Archive for November 26th, 2010

Comte to Communism, I have no idea Weber any of these are right. A tour of Sociological thought   no comments

Posted at 11:34 pm in Sociology

                This week I am going to examine the classical theoretical approaches which have influenced sociological thought for the past two centuries.

                The first true sociologist was Auguste Comte. Comte was the first to coin the term sociology, which he introduced after his initial thoughts on social physics contrasted with the thinking of many of his peers. Comte argued that society conforms to invisible laws, and that by following these laws societies becoming functioning bodies. Comte suggested that sociology must follow an agenda of positivism, and be a positive science, that is sociology must use strict research methodology to inform its findings and theoretical models. Comte argued for the use of experimentation, observation and comparative studies on observable behaviour. It was observed that society has evolved from a theological perspective, society focusing on god(s) and religious practices, metaphysical societies, based on natural observations and natural science, observable in early renaissance societies, towards a positive society, based on scientific reasoning. Building on this, Comte suggested that theological religions should be disbanded, and replaced by a religion of humanity, based on a scientific and secular truth, this would fundamentally, in Comte’s view, improve society as “false superstitions” and a belief in gods and daemons were detrimental to society. Although Comte’s vision has not come into being, his theoretical ideas heavily influenced initial sociological thinking.

                A follower of Comte was Emile Durkheim, who also argued that sociology should follow an empirical methodology, however suggested that Comte himself had not acted or theorised in an empirical manner. Durkheim argued that the main focus of sociological study should be social facts. Social facts are any and all aspects of social life that affect individuals. Societies are gestalt constructs, which are more than a mere collection of individuals. Social facts act in a coercive nature to impose rules and regulations on individuals and impose order. Individuals’ who fail to follow the rules experience a state which Durkheim labelled as anomie, a sense of aimlessness and disenfranchisement.         

                Karl Marx signalled a departure from the approach of Comte and Durkheim. Marx argued that economic systems are central to the formation of societies. Marx suggested that capitalism was fundamentally composed of two factors, capital and wage-labour. Capital is a form of wealth such as goods and money, which can be reinvested to create more capital. Wage-labour is the work of individuals who compose of the proletariat, workers who lack insufficient capital to be employers themselves. Marx argued that this inevitably leads to a two tier system and society. Marx argued that this disparity inevitably leads to conflict between the limited number of capitalists and the much larger proletariat, who are forced into an exploitative relationship. Marx suggested that society is conceptualised by a material conception of history, whereby social change is prompted by economic factors, based on this idea, Marx argued that economic change is inevitable, and that as the proletariat outnumber the capitalists, it would be inevitable that capitalism would fail, to be replaced by communal ownership, in a system Marx labelled communism, a society which due to the lack of competition and conflict would be more innovative and productive, in many ways a utopian society. It is worth noting that theologically Marxist communism was not the same as the communism imposed in the U.S.S.R, by Lenin, and his followers, as soviet communism was still a two tier system with an empowered state, not a workers’ paradise. It is in many ways ironic that the web and the internet, with its basis in capitalism, western defence initiatives and ARPANET could (currently) be seen as a purely communist society, where fundamentally everyone is equal.

                Disagreeing with Marx, Max Weber suggested that despite economic factors playing an important role in the development of society, ideas and vales play an equally important role. Weber also argued, against the ideas of Comte and Durkheim, that society was formed by the actions of individuals, and does not exist outside these interactions, change emerges not from economic changes but shifts in cultural values. Weber suggests that rather than capitalism and class conflict producing change, a cultural shift towards rationalisation, organising society based on efficiency, has lead to large scale fundamental changes in social structures. Weber does argue however that this movement does lead to a danger of crushing the human spirit in a de-humanisation as workers become little more than robots, completing repetitive activities.

                The impact on sociology of the ideas of the founding fathers has be large, with schools of thought and styles of analysis developing around many. The most influential and preeminent school for much of the history of sociology has been functionalism, based on the ideas of Durkheim. Functionalists suggest that society is a set of complex relationships between individuals and groups, and often uses an organic analogy, that is society is a living object, made up of many objects, whereby if one part fails then the whole dies. It clear therefore that the functionalist approach focuses on peace and harmony between groups, drawn together by a morale consensus and agreement on the values that the society should promote. Merton suggests that functionalism can be extended to the individual actions of groups and individuals rather than just looking at large scale societies. Merton distinguishes between the manifest function of an action, and the latent function, manifest functions are the intended or primary function of behaviour, compared to latent function, as unintended or secondary functions, an example of this could be a football fan going to watch their team play, the manifest function of the behaviour is to watch the team, however the individual also gains secondary benefit as being a member of a social gathering and gaining connections to a wider community. Similar examples can be seen looking at online MMORPGs and MMORTS’s, where strong communal ties develop between players in addition to the players playing the games. Merton also suggests that any behaviour may have both functional and dysfunctional attributes associated with it, for example the football fan may gain positive benefit from being in a group, yet the group may engage in anti-social behaviour such as hooliganism. Merton stresses that it is the actions of indivi8duals which create society, rather than society existing as a directing force with a predetermined mandate.

                The second main approach is conflict theories, stemming from Marxist views. Conflict theories state that society is made up of many disparate groups, all of which are forced to compete for resources, such as goods and power. Although the main influence on conflict theories being Marxism, others have influenced this school, such as Dahrendorf who argues that as societies are not utopian there is an inevitability to conflict between groups in a perpetual power struggle, based on Darwinian views.

                The final main influential school is that of symbolic interactionalism, championed by Mead. Mead argues that society is a collection of individuals and groups that share common meaning between a large scale set of symbols, which form a fundamental point of agreement. This has lead Hochshild to suggest that changing social structures is due to a change in the nature of the symbols and the expansion of the accessibility of such symbols. Included she argues that the exchange of symbols has allowed the growth of an emotional labour market, whereby the symbol of happiness can now be made into a financial asset, to the point that many airlines ask stewardesses to complete smile classes.

                As can be seen sociologist have fundamental differences in their approach to answering questions. This gives a wide range of opinions, stimulating further research and diverse range of approaches, to tackling the many diverse issues facing modern society.

Written by ca306 on November 26th, 2010