergence in the Chicago and Iowa Schools of Symbolic
Chapter 13
Theoretical Issues~
The nature of humans
Convergence of Schools
Humans create and use symbols to denote aspects
of the world around them.
What makes humans unique are their symbolic
capacities. Humans are capable of symbolically
denoting and invoking objects, which can then
shape their definitions of social situations and,
hence, their actions.
Humans are capable of self-reflection and evaluation. They see themselves as objects in most
The nature of interaction
Interaction depends on people's capacities to emit
and interpret gestures.
Role taking is the key mechanism of interaction
because~ it enables~ actors to view the other's perspective, as well as that of others and groups not
physically present.
Role taking and mind operate together by allowing actors to use the perspectives~ of others and
groups as a basis for their deliberations, or definitions of situations, before acting. In this way, peo
ple can adjust their responses~ to each other and to
social situations.
The nature of social organization
Social structure is created, maintained, and
changed by process of symbolic interaction.
It is not possible to understand patterns of social
organization-even the most elaborate-without
knowledge of the symbolic process among individuals who ultimately make up this pattern..
The nature of sociological methods
Sociological methods must focus on the process
by which people define situations and select
coups of action,
Methods must focus on individual persons.
the nature of sociological theory
Theory~ must be about priests of interaction and
seek to isolate out the conditions under which
general types~ of behaviors and interactions are
likely to occur,
Divergence of Schools
Convergence~ of Schools
Chicago School
Iowa School
Humans with minds can introject any
Humans with minds can define situations,
object into a situation,
but there tends to be consistency in the
objects that they introject into situations.
Although self is an important object, it is
Self is the most important object in the
not the only object,
Humans weigh, assess, and map coupes of
action before action, but humans can
potentially alter their definitions and
Interaction is a constant process of role
taking with others and groups,
Others and groups thus becomes objects
that are involved in people's definitions of
Self is another important object that
enters into people's definitions,
People's definitions of situations involve
weighing and assessing objects and then
mapping courses of action,
Interaction involves~ constantly shifting
definitions and changing patterns of
action and interaction,
Social structure is constructed by actors
adjusting their responses to each other,
definition of a situation.
Humans weigh, assess, and map coupe of
action but they do so through the prisms
of their core ~self and the groups in which
this self is anchored.
Interaction depends on the process of role
The expectations of others and norms of
the situation are important considerations
in arriving at definitions of situations.
People's core self is the most important consideration and constraint on interaction.
Interaction most often involves actions that
conform to situational expectations as mitigated by the requirements of the core self,
Social structures are composed of networks of positions with attendant expectations or norms.
Social structure ~s one of many objects that Although symbolic interactions create and
actors introject into their definitions of sitchange structures, once these structures
are created they constrain interaction.
Social structure is subject to constant
Social structures are thus relatively stable,
realignments as actors' definitions and
especially when people's core self is
behaviors change, forcing new adjust
invested in particular networks of posiments from others,
Sociological methods must penetrate the
Sociological methods must measure with
actors' mental world and see how they
reliable instruments actors' symbolic
construct courses of action,
Researchers must be attuned to the multiResearch should be directed toward definpie, varied, ever-shifting, and often indeing and measuring those variables that
terminate influences on definitions of
~causally influence behaviors.
situations and actions.
Research must therefore use observational, R~earch must therefore use structured
geographical, and unstructured interview
measuring instruments, such as questiontechniques if it is to penetrate people's
naires, to get reliable and valid measures~
definitional process and consider
of key variables~.
changes in these process.
Only sensitizing concepts are possible in
Sociology can develop precisely defined
concepts with clear empirical measure.
Deductive theory is thus not possible in
Theory ~n thus be deductive, with a limsocioiogy.
ited number of general propositions sub-
Chapter 13
At best, theory can offer general and tentative descriptions and interpretations of
behaviors and patterns of interaction,
suming lower-order prop~itions and
empirical generalizations on sp~ific
phases~ of symbolic interaction.
