Classical Sociological Theory


Theory is vital to making sense of social life because it holds assorted observations and facts together. In essence theory is “how we make sense of things”. One of the best ways to think about this sociologically is to think about journalists. Theory is what separates sociologists from journalists. We observe facts in the world and apply a theory to these facts (or devise a theory) about how the world works. Without theory sociologists are no different than journalists.
Facts make sense only because we interpret them using preexisting categories and assumptions; that is, “theories.”
The point is that even so-called facts are based on implicit assumptions and unacknowledged presuppositions.

Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, our everyday life is filled with theories as we seek to understand the world around us. Every time we ask a question that is relevant to our life (why are we in school? Why is a degree important? What is the root of inequality?) We are applying or attempting to answer this sociologically.

The importance of formal sociological theorizing is that it makes assumptions and categories explicit; hence open to examination, scrutiny, and reformulation. So this means that in essence, we cannot take things for granted and sociological theory gives us the tools to really examine and understand why social life is organized the way it is and how change happens.

Classical Sociology
By “classical” sociological theory, we mean the era during which sociology first emerged as a discipline and was then institutionalized in universities—the mid-19th to early 20th centuries.
So what does this really mean?
In essence Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. They are what we call the sociological “canon”. And many of theories that came later are built on these. They were among the first to write and publish (it was likely that others thought about and even wrote about these issues and theories but for a number of reasons their work was not read as widely) theories on how the world works in social-scientific way.
This was happening in Europe during the 1800’s. This was a time of great social, economic and political transformation.

Why do you think? What was going on there during this time?


Social Forces in the Development of Sociological Theory
We will focus on the social conditions of the 19th and 20th century
What do we mean by social conditions?
In essence, what is going on in the social world that influences daily lives. Some examples of what was happening then are:
Political Revolutions
The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism
The Rise of Socialism
Religious Change
The Growth of Science

Political Revolution
The French Revolution 1789

Please watch the link above – a quick crash course
It was different from the American Revolution
Why do you think?
It DID bring about everlasting change such recognizing the importance human rights/
sociologists were concerned with the negative?
What are these?
Disorder – people were used to living under an authoritarian rule that. People believed that kings and queens were ordained to reign because their “royal blood” gave them this right. It was not questioned. Until it was. So now – sociologist begin to try to understand what causes change, and how people and society re-organize with changes in political regimes.

Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism
A number of events that worked together to form the world into a an industrial one from an agricultural one
Watch :

After watching the video think about the following questions”
What’s new?
What drove the industrial revolution?
What are the new technologies?
What does that change?
How do social classes change when we have new technologies?

The Rise of Socialism
A set of changes aimed at coping with the excesses of the industrial system and capitalism
In essence as we saw in the documentary- things changed radically when society went from being organized as a a feudal agricultural economy to a capitalist, industrialist one.
People had to leave the countryside to go look for work in the city, their whole way of life changed. Children were put to work, food was scarce, cities were overcrowded. People’s worlds turned upside down.
Marx and Engels as well as others of the time called for the end of capitalism and towards a more equal and just society- socialist economies.

Why does this period experience large urbanization?
This is where the jobs are – imagine as the aristocracy has to give up their land and people also see more opportunities in the city – they all move there.
The cities back then (think back to old books about London – Dickens) were filthy, dirty, disease ridden places, They were overcrowded and unsanitary. There were poor services, the plumbing and sewer systems could not keep up with all of those new inhabitants. Over time, governments stepped in with regulations about how many people can live an an apartment, cities instituted better ways to deal with garbage, sewer systems, water. Noise
How are cities different today then they were back then?


The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment is an important period in history and has had a huge influence on sociologists.
New ideas that challenged the old
Major thinkers: Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1789)
Thinkers of the enlightenment want to big ideas of how the world work and to test them scientifically
This is the age of SCIENCE
So if the natural world was dominated by natural laws then the social world must be too
This might seem like something that is normal to us– the belief in science– but you need to think about how much people placed their faith in the supernatural and in god. God and religion were a BIG DEAL then – people didn’t question a number of things such as – their lot in life (i.e. why they were peasants), or why kings were kings (they were preordained by god)
But the ENLIGHTMENT changed all of this and people (big thinkers and philosophers) started to question if god had all the answer. Science and rational thinking was introduced. This is also the time when we have the development of civil society- so people begin to debate in public and open areas. This is a way of sharing and learning new ideas- such as – you guessed it – SCIENCE. Trying to grasp how the natural and then social world works.
The Enlightenment also brings with it ideas of laws, rational rules – REASON
The Enlightenment Enlightenment was not so much a fixed set of ideas, but a new attitude, a new method of thought. One of the most important aspects of this new attitude was an emphasis on reason.


