Contemporary Sociological Theory

Contemporary Sociological Theory

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Contemporary Sociological Theory

and Its Classical Roots The Basics FOURTH EDITION

George Ritzer University of Maryland

Jeffrey Stepnisky Grant MacEwan University

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Published by McGraw-Hill, a business unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, 10020. Copyright © 2013 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. Previous editions © 2010, 2007, and 2003. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of The McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc., including, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ritzer, George. Contemporary sociological theory and its classical roots : the basics / George Ritzer, Jeffrey Stepnisky.—4th ed. p. cm. ISBN 978-0-07-802678-2 (alk. paper) 1. Sociology. 2. Sociology—History. I. Stepnisky, Jeffrey. II. Title. HM586.R58 2013 301—dc23 2012023779

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1. Introduction to Sociological Theory 1

Creating Sociological Theory 1 Defining Sociological Theory 5 Creating Sociological Theory: A More Realistic View 6

Multicultural Social Theory 7 Overview of the Book 8 Summary 12 Suggested Readings 13

2. Classical Theories I 15

Emile Durkheim: From Mechanical to Organic Solidarity 15 Two Types of Solidarity 15 Changes in Dynamic Density 16 Collective Conscience 17 Law: Repressive and Restitutive 18 Anomie 19

Karl Marx: From Capitalism to Communism 21 Human Potential 23 Alienation 23 Capitalism 25 Communism 30

Max Weber: The Rationalization of Society 30 Social Action 31 Behavior and Action 31 Types of Action 33

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iv Contents

Types of Rationality 34 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 35 Confucianism, Hinduism, and Capitalism 38 Authority Structures and Rationalization 38

Summary 43 Suggested Readings 43

3. Classical Theories II 45

Georg Simmel: The Growing Tragedy of Culture 45 Association 46 Forms and Types 46 Consciousness 47 Group Size 50 Distance and the Stranger 51 Distance and Value 51 Objective and Subjective Culture 52 Division of Labor 53

Thorstein Veblen: Increasing Control of Business over Industry 54 Business 54 Industry 56

George Herbert Mead: Social Behaviorism 57 The Act 58 Gestures 59 Significant Symbols and Language 59 The Self 60 I and Me 64

W.E.B. Du Bois: Race and Racism in Modern Society 65 Race 65 The Veil and Double-Consciousness 67 Economics and Marxism 68

Summary 69 Suggested Readings 70

4. Contemporary Grand Theories I 72

Structural Functionalism 72 The Functional Theory of Stratification and Its Critics 73 Talcott Parsons’s Structural Functionalism 76 Robert Merton’s Structural Functionalism 88

Conflict Theory 93 The Work of Ralf Dahrendorf 95 Authority 96 Groups, Conflict, and Change 98

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Contents v

General System Theory 99 The Work of Niklas Luhmann 99 System and Environment 100 Autopoiesis 101 Differentiation 102

Summary 105 Suggested Readings 106

5. Contemporary Grand Theories II 108

Neo-Marxian Theory 108 Critical Theory and the Emergence of the Culture Industry 108 Neo-Marxian Spatial Analysis 117

The Civilizing Process 124 Examples of the Civilizing Process 125 Explaining the Changes: Lengthening Dependency Chains 126 A Case Study: Fox Hunting 128

The Colonization of the Lifeworld 129 Lifeworld, System, and Colonization 129 Rationalization of System and Lifeworld 132

The Juggernaut of Modernity 132 The Juggernaut 133 Space and Time 133 Reflexivity 134 Insecurity and Risks 135

Summary 136 Suggested Readings 137

6. Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 139

Symbolic Interactionism 139 Dramaturgy 143

Dramaturgy 144 Impression Management 150

Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis 152 Defining Ethnomethodology 152 Accounts 153 Some Examples 154 Accomplishing Gender 156

Exchange Theory 157 The Exchange Theory of George Homans 157 Basic Propositions 160

Rational Choice Theory 164 A Skeletal Model 164 Foundations of Social Theory 165

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vi Contents

Summary 170 Suggested Readings 171

7. Contemporary Integrative Theories 173

A More Integrated Exchange Theory 173 Exchange Relationships and Networks 174 Power-Dependence 176 A More Integrative Exchange Theory 177

Structuration Theory 177 Elements of Structuration Theory 179

Culture and Agency 182 Habitus and Field 183

Bridging Subjectivism and Objectivism 183 Habitus 185 Field 188

Summary 193 Suggested Readings 193

8. Contemporary Feminist Theories 195 by Patricia Madoo Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge

The Basic Theoretical Questions 196 The Classical Roots 198 Contemporary Feminist Theories 200

Gender Difference 201 General Feminist Theories of Difference 202 Sociological Theories of Difference 203 Gender Inequality 205 Gender Oppression 211 Structural Oppression 216

Toward a Feminist Sociological Theory 222 Summary 228 Suggested Readings 229

9. Postmodern Grand Theories 231

The Transition from Industrial to Postindustrial Society 231 Increasing Governmentality (and Other Grand Theories) 234

Increasing Governmentality 235 Other Grand Theories 239

Postmodernity as Modernity’s Coming of Age 241 Learning to Live with Ambivalence? 241 Postmodern Ethics 244

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Contents vii

The Rise of Consumer Society, Loss of Symbolic Exchange, and Increase in Simulations 246 From Producer to Consumer Society 246 The Loss of Symbolic Exchange and the Increase in Simulations 249

The Consumer Society and the New Means of Consumption 257 Queer Theory: Sex and Sexuality 262

The Heterosexual/Homosexual Binary 263 Performing Sex 265

Summary 268 Suggested Readings 269

10. Globalization Theory 271

Major Contemporary Theorists on Globalization 275 Anthony Giddens on the “Runaway World” of Globalization 275 Ulrich Beck and the Politics of Globalization 277 Zygmunt Bauman on the Human Consequences of Globalization 279

Cultural Theory 280 Cultural Differentialism 280 Cultural Convergence 284 Cultural Hybridization 290

Economic Theory 293 Neo-Liberalism 293 Critiquing Neo-Liberalism 297 Neo-Marxian Theoretical Alternatives to Neo-Liberalism 301 Transnational Capitalism 301

Political Theory 307 Summary 310 Suggested Readings 311




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List of Boxes

Biographical/Autobiographical Vignettes

Alexis de Tocqueville 4 Emile Durkheim 17 Karl Marx 26 Max Weber 32 Georg Simmel 47 Thorstein Veblen 56 George Herbert Mead 61 W. E. B. Du Bois 67 Talcott Parsons 87 Robert K. Merton 90 C. Wright Mills 94 Ralf Dahrendorf 96 Niklas Luhmann 102 Herbert Marcuse 112 Norbert Elias 126 Jürgen Habermas 130 Anthony Giddens 134 Erving Goffman 150 Harold Garfinkel 154 George Caspar Homans 159 James S. Coleman 166 Richard Emerson 175 Pierre Bourdieu 184 Harriet Martineau 198 Jessie Bernard 209 Patricia Hill Collins 220 Dorothy E. Smith 226 Michel Foucault 239 Jean Baudrillard 256

Zygmunt Bauman 278 George Ritzer 287

Key Concepts Social Facts 20 Anomic (and Other Types of) Suicide 22 Exploitation 27 Verstehen 36 The Ideal Type and the Ideal-Typical

Bureaucracy 40 Secrecy 48 Space 52 Conspicuous Consumption

and Conspicuous Leisure 55 Definition of the Situation 62 Critical Theories of Race and Racism 66 Social Structure and Anomie 92 The Functions of Social Conflict 98 Knowledge Industry 115 The Modern World-System 123 Figurations 127 Ideal Speech Situation 131 Risk Society 135 The Conceptual Contributions of Charles

Horton Cooley 141 Role Distance 146 Stigma 149 Reflexive Sociology 187 Standpoint 223 Postmodern Sociology; Sociology of

Postmodernity 242

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List of Boxes ix

The Prosumer and Prosumption 254 Phantasmagoria and Dream Worlds 260 Globalization 273 Civil Society 275 Orientalism 283

Contemporary Applications Does Marx’s Theory Have Any Relevance to a

Post-Communist World? 28 Have We Become Obsessed with the Self? 63 Is the “War on Terror” Functional? 104 The Occupy Movement and Neo-Marxian

Spatial Analysis 118

Antidepressants: A Symbolic Interactionist View 142

September 11, 2001, and the Stigmatization of Muslims 151

The “Field” of American Higher Education Today 192

Some Marriage Stats 227 The Death of Consumer Culture? If So,

What Next? 250 The Bathroom Problem 267 Is Global Neo-Liberal Capitalism Dead? 299 The Great Global Economic Meltdown of

2008 306

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About the Authors

GEORGE RITZER is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. Among his awards are an Honorary Doctorate from La Trobe University, Australia, the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award, and the 2013–2014 Robin Williams Lecture- ship by the Eastern Sociological Association. He has chaired the American Sociological Association’s Sections on Theoretical Sociology, Organizations and Occupations, Global and Transnational Sociology and the History of Sociology. His other McGraw-Hill textbooks include Classical Sociological Theory and Sociological Theory. Among his books in metatheory are Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science and Metatheorizing in Sociology. In the application of social theory to the social world, his books include The McDonaldization of Society, Enchanting a Disenchanted World, and The Globalization of Nothing. Sage has published two volumes of his collected works, one in theory and the other in the application of theory to the social world, especially consumption. In the latter area, he was founding editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture. He co-edited the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists with Jeff Stepnisky and the Handbook of Social Theory with Barry Smart. He has edited the two-volume Encyclopedia of Social Theory, the eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Sociology, and the five-volume Encyclopedia of Globalization. His books have been translated into over 20 languages, with over a dozen translations of The McDonaldization of Society which in 2014 will be published in its 20th anniversary edition.

JEFFREY STEPNISKY is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he teaches classical and contem- porary social theory. He has published in the area of social theory, especially as it relates to questions of subjectivity. This includes a series of papers on the topic of antidepressant medications and contemporary selfhood. He has co-edited the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, with George Ritzer, and served as the managing editor for The Encyclopedia of Social Theory and the Journal of Consumer Culture.

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Compared to the third edition of this book, the fundamental structure of the fourth edition is unchanged. However, a number of substantial changes have been made within that overall structure and, of course, many more minor changes have been made throughout the text. The following are the changes made in this edition:

• In Chapter 3 a new section on the classical theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, focusing on the analysis of race and racism, has been added.

• In Chapter 4, the section on General Systems Theory has been re- written and shortened to provide a more accessible version of Niklas Luhmann’s main theoretical concepts.

• In Chapter 5, the section on Henri Lefebvre has been re-written and shortened to provide a more accessible version of the theory.

• In Chapter 9 a new section on Queer Theory, which focuses on the contemporary construction of sexuality, has been added (it replaces the sections on “dromology” and “feminism and postmodern theory”).

• The Biographical Vignette on Pierre Bourdieu (Chapter 7) has been re- written to include material from Bourdieu’s autobiography. To make room for new material the Robert E. Park vignette has been removed (Chapter 6).

• Additions to the Key Concepts are Critical Theories of Race and Racism (Chapter 3) and Orientalism (Chapter 10).

• The new Contemporary Applications are The Occupy Movement and Neo-Marxian Spatial Analysis (Chapter 5), Antidepressants: A Sym- bolic Interactionist View (Chapter 6), Some Marriage Stats (Chapter 8), and The Bathroom Problem (Chapter 9). Two applications have been removed to make room for these: From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 (Chapter 5) and Domestic Violence (Chapter 8).

• Smaller changes to the text include updated key words and glossary entries, changes to the references at the end of each chapter, and a num- ber of clarifications and additions to the writing throughout.

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xii Preface

Supplementary Material

Available to instructors only, this text is accompanied by an online Instructors’ Manual which includes chapter outlines, chapter summaries, student exercises and discussion topics. Visit this site at

Acknowledgments We would like to thank Patricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge for revis- ing the material on feminist theory and, more generally, for their long- term and continuing support for this book. At McGraw-Hill we would like to thank our editor Craig Leonard for his help in bringing this version of the book to completion.

We would also like to thank the reviewers of this edition for their com- ments and suggestions:

Thomas Dailey, Columbus State University

Daniel Egan, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Morten Ender, West Point Military Academy

Kim MacInnis, Bridgewater State University

John Bartkowski, University of Texas at San Antonio

Bradley Jay Buchner, Cheyney University of PA

Nena Sechler Craven, Delaware State University

M. Arif Ghayur, Iowa Wesleyan College

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C H A P T E R 1

Introduction to Sociological Theory

Creating Sociological Theory Defining Sociological Theory Creating Sociological Theory: A More Realistic View Overview of the Book Summary Suggested Readings

E veryone theorizes about the social world (and many other things—natural events, supernatural possibilities) virtually all of the time. Most generally this means that people think about, speculate on, some social issue. We might think about our parents’ relationship to one another or speculate about the chances that our favorite team will win the league championship or whether China will go to war with Taiwan. On the basis of such speculation we are likely to develop theo- ries about our parents (e.g., they get along so well because they have similar per- sonalities), our team (they will not win the league championship because they lack teamwork), or the possibility of war (China will not go to war because war would threaten China’s recent economic advances). These theories deal with social reali- ties and social relationships—for example, the personalities of our parents and how those personalities affect the way they relate to one another; teamwork and the ability to win a championship; the nature of China, and its relationship to other nations, in an era in which the global economy is increasingly tightly intertwined.


Social theorists, including those to be discussed in this book, do much the same kind of thing—they speculate, they develop theories, and their theories deal with social realities and social relationships. Of course, there are important dif- ferences between everyday theorizing and that of social theorists:

1. Social thinkers usually theorize in a more disciplined and self-conscious manner than do people on an everyday basis.

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2. Social thinkers usually do their theorizing on the basis of the work of social thinkers who have come before them. Thus, virtually all social theorists have carefully studied the work of their forebears, while most laypeople operate largely, if not totally, on their own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, and, more recently, the sociologist Robert Merton, if social theorists have developed better theories, it is because they have been able to build upon the ideas of those thinkers who came before them.

3. In addition, social theorists also often rely on data, either gathered by themselves or collected by others, on the social realities or relationships of interest to them. Laypeople may have some data at their disposal when they theorize, but these data are likely to be far less extensive and to be col- lected much less systematically.

4. Unlike laypeople, social theorists seek to publish their theories (major examples of such writings will be examined in this book) so that they can be critically analyzed, more widely disseminated, used as a basis for empirical research, and built upon by later theorists. The rigors of the review process help ensure that weak theories are weeded out before they are published or receive scant attention if they do manage to be published.

5. Most importantly, social theorists do not, at least professionally, think about specific relationships involving their parents, their favorite team, or even a particular nation. Social theorists generally think in a more inclusive man- ner about very broad social issues, whereas the layperson is much more likely to speculate about much narrower, even very personal, issues. Thus, in terms of the three examples already mentioned, although a layperson is likely to speculate about the relationship between her parents, the social theorist thinks about the more general issue of, for example, the changing nature of spousal relations in the early 21st century. Similarly, the layperson who thinks about the chances of success of her favorite team contrasts with the social theorist who might be concerned with such issues as the unfair- ness of competition between sports teams in the era of large salaries and budgets. Finally, rather than theorizing about China, a social theorist might think about the contemporary nation-state in the era of global capitalism (see Chapter 10).

Although social theorists think in general terms, this is not to say that the issues of concern to them are only of academic interest. In fact, the issues that are chosen are often of great personal interest to the theorists (and many others) and are frequently derived from issues of great import in their personal lives. Thus, the stresses and strains in their parents’ marriage, or even in their own, might lead sociologists to theorize about the general issue of the modern family and the difficulties that abound within it. The best sociological theories often stem from deep personal interests of theorists.

However, this poses an immediate dilemma. If the best theory stems from powerful personal interests, isn’t it likely that such theory is likely to be biased and distorted by those interests and personal experiences? The bad experiences

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Introduction to Sociological Theory 3

that a theorist might have had as a child in her own home, or her own marital problems, might bias her against the nuclear family and give her a distorted view of it. This, in turn, might lead her in the direction of a theory critical of such a family. This is certainly possible, even likely, but theorists must and usually do manage to keep their personal biases in check. Yet bias is an ever- present danger that both theorists and those who read theory must keep in the forefront of their thinking.

Balancing this is the fact that feeling strongly about an issue is a powerful motivator. Sociologists with strong feelings about the family (or any other topic in sociology) are likely to do sustained work on it and to feel driven to come up with theoretical insights into the issue. As long as biases are kept in check, strong personal feelings often lead to the very best in social theory. For exam- ple, in this volume we will have a number of occasions to mention Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his pioneering work on capitalism (see Chapter 2). In many ways, Marx’s theory of capitalism is one of the very best in the history of social theory, and it was motivated by Marx’s strong feelings about it and the plight of the workers in it. It is true that these feelings may have blinded Marx to some of the strengths of the capitalist system, but that is counterbalanced by the fact that these feelings led to a powerful theory of the dynamics of capitalism.

One can theorize about any aspect of the social world with the result that social theorists have speculated about things we would expect them to think about (politics, the family), as well as others that we might find quite surpris- ing (e.g., one of the authors of this textbook, George Ritzer, has done work on things like fast-food restaurants, credit cards, and shopping malls). Every aspect of the social world, from the most exalted to the most mundane, can be the sub- ject of social theory. Various social theorists find different aspects of the social world important and interesting, and it is in those areas that they are likely to devote their attention. Some might find the behavior of kings and presidents interesting, while others might be drawn to that of panhandlers and prostitutes. Furthermore, still others, often some of the best social theorists, are drawn to the relationship between highly exalted and highly debased behavior. For example, Norbert Elias (1897–1990) was concerned with the relationship (in the period between the 13th and the 19th centuries) between such mundane behaviors as picking one’s nose at the dinner table, blowing one’s nose, expelling wind, and changes in the king’s court (see Chapter 5). In terms of mundane behaviors, he found that over time people grew less and less likely to pick their noses at the table, to stare at one’s handkerchief and the results of blowing one’s nose, and to noisily and publicly expel wind. This is linked to changes in the king’s court that were eventually disseminated to the rest of society. Basically, the members of the king’s court became dependent on a wider and wider circle of people, with the result that they became more sensitive about the impact of at least some of their behaviors (e.g., violence against others) and more circumspect about them. Eventually, these wider circles of dependence, this greater sensitivity and circumspection, made their way to the lower reaches of society, and the kinds of everyday behaviors discussed above were greatly affected by them. To put it

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baldly, people generally stopped (the exceptions are now quite notable) picking their noses at the dinner table or noisily expelling wind in public.

Social thinkers may focus on particular behaviors because they find them important and interesting, but they also may do so because it provides them with a point of entry into the social world. This idea is based on the perspective of Georg Simmel (1858–1918) that the social world is composed of an endless series of social relationships (see Chapter 3). Each social act, in this view, is part of a social relationship and each of those relationships, in turn, is ultimately related to every other social relationship. Thus, any given act or relationship can serve as a way of gaining a sense of the entirety of the social world, even the essential aspects and meanings of that world. Thus, Simmel chose money and relationships based on money as a specific way of gaining insight into the entirety of modern society.

Although there is a great gap between the theories to be discussed in this book and the theories we all create every day, the point is that there is no essen- tial difference between professional and lay theorizing. If, after you read this

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) A Biographical Vignette

There are several ironies associated with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. First, he was a French scholar, but his best-known work deals with America. Second, he was an aristocrat, but he is famous for his work on democracy. Third, he is most often thought of as a political scientist, but he made very

important contributions to sociology and sociological theory (see, for example, the discussion of “civil society” in Chapter 10). It is Volume One of Democracy in America (published in 1835) that is his best-known work, but it was largely politi- cal in nature. It dealt with the American political system and how it compared to others, particularly the French political system. The second volume of that work (published in 1840) is less well-known and was less well-received, but it is far more sociological. Among other things, it deals broadly with culture, social class, “indi- vidualism” (he is often credited with having invented the term, now very popular in sociological theory), and social change.

Fourth, by the time of his later work on the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (published in 1856), Tocqueville had grown nostalgic for the aristocratic system (he wrote of the “catastrophic downfall of the monarchy”) and increasingly critical of democracy and socialism. Both were seen by him as involving far too much centralization of decision-making. He felt that in his younger years aristocrats were freer and made more independent decisions. Such aristocrats served as a counter-balance to the power of centralized government. In spite of this, Tocqueville was enough of a realist to realize that there was no going back to an aristocratic system. Rather, he argued for the need for various “associations of plain citizens” to form bodies that would serve to counter the power of centralized gov- ernment and protect freedom. These associations are very close to what we now think of as civil society.

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Introduction to Sociological Theory 5

book, you study previous theorizing and then theorize in a more systematic and sustained manner about general social issues, you would be a social theo- rist. Of course, being a social theorist does not necessarily yield high-quality theories. Your first efforts are not likely to be as good as the theories discussed in this book. In fact, the theories to be discussed in the following pages are the best of the best; and the work of many social theorists, some of them quite well known in their time, will not be discussed here because their theories have not stood the test of time well and are no longer considered important social theo- ries. Thus, many have tried, but only a few have succeeded in creating the high quality and important theories to be discussed in this book.


Standing the test of time is one characteristic of theories to be discussed in this book. Another is that they have a wide range of applicability. For example, they do not simply explain behavior in your family, but in a large number of similar families in the United States and perhaps even in other nations around the world. Still another is that the theories deal with centrally important social issues. Thus, the issue of globalization (see Chapter 10) and the global econ- omy is defined by many as a key issue today and, as a result, has attracted the attention of many social theorists. Finally, the theories to be discussed in this book were created either by sociologists or by those in other fields whose work has come to be defined as important by sociologists. For example, we will devote a great deal of attention to feminist sociological theory in this book, but although some feminist theorists are sociologists (e.g., Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins), the vast majority are social thinkers from a wide variety of other fields. Whether or not theories were created by sociologists, the theories to be discussed here have been built upon by others who have refined them, expanded on them, or tested some of their basic premises in empirical research.