Theory can offer abstract explanations
that can allow predictions of behavior and
As the concept of the definition of the situation underscores, self remains
the key concept in the interactionist literature. Emphasis in the interactionist
orientation is on (a) the emergence of self-conceptions--relatively stable and
enduring conceptions that people have about themselves--and (b) the ability
to derive self-images--pictures of oneself as an object in social situations. Self
is thus a major object that people inject into their definitions of situations. It
shapes much of what people see, feel, and do in the world ~around them.
Society, or relatively stable patterns of interaction, is seen by
interactionlsts as possible only by virtue of people's capacities to define
situations and, most particularly, to view themselves as objects in situations.
Society can exist by virtue of human capacities for thinking and defining as
well as for self-reflection and evaluation.
In sum, these points of emphasis constitute the core of the interactionist
approach. Yet, there are many points of disagreement among symbolic
interactions with respect to not only substantive issues but methodological
and theoretical ones as well. In Table 13.1, the points of agreement are listed
in the second column on the left, and the points of disagreement ~are
delineated in the two right columns. For the most part, those leaning toward
the Iowa pole see social structures of positions and roles as more
constraining than do those at the Chicago pole. Along with this emphasis on
constraints of social structure, the other major arena of disagreement is over
the nature of methods and theory, where some emphasize more precise
methods and formal theory while others stress more observational methods
using sensitizing concepts to offer descriptions of events.
Ethnomethodological Theory
In the 1960s, a new kind of interactionist theorizing emerged. This
approach drew more from the phenomenological tradition of Alfred Schutz
than from the pragmatist tradition of George Herbert Mead and proposed an
alternative approach to analyzing interaction: explore the methods used by
people to construct a sense of ongoing reality~ This emphasis became
known as ethnomethodology. As this label underscores, ethnomethodology is
the study of ("ology") the interpersonal "methods" that people ("ethno")
use. Like Edmund Husserl and Schutz, ethnomethodologists ask how people
create and sustain for each other the presumption that the social world has a
real character.
Schutz postulated one basic reality-the paramount--in which people's conduct
of their everyday affairs occurs. Most early ethnomethodologists, however,
were less interested in whether or not there is one or multiple
"realities,""lifeworlds," or "natural attitudes." Far more important in
ethnomethodological analysis was the development of concepts and
principles that could help explain how people construct, maintain, and change
their lines of conduct as they seek to sustain the presumption that they share
the same reality. At the core of ethnomethodological analysis are two basic
assumptions about (1) the reflexive and (2) the indexical nature of all
Reflexive Action and Interaction
Much interaction sustains a particular vision of reality. For example, ritual
activity directed toward the gods sustains the belief that gods influence
everyday affairs. Such ritual activity is an example of reflexive action; it
maintains a certain vision of reality. Even when intense prayer and ritual
activity do not bring forth the desired intervention from the gods, the devout,
rather than reject beliefs, proclaim that they did not pray hard enough, that
their cause was not just, or that the gods in their wisdom have a greater plan.
Such behavior is reflexive: It upholds or reinforces a belief, even in the face of
credence that the belief might be incorrect.
Much human interaction is reflexive. Humans interpret cues, gestures,
words, and other information from one another in a way that sustains a
particular vision of reality. Even contradictory evidence is reflexively
interpreted to maintain a body of belief and knowledge. The concept of
reflexivity thus focuses attention on bow people in interaction go about
maintaining the presumption that they are guided by a particular reality. Much
of ethnomethodological inquiry has addressed this question of bow reflexive
interaction occurs. That is, what concepts and principles can be developed to
explain the conditions under which different reflexive actions among
interacting parties are likely to occur?
The Indexicality of Meaning
The gestures, cues, words, and other information sent and received by
interacting parties have meaning in a particular context. Without some
knowledge of the context--the biographies of the interacting parties, their
avowed purpose, their past interactive experiences, and so forth--it would be
easy to misinterpret the symbolic communication among interacting
individuals. To say that an expression is indexical, then, is to emphasize that
the meaning of that expression is tied to a particular context.
