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Transcript
LECTURE NOTES: WHY DO WE STUDY CLASSICAL SOCIAL THEORY?
Fall 2013
Deniz Yükseker
Why are Marx, Weber and Durkheim considered to be classics? Why were their works
canonized and not others? Why do we still read them?
A work is called a classic if it is still read long after it was written.
Canon: approved corpus of works deemed to be important. Canon formation is part of the
social process whereby those in power seek to perpetuate the authority of certain authors in
order to enhance their own vested interests.
These three men are classics because what they said about society is still relevant today and
still merits reading.
All three men were good observers of modernity.
What is modernity: In the second half of the 19th century, western European populations
witnessed the collapsing of everything that they held dear. The growth of cities, the
destruction of rural life, revolutions, rapid social change, etc.
“Modernity could be defined as that culture in which people are promised a better life – one
day. Until then, they are expected to tolerate contradictory lives in which the benefits of
modernity are not much greater than its losses.” People were “expected to love a world that
was killing what was dear to them.”
Weber, Marx, Durkheim and Georg Simmel told the story of modernity with a regard for its
two sides: the official story of progress, and the repressed story of destruction, loss and the
terror of life without meaningful traditions.
That is why we don’t read Comte and Herbert Spencer today because they saw society to be
inevitably progressing towards good.
But Durkheim, who was influenced both by Comte and Spencer, did not necessarily only see
progress. He thought sociology was needed because the chaos of modern society had
devastating effects on many individuals.
Marx talked about conflict and class struggle in modern society. He also talked about
alienation (estrangement).
Weber talked about how modernity is accompanied by rationalization and bureaucratization;
but in the end, rationalization became an “iron cage.”
“Social theories, like personal narratives, are ways of understanding social life by bringing its
story out of memory, where it lies hidden and distorted.”
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There is a further reason why Marx, Durkheim and Weber were canonized, and not, say,
Comte or Saint-Simeon.
We can talk about three “axioms” of the “culture of sociology” with which almost all
sociologists would agree today.
These can be summarized as follows:
Axiom 1: There exist social groups that have explicable, rational structures.
We owe this statement to Emile Durkheim, who famously said “social facts must be treated as
things.” And “Social phenomena are external to individuals.”
Axiom 2: All social groups contain subgroups that are ranked in a hierarchy and are in
conflict with each other.”
We owe this axiom to a “diluted” form of Marxism, which owes to Marx’s famous phrase in
the opening of the Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The history of all hitherto existing
society is the history of class struggles.”
Axiom 3: To the extent that groups/states contain their conflicts, it is in large part because
lower-ranked subgroups accord legitimacy to the authority structure of the group on the
grounds that this permits the group to survive, and the subgroups see long-term advantage in
the group’s survival.
We owe this axiom to Max Weber, who studied authority and legitimacy and thus explained
why groups characterized by conflict and struggle do not simply explode or fall apart.
All of the above pertains to the merits of classical sociological theory. However, these
perspectives (and the axioms associated with them) came under increasing challenge in the
past 3-4 decades. There are feminist, postmodern and post-colonial challenges to classical
social theory which we shall take up later in the course.
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