A more formal definition of sociological theory is a set of interrelated ideas that allows for the systematization of knowledge of the social world, the expla- nation of that world, and predictions about the future of the social world. While some of the theories to be discussed in these pages meet all of these criteria to a high degree, many others fall short on one or more of them. Nonetheless, they are all considered full-fledged sociological theories for purposes of this discus- sion. Whether or not they meet all the criteria, all the theories to be discussed here are considered by large numbers of sociologists (as well as those in many other fields) to be important theories. Perhaps most importantly, all of these are big ideas about issues and topics of concern to everyone in the social world.

sociological theory A set of interrelated ideas that allow for the systematization of knowledge of the social world, the explanation of that world, and predictions about the future of the social world.

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Up to this point in this chapter, we have offered an idealized picture of socio- logical theory and the way it is created. In recent years a number of sociologi- cal theorists have grown increasingly critical of this image and have sought to create a more accurate picture of theory and theory creation. They point out that at least some theorists are quite undisciplined (if not downright casual); they don’t always study the work of their predecessors in detail; they aren’t always so careful about collecting data that bear on their theories; their work is not always reviewed rigorously prior to publication; they allow their per- sonal experiences to distort their theories; and so on. Overall, the point is made that the creation of sociological theory is far from the perfect process described previously.

In addition to critiquing the work of individual theorists, the critics have also attacked the general state of sociological theory. In the past, like many other academic disciplines, sociological theory has been organized around a series of canonical texts. This sociological canon is made up of those theories, ideas, and books that are considered to be the most important in the field of sociology. This said, critics have pointed out that the canon is not necessarily a neutral or unbiased creation. It has favored some kinds of social theory over others. Thus, the critics have made the point that the best theories are not neces- sarily the ones that survive, become influential, and are covered in books like this one. They contend that sociological theory is not unlike the rest of the social world—it is affected by a wide range of political factors. What does and does not come to be seen as important theory (as part of the canon) is the result of a series of political processes:

1. The work of those who studied with the acknowledged masters of socio- logical theory, people (historically, men) who came to occupy leadership positions within the discipline, is likely to be seen as more important than the work of those who lacked notable and powerful mentors.

2. Works reflecting some political orientations are more likely to become part of the canon than those done from other perspectives. Thus, in the not- too-distant past in sociology, politically conservative theories (e.g., struc- tural functionalism; see Chapter 4) were more likely to win acceptance than those that were radical from a political point of view (e.g., various theories done from a Marxian perspective; see, especially, Chapter 5).

3. Theories that lead to clear hypotheses that can be tested empirically are more likely to be accepted, at least by mainstream sociologists, than those that produce grand, untestable points of view.

sociological canon The set of theorists, theories, ideas, and texts that, at least in the past, have been considered the most important in the field of sociology. Over the last 30 years critics have argued that the canon is not a neutral construction but is affected by political factors.

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4. Theories produced by majority group members (i.e., white males) are more likely to become part of the canon than those created by minorities. Thus, the works of black theoreticians have been highly unlikely to become part of the canon (for one exception, see the discussion of Du Bois in Chapter 3). The same is true, at least until recently, of the work of female theorists (see Chapter 8). The theoretical ideas of those associated with cultural minori- ties (e.g., Chicanos, homosexuals) have encountered a similar fate.

Thus sociological theory has not, in fact, always operated in anything approaching the ideal manner that was described earlier in this chapter. How- ever, in recent decades there has been growing awareness of the gap between the ideal and the real. As a result, a number of perspectives that were denied entry into the heart of sociological theory have come, in recent years, to attain a central position within the field. Thus, Marx’s theory (see Chapter 2) and a variety of neo-Marxian theories (Chapter 5) have become part of the canon. Similarly, feminist theory has become a powerful presence in sociological the- ory, reflected by the fact that it is not only the subject of Chapter 8, but it is also dealt with elsewhere in this book. Thus, contemporary sociological theory is now characterized by a great mix of theories, some of which fit the ideal model and others that are the product of the less idealistic, more realistic model of the way theory works. That is, those who support previously excluded theo- ries have flexed their muscles and used their power within sociological theory to enhance the position of their perspectives. These upstarts now share cen- ter stage in sociological theory with more mainstream theories that have long occupied that position.

In order to give more substance to this discussion, in the following section we discuss a number of theories that can broadly be discussed under the head- ing of multicultural social theory. Multicultural social theory tends to focus on perspectives that highlight the experiences of people who are not represented in mainstream political, cultural, and academic arenas. This focus on exclusion and difference leads to the creation of social theories that are quite distinct from those that have traditionally formed the sociological canon. As we will see, at least some of these theories are on their way to becoming, or have already become, part of the canon.

Multicultural Social Theory

The rise of multicultural social theory was foreshadowed by the emergence of contemporary feminist sociological theory in the 1970s. Feminists complained that sociological theory had been largely closed to women’s voices; in the ensu- ing years, many minority groups echoed the feminists’ complaints. In fact, as discussed in Chapter 8, minority women (for example, African Americans and

multicultural social theory Multicultural social theory focuses on perspectives that highlight the experiences of people who are not represented in mainstream politi- cal, cultural, and academic arenas.

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Latinas) began to complain that feminist theory was restricted to white middle- class females and had to be more receptive to many other voices. Today, femi- nist theory has become far more diverse, as has sociological theory.

More recently multicultural theory has expanded to include approaches such as queer theory. Queer theory provides theoretical models for understand- ing social processes surrounding the construction of sexuality, but more spe- cifically the construction of of gay, lesbian, and queer sexuality (see Chapter 9). Multicultural theory also includes perspectives that address the experiences of ethnic and racial minorities. In particular recent years have seen the growth of Afrocentric theories, Native American theories, and postcolonial theories. In this context, the area of critical theories of race and racism has become an area of significant growth in recent years. In general, critical theories of race and racism describe the social processes through which race and racism are socially constructed and used to manage and control populations (see Key Concept box in Chapter 3). More generally, the problems addressed by multicultural theory are the following:

• It rejects universalistic theories that tend to support those in power; multi- cultural theories seek to empower those who lack clout.

• It seeks to be inclusive, to offer theory on the behalf of many disempow- ered groups.

• Multicultural theorists are not value free; they often theorize on behalf of those without power and work in the social world to change social struc- ture, culture, and the prospects for individuals.

• Multicultural theorists seek to disrupt not only the social world but the intellectual world; they seek to make it far more open and diverse.

• No effort is made to draw a clear line between theory and other types of narratives.

• Ordinarily multicultural theory has a critical edge; it is both self-critical and critical of other theories and, most importantly, of the social world.

• Multicultural theorists recognize that their work is limited by the particular historical, social, and cultural context in which they happen to live.

Thus, multicultural theory tends to be created by atypical theorists, to focus on heretofore ignored topics, and to utilize a variety of unique approaches to theorizing. Multicultural theory in general, as well as several specific multicul- tural theories, is fast becoming part of the canon of sociological theory.


Although this book is primarily about contemporary sociological theory, no single date can be used to separate clearly classical sociological theory from contemporary sociological theory, nor are there characteristics that definitively separate the two. Nonetheless, we can take as the starting point of classical sociological theory the early 1800s when Auguste Comte, the French social thinker who coined the term sociology (in 1839), began theorizing sociologically.

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(By the way, thinkers long before that time, both in Western and non-Western cultures, developed idea systems that had many elements in common with sociological theory.) The 1920s and 1930s mark the close of the classical period. By that time virtually all the great classical thinkers had passed from the scene, and the new contemporary theorists were beginning to replace them. Thus, the beginnings of the contemporary theories discussed in this book can be traced back many decades, although most were produced in the last half of the 20th century and remain important, and continue to be developed, in the early years of the 21st century.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the major theories and theorists of sociology’s classical age—roughly the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapter 2 covers three thinkers—Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber—who are always acknowledged as the major figures in the history of sociological theory. Chapter 3 begins with a theorist—Georg Simmel—who is very often included with the other three in the pantheon of classic theorists. This chapter also deals with three American thinkers each of whom adds a unique focus to classical theory. (Durkheim was French; Marx, Weber, and Simmel were German.) Thorstein Veblen, like the others mentioned to this point, had a very broad social theory. His theorizing has received increasing recognition in recent years for the fact that while all of the above focused on issues related to production, he also concerned himself with, and foresaw, the increasing importance of consumption (especially in his famous idea of “conspicuous consumption”) in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the other theorists addressed to this point, George Herbert Mead focused more on everyday life (although, as we will see, many of the other thinkers discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 had much to offer on this and often embedded their larger theories in ideas that related to everyday life) and less on broad social phenomena and social changes. Finally, W.E.B. Du Bois was an African-American sociologist. He argued that race and racism were the most important problems facing the 20th century and constructed a social theory that explained the significance of race for social life. His ideas also anticipate those now addressed by theorists working in the area of critical theories of race and racism.

Chapters 4 and 5, indeed the rest of the book, shift the focus to our main concern with contemporary sociological theories. These two chapters deal with contemporary grand theories (as contrasted to the contemporary theories of everyday life to be discussed in Chapter 6). A grand theory is defined as a vast, highly ambitious effort to tell the story of a great stretch of human his- tory and/or a large portion of the social world. In fact, all of the theorists dis- cussed in Chapters 2 and 3 can be seen as doing grand theory. However, our focus in Chapters 4 and 5 is more contemporary grand theories. In Chapter 4 we deal with two of the best-known contemporary theories: structural func- tionalism and conflict theory, along with systems theory, which has enjoyed

grand theory A vast, highly ambitious effort to tell the story of a great stretch of human history and/or a large portion of the social world.

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a resurgence of interest lately because of the contributions of a contempo- rary German thinker, Niklas Luhmann. Chapter 5 deals with both another well-known contemporary theory—neo-Marxian theory—as well as three of the more specific contemporary efforts at grand theory: the civilizing process (Norbert Elias), colonizing the lifeworld (Jürgen Habermas), and the jugger- naut of modernity (Anthony Giddens).

While Chapters 4 and 5 deal with grand theories dealing with large-scale structures and changes, Chapter 6 focuses on the major contemporary variet- ies of theories of everyday life: symbolic interactionism (building heavily

Karl Marx (1818–1883)

Georg Simmel (1858–1918)

Robert Park (1864–1944) George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929)

Symbolic Interactionism

Emile Durkheim (1858–1917)

Critical Theory Marcuse Harbert (1898–1979)

Max Weber (1864–1920)

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979)

B. F. Skinner (1904–1990)

Harriett Martineau (1802–1876)

Marianne Weber (1870–1954)

Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929)

FIGURE 1.1. Sociological Theory: A Chronology

theories of everyday life Theories that focus on such everyday and seemingly mun- dane activities as individual thought and action, the interaction of two or more people, and the small groups that emerge from such interaction.

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Introduction to Sociological Theory 11

on the work of Mead discussed in Chapter 3), dramaturgy (especially the contributions of Erving Goffman), ethnomethodology (shaped most heav- ily by Harold Garfinkel), exchange theory (the focus here is on the contribu- tions of George Homans), and rational choice theory (especially that of James Coleman).

In Chapter 7 we deal with the major efforts to integrate the kinds of large- scale concerns dealt with in Chapters 4 and 5 with the everyday (small-scale) issues dealt with in Chapter 6. We start with the efforts to create an exchange theory that goes beyond the micro-issues covered in Chapter 6 to integrate more macro-levels and issues (primarily in the work of Richard Emerson). We then move on to a series of more encompassing integrative efforts including structuration theory (Anthony Giddens’ most general theoretical contribution to sociology), an attempt to integrate culture and agency (Margaret Archer), and Pierre Bourdieu’s ambitious integration of what he calls habitus and field.

Structuralism Poststructuralism Foucault (1926–1984)

Structural Functionalism Robert Merton (1910–2003)

Exchange Theory Michel Richard Emerson (1925–1982)

Rational Choice Theory James Coleman (1926–1995) Postmodern

Social Theory Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007)

Systems Theory Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998)

Theories of Modernity Anthony Giddens (1938– )

Globalization Theory Roland Robertson (1938– )

Spatial Marxism

Integrative Theory

Theories of Consumption


Conflict Theory Ralf Dahrendorf (1929– )

Feminist Sociological Theory Dorothy Smith (1926– )

Ethnomethodology Harold Garfinkel (1929– )

Judith Butler (1956– )

Erving Goffman (1922–1982)

Radical Sociology C. Wright Mills (1916–1962)

World System Theory Immanuel Wallerstein (1930– )

George Homans (1910–1989)

Jurgen Habermas (1929– )

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Many of the concerns detailed in the preceding chapter are evident in Chapter 8 (authored by Patricia Madoo Lengermann and Jill Brantley) on feminist theory, but that theory is so broad, involves so many thinkers, and is so important that it requires a chapter (at least) to itself. Four broad types of contemporary feminist theories are covered in the chapter—theories of gender difference, gender inequality, gender oppression, and structural oppression.

Chapter 9 deals with some of the most exciting theoretical developments of the late 20th century grouped under the heading of postmodern grand theories. Included here is Daniel Bell’s work on the transition from industrial to post- industrial society, Michel Foucault’s thinking on increasing governmentality, Zygmunt Bauman’s work on postmodernity as the coming of age of modernity, the interrelated work of Jean Baudrillard on the rise of consumer society and George Ritzer’s work on the new means (or cathedrals) of consumption, and finally a section on queer theory including discussion of important queer theo- rists such as Michel Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, and Judith Butler.

Chapter 10 deals with what is coming to be seen in the early 21st century as the most important area of new sociological (and other) theorizing— globalization theory. We begin by looking at the thinking of several important contemporary theorists on globalization—Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman, and Ulrich Beck. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to three broad types of theorizing about globalization. The first is cultural theory, which, itself, is subdivided into three subtypes. Cultural differentialism sees lasting, if not eternal, differences among cultures that are little affected by globalization. A major example of this approach is Samuel Huntington’s work on civilizations. Cultural convergence focuses on areas in which cultures are growing alike. Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization as a global force and the increasing globalization of “nothing” is used to exemplify this approach. Finally, cultural hybridization sees globalization as characterized by unique mixtures of the global and the local. Appadurai’s work on globalization in general, and especially his thinking on disjunctures among what he calls “landscapes,” is a good and important example of this approach. Second is economic theory. While there is a wide array of work under this heading, the focus here is on neo-liberalism, as well as two neo-Marxian approaches—Leslie Sklair on transnational capitalism and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri on empire—that represent critiques of neo-liberalism and alternatives to it. Finally, we discuss political approaches to globalization with a special focus on the decline of the nation-state in the global age.


1. We all theorize, but there are a number of characteristics that distinguish the theo- rizing of sociologists from that of laypeople.

2. The issues of interest to sociological theorists are usually of great personal and social concern.

3. Every aspect of the social world, from the most exalted to the most mundane, can be the subject of social theory.

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Introduction to Sociological Theory 13

4. Social thinkers may focus on particular behaviors because they find them important and interesting, but they also may do so because these behaviors offer them points of entry into the larger social world.

5. The theories discussed in this book have a number of characteristics in common, including having stood the test of time and having a wide range of applicability, dealing with centrally important social issues, and being created by sociologists or those who have come to be defined as important by sociologists.

6. A more formal definition of sociological theory, although few theories measure up to it fully, is: a set of interrelated ideas that allow for the systematization of knowl- edge of the social world, the explanation of that world, and predictions about the future of the social world.

7. Although there is an idealized image of the way in which sociological theory oper- ates (e.g., the best ideas become part of the canon), the fact is that reality is quite different and political factors play a critical role in theory.

8. Criticisms of the ideal model and revelations about the real world of sociological theory have made it possible for a number of perspectives that were previously marginalized (e.g., Marxian, feminist, and multicultural theories) to move toward, and even become part of, the canon.

9. This book deals with contemporary sociological theory (and its classical roots) under several general headings—classical theories, grand theories (including post- modern), theories of everyday life, integrative theories, feminist theories, and theo- ries of globalization.

Suggested Readings

C raig C alhoun, et al., eds. Classical Sociological Theory. 3rd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell, 2012. Recent collection of works in classical sociological theory.

C raig C alhoun, et al., eds. Contemporary Sociological Theory. 3rd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Recent collection of works in contemporary sociological theory.

J ames F arganis, ed. Readings in Social Theory. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. One of the best collections of both classic and contemporary works in social theory.

G eorge R itzer Modern Sociological Theory. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Deals with contemporary sociological theory much more widely and in much more detail than this volume.

G eorge R itzer Classical Sociological Theory. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Deals with classical sociological theory in greater depth than it is covered in this book and covers a much wider range of classical theorists.

George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists. Oxford, England, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Forty- one essays on leading classical and contemporary theorists authored by widely rec- ognized scholars.

G eorge R itzer, ed. The Encyclopedia of Social Theory. 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005. The first full encyclopedia of social theory. It covers most of the major topics and theorists in both classical and contemporary. The entries are written by well-known experts on the topic from around the world.

G eorge R itzer and B arry S mart, eds. The Handbook of Social Theory. London: Sage, 2001. A compendium of essays dealing with many of the most important people and issues in the history of social theory.

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J onathan T urner Structure of Sociological Theory. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. Latest version of a popular text in sociological theory that offers a very dif- ferent perspective from the one found in this book. Turner adopts a “positivistic” perspective on theory and seeks to develop testable propositions derived from theories.

M ary R ogers, ed. Multicultural Experiences, Multicultural Theories. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. Includes many examples of, and original contributions to, mul- ticultural theory.

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C H A P T E R 2

Classical Theories I

Emile Durkheim: From Mechanical to Organic Solidarity Karl Marx: From Capitalism to Communism Max Weber: The Rationalization of Society Summary Suggested Readings

T he early giants of social theory are noted for the creation of grand theories, theories that, as defined in Chapter 1, are vast, highly ambitious theoretical efforts to tell the story of great stretches of social history and large expanses of the social world. These theories of history generally culminate in the author’s time with a description of a society that, while it has made progress, is beset with problems. The creators of such theories usually offer ideas about how to solve those problems and thereby to create a better society.


Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) built on the work of the French social theorist Auguste Comte, but he became a far more important figure in the history of theory than Comte. In fact, at least some observers consider him the most important theorist in the history of sociology. To this day, many forms of socio- logical theorizing bear the stamp of Durkheim’s thinking.

Two Types of Solidarity

Durkheim’s grand theory involves a concern for the historical transforma- tion from more primitive mechanical societies to more modern organic soci- eties. What differentiates these two types of society is the source of their solidarity, or what holds them together. The key here is the division of labor.

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In mechanical solidarity, society is held together by the fact that virtually everyone does essentially the same things (gathering fruits and vegetables, hunting animals). In other words, there is little division of labor in primi- tive society and this fact holds society together. However, in more modern organic solidarity a substantial division of labor has occurred and people come to perform increasingly specialized tasks. Thus, some may make shoes, others may bake bread, and still others may raise children. Solidarity here comes from differences; that is, people need the contributions of an increasing number of people in order to function and even to survive.

Thus, Durkheim envisioned a historical transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. This idea is clearly different from Comte’s model of social change. Comte thought in terms of changes in ideas, in the way people seek to explain what transpires in the world; Durkheim dealt with changes in the material world in the way in which we divide up and do our work.

Changes in Dynamic Density

What causes the change from mechanical to organic solidarity? Durkheim’s answer is that an increase in the dynamic density of society causes the transfor- mation. There are two components of dynamic density. The first is simply the sheer number of people in society. However, an increased number of people is not enough to induce a change in the division of labor because individuals and small groups of people can live in relative isolation from one another and con- tinue to be jacks of all trades. That is, even in societies with a large population, each individual can continue to do most of the required tasks. Thus, a second factor is important in order for dynamic density to increase and lead to changes in the division of labor: there must be an increase in the amount of interac- tion that takes place among the greater number of people in society. When an increasingly large number of people interact with greater frequency with one another, dynamic density is likely to increase to the point that a transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity occurs.

What is it about the increase in dynamic density that leads to the need for a different division of labor? With more people, there is greater competition over the use of scarce resources such as land, game, and fruits and vegetables. If everyone competes for everything, there is great disorder and conflict. With

mechanical solidarity In Durkheimian theory, the idea that primitive society is held together by the fact there is little division of labor and, as a result, virtually every- one does essentially the same things.

organic solidarity To Durkheim, the idea that because of the substantial division of labor in modern society, solidarity comes from differences; that is, people need the contributions of an increasing number of people in order to function and even to survive.

dynamic density The number of people and their frequency of interaction. An increase in dynamic density leads to the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity.

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Classical Theories I 17

an increased division of labor in which some people are responsible for one of these things and other people responsible for other things, there is likely to be less conflict and more harmony. Perhaps more importantly, greater specializa- tion in performing specific tasks makes for greater efficiency and ultimately greater productivity. Thus, there will be more of everything for an expand- ing population with an increased division of labor. Greater peace and pros- perity are the result of the increased division of labor, or at least that is what Durkheim contended.

Collective Conscience

Another important aspect of Durkheim’s argument about the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is that it is accompanied by a dramatic change

Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) A Biographical Vignette

Durkheim is most often thought of today as a political conservative, and his influ- ence within sociology certainly has been a conservative one. But in his time, he was considered a liberal. This was exemplified by the active public role he played in the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whose court-martial for treason was felt by many to be based on anti-Semitic sentiments in some sectors of French society.

Durkheim was deeply offended by the Dreyfus affair, particularly its anti- Semitism. But Durkheim did not attribute this anti-Semitism to racism among the French people. Characteristically, he saw it as a symptom of the moral sickness confronting French society as a whole. He said:

When society undergoes suffering, it feels the need to find someone whom it can hold responsible for its sickness, on whom it can avenge its misfortunes; and those against whom public opinion already discriminates are naturally designated for this role. These are the pariahs who serve as expiatory victims. What confirms me in this interpretation is the way in which the result of Dreyfus’s trial was greeted in 1894. There was a surge of joy in the boulevards. People celebrated as a triumph what should have been a cause for public mourning. At least they knew whom to blame for the economic troubles and moral distress in which they lived. The trouble came from the Jews. The charge had been officially proved. By this very fact alone, things already seemed to be getting better and people felt consoled.