This notion of indexicality drew attention to the problem of how actors in
a context construct a vision of reality in that context. They develop
expressions that invoke their common vision about what is real in their
situation. The concept of indexicality thus directs investigators to actual
interactive contexts to see how actors go about creating indexical
expressions--words, facial and body gestures, and other cues--to sustain the
presumption that a particular reality governs their affairs.
Chapter 13
With these two key concepts, reflexivity and indexicality, the
interactionists' concern with the process of symbolic communication was
retained by ethnomethodology, and much of the phenomenological legacy of
Schutz was rejuvenated. Concern was with how actors use gestures to
construct a lifeworld, body of knowledge, or natural attitude about what is real.
The emphasis was not on the content of the lifeworld but on the methods or
techniques that actors use to create, maintain, or even alter a vision of reality,
As Hugh Mehan and Houston Wood noted, "the ethnomethodological theory
of reality constructor is about the procedures that accomplish reality. It is not
about any specific reality"
Harold Garfinkd's Studies in Ethnomethodology firmly established
ethnomethodolofgy as a distinctive theoretical perspective. Although the book
was not a format theoretical statement, the studies and the commentary in it
established the domain of ethnomethodological inquiry~ Subsequent
ethnomethodological research and theory began with Garfiakel's insights and
took them in a variety of directions.
Gaffmkel's work saw ethnomethodology as a field of inquiry that sought
to understand the methods people employ to make sense of their world. He
placed considerable emphasis~ on language as the vehicle by which this
reality construction is done. Indeed, for Garfinkel interacting individuals'
efforts to account for their actions--that is, to represent them verbally to
others--are the primary method by which a sense of the world is constructed.
In Garflnkel's terms, to do interaction is to tell interaction, or, in other words,
the primary folk technique used by actors is verbal description, In tiffs way,
people use their accounts to construct a sense of reality.
Garfinkel placed enormous emphasis on indexicality--that is, members'
accounts are tied to particular contexts and situations. An utterance, Garfinkel
noted, indexes much more than it actually says; it also evokes connotations
that can be understood only in the context of a situation. Garfinkel's work was
thus the first to stress the indexical nature of interpersonal cues and to
emphasize that individuals seek accounts to create a sense of reality.
In addition to laying much of the groundwork for ethnomethodology,
Garfinkel and his associates conducted several interesting empirical studies
to validate their assumptions about what is real, One line of empirical inquiry
became known as the breaching experiment, in which the normal course of
iuteraction was deliberately interrupted. For example, Garfinkel reported a
series of conversations in which student experimenters challenged every
statement of selected subjects. The end result was a series of conversations
revealing the following pattern:
Subject." 1 had a flat tire.
Experimenter; What do you mean, you had a flat tire?
Subject: (appears momentarily stunned and then replies in a hostile
mannet): What do you mean, "What do you mean?"A flat tire is a flat tire. That
is what 1 meant. Nothing special. What a crazy question
In this situation, the experimenter was apparently violating an implicit
rule for this type of interaction (such as "accepting statements at face value")
and thereby aroused not only the hostility of the subject but also a negative
sanction, "What a crazy question]" Seemingly, in any interaction there are
certain background features that everyone should understand and that should
not be questioned so that all parties can "conduct their common
conversational affairs~ without interference?' Such implicit methods appear to
guide a considerable number of everyday affairs and are critical for the
construction of at least the perception among interacting humans that an
external social order exists. Through breaching, Garfinkel hoped to discover
the implicit ethnomethods being used by forcing actor to engage actively in
the process of reality reconstruction after the situation had been disrupted.
Other research strategies also yielded insights into the methods parties
use in an interaction for constructing a sense of reality. For example,
Garfinkel and his associates summarized the "decision rules" jurors
employed in ~reaching a verdict. By examining a group such as a jury, which
must by the nature of its task develop an interpretation of what really
happened, the ethnomethodologist sought to achieve some insight into the
generic properties of the processes of constructing a sense of social reality.
