Sociological Thinking: Part 2.   no comments

Posted at 12:09 pm in Discipline,Sociology

This blog is a continuation of my last entry where I discussed classical sociological thinkers. This post continues this theme to explore the ideas of more contemporary sociologists. The main reading for this post was Giddens (2006).

Sociological thinking has developed primarily in the post-WW2 years in order to make sense of an increasingly diverse yet inclusive society. Technological advances in media and transport have led to the emergence of a modern world where geographically distant cultures can interact and share norms with little or no regard for their geographical history and specific community development. Some sociologists, such as Jean Baudrillard, argue that this new world is one dominated by media and icons, where mass consumerism and ‘new media’ fosters a generic and homogenous culture driven by a small number of values and desires. While this is perhaps a slightly bleak view of modern society, these concerns highlight the importance of maintaining cultural identity in a modern world.

There is an argument to say that while we do indeed live in a world where the majority of human inhabitants are governed by the same laws and social norms (for example; neoliberal economic theory and consumerism) we are able, thanks to the advances in technology within our lifetime, to be aware of the existence of cultures and societies outside our own and attempt to foster relationships with one another. Michael Foucalt was a sociologist who specialised in theories of power relationships and the values that sprung out of increasingly connected networks. His work on changing ideas within medicine, from medieval to the mid 20th century, presents a view that societies establish values and ideals after a long process of expert opinion and debate. As networks grow and organise into factions, certain schools of thought emerge that promote different values. Once these schools gain a critical number of adherents, the value becomes a popular social value. It is important to note that these schools of thought begin life as fringe ideas, and expand to become socially accepted as their number of followers grows. To Foucalt, being familiar with a value is no basis for blind acceptance, and no society has a set of values which are unchangeable.

In a world dominated by capitalism and capitalist thinking, many people would be forgiven in assuming that the socialist ideas of Karl Marx no longer hold sway. However many sociologists believe that, while economic liberalism has put paid to Marxist economics, there is a need for a socialist way of thinking in terms of social organisation. Arguments for this way of thinking come primarily from contemporary sociologists Jurgen Habermass, Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells and Anthony Giddens.

Habermass argues that the modern world and modern communication techniques have now little in common with traditional governmental institutions. Collective decision making and democracy now needs to capitalise on the new forums for discussion that are available, particularly the using of Internet technologies.

Beck identifies a similar theme of the changing nature of the establishment, and argues that the growing trend of ‘globalisation’ within economics and social institutions is promoting what he calls a ‘risk society’, whereby risks to society become globally connected, and the actions of one particular society, in one particular area, have far reaching consequences for all connected. Beck admits that this situation has always been the case, but in modern times the risks have grown to be truly global and potentially devastating. However, Beck sees hope in the emergence of widely coordinated and distributed networks of ‘activists’, people who share the same set of values and work to promote the acceptance of their values in political and social frameworks. Unfortunately these networks also have their dark sides, exampled by global terrorist networks, but these are unlikely to succeed in generating mainstream societal change, whereas issues such as the environment or poverty eradication have a large degree of success when it comes to establishing new social principles.

As a further example of the changing attitudes of Marxist thinkers, we can look to Manuel Castells. Castells has identified, like Habermass and Beck, the emergence of a globally linked societies, but his interest in Marxian economics leads him to identify the increasing role of telecommunications and computer networks as a basis for global capitalist production. This view differs from traditional Marxism which identifies the working class as the basis for societal change, and Castells argues that we are live in a world influenced by technological determinism, where technology is increasingly determining and enforcing the direction of societal progression. This concept is the subject of much contention is sociology, and stems from the “human action vs social structure” argument of classical sociologists.

Finally, Anthony Giddens has developed a school of thought, ‘Social Reflexivity’, which places a great amount of importance on the notion of trust within social organisation. Expanding on the ideas of Beck, Giddens agrees that the world we live in has the potential to operate outside of the limits of our control, but that by constantly being aware of actions and decisions regarding lifestyle choices, societies can exert great influence on the underlying economic, political and cultural principles which are endemic to their existence. Giddens sees the path to overcoming the ‘Risk Society’ as being one of transnational, global cooperation that develops not from inter-governmental relationships, but from the self-awareness and identity recognition of societies, both internally and externally through global communication networks.

What I have learned from my introduction to both classical and contemporary sociological thinkers is that sociology seems to be a discipline that is often in flux. The ideas of classical sociologists maintain core theories which lie at the heart of sociological research, but it is a merit of sociology that sociologists are able to adapt these principles to their own environments and time periods. That is not to say that one can simply make up sociological theories. The analysis of contemporary sociologists appears to show and adherence to principles, or an acknowledgement of past research and theories in their work. For this reason, the study of sociology is one that requires a sound understanding of all genres and theories within the field, relating as they do to all of the various levels and ideologies that exist in our societies.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 30th, 2010

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