Thus, Durkheim’s interest in the Dreyfus affair stemmed from his deep and lifelong interest in morality and the moral crisis confronting modern society.

To Durkheim, the answer to the Dreyfus affair and crises like it lay in end- ing the moral disorder in society. Because that could not be done quickly or eas- ily, Durkheim suggested more specific actions such as severe repression of those who incite hatred of others and government efforts to show the public how it is being misled. He urged people to “have the courage to proclaim aloud what they think, and to unite together in order to achieve victory in the struggle against public madness.”

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in what he called the collective conscience. These are the ideas shared by the members of a group, a tribe, or a society. They are collective in the sense that no one individual knows or possesses all of these ideas; it is only the entire col- lection of individuals that knows and possesses all of them. The collective con- science in mechanical solidarity is very different from that in organic solidarity.

In mechanical solidarity and the small, undifferentiated societies associated with it, the collective conscience affects everyone and is of great significance to them. People care deeply about collective ideas. Furthermore, the ideas are very powerful and people are likely to act in accord with them. They are also quite rigid and they tend to be associated with religion.

In organic solidarity and the large, differentiated societies linked with it, fewer people are affected by the collective conscience. In other words, more people are able to evade it partially or completely. The collective conscience is not as important and most people don’t seem to care about it so deeply. It is far weaker and does not exercise nearly as much control over people. The col- lective conscience is far more flexible and adaptable and less associated with anything we think of as religion.

For example, in primitive society with mechanical solidarity people might feel very deeply about being involved in tribal activities, including the selection of a new chief. If one member does not participate, everyone will know and difficulties will arise for that person in the tribe. However, in modern society characterized by organic solidarity, the feeling about such political participa- tion (e.g., voting) is not nearly as strong. People are urged to vote, but there is not very much strength of conviction involved, and in any case the fact that some did not vote is likely to escape the view of their neighbors.

Law: Repressive and Restitutive

How do we know whether there has been a transition from mechanical to organic solidarity? From a strong to a weak collective conscience? Durkheim argued that we can observe these changes in a transformation in the law. Mechanical solidarity tends to be characterized by repressive law. This is a form of law in which offenders are likely to be severely punished for any action that is seen by the tightly integrated community as an offense against the then-powerful collective conscience. The theft of a pig might lead to cutting off the hands of the thief. Blaspheming against the community’s god or gods might result in the removal of the blasphemer’s tongue. Because people are so involved in the moral system, an offense against it is likely to be met with

collective conscience The ideas shared by the members of a collectivity such as a group, a tribe, or a society.

repressive law Characteristic of mechanical solidarity, this is a form of law in which offenders are likely to be severely punished for any action that is seen by the tightly integrated community as an offense against the powerful collective conscience.

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Classical Theories I 19

swift, severe punishment. These reactions are evidence that repressive law is in place and such law is, in turn, a material reflection of the existence of a strong collective conscience and a society held together by mechanical solidarity.

As we have seen, over time mechanical solidarity gives way to organic solidarity and a progressive weakening of the collective conscience. The indicator of a weak collective conscience, of the existence of organic solidarity, is restitutive law. Instead of being severely punished for even seemingly minor offenses against the collective morality, individuals in this more modern type of society are likely simply to be asked to comply with the law or to repay (make restitution to) those who have been harmed by their actions. Thus, one who steals a pig might be required to work for 100 hours on the farm from which the pig was stolen, pay a fine, or repay society by spending a brief period of time in jail. This is obviously a far milder reaction than having one’s hands cut off for such an offense. The reason is that the collectivity is not deeply and emotionally invested in the common morality (“thou shalt not steal”) that stands behind such a law. Rather, officials (the police, court officers) are delegated the legal responsibility to be sure the law and, ultimately, the morality are enforced. The collectivity can distance itself from the whole thing with the knowledge that it is being handled by paid and/or elected officials.

More extremely, something like blaspheming against God is likely to go unnoticed and unpunished in modern societies. Having a far weaker collec- tive conscience, believing little in religion, people in general are likely to react weakly or not all to a blasphemer. And officials, busy with far greater problems such as drug abuse, rape, and murder, are unlikely to pay any attention at all to blasphemy, even if there are laws against it.


At one level Durkheim seems to be describing and explaining a historical change from one type of solidarity to another. The two types of solidarity merely seem to be different and one does not seem to be any better or worse than the other. Although mechanical solidarity is not problem free, the prob- lems associated with organic solidarity and how they might be solved concern Durkheim. Several problems come into existence with organic solidarity, but the one that worries Durkheim most is what he termed anomie. Durkheim viewed anomie (and other problems) as a pathology, which implies that it can be cured. In other words, a social theorist like Durkheim was akin to a medical doctor, diagnosing social pathologies and dispensing cures.

restitutive law Characteristic of organic solidarity and its weakened collective con- science. In this form of law offenders are likely simply to be asked to comply with the law or to repay (make restitution to) those who have been harmed by their actions.

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Anomie may be defined as a sense of not knowing what one is expected to do. This is traceable to the decline in the collective conscience in organic solidarity. There are few, if any, clear, strong collective ideas about things. As a result, confronted with many issues—should I take that pig that is wander- ing in the field? Should I blaspheme against god?—people simply do not know what they are supposed to do. More generally, people are adrift in society and lack clear and secure moorings. This contrasts strongly with mechanical solidarity, in which everyone is very clear about what the collectivity believes and what they are supposed to do in any given situation. They have clear and secure moorings; they do not suffer from anomie.

Key Concept Social Facts

Crucial to understanding Durkheim’s thinking and the development of modern sociology is his concept of social facts. He developed this idea because he was struggling to separate the then-new discipline of sociology from the existing fields of psychology and philosophy. While philosophers thought about abstractions, Durkheim argued that sociologists should treat social facts as things. As such, social facts were to be studied empirically; this practice distinguished sociologists from philosophers who merely speculated about abstract issues without venturing into the real world and collecting data on concrete social phenomena.

Durkheim also argued that social facts were external to, and coercive over, individuals. This served to distinguish them from the things that psychologists studied. Psychologists were concerned with psychological facts that were internal to individuals ( not external) and were not necessarily coercive over them.

Durkheim also distinguished between two types of social facts. The first is material social facts. These are social facts that are materialized in the external social world. An example is the structure of the classroom in which you are taking the course for which you are reading this book. It is a material reality (you can touch and feel the walls, desks, blackboard) and it is external to you and coercive over you. In terms of the latter, the structure of the room may encourage listening to, and taking notes on, lectures. It also serves to prevent you from, say, playing baseball in the room while a lecture is in process.

social facts To Durkheim, social facts are the subject matter of sociology. They are to be treated as things that are external to, and coercive over, individuals and they are to be studied empirically.

material social facts Social facts that take a material form in the external social world (e.g., architecture).

anomie A sense, associated with organic solidarity, of not knowing what one is expected to do; of being adrift in society without any clear and secure moorings.

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Classical Theories I 21


The most important and esthetically pleasing (because analyses, conclusions, and remedies for society’s ills stem seamlessly from basic premises) theory of the classical age is that of the German social thinker and political activist, Karl Marx (1818–1883). This assertion might come as a surprise to the reader who may have previously come in contact only with critical statements about Marx and his thinking. In the popular view, Marx is seen as some sort of crazed radi- cal who developed a set of ideas that led many nations, especially the then– Soviet Union, in the direction of disastrous communist regimes. Almost all such regimes have failed or are gradually being transformed into more capitalistic societies. The failure of those societies and the abuses associated with them (e.g., the system of prison camps in the Soviet Union—the Gulag Archipelago— where millions died) have been blamed on Marx and his crazed ideas. But while

The second is nonmaterial social facts. These are social facts that are also external and coercive, but which do not take a material form; they are nonmaterial. The major examples of nonmaterial social facts in sociology are norms and values. Thus, we are also prevented from playing baseball while a lecture is in progress because of unwritten and widely shared rules about how one is supposed to behave in class. Furthermore, we have learned to put a high value on education, with the result that we are very reluctant to do anything that would adversely affect it.

But, although we can see how a nonmaterial social fact is coercive over us, in what sense is it also external to us? The answer is that the things like the norms and values of society are the shared possession of the collectivity. Some, perhaps most, of them are internalized in the individual during the socialization process, but no single individual possesses anything approaching all of them. The entire set of norms and values is in the sole possession of the collectivity. In this sense we can say they are external to us.

To this day, many sociologists concentrate their attention on social facts. How- ever, we rarely use this now-antiquated term today. Rather, sociologists focus on social structures (material social facts) and social institutions (nonmaterial social facts). However, it has become clear that in his effort to distinguish sociology from psychology and philosophy, Durkheim came up with a much too limited definition of the subject matter of sociology. As we will see, many sociologists study an array of phenomena that would not be considered Durkheimian social facts.

Key Concept—Continued

nonmaterial social facts Social facts that are external and coercive, but which do not take a material form; they are nonmaterial (e.g., norms and values).

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Key Concept Anomic (and Other Types of) Suicide

The concept of anomie played a central role in Durkheim’s famous work Suicide. He argued that people are more likely to kill themselves when they do not know what is expected of them. In this situation, regulation of people is low and they are largely free to run wild. This mad pursuit of anything and everything is likely to prove unsatisfying and, as a result, a higher percentage of people in such a situation are apt to commit suicide, specifically anomic suicide.

But what causes the rate of anomic suicide to increase? Social disruption is the main cause, but interestingly, we can see an increase in the rate of such suicide in times of both positive and negative disruption. That is, both an economic boom and economic depression can cause a rise in the rate of anomic suicide. Either positive or negative disruptions can adversely affect the ability of the collectivity to exercise control over the individual. Without such control, people are more likely to feel rootless; to not know what they are supposed to do in the changing and increas- ingly strange environment. The unease that this causes leads people to commit anomic suicide at a higher rate than in more stable times.

Interestingly, anomic suicide is just one of four types of suicide created by Durkheim in a broad-ranging theory of this behavior. The others are egoistic suicide, which occurs when people are not well integrated into the collectivity. Largely on their own, they feel a sense of futility, meaninglessness, and more of them adopt the view that they are free (morally and otherwise) to choose to do anything, including kill themselves. In altruistic suicide, people are too well integrated into the collectiv- ity and kill themselves in greater numbers because the group leads them, or even forces them, to commit suicide more frequently than they otherwise would. Finally, fatalistic suicide occurs in situations of excessive regulation (e.g., slavery) where people are so distressed and depressed by their lack of freedom that they take their own lives more frequently than otherwise.

Thus, Durkheim offers a broad theory of suicide based on the degree to which people are regulated by, or integrated in, the collectivity.

anomic suicide People are more likely to kill themselves when they do not know what is expected of them, where regulation is low, and they are largely free to run wild. This mad pursuit is likely to prove unsatisfying and, as a result, a higher percentage of people in such a situation are apt to commit this type of suicide.

egoistic suicide When people are not well integrated into the collectivity and largely on their own, they feel a sense of futility, meaninglessness, and more of them feel that they are morally free to kill themselves.

altruistic suicide When people are too well integrated into the collectivity, they are likely to kill themselves in greater numbers because the group leads them, or even forces them, to.

fatalistic suicide In situations of excessive regulation (e.g., slavery) people are often so distressed and depressed by their lack of freedom that they take their own lives more frequently than otherwise.

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Classical Theories I 23

the leaders of those societies invoked Marx’s name and called themselves com- munists, the kind of societies they created would have been attacked by Marx himself for their inhumanity. The fact is that what those societies became had little in common with what Marx would have liked a communist society to be.

Human Potential

The starting point for Marx’s grand theory is a set of assumptions about the potential of people in the right historical and social circumstances. In capitalis- tic and precapitalistic societies, people had come nowhere close to their human potential. In precapitalist societies (say, the Stone Age or the Middle Ages), people were too busy scrambling to find adequate food, shelter, and protection to develop their higher capacities. Although food, shelter, and protection were easier to come by for most people in a capitalistic society, the oppressive and exploitative nature of that system made it impossible for most people to come anywhere close to their potential.

To Marx, people, unlike lower animals, are endowed with consciousness and the ability to link that consciousness to action. Among other things, people can set themselves apart from what they are doing, plan what they are going to do, choose to act or not to act, choose a specific kind of action, be flexible if impediments get in their way, concentrate on what they are doing for long peri- ods, and often choose to do what they are doing in concert with other people. But people do not just think; they would perish if that was all they did. They must act and often that action involves acting on nature to appropriate from it what is needed (raw materials, water, food, shelter) to survive. People appropri- ated things in earlier societies, but they did it so primitively and inefficiently that they were unable to develop their capacities, especially their capacities to think, to any great degree. Under capitalism, people came to care little about expressing their creative capacities in the act of appropriating nature. Rather, they focused on owning things and earning enough money to acquire those things. But capi- talism was important to Marx because it provided the technological and organi- zational innovations needed for the creation of a communist society, where, for the first time, people would be able to express their full capacities. Under com- munism, people were freed from the desire merely to own things and would be able, with the help of technologies and organizations created in capitalism, to live up to their full human potential (what Marx called “species being”).


The idea that people must appropriate what they need from nature is related to the view that people, in Marx’s view, need to work. Work is a positive process in which people use their creative capacities, and further extend them, in pro- ductive activities. However, the work that most people did under capitalism did not permit them to express their human potential. In other words, rather than expressing themselves in their work, people under capitalism were alien- ated from it.

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One cannot understand what Marx meant by alienation without under- standing further what he meant by human potential. In the circumstance (communism) where people achieve their human potential there is a natural interconnection between people and their productive activities, the products they produce, the fellow workers with whom they produce those things, and with what they are potentially capable of becoming. Alienation is the break- down of these natural interconnections. Instead of being naturally related to all of these things, people are separated from them.

So, under capitalism, instead of choosing their productive activities, people have their activities chosen for them by the owners, the capitalists. The capital- ists decide what is to be done and how it is to be done. They offer the workers (in Marx’s terminology, the “proletariat”) a wage and if the workers accept, they must perform the activities the way they have been designed to be performed by the capitalist. In return, they receive a wage that is supposed to provide them with all the satisfaction and gratification they need. The productive activities are controlled, even owned, by the capitalist. Thus, the workers are separated from them and unable to express themselves in them.

Second, capitalists also own the products. The workers do not choose what to produce; when the products are completed they do not belong to the work- ers, and the products are unlikely to be used by the workers to satisfy their basic needs. Instead, the products belong to the capitalists, who may use them, or seek to have them used, in any way they wish. Given the profit orienta- tion that serves to define capitalism, this almost always means that they will endeavor to sell the products for a profit. Once they’ve made the products, the workers are completely separated from them and have absolutely no say in what happens to them. Furthermore, the workers may have very little sense of their contribution to the final product. They work on an assembly line and per- form a very specific task (e.g., tightening some bolts) and may have little idea of what is being produced and how what they are doing fits into the overall process and contributes to the end product.

Third, the workers are likely to be separated from their fellow workers. In Marx’s view, people are inherently social and, left to their own devices, would choose to work collaboratively and cooperatively to produce what is needed to live. However, under capitalism, workers, even when they are surrounded by many other people, perform their tasks alone and repetitively. Those around them are likely to be strangers who are performing similarly isolated tasks. Often it is even worse than this: The capitalist frequently pits workers against each other to see who can produce the most for the least amount of pay. Those who succeed keep their jobs, at least for a time, while those who fail are likely

alienation The breakdown of, the separation from, the natural interconnection between people and their productive activities, the products they produce, the fel- low workers with whom they produce those things, and with what they are poten- tially capable of becoming.

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Classical Theories I 25

to find themselves unemployed and on the street. Thus, instead of working together harmoniously, workers are pitted against one another in a life-and- death struggle for survival. Even if they are not engaged in a life-and-death struggle with one another, it is clear that workers in capitalism are separated from one another.

Finally, instead of expressing their human potential in their work, people are driven further and further from what they have the potential to be. They perform less and less like humans and are reduced to animals, beasts of bur- den, or inhuman machines. Consciousness is numbed and ultimately destroyed as relations with other humans and with nature are progressively severed. The result is a mass of people who are unable to express their essential human qual- ities, a mass of alienated workers.


Alienation occurs within the context of a capitalist society. As we have seen, capitalism is essentially a two-class system composed of capitalists and the proletariat, in which one class (capitalists) exploits the other (proletariat). The key to understanding both classes lies in what Marx called the means of production. As the name suggests, these are the things that are needed for production to take place. Included in the means of production are such things as tools, machinery, raw materials, and factories. Under capitalism the capitalists own the means of production. If the proletariat want to work, they must come to the capitalist, who owns the means that make most work possible. Workers need access to the means of production in order to work. They also need money in order to survive in capitalism, and the capitalists tend to have that too, as well as the ability to make more of it. The capitalists have what the proletariat needs (the means of production, money for wages), but what do the workers have to offer in return? The workers have something absolutely essential to the capitalist—labor and the time available to perform it. The capitalist cannot produce and cannot make more money and profit without the labor of the proletariat. Thus, a deal is struck. The capitalist allows the proletariat access to the means of production, and the proletariat are paid a wage (albeit a small one, as small as the capitalist can possibly get away with). Actually

capitalism An economic system composed mainly of capitalists and the proletariat, in which one class (capitalists) exploits the other (proletariat).

means of production Those things that are needed for production to take place (including tools, machinery, raw materials, and factories).

capitalists Those who own the means of production under capitalism and are there- fore in a position to exploit workers.

proletariat Those who, because they do not own means of production, must sell their labor time to the capitalists in order to get access to those means.

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the worker is paid what Marx called a subsistence wage, just enough for the worker to survive and to have a family and children so that when the worker falters, he can be replaced by one of his children. In exchange, the proletariat give the capitalist their labor time and all the productive abilities and capacities associated with that time.

On the surface, this seems like a fair deal: Both the capitalist and the pro- letariat get what they lack and what they need. However, in Marx’s view this is a grossly unfair situation. Why is that so? It is traceable to another of Marx’s famous ideas, the labor theory of value. As the words suggest, his idea is that all value comes from labor. The proletariat labor; the capitalist does not. The capital- ist might invest, plan, manage, scheme, and so on, but to Marx this is not labor. Marx’s sense of labor is the production of things out of the raw materials pro- vided by nature. The proletariat and only the proletariat do that, although under capitalism the raw materials are provided by the capitalists and not directly by nature. To put it baldly, since the proletariat labor and the capitalists do not, the proletariat deserve virtually everything; the capitalists, almost nothing.

Of course, the situation in a capitalistic society is exactly the reverse: The capitalists get the lion’s share of the rewards and the workers get barely enough

Karl Marx (1818–1883) A Biographical Vignette

After graduation from the University of Berlin, Marx became a writer for a liberal- radical newspaper and within ten months had become its editor-in-chief. However, because of its political positions, the paper was closed shortly thereafter by the gov- ernment. The early essays published in this period began to reflect a number of the positions that would guide Marx throughout his life. They were liberally sprinkled with democratic principles, humanism, and youthful idealism. He rejected the abstractness of philosophy, the naive dreaming of utopian communists, and those activists who were urging what he considered to be premature political action. In rejecting these activists, Marx laid the groundwork for his own life’s work:

Practical attempts, even by the masses, can be answered with a cannon as soon as they become dangerous, but ideas that have overcome our intellect and conquered our conviction, ideas to which reason has riveted our conscience, are chains from which one cannot break loose without breaking one’s heart; they are demons that one can only overcome by submitting to them.

subsistence wage The wage paid by the capitalist to the proletariat that is just enough for the worker to survive and to have a family and children so that when the worker falters, he can be replaced by one of his children.

labor theory of value Marx’s theory that all value comes from labor and is therefore traceable, in capitalism, to the proletariat.

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Classical Theories I 27

to subsist. Thus (and this was another of Marx’s famous concepts), the proletariat are the victims of exploitation. Ironically, neither capitalist nor worker is con- scious of this exploitation. They are both the victims of false consciousness. Marx believes that is is possible for people to be unaware of the forces that determine their social position. Even though the proletariat suffer under capi- talism they are unaware of the reasons for that suffering, or at least they have a false understanding of the sources of that suffering. The workers think they are getting a fair day’s pay. The capitalists think that they are being rewarded, not because of their exploitation of the workers, but for their cleverness, their capital investment, their manipulation of the market, and so on. The capitalists are too busy making more money, in money grubbing, ever to get a true under- standing of the exploitative nature of their relationship with workers. However, the proletariat do have the capacity to achieve such an understanding, partly

Key Concept Exploitation

To Marx, capitalism, by its very nature, leads to exploitation, particularly of the proletariat, or working class. His thinking on exploitation is derived from his labor theory of value, and more specifically the concept of surplus value, defined as the difference between the value of a product when it is sold and the value of the elements (including worker’s labor) consumed in the production of the prod- uct. Surplus value, like all value from the perspective of the labor theory of value, comes from the worker. It should go to the worker, but in the capitalist system the lion’s share of it goes to the capitalist. The degree to which the capitalist retains surplus value and uses it to his own ends (including, and especially, expansion of his capitalist business) is the degree to which capitalism is an exploitative sys- tem. In a colorful metaphor, Marx describes capitalists as “vampires” who suck the labor of the proletariat. Furthermore, the more of proletariat’s “blood” the capitalist sucks, the bigger, more successful, and wealthier he will become. In capitalism, the deserving (the proletariat) grow poorer, while the undeserving (the capitalist) grow immensely wealthy.

surplus value The difference between the value of a product when it is sold and the value of the elements consumed in production of the product (including worker’s labor).

exploitation In capitalism, the capitalists get the lion’s share of the rewards and the proletariat get enough to subsist even though, based on the labor theory of value, the situation should be reversed.

false consciousness In capitalism, both the proletariat and the capitalists have an inac- curate sense of themselves, their relationship to one another, and the way in which capitalism operates.

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because eventually they are so exploited and impoverished that there is noth- ing to hide the reality of what is transpiring in capitalism. In Marx’s terms, the proletariat is capable of achieving class consciousness; the capitalists are not.