From the investigators' observations of jurors, it appeared that "a person is 95
percent juror before [coming] near the court," indicating that, through their
participation in other social settings and through instructions from the court,
they had accepted the "official" rules for reaching a verdict. However, these
rules were altered somewhat as participants came together in an actual jury
setting and began the "work of assembling the 'corpus' which serves as
grounds for inferring the correctness of a verdict" Because the inevitable
ambiguities of the cases before them made it difficult for strict conformity to
the official rules of jury deliberation, new decision rules were invoked to allow
jurors to achieve a "correct" view of "what actually happened." But, in their
retrospective reporting to interviewers of how they reached the verdicts, jurors
typically invoked the "official line" to justify the correctness of their decisions.
When interviewers~ drew attention to discrepancies between the jurors' ideal
accounts and their actual practices, jurors became anxious, indicating that
somewhat different rules had been used to construct the corpus of what really
In sum, these two examples of Garfinkel's research strategy illustrate
the general intent of much early ethnomethodological inquiry: to penetrate
natural social settings or to create social settings in which the investigator
could observe humans attempting to assert, create, maintain, or change the
rules for constructing file appearance of consensus over the structure of the
real world. By focusing on the process or methods for constructing a reality
rather than on the substance or content of the reality itself, research from the
ethnomethodological point of view could potentially provide a more interesting
Chapter 13
and relevant answer to the question of "how and why society is possible"
Garfinkel's studies stimulated a variety of research and theoretical strategies.
Etlmomethodology has uncovered a series of interpersonal processes that
traditional symbolic interactionists, who tend to follow Mead more than Schutz,
have failed to recognize. The implicit methods that people use to
communicate a sense of social order are a very crucial dimension of social
interaction and organization, and the theoretical goal of ethnomethodology is
to specify the generic conditions under which various folk methods are used
by individuals. But, despite many interesting findings, this goal still seems far
away-even after forty years of research.
In the end, ethnomethodology has become a rather isolated theoretical
research program. Its practitioners increasingly focused on conversational
analysis--a mode of inquiry initiated by Sacks and carried forward by a
number of creative scholars. But their work has not had a great impact on
mainstream sociological theory, inside or outside the interactionist tradition,
Randall Conins's Theory of Interaction Rituals
We encountered Randall Collins's theory of interaction rituals earlier in
Chapter 10 on Weberian conflict theory. Attention is now drawn to his
microevel theory of emotions. Collins's theory is about the levels of emotional
energy that interaction rituals generate rather than about specific types of
emotions, although as we will see shortly, he has teamed with Theodore
Kemper to address the issue of how power and status produce particular
types of emotions (see next section). But the basic theory, as Collins has
developed it on his own, borrows from Emile Durkheim's and Erring
Goffman's insights about the emotion-generating effects of rituals.
Collins behaves that the micro unit of analysis is the encounter of at
least two people who confront each other and interact. What transpires in
such encounters is mediated by the exchange of resources and rituals.
Rituals contain the following elements:" (1) a physical assembly of co present
individuals; (2) mutual awareness of each other; (3) a common focus of
attention; (4) a common emotional mood among co-present individuals; (5) a
rhythmic coordination and synchronization of conversation and nonverbal
gestures; (6) a symbolic representation of this group focus and mood with
objects, persons, gestures, words, and ideas among interacting individuals;
and (7) a sense of moral righteousness about these symbols marking group
membership. Figure 13.2 portrays the dynamics of such rituals that Collins
sees as the "emotional energizer" of inter action because, like Durkheim
before him, Collins argues that co-presence, mutual awareness, common
focus of attention, rhythmic coordination and synchronization of gestures and
talk, common mood, and symbolization arouse emotions that, in turn, feed
back and heighten people's sense of co-presence, mood, attention, and
Intermingled with these emotion-arousing properties of rituals are
exchange processes. Collins visualizes two basic types of resources as
crucial to understanding exchanges and rituals: (I) cultural capital and (2)
emotional energy. Cultural capital consists of such resources as stored
memories of previous conversations, vocal styles, special types of knowledge
or expertise, the prerogatives to make decisions, and the right to receive
honor, The concept of generalized cultural capital denotes those impersonal
symbols that mark general closes of resources (for example, knowledge,
positions, authority, and groupings),whereas the concept of particularized
cultural capital refers~ to the memories that individuals have of the
particular identities, reputations, and network or organizational positions of
specific persons. Emotional energy is composed of the level and type of
affect, feeling, and sentiment that individuals mobilize in a situation.
