Sociological Thinkers – Part 1.   no comments

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Giddens, A (2006): Sociology: 5th Edition.Cambridge: Polity.

Singer, P (2000). Marx: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP.

This week my reading has covered various sociological thinkers and their particular theories. The majority of the reading was taken from Giddens (2006), as chapter four of this book covers these thinkers at an introductory level. However, I feel it is important to cover both the thinkers and the theorists in detail, and so this topic is presented in two blog posts, both published this week. This first section details key classical sociological thinkers and their differences between one another. I’ve included below a description of common areas of dispute in sociology, and the arguments or particular authors regarding these disputes.

To begin, Giddens identifies core criteria for sociological thinking:

  • Thinking should be counter-intuitive.
  • Thinking should make sense of a problem.
  • Thinking should be able to be applied to circumstances outside the original topic or study.
  • Thinking should generate new ideas.

These criteria are commonly exampled in the works of the classical sociologists, and the below arguments show that sociological theories and thinking is more difficult than some may think, as a variety of approaches to theoretical thinking exist. Here are the common controversies in sociological thinking, according to Giddens, and their advocates and enemies in sociological thinking. This blog deals primarily with the theories of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, although other theorists are discussed briefly. For basic information regarding these three classical thinkers, please see my earlier blog post.

Human Action vs Social Structure.

Thinkers from both camps argue to what extent human lives are controlled by individual action and choice, or influenced by social pressures that exist outside of individual influence.

Max Weber argues in his principle work; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that the development of western capitalism was unique to western culture due to the religious, frugal roots of Protestantism and Puritanism in Europe prior to the industrial revolution. The ideals of these branches of Christianity encouraged hard work and allowed for the accumulation of wealth, but disapproved of luxury and spending. Thus those who accumulated wealth were inclined to distribute their wealth through a variety of investments, wages and business purchases, which in turn fuelled the acquisition of more wealth and the eventual creation of a social class of people with a propensity to generate wealth, capitalists.

This theory is important because it is an example of how social development can be influenced by norms and ideas that may at first glance seem distant, whether historically or ideologically.

In similarity with Weber, Emile Durkheim also claims that social structure influences societal development. He perceives society as far more than the sum of its individual components, and argues that the norms and rules that society constructs for us, long before our birth and existence, will have a lifelong effect on how we live our lives, without us ever having had a say or exerted any influence on their construction. Ideas of law, religion, communication and physical interaction have been created over a prolonged societal existence, and Durkheim claims that these societal systems will continue to function independently long after we are gone.

In contrast to these theories, more contemporary thinkers, such as Anthony Giddens, have critiqued the classical arguments and provided their own arguments for human action being the fundamental drive behind societal development.

Anthony Giddens has attempted to critique the social structure arguments of the classicists with his theory of ‘structuration’. Structuration argues that while structural models occur in societies, they are only maintained by the predictable behaviour of individuals. Giddens draws parallels with language to argue that rules of use are vital in any social structure. This idea is indeed complex, and Giddens notes the paradoxical ‘duality of structure’, whereby structure and actions are seen to presume one another. For this reason, arguments regarding social structure and human action are unlikely to be resolved, sociological thinkers must simply attempt to pick a side using well informed reading and analysis.

Consensus vs Conflict.

Sociologists are divided regarding the ways in which humans live in societies. Durkheim maintains that the existence of a society, itself made up of component parts, implies a general consensus of values and norms endemic to the society on question. Therefore if one were to adopt this argument, society is consensual. Families, institutions, governments and nations are all formed out of consensual agreement by their participants and the notion that organising communally brings benefit.

This consensual argument is refuted by Marx, who argues that the inequalities which exist in societal structure foster certain interests, desires and motivations in particular groups. These interests eventually manifest as conflicts within society. According to Marx, so long as these divisions exist, there is no such thing as a stable society, as the society is constantly in flux regarding the dominant group.

Gender ambiguity vs gender specificity.