Class consciousness is a prerequisite to revolution. The proletariat must understand the source of their exploitation before they can rise up against capitalism. However, the coming revolution is aided by the dynamics of capi- talism. In other words, in order for a revolution to occur the proper material conditions must be in place and the proletariat must understand that they can create a better world through their own actions. For example, capitalism grows more and more competitive, prices are slashed, and an increasing number of capitalists are driven out of business and into the proletariat. Eventually, the

class consciousness The ability of a class, in particular the proletariat, to overcome false consciousness and attain an accurate understanding of the capitalist system.

Contemporary Applications Does Marx’s Theory Have Any Relevance

to a Post-Communist World?

There are those who felt that when the Soviet Union and its allies began to fall in the late 1980s that not only had communism failed, but that Marx’s theory, on which that system was ostensibly based, would finally, and once and for all, be relegated to the dustbin of disproven and dishonored theories. Indeed, in the early 1990s there was much talk of the end of Marxian theory. Yet, Marx’s theory, as well as the many neo-Marxian theories that are derived from it, not only survive in the early 21st cen- tury, but there are those who argue that they are more relevant and useful than ever.

The fact is that Marx did little or no theorizing about communism. Rather, he was a theorist of capitalism and it is clear that with the demise of Soviet communism (and the transformation of Chinese communism into a very vibrant capitalist econ- omy coexisting with a communist state), capitalism is freer than it has been in nearly 100 years (since the birth of Soviet communism in 1917), if not in its entire history, to roam the world and intrude itself into every nook and cranny of that world.

From 1917 to 1989 the expansion of capitalism was limited by communism in various ways. First, many countries in the world, including some of the biggest and most important, were communist or were allied with the communist bloc. As a result, capitalist businesses found it impossible to establish, or at least had great difficulty establishing themselves in those parts of the world. Second, the global conflict between capitalism and communism, especially the Cold War that began shortly after the close of World War II, inhibited the development and global spread of capitalism. For one thing, the huge expenditure on the military, and on military flare-ups associated with those periods in which the Cold War heated up consider- ably (e.g., the Korean and Vietnamese wars), sapped resources that could have been devoted to the expansion of capitalism.

With communism fast becoming a dim memory (except in Cuba, at least until Castro’s death, and at least rhetorically in China), capitalism has been freed of many

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Classical Theories I 29

proletariat swells while the capitalist class is reduced to a small number who maintain their position because of their skill at exploitation. When the mas- sive proletariat finally achieve class consciousness and decide to act, there will be no contest because the small number of capitalists are likely to be easily brushed aside, perhaps with little or no violence.

Thus, capitalism will not be destroyed and communism will not be cre- ated without the proletariat taking action. In Marx’s terms, the proletariat must engage in praxis, or concrete action. It is not enough to think about the evils of

praxis The idea that people, especially the proletariat, must take concrete action in order to overcome capitalism.

Contemporary Applications—Continued

of its global restraints and is rampaging through the world. This is most obvious in the former communist countries that have become prime territory for capital- ist expansionism. Western capitalists have rushed into the old Soviet bloc and established a strong presence, while in China this has not only occurred, but so has the development of a strong indigenous capitalism. Indeed, the view now is not whether China will replace the United States as the leading capitalist country, but when that transformation will take place.

Marx foresaw the fact that capitalism not only would, but must, become a global phenomenon. Capitalist businesses now, much more than in Marx’s day, must expand or die. Thus, they must ceaselessly seek out new markets as old mar- kets grow less able to produce ever-expanding business and profits. Marx’s predic- tion was prevented from coming to full fruition in the 20th century because of the global conflict between communism and capitalism (as well as other factors such as two devastating world wars). However, in the last two decades the global prolifera- tion predicted by Marx has occurred with a vengeance.

What this all means is that Marx’s ideas are more relevant today than ever before to the analysis of capitalism, especially global capitalism. Not only has capi- talism spread around the world, but capitalism increasingly faces the kinds of cri- ses that Marx anticipated would accompany its expansion. This includes growing levels of global inequality, a disappearing middle class, the recent financial crisis, the environmental threat posed by capitalism, and the emergence of global social movements that challenge capitalism. In fact, some of the most important works in globalization these days emanate from a Marxian perspective (see Chapter 10). That is not to say that Marx’s ideas are sacrosanct. Many of them are dubious, even downright wrong, and need to be amended, adapted, or abandoned by contem- porary Marxian theorists. Indeed, that is what many of those thinkers are doing. Nonetheless, they take as their starting point Marx’s theoretical ideas on capitalism and build on them to cast insight into the global success of capitalism in the wake of the failure of communism.

To answer the question that is the subtitle of this box: Marx’s ideas are, if any- thing, more relevant today than ever!

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communism The social system that permits, for the first time, the expression of full human potential.

capitalism or develop great theories of it and its demise; people must take to the streets and make it happen. This does not necessarily mean that they must behave in violent ways, but it does mean they cannot sit back and wait for capi- talism to collapse on its own.


Marx had no doubt that the dynamics of capitalism would lead to such a revo- lution, but he devoted little time to describing the character of the communist society that would replace capitalism. To Marx, the priority was gaining an understanding of the way capitalism worked and communicating that under- standing to the proletariat, thereby helping them gain class consciousness. He was critical of the many thinkers who spent their time daydreaming about some future utopian society. The immediate goal was the overthrow of the alienating and exploitative system. What was to come next would have to be dealt with once the revolution succeeded. Some say that this lack of a plan laid the ground- work for the debacles that took place in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Marx did have some specific things to say about the future state of commu- nism, but we get a better sense of communism by returning to his basic assump- tions about human potential. In a sense, communism is the social system that permits, for the first time, the expression of full human potential. In effect, com- munism is an anti-system, a world in which the system is nothing more than the social relations among the people who comprise it. Marx did discuss a tran- sitional phase from capitalism when there would be larger structures (e.g., the dictatorship of the proletariat), but that was to be short-lived and replaced by what he considered true communism. (The experience in the Soviet Union after the 1917 revolution indicates the naivete of this view and the fact that it may be impossible to eliminate the larger structures that exploit and alienate people.)

Thus, communism is a system that permits people to express the thought- fulness, creativity, and sociability that have always been a possibility but inhibited or destroyed by previous social systems (e.g., feudalism, capitalism). Communist society would utilize and expand upon the technological and organizational innovations of capitalism, but otherwise get out of people’s way and allow them to be what they always could have been, at least potentially.


If Karl Marx is the most important thinker from the point of view of social thought in general, as well as from the perspective of political develop- ments of the last 100-plus years, then his fellow German theorist, Max Weber

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Classical Theories I 31

(1864–1920), is arguably (the other possibility is Emile Durkheim) the most important theorist from the perspective of sociology. Weber was a very com- plex thinker who made many contributions to social thought, but his best- known contribution is his theory of the increasing rationalization of the West. That theory is based on Weber’s work on action, especially rational action.

Social Action

For many years Max Weber’s work on social action was the center of attention rather than his theory of rationalization, which is now seen as the heart of his theoretical orientation. This is traceable to the work of Talcott Parsons, who, in the 1930s, introduced classical European theory in general, and Weberian theory in particular, to a large American audience. However, he did so with a number of now widely recognized biases. One of those biases was his own action the- ory, which led him to accentuate the importance of Weber’s thinking on action (which played a central role in the creation of Parsons’s own perspective).

Behavior and Action

Weber’s thinking on action is based on an important distinction in all sociolo- gies of everyday life (see Chapter 6) between behavior and action. Both involve what people do on an everyday basis. However, behavior occurs with little or no thought, while action is the result of conscious processes. Behavior is closely tied to an approach, largely associated with psychology, known as behaviorism, which has played an important role in the development of many sociologies of everyday life. It focuses on situations where a stimulus is applied and a behav- ior results, more or less mechanically, with little or no thought processes inter- vening between stimulus and response. For example, you engage in behavior when you pull your hand away from a hot stove or automatically put up your umbrella when it starts raining.

Weber was not concerned with such behavior; his focus was on action in which thought intervened between stimulus and response. In other words, Weber was interested in situations in which people attach meaning to what they do: what they do is meaningful to them. In contrast, behavior is mean- ingless, at least in the sense that people simply do it without giving it much or any thought. Weber defined sociology as the study of action in terms of its subjective meaning. What matters are peoples’ conscious processes. Fur- thermore, what people believe about a situation is more important in under- standing the actions they take than the objective situation in which they find themselves.

At a theoretical level Weber was interested in the action of a single individ- ual, but he was far more interested in the actions of two or more individuals.

behavior Things that people do that require little or no thought. action Things that people do that are the result of conscious processes. behaviorism The study, largely associated with psychology, of behavior.

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Max Weber (1864–1920) A Biographical Vignette

Max Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany, on April 21, 1864, into a decidedly middle-class family. Important differences between his parents had a profound effect upon both his intellectual orientation and his psychological development. His father was a bureaucrat who rose to a relatively important political position. He was clearly a part of the political establishment and as a result eschewed any activity or idealism that would require personal sacrifice or threaten his position within the system.

In addition, the senior Weber was a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures, and in this and many other ways he stood in sharp contrast to his wife. Max Weber’s mother was a devout Calvinist, a woman who sought to lead an ascetic life largely devoid of the pleasures craved by her husband. Her concerns were more otherworldly; she was disturbed by the imperfections that were signs that she was not destined for salvation. These deep differences between the parents led to marital tension, and both the differences and the tension had an immense impact on Weber.

Because it was impossible to emulate both parents, Weber was presented with a clear choice as a child. He first seemed to opt for his father’s orientation to life, but later he drew closer to his mother’s approach. Whatever the choice, the tension produced by the need to choose between such polar opposites negatively affected Max Weber’s psyche.

During his eight years at the University of Berlin (where he obtained his doc- torate and became a lawyer), Weber was financially dependent on his father, a cir- cumstance he progressively grew to dislike. At the same time, he moved closer to his mother’s values and his antipathy to his father increased. He adopted an ascetic way of life and plunged deeply into his work. During one semester as a student, his work habits were described as follows: “He continues the rigid work discipline, regulates his life by the clock, divides the daily routine into exact sections for the various subjects, saves in his way, by feeding himself evenings in his room with a pound of raw chopped beef and four fried eggs.” Weber, emulating his mother, had become ascetic and diligent, a compulsive worker—in contemporary terms, a workaholic.

This compulsion for work led him in 1896 to a position as professor of eco- nomics at Heidelberg University. But in 1897, when Weber’s academic career was blossoming, his father died following a violent argument between them. Soon after, Weber began to manifest symptoms that culminated in a nervous breakdown. Often unable to sleep or to work, Weber spent the next six or seven years in near-total col- lapse. After a long hiatus, some of his powers began to return in 1903, but it was not until 1904, when he delivered (in the United States) his first lecture in six and a half years, that Weber was able to begin to return to active academic life. In 1904 and 1905, he published one of his best-known works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this work, Weber announced the ascendance, on an academic level, of his mother’s religiosity. Weber devoted much of his time to the study of religion, though he was not personally religious.

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Sociology was to devote most of its attention to the regularities in the action of two or more individuals. In fact, Weber talked about collectivities (e.g., Calvin- ists, capitalists), while he argued that such collectivities must be treated solely as the result of the actions of two or more people. Only people can act and thus sociology must focus on actors, not collectivities. Sociologists’ talk about col- lectivities is only for convenience sake. A collectivity is nothing more than a set of individual actors and actions.

Types of Action

Weber offered a now-famous distinction among four types of action. Affectual action (which was of little concern to Weber) is action that is the result of emo- tion; it is nonrational. Thus, slapping your child (or an aged parent) in a blind rage is an example of affectual action. Also nonrational is traditional action, in which what is done is based on the ways things have been done habitually or customarily. Crossing oneself in church is an example of traditional action. Although traditional action was of some interest to Weber (especially given its relationship to traditional authority discussed later in this chapter), he was far more interested, because of his overriding concern with rationalization, in the other two types of action, both of which are rational.

Value-rational action occurs when an actor’s choice of the best means to an end is chosen on the basis of the actor’s belief in some larger set of values. This may not be the optimal choice, but it is rational from the point of view of the value system in which the actor finds herself. So, if you belonged to a cult that believed in a ritual purging of one’s previous meal before eating the next meal, that is what you would do, even though purging would be quite uncomfortable and delay, if not ruin, your next meal. Such action would be rational from the point of view of the value system of the cult.

Means-ends rational action involves the pursuit of ends that the actor has chosen for himself; thus, his action is not guided by some larger value system. It is, however, affected by the actor’s view of the environment in which he finds himself, including the behavior of people and objects in it. This means that actors must take into account the nature of their situation when choosing

affectual action Nonrational action that is the result of emotion. traditional action Action taken on the basis of the ways things have been done habitu-

ally or customarily. value-rational action Action that occurs when an actor’s choice of the best means to

an end is chosen on the basis of the actor’s belief in some larger set of values. This may not be the optimal choice, but it is rational from the point of view of the value system in which the actor finds herself.

means-ends rational action The pursuit of ends that the actor has chosen for himself; that choice is affected by the actor’s view of the environment in which she finds herself, including the behavior of people and objects in it.

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the best means to an end. Thus, when you are at a party and spot someone you want to dance with, you must decide on the best way to meet that person, given the nature of the situation (it may be an all-couples party), objects (there may be a table in your path), and other people (one of whom may already be dancing with that person). Taking those things into consideration, you choose the best means of achieving your end of getting that dance.

These four types of actions are ideal types (see below). The fact is that one rarely if ever finds action that is solely within one of these four types. Rather, any given action is likely to be some combination of two or more of these ideal- typical actions.

Weber offers an approach to studying social action and the theoretical tools to study such action. Many sociologists have found this work quite useful.

Types of Rationality

While Weber’s theory of action relies on the typology of action outlined above, his larger theory of rationalization rests on the typology of rationality to be outlined below. (As you will see, the two typologies overlap to some degree.)

Practical rationality is the type that we all practice on a daily basis in get- ting from one point to another. Given the realities of the circumstances we face, we try to deal with whatever difficulties exist and to find the most expedient way of attaining our goal. For example, our usual route to the university is blocked by a traffic accident, so we take a side road and work our way to cam- pus using a series of back roads. People in the West are not the only ones who engage in practical rationality; all people in all societies throughout history have utilized this type of rationality.

Theoretical rationality involves an effort to master reality cognitively through the development of increasingly abstract concepts. Here the goal is to attain a rational understanding of the world rather than taking rational action within it. Thus, to continue with the example discussed above, an example of theoretical rationality as applied to traffic problems would involve the efforts of experts in the area to figure out long-term solutions to traffic bottlenecks. Like practical rationality, cognitive rationality has occurred everywhere in the world throughout history.

Substantive rationality, like practical rationality, involves action directly. Here the choice of the most expedient thing to do is guided by larger values rather

practical rationality On a day-to-day basis, we deal with whatever difficulties exist and find the most expedient way of attaining our goal of getting from one point to another.

theoretical rationality An effort to master reality cognitively through the development of increasingly abstract concepts. The goal is to attain a rational understanding of the world rather than to take rational action within it.

substantive rationality The choice of the most expedient action is guided by larger values rather than by daily experiences and practical thinking.

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than by daily experiences and practical thinking. Thus, for example, if one’s tribe says that before hunting for food, one must bury a spear under a mound, then that is what one does. From the point of view of practical rationality, taking time to bury a spear is clearly not rational, but it is rational within the value system of the tribe. This means that what takes place within one tribe (or value system) is no more or less rational than what takes place in another. Thus, if in one tribe you bury a spear before hunting and in another you engage in ritual bathing, each is rational within its particular context. As with the preceding two types of ratio- nality, substantive rationality occurs transcivilizationally and transhistorically.

Finally, and most importantly to Weber, is formal rationality, in which the choice of the most expedient action is based on rules, regulations, and laws that apply to everyone. The classic case of this is modern bureaucracy, in which the rules of the organization dictate what is the most rational course of action. Thus, if the rules say that every action must be preceded by filling out a required form in triplicate, then that is what everyone must do. To some outside the organization this may seem inefficient and irrational, but it is rational within the context of the bureaucracy. Unlike the other types of rationality, formal rationality arose only in the Western world with the coming of industrialization.

Thus, what interested Weber was formal rationality and why it arose only in the modern West and not anywhere else at any other time. This led him to a concern for what factors expedited the development of rationalization (formal) in the West and what barriers existed to it elsewhere. Major expediting forces and barriers exist in religion.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

In the West, Protestantism played a key role in the rise of rationalization. In this case, Weber was primarily interested in the rationalization of the economic system, and the most rational economic system is capitalism. Weber considered capitalism to be rational in a number of ways, but most importantly because of its emphasis on quantifying things, which is best represented by its devel- opment and reliance on modern bookkeeping. Thus, Weber was interested in the expediting role that Protestantism (especially the sect known as Calvinism) played in the rise of capitalism. On the other hand, other religions throughout the world (Confucianism in China, Hinduism in India) served to impede the rise of rationalization in general, and capitalism in particular, in those nations.

Weber was primarily interested in the Protestant ethic as it existed in Cal- vinism. The Protestant ethic refers to a belief system that emphasizes hard work and asceticism, the denial of personal pleasure. This ethic grew out of the more

formal rationality The choice of the most expedient action is based on rules, regula- tions, and laws that apply to everyone. This form of rationality is distinctive to the modern West.

Protestant ethic A belief system associated with the Protestant sect of Calvinism that emphasized hard work and asceticism, the denial of personal pleasure. The devel- opment of capitalism depended upon the presence of this ethic.

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general Calvinist belief in predestination. Predestination is the religious doc- trine that a person’s fate in the afterlife, whether they were going to heaven or hell, was predetermined. According to the Calvinist, there is no way that a person could directly know their fate in the afterlife and, further, there is no way that they could directly affect their fate in the afterlife. However, it was possible for them to discern signs that they were either saved or damned, and one of the major signs of salvation was success in business. Thus, the

verstehen A methodological technique involving an effort to understand the thought processes of the actor, the actor’s meanings and motives, and how these factors led to the action (or interaction) under study.

Key Concept Verstehen

Verstehen is a German word meaning understanding. From the point of view of action theory, verstehen means trying to understand the thought processes of the actor, the actor’s meanings and motives, and how these factors led to the action (or interaction) under study.

Weber made clear that it was not a softer, or less scientific, method than, for example, the experimental methods employed by the behaviorist. To Weber, ver- stehen was not simply intuition, but involved a systematic and rigorous method for studying thoughts and actions. In fact, a researcher using verstehen has an advan- tage over someone who fancies herself a hard-nosed scientist using positivistic methods. The advantage lies in the fact that because subjects are fellow human beings, the social scientist can gain an understanding of what goes on in the sub- jects’ minds and why they do what they do. A physicist studying subatomic par- ticles has no chance of understanding those particles; in fact, the particles cannot be understood in the same way that human beings can be understood. They can only be observed from without, while thought and action can be observed from within, introspectively.

But how does this methodology, this sense of understanding actors and actions, relate to Weber’s grand theory of, for example, the relationship between Calvinism and the spirit of capitalism? It could be argued (and there is some merit in it) that Weber was trying to understand what went on in the minds of individual Calvinists that led them to the kinds of actions that set the stage for the rise of the spirit of capi- talism. However, another view on this is that Weber used verstehen as a method to put himself in the place of individual Calvinists in order to understand the cultural context in which they lived and what led them to behave in a capitalist manner (i.e., energetically seeking profits). Here the view of the researcher is outward to examine the cultural context rather than inward to examine the mental processes of the Cal- vinist. A third view is that verstehen is concerned with the relationship between indi- vidual mental processes and the larger cultural context. In fact, all three approaches have ample support. However, one valid interpretation is that verstehen is a method to analyze action from the perspective of individual mental processes.

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Classical Theories I 37

Calvinists were deeply interested in being successful in business, which meant building bigger and more profitable businesses. It also meant that instead of spending profits on frivolous personal pleasures, they had to save money and reinvest it in the business in order to make it even more successful. They were comforted in their sometimes ruthless pursuit of profits by the fact that it was their ethical duty to behave in such a way. They were also provided with hard- working, conscientious workers who were similarly motivated in looking for signs of success, and being a good worker was one such sign. Finally, Calvinist businessmen did not have to agonize over the fact that they were so successful while those who worked for them were so much less successful. After all, all of this was preordained. If they weren’t among the saved, they wouldn’t be suc- cessful. And, if at least some of their employees were saved, they would pros- per economically. It was a wonderfully reassuring system to those who sought and acquired wealth.

All of these beliefs about economic success among the Calvinists (and other sects) added up to the Protestant ethic. And this Weber linked to the devel- opment of another system of ideas, the spirit of capitalism. It was this idea system that led, in the end, to the capitalist economic system. People had been motivated to be economically successful at other times and in other parts of the world, but the difference at this time in the West was that they were not motivated by greed, but by an ethical system that emphasized economic suc- cess. The pursuit of profit was turned away from the morally suspect greed and toward a spirit that was deemed to be highly moral.

The spirit of capitalism had a number of components, including, most importantly for our purposes, the seeking of profits rationally and systemati- cally. Other ideas associated with this spirit included frugality, punctuality, fairness, and the earning of money as a legitimate end in itself. Above all, it was people’s duty to ceaselessly increase their wealth and economic prosperity. The spirit of capitalism was removed from the realm of individual ambition and made an ethical imperative.

There is a clear affinity between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capi- talism; the former helped give rise to the latter. Evidence for this was found by Weber in an examination of those European nations in which several religions coexisted. What Weber found was that the leaders of the economic system in these nations—business leaders, owners of capital, high-grade skilled labor, and more advanced technically and commercially trained personnel—were overwhelmingly Protestant. This was taken to mean that Protestantism was a significant cause in the choice of these occupations and, conversely, that other religions (for example, Roman Catholicism) failed to produce idea systems that impelled people into these vocations. In other words, Roman Catholicism did

spirit of capitalism In the West, unlike any other area of the world, people were moti- vated to be economically successful, not by greed, but by an ethical system that emphasized the ceaseless pursuit of economic success. The spirit of capitalism had a number of components including the seeking of profits rationally and systematically, frugality, punctuality, fairness, and the earning of money as a legitimate end in itself.