of individuals
Exchange of talk
Sense of moral
of interaction
Of talk and
Figure 13.2 Collin’s Conceptualization of Ritual
Interaction consists of individuals using their cultural capital and
Chapter 13
emotional energy to talk with one another. Such conversations involve an
investment of capital ~and energy, with each individual attracted to
situations that bring the best available payoff in cultural capital and
emotional energy Although individuals also seek a profit in the cultural capital
that they spend and receive in interaction, Collins appears to emphasize
emotional energy as the real driving force of interaction. Humans find positive
emotional energy highly rewarding, and though other rewards are not
irrelevant, positive emotional energy is the most valuable. Indeed, individual
seek to maximize their positive emotional energy by participating in those
interaction rituals that generate a clear focus of attention, a common mood,
emotional arousal, rhythmic synchronization of mood and arousal, and
symbolization of these in terms of moral codes.
In Collins's view, there is a kind of market for interaction rituals:
Individuals weigh the costs in time, energy, cultural capital, and other
resources that they must spend to participate in the various rituals available to
them, then they select those rituals that maximize emotional profits. In this
sense, Collins proclaimed emotional energy to be the common denominator
of rational choice. Thus, rather than representing an irrational force in human
interaction, Collins sees the pursuit of emotions as highly rational: People
seek out those interaction rituals in a marketplace of ritual that maximize
profits (costs less the positive emotional energy produced by the ritual). The
search for emotional energy is, therefore, the criterion by which various
alternative encounters are assessed for how much emotional profit they can~
generate.Humans are, in a sense, "emotional junkies," but they are implicitly
rational about it. They must constantly balance those encounters where
interaction rituals produce high levels of positive emotional energy (such as
love making, family activities, religious participation, and gatherings of friends)
with those more practical, work activities that give them the material
resources to participate in more emotionally amusing encounters. Indeed,
those who opt out of these work-practical activities and seek only
high-emotion encounters (such as drop-outs in a drug culture) soon lose the
material resources to enjoy emotion-arousing encounters. Moreover, within
the context of work-practical activity, individuals typically seek out or create
encounters that provide increases in emotional energy. For example, workers
might create an informal subculture in which social encounters produce
emotional energy that makes work more bearable, or as is often the case with
professionals, they seek the rituals involved in acquiring power, authority, and
status on the job as highly rewarding and as giving them an emotional charge
(such is almost always the case, for instance, with "workaholics" who use the
work setting as a place to charge up their levels of emotional energy),
Not only are there material costs as well as expenditures of cultural
capital in interaction rituals, but emotional energy is, itself, a cost. People
spend their emotional energy in interaction rituals, and they are willing to do
so as long as they realize an emotional profit--that is, the emotional energy
spent is repaid with even more positive emotions flowing from the common
focus of attention, mood, arousal, rhythmic synchronization, and
symbolization. When interaction rituals require too much emotional energy
without sufficient emotional payoff, then individuals gravitate to other
interaction rituals where their profits are higher.
What kinds of rituals provide the most positive emotional energy for the
costs involved? For Collins. those encounters where individuals can have
power (the capacity to tell others what to do) and status (the capacity to
receive deference and honor) are the most likely to generate high emotional
payoffs. Hence, those who possess the cultural capital to command respect
and obedience are likely to receive the most positive emotional energy from
interaction rituals. At this point Collins's theory begins to converge with that
developed by Kemper, as we now explore.