This is a concern of many of social sciences and humanities. For much of history issues of gender have been treated with an undeniably male bias, for example Durkheim presents the female gender as being of less social significance than the male because the female is more ‘organic’, that is to say, closer to nature. Thinking in this way usually leads to a situation where, if not specifically excluded from study, females are usually perceived as de facto in studies of society and the results of male thinking or male exclusive research is simply applied under this catch all notion. This type of thinking was common to classical sociologists, with a notable exception being Marx, who viewed women to be a form of ‘male property’, and therefore slaves to class divisions in ways exceeding males.

Classical views may be flawed due to the ideas and social standing of women at the time of their writing, but they do present an indication of the acknowledgement, however implicit, of females and males being independent of one another, and perhaps not subject to identical social pressures and structures. With recent progress in identifying the legitimacy of female concerns, new feminist thinking has emerged which carries with it a dilemma not dissimilar to the problem of the male centric thinking. Do females, now being equals in society, simply remain de facto members of a study, but still not uniquely identified in societal studies, meaning men and women are not judged by gender, or do studies break down societal issues into components of male and female issues, identifying a divide? This question occupies many contemporary feminist thinkers, such as Judith Butler, who argue that gender grouping may ascribe incorrect identities to social groups, for example gay men and women, when developed primarily along biological lines. The role of gender in sociology is, again, a complex one, as it explores to a large degree conceptions and ideas that are rare or even taboo in many societies.

Questions of Modern Social Development.

Debates that arise in this particular area deal primarily in Marxist and anti-Marxist viewpoints, and are concerned with the underlying factors behind the development of the modern, post-industrial revolution society (this idea is confined to Western sociological thought). Marx’s ideas regarding capitalist economics and the migration of labour may influence many sociological, political and economic theories, but other theorists argue that they do not adequately address other factors, political, cultural, environmental, which may influence societal change. In this regards, debates in this field follow a similar argument to human action vs. social structure conflicts.

Marx places high importance on economic development and capitalism, specifically the appropriation and accumulation of wealth. Capitalism is inherently expansionist, as wealth can only be appropriated when someone else has it, and so capitalist markets expand to locate and collect this wealth. In this fashion, capitalism quickly takes over all spheres of a society, as capitalists, being the dominant class, exert political and cultural pressure on the society in order to make it conform to their ideals. With this dominance comes subjugation, and the world then becomes stratified into the divisions that, one could argue, we see today. The have’s and have-nots, rich and poor, labourers and factory owners. These are products of capitalism, and social structures will continue to be shaped by the tenets of capitalism, the search for and acquisition of wealth.

Those that argue with Marx, notably Max Weber, claim that non-economic factors, such as the aforementioned construction of a religious work ethic, are just as important in shaping modern society. Weber presents the concept of ‘power’ as an important tool in reinforcing established economic and social principles, and argues that the rise of western industrial economies, and the military power which they are able to wield, has enabled a global system to emerge which reflects the economic ideals of these particular nations, and not of universal grassroots capitalism in all societies. Weber also points to the rise of scientific and technological innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries, which have fostered a form of social efficiency regarding labour, communication and interaction which he calls “rationalization”. Whether this rationalization translates as technological determinism is not clear to me at this point.


This blog post has unearthed some interesting theories and ideas regarding classical sociological thinkers and their disputes with one another. We can see that sociological theories are shaped themselves by the societies, time periods and general socio-economic climate in which they were written. The disputes of the past are of course important, but should serve to remind any sociologist of the need for caution when applying past theories to contemporary issues. That is not to say that these ideas are outdated, as Giddens points out in his criteria the need for theories to be adaptable, but that adaptation should be considered by the sociologist when applying such theories to social settings which were not considered during their inception.
It is also clear that sociology has much in common with economics and politics at an ideological level, and I am keen to explore further the writings of the classical sociologists, particularly of Marx and Weber, to see where their ideas may take my own ideological development and it’s subsequent application to research.

Part two of this blog post will arrive shortly, and I will concern myself with the ideas of ‘Postmodernism’ in sociology, and present more analysis of contemporary thinkers in this field.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 24th, 2010

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