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not give, and could not have given, birth to the spirit of capitalism. In fact, Roman Catholicism impeded the development of such a spirit. In this, it func- tioned in the West the way Confucianism and Buddhism functioned in the East.

Confucianism, Hinduism, and Capitalism

China, like the West, had the prerequisites for the development of capitalism, including a tradition of intense acquisitiveness and unscrupulous competition. There was great industry and enormous capacity for work among the Chinese. With these and other factors in its favor, why didn’t China undergo rational- ization in general, and more specifically why didn’t capitalism develop there? Although elements of capitalism were there (moneylenders, businesspeople who sought high profits), China lacked a market and other rational elements of capitalism. There were a number of reasons for the failure to develop capital- ism in China, but chief among them was Confucianism and its characteristics.

Confucianism emphasized a literary education as a prerequisite to obtain- ing an office and acquiring status. A cultured man well-steeped in literature was valued. Also valued was the ability to be clever and witty. The Confu- cians devalued any kind of work and delegated it to subordinates. Although the Confucians valued wealth, it was not regarded as proper to work for it. Confucians were unconcerned with the economy and economic activities. Active engagement in a for-profit enterprise was viewed as morally dubious and unbecoming a Confucian gentleman. Furthermore, Confucians were not oriented to any kind of change, including economic change. The goal of the Confucian was to maintain the status quo. Perhaps most importantly, there was no tension between the religion of the Confucian and the world in which they lived. Therefore, they did not need to take any action to resolve it. This stands in contrast to Calvinism in which a tension between predestination and the desire to know one’s fate led to the idea that success in business might be a sign of salvation and a resolution of the tension.

Hinduism in India also posed barriers to rationalization and capitalism. For example, the Hindu believed that people were born into the caste (a fixed posi- tion within a system of social stratification) that they deserved to be in by virtue of behavior in a past life. Through faithful adherence to the ritual of caste, the Hindu gains merit for the next life. Salvation was to be achieved by faithfully following the rules. Innovation, particularly in the economic sphere, could not lead to a higher caste in the next life. Activity in this world was not seen as important, because this world was merely a transient abode and an impedi- ment to the spiritual quest of the Hindu.

Authority Structures and Rationalization

The theme of rationalization runs through many other aspects of Weber’s work. Let us examine it in one other domain—authority structures. Authority is legiti- mate domination. The issue is: What makes it legitimate for some people to issue

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Classical Theories I 39

commands that other people are likely to obey? The three bases of authority are tradition, charisma, and rational legal. In keeping with his theory of rational- ization, Weber foresaw a long-term trend in the direction of the triumph of rational-legal authority.

Traditional authority is based on the belief by followers that certain people (based on their family, or tribe, or lineage) have exercised authority since time immemorial. The leaders claim, and the followers believe in, the sanctity of age-old rules and powers. Various forms of traditional authority include rule by elders, rule by leaders who inherit their positions, and so on. Weber viewed feudalism as one type of traditional authority. Traditional authority structures are not rational and they impede the rationalization process. Although one still finds vestiges of traditional authority in the world today, especially in less- developed societies, it has largely disappeared or become marginalized. For example, the monarchy in England is a vestige of traditional authority, but it clearly has no power.

Charismatic authority is legitimated by a belief by the followers in the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of the charismatic leader. This idea obviously involves the now-famous concept of charisma. Although in everyday usage we now emphasize the extraordinary qualities of a person, Weber emphasized the fact that others define a person as having charisma. This leads to the important conclusion that a person need not have any discern- ible extraordinary qualities in order to be defined as a charismatic leader. To Weber, charisma is an extremely important revolutionary force. Throughout history charismatic leaders have come to the fore and overthrown traditional (and even rational-legal) authority structures.

However, it is important to remember that charismatic authority is not rational and therefore is ill suited to the day-to-day demands of administering a society. In fact, this becomes obvious almost immediately to the followers of a victorious charismatic leader. Soon after taking power they take steps to make their regime better able to handle the routine tasks of administering a domain. They do this through a process Weber labeled the routinization of charisma.

traditional authority Authority based on the belief by followers that certain people (based on their family, tribe, or lineage) have exercised sovereignty since time immemorial. The leaders claim, and the followers believe in, the sanctity of age-old rules and powers.

charismatic authority Authority legitimated by a belief by the followers in the excep- tional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of the charismatic leader.

charisma The definition by others that a person has extraordinary qualities. A person need not actually have such qualities in order to be so defined.

routinization of charisma Efforts by disciples to recast the extraordinary and revolu- tionary characteristics of the charismatic leader so that they are better able to handle mundane matters. This is also done in order to prepare for the day when the char- ismatic leader passes from the scene and to allow the disciples to remain in power.

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In other words, they seek to recast the extraordinary and revolutionary charac- teristics of their regime so that it is able to handle mundane matters. They also do this in order to prepare for the day when the charismatic leader passes from the scene. If they did not take these steps, they would be out of power as soon as the leader died. However, through routinization they hope to transfer the charisma to a disciple or to the administrative organization formed by the group of disciples.

Key Concept The Ideal Type and the Ideal-Typical Bureaucracy

Weber created many important methodological ideas, but one of the most important is the ideal type. It is important to point out immediately that Weber did not mean that an ideal type is some sort of utopian, or best possible, phenomenon. It is ideal because it is a one-sided exaggeration, usually an exaggeration of the rationality of a given phenomenon. Such one-sided exaggerations become concepts that Weber used to analyze the social world in all its historical and contemporary variation. The ideal type is a measuring rod to be used in comparing various specific examples of a social phenomenon either cross-culturally or over time.

One of Weber’s most famous ideal types is the bureaucracy. The ideal-typical bureaucracy has the following characteristics:

1. A series of official functions become offices in which the behavior of those who occupy those positions is bound by rules.

2. Each office has a specified sphere of competence. 3. Each office has obligations to perform specific functions, the authority to carry

them out, and the means of compulsion to get the job done. 4. The offices are organized into a hierarchical system. 5. People need technical training in order to meet the technical qualifications for

each office. 6. Those who occupy these positions are given the things they need to do the job;

they do not own them.

ideal type A one-sided, exaggerated concept, usually an exaggeration of the rationality of a given phenomenon, used to analyze the social world in all its historical and con- temporary variation. The ideal type is a measuring rod to be used in comparing vari- ous specific examples of a social phenomenon either cross-culturally or over time.

bureaucracy A modern type of organization in which the behavior of officers is rule bound; each office has a specified sphere of competence and has obligations to per- form specific functions, the authority to carry them out, and the means of com- pulsion to get the job done; the offices are organized into a hierarchical system; technical training is needed for each office; those things needed to do the job belong to the office and not the officer; the position is part of the organization and cannot be appropriated by an officer; and much of what goes on in the bureaucracy (acts, decisions, rules) is in writing.

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Classical Theories I 41

There is a terrible contradiction here. In attempting to make charisma rou- tine, the disciples are doing what is needed to allow this form of authority to function on a daily basis and to continue in existence after the leader dies, but, if successful, they would undermine the very basis of charismatic authority—it would no longer be extraordinary or perceived by the followers in that way. Thus, if successful, the routinization of charisma eventually destroys charisma and the structure is en route to becoming one of Weber’s other authority struc- tures: traditional or rational-legal.

As we said, charismatic authority is a revolutionary force. It operates by changing people from within; they change their minds and opt to follow the charismatic leader. Although charisma is an important revolutionary force, it pales in comparison to what Weber considered the most important revolutionary force in history—rationalization and the coming of rational-legal authority. The legitimacy of leaders in rational-legal authority comes from the fact that there is a series of codified rules and regulations, and leaders hold their positions as a result of those rules. Thus, for example, the president of the United States is an example of rational-legal authority, and his leadership is legitimized by the

7. The position is part of the organization and cannot be appropriated by an incumbent.

8. Much of what goes on in the bureaucracy (acts, decisions, rules) is in writing.

This ideal type, like all ideal types, existed nowhere in its entirety. In creat- ing it, Weber had in mind the bureaucracy created in the modern West, but even there no specific organization had all of these characteristics and to a high degree. But Weber used this ideal type (and every ideal type) to do historical-comparative analysis, in this case, analysis of organizational forms. He did this in terms of the organizations associated with the three types of authority and found that the orga- nizational forms associated with traditional and charismatic authority are lacking most or all of these characteristics; they are not bureaucracies and they do not func- tion nearly as well as the bureaucratic organizations associated with rational-legal authority.

One could also use the ideal type to compare specific organizations within the modern world in terms of the degree to which they measure up to the ideal type. The researcher would use the ideal type to pinpoint divergences from the ideal type and then seek to explain them. Among the reasons why a specific organization does not measure up to the ideal type might be misinformation, strategic errors, logical fallacies, emotional factors, or, more generally, any irrationality that enters into the operation of the organization.

Key Concept—Continued

rational-legal authority A type of authority in which the legitimacy of leaders is derived from the fact that there is a series of codified rules and regulations, and leaders hold their positions as a result of those rules.

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fact that he is the person who won the election, who got the most votes in the electoral college.

Although charisma changes peoples’ minds—it changes them from within; rationalization changes people from without—it alters the structures in which they live. And the key structure associated with rational-legal authority is the modern bureaucracy (see the Key Concept box on the ideal type). The other forms of authority have organizations associated with them, but they do not measure up to bureaucracy and do not have nearly the effect on people that bureaucracy does. Bureaucracy was so important to Weber that for him it was not only the heart of rational-legal authority, but the model for the rationaliza- tion process in the West. Bureaucracy was seen by Weber not only as a rational structure, but a powerful one that exercises great control over those who work within it and are even served by it. It is a kind of cage that alters the way people think and act.

More generally, Weber thought of rationalization as having cage-like qualities. There is no question that rationalization in general and rational- legal authority (and its bureaucracy) in particular bring with them numer- ous advantages, but Weber was very attuned to the problems associated with them. In fact, Weber was closely associated with the notion of an iron cage of rationalization—the imagery of a powerful, cage-like structure from which it is nearly impossible to escape. That was the way Weber thought of the increasing rationalization of the West. He appreciated the advances but despaired of its increasingly tight control over people. He feared that as more and more sectors of society (not just the government bureaucracy) were ratio- nalized, people would find it increasingly difficult to escape into nonrational- ized sectors of life. They would find themselves locked into an iron cage of rationalization.

Weber not only viewed rationalization as triumphant in the West, but also viewed rational-legal authority in the same way. Rational-legal authority is much more effective than traditional authority, with the result that the latter must, over time, give way to the former. Charismatic revolutions will continue to occur, but once routinized, the organization of charismatic authority is weak in comparison to the rational bureaucracy. In any case, once routinized, cha- risma is destroyed and the authority structure is en route to some other form. Although the new form could be traditional authority, in the modern West it is increasingly likely that charismatic authority is transformed into rational- legal authority. Furthermore, as modern charismatic movements arise, they are increasingly likely to face the iron cage of rationalization and rational-legal authority. That cage not only locks people in, but it also is increasingly imper- vious to external assault; it is increasingly able to keep both the charismatic leader and the rabble that follows such a leader out. The result is that in the modern world charismatic authority, as well as traditional authority, becomes increasingly inappropriate to the demands of modern society and increasingly unlikely to accede to power. Rational-legal authority, rationalization, and the iron cage of rationality are triumphant!

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Classical Theories I 43


1. The great theories of sociology’s classical age were vast, highly ambitious theoreti- cal efforts to tell the story of great stretches of social history.

2. Emile Durkheim’s theory deals with the changing division of labor and the transi- tion from mechanical to organic solidarity.

3. The major factor in this transformation is changes in dynamic density. 4. The change from mechanical to organic solidarity is accompanied by a dramatic

decline in the power of the collective conscience. 5. An indicator of that change is the transformation from the predominance of repres-

sive to restitutive law. 6. The major pathology associated with organic solidarity and its weak collective con-

science is anomie. 7. Karl Marx’s theory deals with the historical roots of capitalism, capitalism itself,

and the hoped-for transition to communism. 8. Marx’s critique of capitalism is based on a series of assumptions about human

potential. That potential is thwarted in capitalism, leading to alienation, especially among the workers.

9. Capitalism is essentially a two-class economic system in which one class (the capi- talists) own the means of production and the other class (the proletariat) must sell its labor-time in order to have access to those means.

10. Marx adopts the labor theory of value—all value comes from labor—and this allows him to see that capitalists exploit the proletariat.

11. The proletariat (and the capitalists) are unable to see this reality because of false consciousness, but they are eventually capable of getting a clear picture of the way capitalism works and of achieving class consciousness.

12. To overthrow capitalism the proletariat must engage in praxis. 13. Communism is a social system that permits for the first time the full expression of

human potential. 14. Max Weber distinguished among four types of rationality—practical, theoretical,

substantive, and formal—but his focus was on formal rationality and the way its preeminence led to the rationalization of the West.

15. The Protestant ethic played a central role in the rationalization of the West, espe- cially the economy. It was a key factor in the development of the spirit of capitalism and ultimately the rise of the capitalist economic system.

16. Weber was interested in the factors within Confucianism in China and Hinduism in India that prevented rationalization and capitalism.

17. Weber was concerned with the three types of authority—traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal—and the emergence of the latter as the dominant form of authority.

Suggested Readings

S teven L ukes Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. The best single book on the life and work of Emile Durkheim.

A nthony G iddens, ed. Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press, 1972. A nice selection of excerpts from most of Durkheim’s important works.

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T ara M ilbrandt and F rank Pearce “Emile Durkheim.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 236–282. Extensive overview of Durkheim’s major ideas and works placed in biographical, intellectual, and historical context.

M ustafa E mirbayer, ed. Emile Durkheim: Sociologist of Modernity. Malden, MA: Black- well, 2003. A useful collection of some of Durkheim’s most important work as well as more contemporary works that pick up on key themes in his work.

D avid M c L ellan Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper Colophon, 1973. A monumental treatment of Marx’s life and work.

D avid M c L ellan, ed. The Thought of Karl Marx. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974. A useful compendium of excerpts from the most important of Marx’s works.

R obert J. A ntonio and I ra C ohen, eds. Marx and Modernity: Key Readings and Com- mentary. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. Following a lengthy and excellent introduc- tion by Antonio, the book offers key selections from Marx’s work followed by a section devoted to contemporary work on his theories.

R obert J. A ntonio “Karl Marx.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theo- rists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 115–164. First- rate analysis of Marx’s life and work including discussion of Marx’s relevance in the present moment.

K alberg, S tephen, ed. Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Key selections of Weber’s work followed by contemporary work on his theories.

C harles C amic, P hilip G orski, and D avid T rubek, eds. Max Weber’s Economy and Society: A Critical Companion. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005. Contains a series of essays on Weber’s most important and all-encompassing work.

M arianne W eber Max Weber: A Biography. New York: Wiley, 1975. Much detail about Weber’s life in a biography authored by his wife, a scholar in her own right.

Joachim Radkau Max Weber: A Biography. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009. A major Weber biography that offers a distinctly different view of Weber’s life than origi- nally provided by Marianne Weber. Based on recently available archival material, the biography excels in connecting the personal, intimate features of Weber’s life with his thought and work.

S teven K alberg “Max Weber.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theo- rists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 305–372. Best treatment of Weber and his contributions available in the context of a lengthy essay.

F ritz R inger Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. A recent effort to deal with Max Weber as a person, the intellectual and social context of his work, and his most important ideas. It also addresses the con- temporary relevance of Weber’s ideas.

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C H A P T E R 3

Classical Theories II

Georg Simmel: The Growing Tragedy of Culture Thorstein Veblen: Increasing Control of Business over Industry George Herbert Mead: Social Behaviorism William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois: Race and Racism in Modern

Society Summary Suggested Readings

T his chapter is a continuation of the last and deals with four other major classi- cal theorists. The first, Georg Simmel, is quite a noncontroversial choice because he is increasingly included with Marx, Weber, and Durkheim as one of the found- ers and acknowledged masters of sociological theory. The other three selec- tions are more atypical and controversial. Thorstein Veblen was an American and is usually thought of as an economist. However, he deserves recognition as a great classical sociological theorist because (1) his ideas were so sociologi- cal; (2) he offered a grand theory of economic change that was similar in focus and scope to those of the acknowledged masters (all of whom had much to say about the economy); and (3) he alone anticipated the great shift in the late 20th century from an economy defined by production to one that is oriented mainly to consumption. Another American, George Herbert Mead, is also a somewhat unusual choice for discussion in this context. Although Mead grappled less than the others with the big social changes and issues of his day, he did create a theory that had incomparable insights into individual consciousness (including “mind” and “self”), action, and interaction. Finally, this chapter considers the work of an African-American sociologist. Even though he was trained as a sociologist, until recently, W.E.B. Du Bois has not been discussed as a major classical theorist. However, his writings on race, racism, and colonialism offer insight into theo- retical issues which have now become central to social thought and analysis.


Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was another important German social theorist. The big issue for Simmel was what he called the tragedy of culture. However, before

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we get to that issue, we need to deal with some of the building blocks of Simmel’s theorizing.


Although Georg Simmel had an important grand theory of the tragedy of cul- ture, his earlier, and to some degree, continuing, fame is based on his theories of everyday life. In fact, more than any other classical thinker, Simmel was con- cerned with such seemingly trivial everyday behaviors as people having dinner together, asking others for directions, or dressing to please others. These forms of association, or interaction, serve to link people to one another. They are con- tinually being created, worked out, dropped, and then replaced by other forms of association. To Simmel, these associations were the atoms of social life that were to be studied microscopically. This theory is clearly very different from, though not unrelated to, Simmel’s grander thoughts on such things as the trag- edy of culture.

Simmel, like Weber, goes so far as to define sociology as the study of every- day life: Sociology was to study society, but society is nothing more than the sum of the individual interactions that comprise it.

Forms and Types

Simmel made an important distinction between forms of interaction and types of interactants. In the real world people are confronted with a bewildering and confusing array of interactions and interactants. In order to deal with this con- fusion, people reduce their social world to a small number of forms of interac- tion and types of interactants. Think of the bewildering array of interaction taking place at a party. Someone asks you, “What brings you to a party like this?” This form of interaction could be interpreted in at least two ways: a request for information or a desire to begin a relationship. Given the nature of the party and the way the words are uttered, you might well interpret this as the form of interaction “an effort to start a relationship” rather than the form “request for information.” Depending, then, on whether you are recep- tive to exploring a new relationship, you might say either “Why, the chance to meet someone like you,” or “I came by train.” The point is that because so much is always going on, we are always seeking to reduce interaction to a limited number of forms so that we are better able to understand them and deal with them.

association The relationships among people, or interaction. forms Patterns imposed on the bewildering array of events, actions, and interactions

in the social world both by people in their everyday lives and by social theorists. types Patterns imposed on a wide range of actors by both laypeople and social scien-

tists in order to combine a number of them into a limited number of categories.

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Classical Theories II 47

The same thing occurs in our dealing with the large number of people that we can potentially interact with. In order to make dealing with them more man- ageable, we reduce them to a limited number of types of interactants. At the party, a person asks us why we are there, but since we’ve never met the person, we do not know the particular characteristics of that person. Without knowing the person, how do we respond? The answer is that we have a series of types and we make an initial decision about the type to which the person belongs. Is the person who asked us that question a serious person or merely a flirt? Your response to the question will be shaped by your initial attempt to categorize the person. You may find later that your initial judgment was wrong and you put the person in the wrong category. Nevertheless, in a world in which we meet innumerable people, we must use such types as first approximations in order to begin (or decide to avoid) an interaction.

Simmel believed that not only do people develop forms and types on a day-to-day basis, but so must the sociologist. Thus, Simmel did many essays on forms of interaction (e.g., between superordinates and subordinates) and types of interactants (e.g., the stranger).


Simmel’s thinking on association was related to, and shaped by, his thinking on consciousness. He operated with the assumption that people engaged in action on the basis of conscious processes. In their interaction, people have various

Georg Simmel (1858–1918) A Biographical Vignette

Simmel was a marginal man, a “stranger,” in the German academic world of his day. Even though he is now considered one of the great masters of theory, he occu- pied marginal academic positions throughout his life. Indeed, most of the time he did not earn a regular salary, but was dependent on student fees. He produced an impressive body of work and knew the most important intellectual figures of the day (e.g., Max Weber) and they thought highly of his work. Why, then, was he so marginal?

Two reasons stand out. First, he generally did not write what were considered in his day to be legitimate academic tracts. Rather he wrote essays with popular titles often published in newspapers and magazines. He was much more comfort- able with this kind of work than massive tomes (although he wrote those, too), but the administrators of German universities did not know what to make of such work.

The other is that Simmel was a Jew in an academic world rife with anti-Semitism. In one report to the minister of education he was described as Jewish in the way he looked, the way he comported himself, and the way he thought. Given this view of him and the anti-Semitism of the day, it is little wonder that Simmel found it impos- sible to get a regular academic appointment, at least until the end of his life when he finally got such a post, albeit at a minor German university.

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motives, goals, and interests; they engage in creative consciousness. He also believed that people were able to confront themselves mentally, to set them- selves apart from their own actions. This is different from animals that merely respond to their environment and cannot reflect upon their relationship to that environment. In other words, people can take in external stimuli, assess them, try different courses of action, and then decide what to do. Because of these mental capacities, people are not enslaved by external stimuli or external structures. At first glance, then, Simmel seems to grant humans a tremendous amount of freedom and control over their lives and social worlds. However, in a fashion typical of his thought, Simmel immediately challenges the idea that the mind is free in any simple sense. This is because even though the mind

Key Concept Secrecy

Secrecy is defined by Simmel as the condition in which one person has the inten- tion of hiding something while the other is seeking to reveal what is being hidden. People must know some things about other people in order to interact with them. For instance, we must know with whom we are dealing (e.g., a friend, a relative, a shopkeeper). We may come to know a great deal about other people, but we can never know them absolutely; that is, we can never know all the thoughts, moods, and so on, of other people.

