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					                 Introduction to Sociological Theory

I. Orientation

Who am I? What am I doing here? How? Why? So What?

These are the questions that motivated the classical sociological
theorists (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber), who offered answers to
these types of general questions.

You should consider these questions as you explore classical
theory and as you write your way toward your first analytical

II. What is Sociological Theory?

For our purposes, it is useful to have a working definition of
sociological theory.

Thus I offer the following definition, for your consideration:

Sociological theory is a set of assumptions, assertions, and
propositions, organized in the form of an explanation or
interpretation, of the nature, form, or content of social action.
Social Action, according to Max Weber, is action that takes
others into account.

     -at the individual or group level this refers to interpersonal
influence: how people are affected by co-present others or the
expectations associated with generalized others, so that they
dress, talk, and act in predictable ways

      - but social action also includes groups, organizations, and
institutions, however, and influence within and across these
“levels of analysis”

          - Why are pre-adolescent peer groups sex-segregated?
          - Why do men earn more than women?
          - Why are wages lower in the service sector?
          - Why are suicide rates higher in Protestant countries?
          - Why does capitalism thrive in these same countries?

These are all sociological questions

III. Why Did Sociological Theory Develop in Western Europe
and the United States in the late Nineteenth Century?

One might think that people have always asked sociological
questions, that they are always interested in understanding social

But, in fact, people generally take the social world for granted.

They begin to ask questions when the taken-for-granted world
appears to be problematic, most especially, when the social
world changes fundamentally.

Thus it should not be surprising to learn that sociological theory
developed (in the West) in the wake of fundamental changes in
western society.

The revolutions of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries
produced fundamental changes in the relations between parents
and children, men and women, rulers and ruled.

In the wake of these changes intellectuals, politicans, and
ordinary people asked why and how these changes had occurred
and how they should cope with this new world.

Society changed from rural to urban, collective to individual,
catholic to protestant, agricultural to industrial, local to national,
feudal to capitalist, and monarchy to republic.

The old world was populated by lords and peasants, living on
small estates that were essentially self-sufficient. Children
inherited the status of their parents. Tradition and personal
obligations governed the relations between people and
determined the schedule of daily life. Religion, economics,
politics, education, and family were indistinguishable
components of daily life.

This world was destroyed by violent revolutions, 1688-1871:

     - civil wars and religious wars in England, culminating in
       the Glorious Revolution of 1688
     - revolutions in France in 1789 and 1848, with two
       empires, restored monarchies, and general political
       turmoil until 1871
     - similar struggles throughout Europe, 1848-1871,
       culminating in the defeat of Napoleon III, the end of the
       Franco-Prussian war and the foundation of the German
       Empire, in 1871.

By 1871, Europeans were not simply speculating about the
nature of the ideal society (as philosophers, such as Aristotle had

They were desperately trying to understand what had happened
to the old world and what was likely to happen next.

There was a protracted debate between the liberal enlightenment
thinkers, who defended the new social order, and the
“reactionaries” who wished to return to the old world of lords
and peasants, governed by the divine right of kings.

In response to this debate between republicans and monarchists
(or Bonapartists), sociology developed as an independent force.
Marx, Durkheim, and Weber offered alternative perspectives:
they were critical of both republicans and monarchists.

Thus they were able to offer their theories, which developed as
French and German Schools of sociology, as alternatives to the
political debate that raged within the developing political

    This story of the history of Western Sociology differs from
conventional (textbook) accounts in two ways.

     - First, what the textbooks call “conservative” or
       “conservative reaction” is actually a “reactionary”
       political perspective defended by people who are not
       only pessimistic about human nature (and therefore
       concerned about establishing order and morality). They

  are equally pessimistic about the newly established
  “republican” form of government (and seek to re-
  establish a monarchy or to establish an empire).

- Second, in response to this protracted debate between
  defenders of liberal enlightenment and their reactionary
  opponents, sociology developed as an orthogonal
  (independent) debate between radicals (like Marx) and
  conservatives (like Durkheim). The “orthogonal” nature
  or the sociological debate was critical in maintaining
  sociology as relatively independent from the state: thus it
  was neither coopted nor repressed. Instead, once the
  liberal enlightenment forces effectively vanquished their
  foes, liberal social scientists (most notably, Weber)
  attempted (with varying degrees of success) to
  institutionalize this debate between radicals and
  conservatives under the umbrella of a liberal defense of
  “value free” social science.

- From my perspective, we must add (to conventional
  accounts) the fact that sociology was engaged in its own
  debate and the fact that this debate was orthogonal to (or
  independent of) the protracted struggle between liberal
  enlightenment and reaction.

- This is critical to our understanding of the uneasy
  relationship between sociology and the state. Sociology
  cannot exist independently of the state, lest it become
  dependent on the private sector (Ford’s Sociology
  Department) or totally without support. At the same

       time, however, state sponsored sociology is equally
       problematic, as we have seen in Nazi German, the Soviet
       Union, and Mao’s China.

     - we will consider this problem again in contemporary
       theory, particularly in the U.S.

IV. National or Regional Differences in Sociological Theory

Since sociology developed in response to fundamental changes
in social life and protracted political debates centered on the
cause and consequence of those changes, sociological theory
differs according to the structure of social institutions, the nature
of social change, and the nature of political struggles,
particularly as these touch on institutional change (or

Sociological theory thrives on protracted political struggle. That
is why German and French sociology dominates the
international theoretical discourse.

In England and the U.S., where the liberal enlightenment
perspective was less challenged, the evolutionary theory of
Herbert Spencer was dominant (in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries). This theory was particularly well suited to
the leading industrial powers, which were, according to Spencer,
superior to the agricultural, military societies of the less
industrial countries.

Here, especially in the U.S., method is more powerful than
theory and sociology is more applied (as opposed to theoretical).
That is why you are required to take one methods and one
statistics course but only one theory course. That is why it is
easier to hire more statisticians and to offer more statistics
courses. As the dean told me, “There is no money for theory.”

So what are we doing here?

What do you think?


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