The Enlightenment
It is these ideas of REASON that gave birth to sociology in the mid-19th century.
The idea behind this new discipline (sociology) was that we could study society scientifically (with rational rules and laws) much the same way we think about and study biology or chemistry.
Indeed, the French intellectual Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who coined the term “sociology” in 1839, also used the term “social physics” to refer to this new discipline and his organic conceptualization of society. However, it was the French theorist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) who arguably was most instrumental in laying the groundwork for the emerging discipline of sociology.

Sociologists CORE theorists?
Durkheim emphasized that while the primary domain of psychology is to understand processes internal to the individual (for example, personality or instincts), the primary domain of sociology is social facts; that is, conditions and circumstances external to the individual that, nevertheless, determine one’s course of action. Social facts do not come from within they are outside of the person but influence how we act and think – (more on this later when we get to Durkheim – this is just a taste)

Sociologists CORE theorists?
Marx analyzed not only the economic dynamics of capitalism, but also the social and moral problems inherent to the capitalist system. He was interested and wrote about how this new system (think back to the BBC documentary) changed the way of life and the moral and social problem capitalism brings with it.

Weber combined a methodical, scientific approach with a concern about both the material conditions and idea systems of modern societies. Weber was also interested in capitalism but in a different way than Marx– how did Capitalism emerge – what are the new systems and how do they work?

Navigating Social Theory
One of the ways we think about it is that society is pictured as an overarching system that works down on individuals and groups to determine the shape of the social order. You can think about it as the cloud above us that influences how we think and act– this cloud is society with its norms, rules, codes, laws.

Society is understood as a reality “sui generis” that operates according to its own logic distinct from the will of individuals. This means that it is not influenced by individuals – society acts alone

Thinking about society this way (a top down approach) has assumed many different names—macro, holistic, objectivist, structuralist, and the book uses the name collectivist.

Navigating Social Theory
At the other end of the spectrum some theories hold that it is individuals and groups creating, re-creating, or altering the social order that works up to produce society.

This position grants more autonomy to actors, as they are seen as relatively free to reproduce the patterns and routines of social life (i.e., the social order) or transform them. In sociology we call this having agency- we make choices and these choices affect society and can effect change.

Over time, this orientation has earned several names as well—micro, elementarism, subjectivist, and the book uses the term individualist.

Navigating Social Theory – Action
A big part of social theory is to understand why people act the way they do. People act in ways that we call rational and non-rational.
Actions can be nonrational– what that means is that these actions (think of falling in love for example) are guided by values, norms, traditions, unconscious desires, and/or emotional states. Helping someone out just because it is the right thing to do is an example of nonrational action.
The rationalist – those who believe that action is rational –believe that individual and group actions are motivated primarily by the attempt to maximize rewards while minimizing costs. So what this might mean is that you are helping someone out because in the future you will need this persons help. You are maximizing your rewards. See the difference between the two?

How we think about social theory?
We think about the macro (remember coming from above – society is a cloud/force that acts upon us) versus micro or individualist which is where the individual acts and effects change on society. We can think of macro theory as one where society is organized from above and acts over individuals and micro theory as one where the individuals themselves have much more agency in how society is organized.
At the same time we also think about action- rational and non-rational action.
See next slide from the book



The previous slide…
It is a map of where the different theorists are situated
For example Durkheim’s theories are based on the idea that action is mostly (but not all –otherwise it would be towards the end of the arrow) nonrational and mostly collectivist (macro). This may seem confusing for now but it will make more sense as we go further into the different theorists,- so don’t worry too much about it for now.
it is essential to remember that this four-cell table is an analytical device that helps us understand and compare and contrast theorists better, but it does not mirror or reflect reality.

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