In all aspects of our lives we acquire not only truth but also ignorance and error; however, it is in the interaction with other people that ignorance and error acquire a distinctive character. This relates to the inner lives of the people with whom we inter- act. People, in contrast to any other object of knowledge, have the capacity intention- ally to reveal the truth about themselves or to lie and conceal such information.

The fact is that even if people wanted to reveal all (and they almost always do not), they could not do so because so much information would drive everybody crazy; hence, people must select the things they report to others. From the point of view of Simmel’s concern with quantitative issues, we report only fragments of our inner lives to others. Furthermore, we choose which fragments to reveal and which to conceal; thus, in all interactions, we reveal only a part of ourselves, and which part we opt to show depends on how we select and arrange the fragments we choose to reveal.

The lie is a form of interaction in which a person intentionally hides the truth from others. With a lie, not only are others left with an erroneous conception but also the error is traceable to the fact that the liar intended that the others be deceived.

Simmel discussed the lie in terms of social geometry, specifically his ideas on distance. For example, we can better accept and come to terms with the lies of those

secrecy As defined by Simmel, the condition in which one person has the intention of hiding something while the other is seeking to reveal that which is being hidden.

lie A form of interaction in which a person intentionally hides the truth from others.

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Classical Theories II 49

can thoughtfully respond to its environment, it also has the capacity to endow stimuli and structures with a separate and real existence. In sociological terms, the mind has the capacity to reify its creations. To reify something means to treat it as more real and concrete than it actually is. So just as humans acquire freedom and control over their world by inventing ideas, these ideas almost inevitably come to appear as structures that dominate their lives. For example, many human relationships are organized around ideas such as obligation and duty. A son becomes a farmer like his father out of a sense of duty to his father. The weight of the obligation feels like a real entity, a duty, that exists indepen- dently of the son’s will. In this sense, humans have the capacity to create the conditions that constrain them. In this example, even though duty is a construc- tion of the mind it has become a real social entity that constrains action. Over- all, then, through their mental processes people can free themselves, constrain themselves, or, more likely, do some combination of both things. These kinds of tensions pervade Simmel’s work.

who are distant from us; hence, we have little difficulty learning that the politi- cians who habituate Washington, D.C., sometimes lie to us. In contrast, we find it unbearable if those closest to us lie. The lie of a spouse, lover, or child has a far more devastating impact on us than the lie of a government official whom we know only through the television screen.

More generally, in terms of distance, all everyday communication combines elements known to both parties with facts known only to one or the other. The exis- tence of the latter leads to distanceness in all social relationships. Indeed, Simmel argued that social relationships require both elements that are known to the interac- tants and those that are unknown to one party or the other. In other words, even the most intimate relationships require both nearness and distance, reciprocal knowl- edge and mutual concealment; hence, secrecy is an integral part of all social rela- tionships, although a relationship may be destroyed if the secret becomes known to the person from whom it was being kept.

In that most intimate, least secret form of association, marriage, Simmel argued that there is a temptation to reveal all to the partner, to have no secrets; however, Simmel believed this was a mistake. For one thing, all social relationships require some truth and some error. More specifically, complete self-revelation (assuming such a thing is even possible) would make a marriage matter-of-fact and remove all possibility of the unexpected. Finally, most of us have limited internal resources, and every revelation reduces the (secret) treasures that we have to offer to others. Only those few with great storehouses of personal accomplishments can afford numerous revelations to a marriage partner. All others are left denuded (and unin- teresting) by excessive self-revelation.

Key Concept—Continued

reify To endow social structures, which are created by people, with a separate and real existence.

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Group Size

One of the most powerful aspects of Simmel’s sociology of everyday life is the way he builds from everyday interactions to the larger structures of society. This is best seen in his famous work on the dyad and the triad. Put simply, a dyad is a two-person group and a triad is a three-person group. On first thought, there appears to be little or no difference between the two. After all, how much difference can the addition of one person make? Simmel’s surpris- ing and very important answer is that it makes an enormous difference. In fact, the crucial difference sociologically is between a two- and three-person group: No further addition to the size of the group makes nearly as much difference as the addition of one person to a dyad. Unlike all other size groups, the dyad has no meaning beyond its meaning to each of the two individuals involved. No independent group structure emerges in a dyad; it consists of two people interacting. These two separable individuals each retain a high level of indi- viduality. Because there is no separable group, no possibility of any collective threat to the individual exists.

Of crucial importance is the fact that the addition of the third person to a dyad, the creation of a triad, makes the emergence of an independent group structure possible. Now there is the possibility of a group threat to individuality. Furthermore, with the addition of a third party, a number of new social roles become possible that were not possible before. For example, one member of the triad can take the role of mediator or arbitrator in a dispute between the other two parties. The third party can also exploit the disputes between the others to gain power. It is also possible that the other two members can compete for the favors of the third, or the third party may foster disputes between the other two, making it easier to exercise control over both. Thus, in various ways, a system of authority and a stratification system can emerge, systems that cannot exist in a dyad. The movement from dyad to triad is essential to the development of social structures that can become separate from, and dominant over, individuals. In other words, the tragedy of culture that occupies such a central place in Simmel’s grand theory becomes possible only when at least a triad has developed.

Simmel offered many other insights based on group size. For example, and seemingly contradictorily, he argued that individual freedom grows with an increase in group size. A small group is likely to exert great control over an individual, who simply cannot escape the gaze and control of group members. In a large group, however, the individual is better able to become less visible and less subject to the control of the group. In large societies, especially large cities, where there are likely to be many different groups, the individual is a member of a number of them. As a result, any single group is only able to con- trol a minute portion of an individual’s behavior. However, individuals become

dyad A two-person group. triad A three-person group.

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subject to other kinds of control in large societies, as exemplified by the soon- to-be-discussed tragedy of culture. Furthermore, masses are more subject to being controlled by one idea, the simplest idea. The physical proximity of a large number of people, especially in the modern city, makes them more sug- gestible and more likely to follow simplistic ideas and to engage in mindless, emotional actions.

Distance and the Stranger

Along these same lines (his social geometry), Simmel was also interested in the issue of distance. For example, the social type we mentioned previously, the stranger, is defined by distance. The stranger is one who is neither too close nor too far. If she came too close, she would no longer be a stranger; she would be a member of the group. However, if she was too far away, she would cease to have any contact with the group. Thus, to be a stranger involves a combina- tion of closeness and distance.

The peculiar distance between the stranger and the group leads to some unusual patterns of interaction between the two. For example, the stranger can be more objective in his interaction with group members. His lack of emotional involvement allows him to be more dispassionate in his judgments of, and rela- tionships with, members. Furthermore, because he is a stranger, other people feel more comfortable expressing confidences to him than they would to those who are close to them and members of the same group. They feel free to say things to the stranger because of the feeling that what they say will not get back to the group. (A good example of this is the fact that some people feel quite comfortable divulging very personal information to taxi drivers whom they are not likely to see again and who are unlikely to have contact with other mem- bers of their group.) On the other hand, they are reluctant to say those things to group members out of a fear that other group members will soon find out.

The stranger is not only a social type, but we can discuss strangeness as a social form of interaction. For example, a degree of strangeness, a peculiar com- bination of closeness and distance, enters even the most intimate relationships; thus, even the closest of marriages can have elements of distance (his poker group, her reading group). In fact, Simmel believed that successful marriages must have some degree of strangeness to keep them interesting.

Distance and Value

One of Simmel’s most interesting insights on distance relates to value and the development of an alternative to Marx’s labor theory of value. In terms of the issue of distance, Simmel argued that the value of things is a function of their distance from us. Things that are too close to us, too easy to obtain, are of no

stranger One of Simmel’s social types defined by distance: one who is neither too close nor too far.

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great value to us; thus, even though our lives depend on it, air is not very valu- able to most of us most of the time because it is all around us and readily attain- able. (Of course, air would be quite valuable if there was little of it [e.g., if pollution made it hard to breathe and dangerous to inhale] or it was hard to obtain [e.g., if one had emphysema].) Also, things that are too far from us, too difficult to obtain, are not of great value. Thus, a trek to the top of Mt. Everest is not very valuable to most of us because it is too far to travel, too difficult to climb the mountain, and too expensive to undertake such an adventure. In the end, what is most valuable to us are the things that are attainable but only with considerable effort.

Objective and Subjective Culture

The tragedy of culture is based on a distinction between subjective (or indi- vidual) and objective (or collective) culture. Objective culture involves those objects that people produce (art, science, philosophy, and so on). Individual culture refers to the capacity of the individual to produce, absorb, and control

objective culture The objects that people produce—art, science, philosophy, and so on—that become part of culture.

individual culture The capacity of the individual to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture.

Key Concept Space

While Simmel’s thinking on distance is widely known, less well-known is his broader theory of space. One of his concerns is the importance of boundaries in space. Their importance is revealed particularly when the boundaries are indefi- nite or indistinct. Indefinite boundaries occur when groups are not limited to their political boundaries (e.g., a mass of people in a large space). Being in the open in this way makes the group subject to impulsiveness, enthusiasm, and susceptible to manipulation. This, of course, can be related to such things as riots and the like. Indistinct space occurs when the space is unclear to a group such as when a group finds itself in pitch-black space. Among other things, this is likely to lead to increases in group fantasizing.

Some of Simmel’s most interesting insights on space relate to what he has to say about the bridge and the door. For example, while the bridge always leads to con- nectedness, the door can lead to both connectedness (if it is open) and separation (if it is closed). Thus, he concludes that the door is much richer and has much livelier significance than the bridge. Direction makes no difference in terms of the bridge, but there are huge differences between entering through and leaving by a door.

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the elements of objective culture. The tragedy of culture stems from the fact that over time objective culture grows exponentially while individual culture and the ability to produce objective culture grow only marginally. Over time, peoples’ ability to be creative has increased little, if at all. Yet the sum total of what they have produced has exploded.

First, the absolute size of objective culture grows. This can be seen most obviously in the case of science. Clearly, we know many more things about disease, astronomy, physics, and sociology than ever before, and with each passing day we know more and more. Second, the number of different com- ponents of objective culture increases. For example, not many years ago there was no Internet. Now it is an increasingly important part of objective culture, and there is always more and more to know about it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the various elements of objective culture become intertwined in ever more powerful, self-contained worlds that are increasingly beyond the comprehension, let alone control, of the actors who created them.

The tragedy of culture is that our meager individual capacities cannot keep pace with our cultural products. We are doomed to increasingly less under- standing of the world we have created. More importantly, we are destined to be increasingly controlled by that world. For example, the Internet now exerts enormous control over our lives and that control is destined to grow as it becomes more important and more complex. We understand it less, but we need it more.

Division of Labor

A key factor in the tragedy of culture is the growth in the division of labor. Increased specialization leads to an increased ability to produce ever more complex and sophisticated components of the objective world. But at the same time, the highly specialized individual loses a sense of the total culture and loses the ability to control it. Thus, a person may be a highly sophisticated com- puter programmer; but, immersed in the details of producing a specific pro- gram, or even a minute portion of a program, the individual loses a sense of the computer technology, the Internet, or Internet culture in general. As objective culture grows, individual culture atrophies.

Of course, there are positive aspects of all of this. Specialization has led to innumerable developments that have greatly enhanced our daily lives. Given the enormous and expanding array of things available in the objective culture, we all have infinitely more choices than ever before. But all this comes at the

tragedy of culture Stems from the fact that over time objective culture grows exponen- tially while individual culture and the ability to produce it grow only marginally. Our meager individual capacities cannot keep pace with our cultural products. As a result, we are doomed to increasingly less understanding of the world we have created and to be increasingly controlled by that world.

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cost of individuals feeling, and being, increasingly insignificant in comparison to the objective culture that they must confront and attempt to come to grips with on a daily basis. In that confrontation, the individual is destined to be the loser. Worse, there is no end to this process and we are destined to pro- gressively greater insignificance in comparison to objective culture—to be increasingly controlled by it. The future inhabitants of our society are doomed to be far more tragic figures than we are.



We continue this discussion of classical grand theories with the contributions of an American, Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929). Veblen’s general concern through- out his career was with the conflict between business and industry. Although to our way of thinking these terms seem closely related, to Veblen there was a stark contrast, in fact an inherent conflict, between them. While the develop- ment of industry leads to greater and greater output, business interests seek to limit output in order to keep prices and profits high.


Veblen detailed a historic change in the nature of business and business lead- ers. The early leaders tended to be entrepreneurs who were designers, build- ers, shop managers, and financial managers. They were more likely to have earned their income because, at least in part, it was derived from their direct contribution to production (industry). Today’s business leaders are almost exclusively concerned with financial matters and therefore, at least in Veblen’s view, they are not earning their income because finance makes no direct con- tribution to industry. (In fact, if anything, finance inhibits industry rather than enhancing it.) A further development involved the routinization of financial matters and, as a result, the handling of them by large financial organizations (e.g., investment bankers). Thus, the business leader is left as an intermediary between industry and finance with little concrete knowledge of either.

Business tended to define the world of Veblen’s day, especially the interests of the upper classes. Business is defined by a pecuniary approach to economic processes; that is, the dominant interest is money. The focus is not on the inter- est of the larger community but rather on the profitability of the organization. The occupations of those with a business interest tend to involve ownership and acquisition; the leisure class tends to occupy these positions. Thus, the captains

business A pecuniary approach to economic processes in which the dominant inter- ests are acquisition, money, and profitability rather than production and the inter- ests of the larger community.

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of industry as well as the captains of solvency (the investment bankers, finan- ciers who come eventually to control the captains of industry) have a business orientation. Since it is nonproductive, Veblen viewed a business orientation as parasitic and exploitative. Instead of production, business leaders focus on such things as sharp practice, cornering the market, and sitting tight.

Key Concepts Conspicuous Consumption and Conspicuous Leisure

What distinguishes Veblen from every other classical theorist is that he not only developed an important theory of production, but he also created a theory of con- sumption. Of enduring importance is his theory of the relationship between social class and consumption. At the turn of the 20th century Veblen argued that the motiva- tion to consume a variety of goods (services were of little interest in Veblen’s day, but the same idea would apply) is not for subsistence, but to create the basis for invidious distinctions (those designed to lead to envy) between people. The possession of such goods leads to higher status for those who possess them. In other words, the leisure class engages in conspicuous consumption. And the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class ultimately affects everyone else in the stratification system. In decid- ing what goods to consume, people in every other social class ultimately emulate the behavior of the leisure class at the pinnacle of the stratification system. The tastes of that class eventually work their way down the stratification hierarchy, although most people end up emulating the acquisitions of the class immediately above them in the stratification system.

Veblen distinguished between conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. He argued that leisure, or the nonproductive use of time, was an earlier way of making invidious distinctions between people; that is, people conspicu- ously wasted time in order to elevate their social status. In the modern era, peo- ple consume conspicuously (i.e., waste goods rather than time) in order to create such distinctions. Buying expensive goods when far less expensive commodities would have accomplished the same objectives is an example of waste in the realm of goods.

In the modern world, elites are more likely to engage in conspicuous consump- tion than conspicuous leisure because the former is more visible, and visibility is crucial if the goal is to elevate one’s status and to make others envious. Driving a new Rolls Royce around one’s neighborhood is far more likely to be seen than whil- ing away one’s hours in front of one’s television set.

conspicuous consumption The consumption of a variety of goods, not for subsistence but for higher status for those who consume them and thereby to create the basis for invidious distinctions between people.

conspicuous leisure The consumption of leisure; the nonproductive use of time; the waste of time as a way of creating an invidious distinction between people and elevating the social status of those able to use their time in this way.

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Veblen gave the business leader credit for increasing productive capacity, but Veblen’s most distinctive contribution is his view of such leaders as being at least as much involved in disturbing production and in restricting capacity as they are in increasing it. Veblen viewed the modern corporation as a type of business. As such, its interests are in financial matters like profit and in sales and not in production and workmanship.


Industry has to do with understanding and using mechanized processes of all sorts on a large scale. An industrial orientation is associated with those involved in workmanship and production. The working classes are most likely to be involved in these activities and to have such an orientation. Unfortunately, industry is controlled by business leaders who have little or no understanding of it and only understand the “higgling of the market” and financial intrigue. The main interest of those leaders is to restrict production and restrict the free operation of the industrial system in order to keep prices (and therefore profits) high. The result is that the main task of the business leader to Veblen is to obstruct, retard, and sabotage the operation of the industrial system. Without such obstructions, the extraordinary productivity of the industrial system would drive prices and profits progressively lower.

The increasingly tightly interlocking industrial system not only lends itself to cooperative undertakings, but this characteristic makes it increasingly

Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) A Biographical Vignette

Veblen was, to put it mildly, an unusual man. For example, he could often sit for hours and contribute little or nothing to a conversation going on around him. His friends and admirers made it possible for him to become president of the American Economic Association, but he declined the offer. The following vignette offered by a bookseller gives us a bit more sense of this complex man:

A man used to appear every six or eight weeks quite regularly, an ascetic, myste- rious person with a gentle air. He wore his hair long. . . . I used to try to interest him in economics. . . . I even once tried to get him to begin with The Theory of the Leisure Class. I explained to him what a brilliant port of entry it is to social con- sciousness. He listened attentively to all I said and melted like a snow drop through the door. One day he ordered a volume of Latin hymns. “I shall have to take your name because we will order this expressly for you,” I told him. “We shall not have an audience for such a book as this again in a long time, I am afraid.” “My name is Thorstein Veblen,” he breathed rather than said.

industry The understanding and productive use, primarily by the working classes, of a wide variety of mechanized processes on a large scale.

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vulnerable to the efforts of business and national leaders to sabotage it. This may be done consciously or as a result of the business leader’s increasing ignorance of industrial operations. In either case, it results in hardship to the community in the form of unemployment, idle factories, and wasted resources. Veblen even went so far as to imply that business leaders are consciously responsible for depressions: They reduce production because under certain market conditions they feel they cannot derive what they emotionally consider a reasonable profit from their goods. To Veblen, there is no such thing, from the point of view of the larger community, as overproduction. However, even with the activities of the business leaders, including the creation of depressions, the industrial system is still so effective and efficient that it allows business leaders and their investors to earn huge profits.

The modern industrial system is so productive that it yields returns far beyond that required to cover costs and to give reasonable returns to owners and investors. These additional returns are the source of what Veblen calls free income. And that free income goes to the business leaders and their investors, not to the workers (this is reminiscent of Marx’s theory of exploitation). Over- all, the captains of industry and the leisure class of which they are an important part, and their pecuniary orientation, are associated with waste. In encouraging such things, the leisure class tends to stand in opposition to the needs of mod- ern, industrial society.


Perhaps the most important theorist of everyday life in the history of sociology was another American, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Although he taught in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, Mead was a central figure in the development of an important contemporary sociological theory: symbolic interactionism. Just as all the grand theorists discussed previously had sociologies of everyday life, Mead also had a grand theory. However, his most important contribution to the development of sociological theory lies in his sociology of everyday life.

Interestingly, while Mead focuses on thought, action, and interaction, he emphasizes the importance of starting with the group, or, more generally, with what he calls the social. Thus, analysis is to begin with the organized group and then work its way down, rather than begin with separate individuals and work one’s way up to the group. Individual thought, action, and interaction are to be explained in terms of the group and not the group by individual thought and action. The whole is prior to its individual elements.

In focusing on those individual elements, Mead found it difficult to dis- tinguish his approach from psychological behaviorism, even though he called himself a type of behaviorist: a social behaviorist. Basically, he recognized the fact of stimulus-response, but he thought there is much more to human action

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than that simple model. To put it simply, the mind intervenes between the application of a stimulus and the emitting of a response; people, unlike lower animals, think before they act.

The Act

Mead comes closest to psychological behaviorism in discussing the most basic element in his theoretical system—the act —but he does not see people as engag- ing in automatic, unthinking responses. He recognizes four separable stages in the act, but each is related to all of the others and the act does not necessarily occur in the following sequence.

1. Impulse. The actor reacts to some external stimulus (hunger, a dangerous animal) and feels the need to do something about it (find food, run away).

2. Perception. The actor searches for and reacts to stimuli (through hearing, smell, taste, etc.) that relate to the impulse and to the ways of dealing with it. People do not simply react to stimuli; they think about them, they select among them, deciding what is important (the animal is growling) and what is unimportant (the animal has pretty eyes).

3. Manipulation . This involves manipulating the object once it has been perceived. This is an important phase before a response is emitted and involves two major distinctive characteristics of humans: their minds and their opposable thumbs. Thus, a hungry person can pick up a mushroom from the forest floor, examine it by rolling it around in her fingers, and think about whether it has the characteristics of a poisonous mushroom. In contrast, a hungry animal is likely to grab for the mushroom and eat it unthinkingly and without examining it.

4. Consummation . This involves taking action that satisfies the original impulse (eating the mushroom rather than simply manipulating and examining it, shooting the animal). The human is more likely to be suc- cessful in consummation because of his or her ability to think through the act, while the lower animal must rely on the far less efficient and effective trial and error.

act The basic concept in Mead’s theory, involving an impulse, perception of stimuli, taking action involving the object perceived, and using the object to satisfy the ini- tial impulse.

impulse First stage of the act, in which the actor reacts to some external stimulus and feels the need to do something about it.

perception Second stage of the act, in which the actor consciously searches for and reacts to stimuli that relate to the impulse and the ways of dealing with it.

manipulation Third stage of the act involving manipulating the object, once it has been perceived.

consummation Final stage of the act involving the taking of action that satisfies the original impulse.

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An act involves only one person or lower animal, but both people and animals interact with others. The most primitive form of interaction involves gestures — movements by one party that serve as stimuli to another party. People and ani- mals make gestures and also engage in a conversation of gestures: Gestures by one mindlessly elicit responding gestures from the other. In a dog fight, for example, the bared teeth of one dog might automatically cause the other dog to bare its teeth. The same thing could happen in a boxing match: The cocked fist of one fighter could lead the other to raise an arm in defense. In the case of both types of fight, the reaction is instinctive and the gestures are nonsignificant because neither party thinks about its response. Although both people and ani- mals employ nonsignificant gestures, only people employ significant gestures, or those that involve thought before a response is made.

Among gestures, Mead placed great importance on vocal gestures. All vocal gestures of lower animals are nonsignificant (the bark of a dog to another dog) and some human vocal gestures may be nonsignificant (snoring). How- ever, most human vocal gestures are significant, the most important of them involving language. This system of significant gestures is responsible for the great advances (control over nature, science) of human society.

One huge difference exists between a physical and a vocal gesture. When we make a physical gesture, we cannot see what we are doing (unless we are looking in a mirror), but when we make a vocal gesture, we can hear it in the same way as the person to whom it is aimed. Thus, it affects the speaker in much the same way it affects the hearer. Furthermore, people have far better control over vocal gestures; if they don’t like what they are saying (and hear- ing), they can stop it or alter it in midsentence. Thus, what distinguishes people from lower animals is not only their ability to think about a response before emitting it, but to control what they do.

Significant Symbols and Language

One of the most famous ideas in Mead’s conceptual arsenal, and in all of soci- ology, is the significant symbol. Significant symbols are those that arouse in the person expressing them the same kind of response (it need not be identical)

gestures Movements by one party (person or animal) that serve as stimuli to another party.

conversation of gestures Gestures by one party that mindlessly elicit responding ges- tures from the other party.

significant gestures Gestures that require thought before a response is made; only humans are capable of this.

significant symbols Symbols that arouse in the person expressing them the same kind of response (it need not be identical) as they are designed to elicit from those to whom they are addressed.

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that they are designed to elicit from those to whom they are addressed. In other words, people can think about what they are saying as they are saying it. Phys- ical objects can be significant symbols, but vocal gestures, especially language, are the crucial significant symbols. In a conversation of gestures, only the ges- tures are communicated. In a conversation involving language, gestures (the words) and, most importantly, the meaning of those words are communicated.

Language (or, more generally, significant symbols) brings out the same response in both speaker and hearer. If I were to say the word dog to you, both you and I would have a similar mental image of a dog. In addition, words are likely to lead us to the same or similar action. If I yelled the word fire in a crowded theater, we would both be driven to want to escape the theater as quickly as possible. Language allows people to stimulate their own actions as well as those of others.

Language also makes possible the critically important ability of people to think, to engage in mental processes. Thinking, as well as the mind , is simply defined as conversation that people have with themselves using language; this activity is like having a conversation with other people. Similarly, Mead believed that social processes precede mental processes; significant symbols and a language must exist for the mind to exist. The mind allows us to call out in ourselves not only the reactions of a single person (who, for example, shouts the word fire in a theater), but also the reactions of the entire community. Thus, if yelling fire is likely to save lives, we might think about the public recognition we would receive for doing so. On the other hand, if we contemplate yelling fire falsely, the anticipated reaction of the community (disapproval, imprisonment) might prevent us from taking such action. Furthermore, thinking of the reactions of the entire community leads us to come up with more organized responses than if we were to think about the reactions of a number of separate individuals.

The Self

Another crucial concept to Mead is the self, or the ability to take oneself as an object. The self and the mind are dialectically related to one another; neither can exist without the other. Thus, one cannot take oneself as an object (think about oneself) without a mind, and one cannot have a mind, have a conversa- tion with oneself, without a self. Of course, it is really impossible to separate mind and self because the self is a mental process.

Basic to the self is reflexivity, or the ability to put ourselves in others’ places: think as they think, act as they act. This ability enables people to examine themselves and what they do in the same way that others would examine them.

mind To Mead, the conversations that people have with themselves using language. self The ability to take oneself as an object. reflexivity The ability to put ourselves in others’ places: think as they think, act as they


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We can adopt the same position toward ourselves as others adopt toward us. To do this, we must be able to get outside of ourselves, at least mentally, so that we can evaluate ourselves as others do. We have to adopt a specific standpoint toward ourselves that can either be the standpoint of a specific individual or of the social group as a whole. (This idea will be discussed later.)

Mead believes that the self emerges in two key stages in childhood. The first is the play stage in which the child plays at being someone else. The child might play at being Barney, or Sponge Bob, or Mommy. In so doing, the child learns to become both subject (who the child is) and object (who Barney is) and begins to be able to build a self. However, that self is very limited because the child can only take the role of distinct and separate others (Barney, mother). In playing at being Barney or mother, the child is able to see and evaluate herself as she

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) A Biographical Vignette

Most of the important theorists discussed throughout this book achieved their greatest recognition in their lifetimes for their published work. George Herbert Mead, however, was as important, at least during his lifetime, for his teaching as for his writing. His words had a powerful impact on many people who were to become important sociologists in the 20th century. One of his students said, “Conversa- tion was his best medium; writing was a poor second.” Another of his students described what Mead was like as a teacher:

For me, the course with Professor Mead was a unique and unforgettable experi- ence . . . Professor Mead was a large, amiable-looking man who wore a magnificent mustache and a Vandyke beard. He characteristically had a benign, rather shy smile matched with a twinkle in his eyes as if he were enjoying a secret joke he was play- ing on the audience . . .

As he lectured—always without notes—Professor Mead would manipulate the piece of chalk and watch it intently . . . When he made a particularly subtle point in his lecture, he would glance up and throw a shy, almost apologetic smile over our heads—never looking directly at anyone. His lecture flowed and we soon learned that questions or comments from the class were not welcome. Indeed, when some- one was bold enough to raise a question, there was a murmur of disapproval from the students. They objected to any interruption of the golden flow . . .

His expectations of students were modest. He never gave exams. The main task for each of us students was to write as learned a paper as one could. These Professor Mead read with great care, and what he thought of your paper was your grade in the course. One might suppose that students would read materials for the paper rather than attend his lectures but that was not the case. Students always came. They couldn’t get enough of Mead.

play stage The first stage in the genesis of the self, in which the child plays at being someone else.

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imagines Barney or her mother might see and evaluate her. However, the child lacks a more general and organized sense of self.

In the next stage, the game stage, the child begins to develop a self in the full sense of the term. Although the child takes the role of discrete others in the play stage, in the game stage she takes the role of everyone involved in the game. Each of these others plays a specific role in the overall game. Mead used the example of baseball, in which the child may play one role (say, pitcher), but must know what the other eight players are supposed to do and are going to expect from her. In order to be a pitcher, she must know what everyone else is to do. She need not have all the players in mind all the time, but at any given moment she may have the roles of three or four of them in mind. As a result of this ability to take on multiple roles simultaneously, children begin to be able to function in organized groups. They become able to better understand what is expected of them, what they are supposed to do, in the group. Although play requires only pieces of a self, the game requires a coherent self.

Another famous concept created by Mead is the generalized other. The generalized other is the attitude of the entire community or, in the example of the baseball game, the attitude of the entire team. A complete self is possible

definition of the situation The idea that if people define situations as real, then those definitions are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas).

game stage The second stage in the genesis of the self: instead of taking the role of dis- crete others, the child takes the role of everyone involved in a game. Each of these others plays a specific role in the overall game.

generalized other The attitude of the entire community or of any collectivity in which the actor is involved.

Key Concept Definition of the Situation

W. I. Thomas (1863–1947), along with his wife Dorothy S. Thomas, created the idea of definition of the situation: If people define situations as real, then those defini- tions are real in their consequences. This means that what really matters is the way people mentally define a situation rather than what that situation is in reality. The definition, not the reality, leads people to do certain things and not others. To illus- trate with the baseball example, suppose that you are playing shortstop and you define the situation as being two out when there is really only one out. The batter hits a pop fly to you and you catch it, believing in your mind that there are three outs. As a result, you jog off the field as if the inning were over. Your definition has had real consequences: You’ve left the field. Other real consequences may follow: Opposition runners on the bases may run around and score unmolested, your team- mates may scream at you, and your manager may bench you. In many areas of our lives, how we define a situation often matters more than the reality.

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only when the child moves beyond taking the role of individual significant others and takes the role of the generalized other. It is also important for peo- ple to be able to evaluate themselves and what they are doing from the point of view of the group as a whole and not just from that of discrete individuals. The generalized other also makes possible abstract thinking and objectivity. In terms of the latter, a person develops a more objective perspective when she relies on the generalized other rather than individual others. In sum, to have a self, a person must be a member of a community and be directed by the atti- tudes common to the community.

Contemporary Applications Have We Become Obsessed with the Self?

George Herbert Mead offered great insight into the nature of the self, but he might have been surprised to see the degree to which the self has been transformed, and come to be the center of attention, even an obsession, in the contemporary world. We live today in a world in which we are increasingly likely to reflect on a greater number of things. The Internet and globalization, among other things, have put us in touch with many more things and we are increasingly able (because of such devel- opments) to reflect on them. Indeed, we need to reflect on them because so many of them (e.g., global economic changes or health threats) are likely to have a profound effect on us. And among the things that we reflect on more these days is ourselves (Mead was very interested in the relationship between the self and reflexivity).

While self-reflection occurred in the past, people were less able and likely to do so than people (at least in developed countries) are today. For one thing, people were often too busy trying to survive and provide for their daily needs to engage in all that much self-reflection. Furthermore, they lived in a culture that stressed material accomplishments and de-emphasized self-reflection and self-absorption, viewing them as excessive and not furthering the material needs of people and the larger society. However, as Anthony Giddens, a contemporary theorist, who we will discuss at several points later in this book, points out, today the self has become a project, perhaps even the project, for many people. For one thing, the self no longer simply emerges; it is something that we actively create. Who we are, who we think we are, are not given characteristics, or even set in childhood, but are things that we consciously and actively create throughout the course of our lives. Thus, the self is not created once and for all, but continually molded, altered, and even changed dramatically over time, and even from one time to another.

Thus, the self becomes something that we all need to watch over, monitor, and alter as needed. This makes us in many ways more flexible and adaptable. However, in many ways it is also a fearsome and difficult process. That is, a century or two ago people did not worry much about the self, but today it has become a constant source of a concern. We have become preoccupied with the self and adapting it to the changing society, our changing position in that society, and even from one situ- ation to the next. This is not an easy task and it is one that is fraught with difficulties and tensions. There are many advantages to being in tune with the self, but there are also many costs.

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All of this, especially the generalized other, might lead one to believe that Mead’s actors are conformists who lack individuality. However, Mead makes it clear that each self is unique; each develops within the context of specific biographical experiences. Furthermore, there is not one generalized other, but many generalized others because there are many groups within society. Because people belong to many different groups and have many generalized others, there are a multitude of selves. Furthermore, people need not accept the community and the generalized other as they are; they can work to change them. At times they succeed, altering the community, the generalized other, and, ultimately, the selves within that community.

I and Me

The fact that there is both conformity and individuality in the self is manifest in Mead’s distinction between two phases of the self—the I and the me. Although these phases sound like things or structures of the self, in reality they are viewed by Mead as processes that are part of the larger process that is the self.

The I is the immediate response of the self to others. It is the incalculable, unpredictable, and creative aspect of the self. People do not know in advance what the I will do. Thus, in the case of a baseball game, a player does not know in advance what will happen—a brilliant play or an error. We are never totally aware of the I, with the result that we sometimes surprise ourselves with our actions. Mead stresses the importance of the I for four reasons. First, it is the key source of novelty in the social world. Second, it is in the I that our most important values lie. Third, the I constitutes the realization of the self and we all seek to realize the self. Because of the I we each develop a unique personal- ity. Finally, Mead views a long-term evolutionary process (and here the great sociologist offers a grand theory) from primitive societies where people are dominated by me to contemporary society where the I plays a much more sig- nificant role.

The I reacts against the me within the self. The me is basically the individ- ual’s adoption and perception of the generalized other. Unlike the I, people are very cognizant of the me; they are very conscious of what the community wants them to do. All of us have substantial me, but those who are conformists are dominated by the me. Through the me society controls us. The me allows people to function comfortably in the social world while the I makes it possible for society to change. Society gets enough conformity to allow it to function, and it gets a steady infusion of innovations that prevent it from growing stagnant. Both individuals and society function better because of the mix of I and me.

I The immediate response of the self to others; the incalculable, unpredictable, and creative aspect of the self.

me The individual’s adoption and perception of the generalized other; the conformist aspect of the self.

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963) was an African-American soci- ologist and political activist. The central focus of Du Bois’s theoretical work is race (in particular the situation of black Americans) and what he calls the color line. In America, the color line is the division of black society and white society into two different and unequal worlds. At the beginning of his most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois says that the problem of the 20th century is race. That is, in contrast to Marxist and feminist theories that place variables such as class and gender at the center of analysis, Du Bois argues that race is the most important variable for understanding the course of 20th century America and, as detailed in his later writings, global civilization. In this Du Bois offers a unique approach to social theory that can also be viewed as a forerunner to contemporary critical theories of race and racism.


At the beginning of his career Du Bois’s conceptualization of race can be character- ized as racialist. Racialism is an approach to race widespread in the 19th century which held that there are distinct races with unique defining features. Unlike racism, racialism does not necessarily assume that some races are superior to oth- ers. Like many racialist theorists, Du Bois argued that some racial differences are physical, but more importantly racial differences are found in cultural, spiritual, psychic, and intellectual forms. These differences are not a product of biology but rather a product of a particular group of people’s socio-historical development.

Du Bois argues that each race has a distinct contribution to make to human civilization. For example, while white Europeans have developed a talent for commerce, African Americans offer talents in the cultural forms of music, fairy tales, and humor. In fact, Du Bois argued that black music is the only truly origi- nal American music. Because each race contributes uniquely to civilization, Du Bois argued against the absorption or integration of African Americans into American society. Instead he advocated race pride and insisted on the educa- tion and cultural development of African Americans. All of this is not to say that people from different racial backgrounds cannot develop the intellectual and cultural styles of different groups, as Du Bois himself had done when he successfully studied at American and European universities. Rather, Du Bois insisted that as America and the world develop it is important to keep in view the unique value of different cultural traditions.

color line The division of black society and white society into two different and unequal worlds.

racialism An approach to race widespread in the 19th century which held that there are distinct races with unique defining features. Unlike racism, racialism does not necessarily assume that some races are superior to others.

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While Du Bois never fully abandoned his racialism, as his career developed he adopted a more heavily economic point of view. Later in life, Du Bois wrote that one of the most important factors shaping African-American identity is the shared history of slavery. Slavery, imposed for economic reasons, was the grounds around which African Americans came to define their unique race

Key Concept Critical Theories of Race and Racism

Du Bois’s work is one of the earliest in a theoretical tradition more recently called critical theories of race and racism. These theories emerge out of the recognition that, despite its political gains, the civil rights movement of the 1960s had not defeated racism. Indeed, like Du Bois, critical theories of race and racism argue that racism is not simply a matter of individual prejudice or a lack of education and experience. Rather, racism is built into and reproduced through the very institu- tions that organize social life. One of the most prominent critical theories of race and racism is critical race theory. Critical race theory grows out of the field of law. In the first instance critical race theory analyzes the way that racism is perpetu- ated in the law and the interpretation of the law. However, critical race theory also holds a number of assumptions that move it beyond the field of law and make it relevant for sociology and other social sciences. For one, it assumes that race is a social construction. This means that race is not an inherent feature of persons tied to biology, but rather it is a historically bounded concept used to organize and clas- sify people. In this spirit, in place of the concept of race, critical race theory uses the concept of racialization. People don’t have a race, they are racialized. Where race refers to a fixed identity, racialization refers to the social processes through which the concept of race is created and attached to particular groups of people. With the concept of racialization in hand race theorists can then study the ways that people are racialized in different times and places. Consistent with this, critical race theory assumes that identity is not fixed or unidimensional. Further, while critical race the- ory recognizes the constructed character of race it also emphasizes the importance of the perspectives and experiences of racial minorities. The points of view offered by those excluded from the mainstream offer an important and unique perspective on the world. It is on the basis of these different experiences that critical theories of race and racism are developed. Finally, if it is not already clear from what has been said, critical theories of race and racism are not content merely to describe the social world. These kinds of theories are also oriented toward issues of social justice, and in particular the elimination of racial oppression.

critical race theory Currently, one of the most prominent theories of race and racism. It grows out of the field of law and studies the way that racism is built into and repro- duced through the institutions that organize everyday life, particularly the law.

racialization The social processes through which the concept of race is created and attached to particular groups of people.

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identity. As an extension of this, Du Bois argued that African Americans have a connection to people of color from around the world. Whether in the form of slavery or capitalist exploitation, European and American colonialism created a situation in which white nations exercised economic control over persons of color worldwide. Eventually, Du Bois predicted, unless white nations treat peo- ple of color as humans of equal status they will be faced with a global challenge to their power.

The Veil and Double-Consciousness

One of Du Bois’s most famous concepts is that of the veil. By this idea, he means that in America there is a clear separation, a barrier, between blacks and whites. The imagery is not one of a wall, but rather of a thin, porous material through which each race can see the other. However, no matter how thin and porous the veil, no matter how easy it is to see through, it still clearly separates the races. From this perspective the goal of Du Bois’s autobiographical book

the veil A metaphor that describes the separation between blacks and whites. The imagery is not one of a wall, but rather of thin, porous material through which each race can see the other.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) A Biographical Vignette

Unlike other black leaders (such as Booker T. Washington) and intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, W. E. B. Du Bois was born free in the North. He attended Harvard University and obtained a doctorate from that university (he also studied at the University of Berlin). He is best known in sociology for his impor- tant contribution to urban ethnography, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and to racial economic history in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1935). However, Du Bois was also a polemicist and politician (traits that were also manifest in his more scholarly books), and these traits are powerfully reflected in The Souls of Black Folks (1903). In addition to his publications, Du Bois’s accomplishments during the 20th century included being the major force opposing Booker T. Washington and his concessions to white power and being a founder of the NAACP (1909) and its prin- cipal spokesman during the second decade of the century. He also was leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and he received worldwide recognition as a leader of the Pan-African movement. In the 1950s he defied the U.S. government’s McCarthy-like persecution of anyone thought to be a communist, and in the 1960s he settled in Ghana, where he set about to create an Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois died in 1963 on the eve of the March on Washington and the ascendancy of Martin Luther King as leader of the black movement. His passionate concern for the dire implications of the “color line,” especially among black Americans, continues to influence scholars, politicians, activists, and many others.

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The Souls of Black Folk is to lift the veil so that white Americans could see behind the veil and understand the world from the perspective of black Americans. Although the veil is usually seen as capable of being seen through and of being lifted, there are times when Du Bois sees it as more opaque and impossible to lift. The veil, then, is discussed in many ways:

• as something that shuts blacks out from the rest of the world and within which they live

• as something that blacks are born with • as something that falls between blacks and whites • as something that affects the ways black and white people see each other • as something that hangs between blacks and opportunity • as something that negatively affects both black and whites • and, at least early in his career, as something that he hopes might someday

be lifted

Closely related to the concept of the veil is one of Du Bois’s best known and most influential ideas: double-consciousness. While the veil describes the socio-structural fact of the division between blacks and whites in America, double-consciousness describes the social psychological consequences of the veil. African Americans were both outsiders and insiders, or more specifically, outsiders within. That is, they were (and to some degree still are) both inside and outside of the dominant white society. They both saw themselves from the perspective of their own community and the perspective of the white commu- nity. Double-consciousness, then, refers to the feeling that a black person has of being split in two, of having two forms of self-consciousness. On the one hand, this position gives blacks unique and enhanced insight into society as a whole. On the other hand, this split produces enormous confusion and tension. Strug- gling to reconcile these two, often opposed aspects of their being, black people suffered socially and psychologically.

Economics and Marxism

Despite Du Bois’s attention to cultural, political, and social psychological aspects of race he also relied upon economic explanations of racial inequality. His later work, in particular, adapted a form of economic analysis inspired by the writings of Karl Marx.

Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 is Du Bois’s most involved appli- cation of Marxian theory. Black Reconstruction is a revisionist history of the twenty-year period following the American Civil War during which efforts were made to integrate former slaves into the American economy. Du Bois argues that the Civil War was caused by slavery, and the failure of Reconstruction was

double-consciousness The feeling that a black person has of being split in two, of hav- ing two forms of self-consciousness.

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Classical Theories II 69

due to economic and political factors. For one, in pre-Civil War America, the slave was an important source of surplus value. The war was fought over access to that source of wealth. Second, explaining the failure of Reconstruction, Du Bois pointed out that both black and white workers were exploited by own- ing classes. While together they could have offered a formidable challenge to structures of economic inequality, racial ideology divided the working classes. In particular white supremacist views made it impossible for whites to see for- mer slaves as social equals. As such, the owning classes were able to play white against black and drive wages down so as to increase profit. Thus, the emerging capitalist class had an interest in seeing Reconstruction fail and supported poli- cies that ensured continued race division.

In addition, Du Bois relied upon arguments similar to those found in the Marxian concept of ideology. In America white control of culture had led to widespread misrepresentation of African Americans. This included racist imagery of blacks in newspapers and literature, the absence of slave history from American history, and in particular the misrepresentation of the role that African Americans played in the Civil War. The story of the Civil War and Reconstruction was written largely by what Du Bois calls white supremacists. These were historians who unquestioningly took the view that black people are lazy, backward, and uncivilized. From this racist perspective the failure of Reconstruction was attributed to innate features of black people rather than the cultural, political, and economic factors described by Du Bois. Here ideology perpetuated racist stereotypes and supported capitalist economic domination.


1. Georg Simmel was interested in association, or interaction. 2. In order to deal with the bewildering array of interactions, sociologists and lay-

people develop forms of interaction. 3. Simmel argued that humans engage the world through conscious processes. On the

one hand, this gives people the freedom to interpret and react to the world in unique ways. On the other hand, the products of consciousness easily become reified and end up constraining action.

4. In terms of the issue of size, there is a great difference between dyads (two-person groups) and triads (three-person groups). The existence of a third person in a triad makes possible the emergence of an independent group structure. No further addi- tions in group size are as important as the addition of one person to a dyad.

5. The larger the group structure, the freer the individual. 6. Simmel was interested in the issue of distance. This interest was manifested in his

discussion of a social type, the stranger, who is neither too close to nor too far from the group. Distance is related to a social form, strangeness, which means that a peculiar form of strangeness and distance enters all social relationships.

7. Distance is also related to Simmel’s thinking on value. Those things that are valu- able are neither too close nor too far.

8. Simmel’s grand theory is concerned with the tragedy of culture. 9. The tragedy of culture involves the growth of objective culture and its increasing

predominance over subjective culture.

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10. Veblen’s grand theory deals with the increasing control of business over industry and the negative effects of the former on the latter.

11. Mead was a social behaviorist interested not only in stimulus-response behavior, but in the human mind that intervenes between stimulus and response; people think before they act.

12. The four stages in the act are impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation. 13. Although people and lower animals use gestures and engage in conversations of

gestures, only people use significant gestures, significant symbols, and language. 14. The generalized other is the attitude of the entire community. 15. The self has two phases that are in constant tension: I (the immediate, unpredict-

able, creative aspect) and the me (the adoption of the generalized other leading to conformism).

16. While Du Bois saw race, in part, as a biological phenomenon, he argued that the important features of racial difference are cultural and intellectual.

17. Du Bois also argued that economic and political oppression are important factors in shaping racial identity.

18. The veil is a term used to describe the division between black and white society in America.

19. Double-consciousness is a term used to describe the feeling of being split in two that, at least during Du Bois’s time, pervaded the lives of many African Americans.

20. Later in his career, Du Bois drew on Marxist ideas to describe the history of Ameri- can slavery, as well as the negative ways that African Americans are represented in mainstream culture.

Suggested Readings

D avid F risby and M ike F eatherstone, eds. Simmel on Culture. London: Sage, 1997. A collection of Simmel’s writings that is notable for its inclusion of Simmel’s less well- known, but important, work on space.

D avid F risby Georg Simmel. Chichester, England: Ellis Horwood, 1984. Nice, concise overview of Simmel’s life and work.

D onald L evine, ed. Georg Simmel: Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Excellent collection of Simmel’s most important essays and excerpts from other works.

L arry S caff “Georg Simmel.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley- Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 205–235. Insightful essay concentrating on Simmel’s work as well as the historical and intellectual con- text in which it was embedded.

J ohn P atrick D iggins Thorstein Veblen: Theorist of the Leisure Class. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Excellent biography of Veblen with a heavy emphasis on his writings.

Ken McCormick “Thorstein Veblen.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 185–204. Accessible essay that places the writings of this unique man in the context of his biography and society.

L ouis P atsouras Thorstein Veblen and the American Way of Life. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2004. Recent examination of Veblen that looks not only at his sociology and economics, but also emphasizes his politics.

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Classical Theories II 71

G ary C ook George Herbert Mead: The Makings of a Social Pragmatist. Urbana: Univer- sity of Illinois Press, 1993. Treatment of Mead’s life and work within the context of the philosophical school of thought, pragmatism, with which he is most often associated.

J. D avid L ewis and R ichard L. S mith American Sociology and Pragmatism: Mead, Chi- cago School, and Symbolic Interactionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Controversial study of Mead’s work as it relates not only to pragmatism, but also the Chicago School of sociology and symbolic interactionism.

D mitri S halin “George Herbert Mead.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 373–425. Rich analysis of Mead and his work.

Paul C. Taylor “William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume  1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 448–468. Strong portrait of Du Bois that provides a unique framework for understanding the phases of his intellectual development.

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C H A P T E R 4

Contemporary Grand Theories I

Structural Functionalism Conflict Theory General System Theory Summary Suggested Readings

I n this chapter and the next we turn to several contemporary theories that, like the classical theories covered in the preceding two chapters (with the pos- sible exception of Mead’s theory), qualify as grand theories. In this chapter we deal with three closely related examples of such theories—structural functionalism, conflict theory, and general system theory. Conflict theory emerged as a reaction to the once-dominant (at least in the United States) structural functional theory, and systems theory is closely associated with structural functionalism. In fact, the term “system” is often used in structural functional theory. However, the latter are now quite distinct theories as we will see in the discussion of the work of the most important contemporary system theorist, Niklas Luhmann.


As the name suggests, structural functionalism focuses on the structures of society and their functional significance (positive or negative consequences) for other structures. In structural functionalism, the terms structural and func- tional need not be used together, although they are typically linked. We could study the structures of society, patterned social interaction and persistent social

structural functionalism A sociological theory that focuses on the structures of soci- ety and their functional significance (positive or negative consequences) for other structures.

structures In society, patterned social interaction and persistent social relationships.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 73

relationships, without being concerned with their functions (consequences that can be observed and that help a particular system adapt or adjust) for other structures. Similarly, we could examine the functions of a variety of social processes (e.g., crowd behavior) that may not be structured. Still, the concern for both elements—structures and functions—characterizes structural functionalism. Although structural functionalism takes various forms, societal functionalism is the dominant approach among sociological structural func- tionalists and as such will be the focus of this section. The primary concern of societal functionalism is the large-scale social structures and institutions of society, their interrelationships, and their constraining effects on actors.

A structural functionalist (especially one associated with the societal ver- sion of the theory) is concerned with the relationship among the large-scale structures of society—say, the educational system and the economic system. The focus is on the functions that each provides for the other. For example, the educational system provides the trained personnel needed to fill occupational positions within the economy. The economy, in turn, provides such positions for those people who complete the educational process. This allows the edu- cational system and its students to have an objective in mind at the end of the educational process. Although this offers an image of a positive and close-fitting relationship between social structures, it need not necessarily be that way. In the radical days of the anti–Vietnam war and student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the educational system was producing large numbers of radi- cal students who did not fit well into the occupational world then being offered to them. Although such a tension between structures often exists, structural functionalists tend to focus on the more positive, more functional relationships between structures. The following section deals with one of the most famous works in the history of structural functionalism, one that offers an intriguing and highly controversial portrait of society.

The Functional Theory of Stratification and Its Critics

The functional theory of social stratification, as articulated by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore in 1945, makes it clear that stratification is regarded as both universal and necessary. They argue that no society is ever unstratified, or totally classless. Stratification is, in their view, a functional necessity. All societies need such a system and this need brings into existence a system of stratification. Davis and Moore also view a stratification system as a societal- level structure, pointing out that stratification refers not to the individuals in the

functions Consequences that can be observed and that help a particular system adapt or adjust.

societal functionalism A variety of structural functionalism that focuses on the large- scale social structures and institutions of society, their interrelationships, and their constraining effects on actors.

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stratification system but rather to a system of positions (e.g., occupations like laborer and manager). They focus on the fact that positions within that structure carry with them varying degrees of prestige and not on how individuals come to occupy these positions; that is, the focus is on the structure of social stratifica- tion, as well as the functions it performs.

The Theory The major issue in the Davis and Moore theory is how a society motivates and places people in their proper positions in the stratifi cation sys- tem. This presents two problems: First, how does a society instill in the proper individuals the desire to fi ll certain positions? Second, once people are in the right positions, how does society then instill in them the desire to fulfi ll the requirements of those positions?

Proper social placement in society is a problem for three reasons. First, some positions are more pleasant to occupy than others. There is little problem getting people to occupy pleasant positions, but unpleasant ones are a differ- ent matter. In addition, some positions are more important to the survival of society than others. Although it is important to have all positions occupied, it is especially important, even necessary, that the most important ones be filled. Finally, different social positions require different abilities and talents. The problem is to find a way to be sure that the right people find their way into the right positions—that there is a satisfactory fit between individual skills and abilities and positional requirements.

Davis and Moore were concerned with the functionally most important positions in society’s stratification system. The positions that rank high within the stratification system are presumed to be those that are less pleasant to occupy but more important to the survival of society and those that require the greatest ability and talent. Society must attach sufficient rewards to these posi- tions so that an adequate number of people will seek to occupy them and the individuals who do come to occupy them will work diligently. The converse was implied by Davis and Moore but not discussed: Low-ranking positions in the stratification system are presumed to be more pleasant (an odd view—the position of the laborer more pleasant than that of the manager?) and less impor- tant and to require less ability and talent. Also, society has less need to be sure that individuals occupy these positions and perform their duties with diligence.

Thus, social stratification is a structure involving a hierarchy of positions that has the function of leading those people with the needed skills and abilities to do what is necessary to move into the high-ranking positions that are most important to society’s functioning and survival. Davis and Moore do not argue that a society consciously develops such a stratification system in order to be sure that the high-level positions are filled, and filled adequately. Rather, they

social stratification To the structural functionalist, a structure involving a hierarchy of positions that has the function of leading those people with the needed skills and abilities to do what is necessary to move into the high-ranking positions that are most important to society’s functioning and survival.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 75

make it clear that stratification is a mechanism that evolves in an unplanned way. However, it is a device that every society does, and must, develop if it is to survive.

In order to be sure that people occupy the higher-ranking positions, society must, in Davis and Moore’s view, provide these individuals with various rewards, including great prestige, high salary, and sufficient leisure. For example, to ensure that our society has enough doctors, we need to offer them these, and many other, rewards. Davis and Moore imply that we could not expect people to undertake the burdensome and expensive process of medical education if we did not offer such rewards. The implication seems to be that people who occupy positions at the top must receive the rewards that they do. If they did not, those positions would remain understaffed or unfilled and society would suffer, if not collapse.

Criticisms The structural-functional theory of stratifi cation has been subject to much criticism. One basic criticism is that the functional theory of stratifi ca- tion simply perpetuates the privileged position of those people who already have power, prestige, and money. It does this by arguing that such people de- serve their rewards; indeed, they need to be offered such rewards for the good of society.

The functional theory also can be criticized for assuming that simply be- cause a stratified social structure has existed in the past and continues to exist in the present, it must continue to exist in the future. It is possible that future societies will be organized in other nonstratified ways. Structures other than stratification could be created that would perform the same kinds of functions without having the deleterious effects (e.g., great inequality) associated with stratified systems.

In addition, it has been argued that the idea of functional positions vary- ing in their importance to society is difficult to support. Are garbage collectors really any less important to the survival of society than advertising executives? Despite the lower pay and lower prestige of the garbage collectors, they actu- ally may be more important to the survival of the society. Even in cases in which it could be said that one position serves a more important function for soci- ety, the greater rewards do not necessarily accrue to the more important posi- tion. Nurses may be much more important to society than are movie stars, but nurses have far less power, prestige, and income than movie stars have.

Is there really a scarcity of people capable of filling high-level positions? In fact, many people are prevented from obtaining the training they need to achieve prestigious positions, even though they have the ability. In the medi- cal profession, for example, there is a persistent effort to limit the number of practicing doctors. In general, many able people never get a chance to show that they can handle high-ranking positions, even though there is a clear need for them and their contributions. Those in high-ranking positions have a vested interest in keeping their own numbers small and their power and income high.

Finally, it can be argued that we do not have to offer people power, prestige, and income to get them to want to occupy high-level positions. People can be

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equally motivated by the satisfaction of doing a job well or by the opportunity to be of service to others.

Thus, the structural functionalists have offered a portrait of the structure and operation of society’s system of social stratification. However, it is a highly conservative and controversial portrait. There are other ways to organize soci- ety in order to motivate people to handle important social functions. In other words, it is possible to draw other kinds of portraits of social stratification, in particular, and more generally of social organization.

Talcott Parsons’s Structural Functionalism

Over the course of his life, the most famous structural functionalist, Talcott Parsons, did a great deal of theoretical work. This section deals with his later structural-functional theorizing. Parsons’s structural functionalism consists of the four functional imperatives for all action systems, his famous AGIL scheme. This section discusses the four functions and analyzes Parsons’s ideas on struc- tures and systems.

AGIL In examining functions, Parsons focused on sets of activities aimed at meeting a need or the multiple needs of a system. He argued that four functions are imperatives: that is, they are necessary for (characteristic of) all systems. If they are to survive, all systems must engage in four sets of activities aimed at meeting their needs. These activities are adaptation (A), goal attainment (G), integration (I), and latency, or pattern maintenance (L). Together, these four functional imperatives are known as the AGIL scheme.

In terms of adaptation, a system must adjust to its environment and adjust the environment to its needs. More specifically, a system must cope with exter- nal situational dangers and contingencies. A system cannot remain long at odds with its environment. If it did, it would be in grave danger of perishing because of the lack of fit. For example, if a tribe of agriculturalists found themselves in an environment in which the soil was not conducive to raising fruits and vegetables, the tribe would not be able to survive unless its members adapted to the new environment by, for example, becoming hunters and fishers rather than agriculturalists. A contemporary example is the United States, which has finally come to realize that people cannot continue to drive large gas-guzzling SUVs in a world in which there is a finite supply of oil needed for gasoline. Eventually, the United States is going to have to begin to develop alternative ways of transporting its population, thereby adapting to the external reality that fossil fuel is a limited resource.

The system can also seek to adapt its environment to its needs. The tribe discussed in the example could engage in various actions that serve to invigorate

adaptation One of Parsons’s four functional imperatives. A system must adjust to its environment and adjust the environment to its needs. More specifically, a system must cope with external situational dangers and contingencies.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 77

the soil and make it more conducive to the raising of crops. In the case of the United States’s dependence on limited foreign oil, it could aid other countries in finding additional stocks of oil or even help them develop alternatives to fossil fuel.

Third, and more specific, are the external dangers and contingencies to which systems must adapt. For example, during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan moved toward an antiballistic missile system designed to destroy incoming Soviet missiles before they could explode on American soil. Although such a system was never built, its mere possibility served to heighten the stakes and the costs involved in the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s inability to keep up was undoubtedly one of the factors (other factors included a large number of internal problems and crises such as the inability of the com- mand economy to produce and distribute needed products) that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. This effort to adapt to the Soviet threat helped lead to the end of that threat; it proved to be a particularly successful adaptation.

Goal attainment involves the need for a system to define and achieve its primary goals. The ultimate goal of any system is that it not only survive into the future, but that it also grow and expand. Specific social systems share this general objective, but also have a series of more specific goals. For example, the university is a system with two other basic objectives—educate its students and allow its professors to do the basic research needed to continue to enhance knowledge. Interestingly, the university, like all other systems, cannot sim- ply define its goals once and for all and then forget about the issue. Situations change and arrangements that once allowed for goal attainment may become ineffective. Within the university, for example, the goals of educating students and doing basic research often come into conflict. If education is emphasized too much, professors are unable to devote enough time and energy to research. Similarly, if professors spend too much time doing research, the education of students suffers. Thus, the university must continually examine these two objectives and their relationships to one another in order to be able to achieve both of them to an adequate degree.

Through integration a system seeks to regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. Thus, if the tribe in our example succeeds in creating a viable agricultural system, it must then seek to integrate agriculture with hunting. It needs to be sure that enough time, energy, personnel, and resources are allo- cated to each. Similarly, within the university, administrators must be sure that research and teaching do not become totally isolated from one another. Thus, it

goal attainment The second of Parsons’s functional imperatives involving the need for a system to define and achieve its primary goals.

integration The third of Parsons’s functional imperatives, this one requiring that a system seek to regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. Integration also involves the management of the relationship among the other three functional imperatives (AGL).

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is important that the research results obtained by professors be integrated into their classes and that students be used, where possible, in research projects. Such interrelationships help avoid the conflict between teaching and research; they make the two more integrated. Integration also involves the management of the relationship among the other three functional imperatives (AGL).

Parsons calls the fourth functional imperative latency, or pattern mainte- nance. Latency refers to the need for a system to furnish, maintain, and renew the motivation of individuals. Pattern maintenance refers more to the need to furnish, maintain, and renew the cultural patterns that create and sustain indi- vidual motivation.

Latency is embedded in the functional theory of stratification discussed pre- viously; the whole structure of the system, with greater rewards to those who occupy higher-level positions within it, is designed to motivate individuals to strive to move up the stratification system and occupy the higher-level positions. This motivation must not only be created and maintained by the system, but also renewed from time to time in order to keep the system working and people striv- ing. For example, we periodically read or hear great success stories in the media about individuals who have, through great effort or a burst of genius, vaulted quickly to the top of the system. Such stories are particularly abundant these days with the boom in the computer and the Internet and the large numbers of people whose success in it has led to a meteoric rise to the top. The best example is Bill Gates, who as a young man, and in a few years, became the richest person in the United States. Telling Gates’s story, as well as those of many other com- puter and Internet billionaires, serves to reinforce the motivation of large num- bers of people to strive to reach the pinnacle of the stratification system.

Pattern maintenance is concerned with much the same thing, but at the macro- rather than the micro-level. In order to maintain the stratification system and keep people involved in striving to the top of that system, norms and values that support such a system and such striving must be put in place and sustained. Success, especially economic success, is strongly valued in the United States, and such a value system does help to sustain the stratification system and those who seek to move up in it. However, norms and values are not static and must change in order to reflect new social realities. The norm used to be that years of striving led to a high-level position within the stratification system. But, with the coming of the so-called new economy (computers, the Internet, biotechnology), the new norm, at least in that realm of the economy, is that success should come quickly and early in one’s career: the young have the mind-set and capabilities to succeed in the new economy. Such a new norm serves to sustain the new ways of reaching the top of the stratification system.

latency One aspect of Parsons’s fourth functional imperative involving the need for a system to furnish, maintain, and renew the motivation of individuals.

pattern maintenance The second aspect of Parsons’s fourth functional imperative involving the need to furnish, maintain, and renew the cultural patterns that create and sustain individual motivation.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 79

Although the AGIL scheme has been discussed both in general terms and with some specific examples, Parsons designed the AGIL scheme to be used at all levels in his theoretical system. This included his most general and all- inclusive sense of the four action systems: the behavioral organism, the per- sonality system, the social system, and the cultural system. All of these relate to action, but each one is primarily involved in the performance of one of the four functional imperatives. The behavioral organism is the action system that handles the adaptation function by adjusting to and transforming the external world. The personality system performs the goal-attainment function by defin- ing system goals and mobilizing resources to attain them. The social system copes with the integration function by controlling its component parts. Finally, the cultural system performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and values that motivate them for action. Figure 4.1 summarizes the structure of the action system in terms of the AGIL schema.

Thus, we have already encountered two of Parsons’s structural-functional portraits—the four functional imperatives and the four action systems (as well as the main function of each). Another portrait is to be found in the overall shape of Parsons’s action system. Figure 4.2 gives an outline of the major levels in Parsons’s schema.

The Action System Parsons obviously had a clear notion of levels of social analysis as well as their interrelationship. The hierarchical arrangement of the

Cultural System

Social System

Behavioral Organism

Personality System





FIGURE 4.1. Structure of the General Action System

behavioral organism One of Parsons’s action systems, responsible for handling the adaptation function by adjusting to and transforming the external world.

personality system The Parsonsian action system responsible for performing the goal- attainment function by defining system goals and mobilizing resources to attain them.

social system The Parsonsian action system responsible for coping with the integra- tion function by controlling its component parts; a number of human actors who interact with one another in a situation with a physical or environmental context.

cultural system The Parsonsian action system that performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and values that motivate them for action.

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action system is clear, and the levels are integrated in Parsons’s system in two ways: First, each of the lower levels provides the conditions, the energy, needed for the higher levels. Second, the higher levels control those below them in the hierarchy.

In terms of the environments of the action system, the lowest level, the physical and organic environment, involves the nonsymbolic aspects of the human body, its anatomy and physiology. The highest level, ultimate real- ity, has a metaphysical feel, but it is argued that Parsons was not really inter- ested in the supernatural, but rather in the universal tendency for society to deal symbolically with the difficulties of human existence (e.g., uncertainty, tragedy) that represent challenges to a social organization that purports to be meaningful.

As previously discussed, the heart of Parsons’s work is found in his four action systems. In the assumptions that Parsons made regarding his action sys- tems, we encounter the problem of order that was his overwhelming concern and that has become a major source of criticism of his work. The Hobbesian problem of order—what prevents a social war of all against all—was not answered to Parsons’s satisfaction by the earlier thinkers. Parsons found his answer to the problem of order in structural functionalism, which operates in his view with the following set of assumptions:

1. Systems have the property of order and interdependence of parts. 2. Systems tend toward self-maintaining order, or equilibrium. 3. The system may be static or involved in an ordered process of change. 4. The nature of one part of the system has an impact on the form that the

other parts can take. 5. Systems maintain boundaries with their environments. 6. Allocation and integration are two fundamental processes necessary for a

given state of equilibrium of a system. 7. Systems tend toward self-maintenance involving the maintenance of

boundaries and of the relationships of parts to the whole, control of envi- ronmental variations, and control of tendencies to change the system from within.

FIGURE 4.2. Parsons’s Action Schema

High information (controls)

High energy (conditions)

Hierarchy of conditioning


High information (controls)

High energy (conditions)

Hierarchy of controlling


1. Environment of action: ultimate reality

2. Cultural system 3. Social system 4. Personality system 5. Behavioral organism 6. Environment of action:

physical-organic environment

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 81

These assumptions led Parsons to make the analysis of the ordered struc- ture of society his first priority. In so doing, he did little with the issue of social change or the creation of a grand theory, at least until later in his career. His priority was to focus on various combinations of social variables. Only after they are described and studied is it possible to deal with how combinations of such variables change over time.

Parsons was so heavily criticized for his static orientation that he devoted more and more attention to change. However, in the view of most observers, even his work on social change tended to be highly static and structured. Actu- ally, the key elements in Parsons’s portrait of the social world do not exist in the real world but are, rather, analytical tools for thinking about and studying the real world.

Social System Parsons’s conception of the social system begins at the micro- level with interaction between ego and alter ego, defi ned as the most elemen- tary form of the social system. He spent little time analyzing this level, although he did argue that features of this interaction system are present in the more complex forms taken by the social system. Parsons defi ned a social system as a number of human actors who interact with one another in a situation with a physical or environmental context. In such a situation actors are seen as seeking to optimize their gratifi cation. Their relationship to one another, as well as to their social situations, is defi ned and mediated by shared cultural symbols. This defi nition seeks to defi ne a social system in terms of many of the key concepts in Parsons’s work—actors, interaction, environment, optimization of gratifi ca- tion, and culture.

Despite his commitment to viewing the social system as a system of inter- action, Parsons did not take interaction as his fundamental unit in the study of the social system. Rather, he used the status-role complex as the basic unit of the social system. This is neither an aspect of actors nor an aspect of interac- tion, but rather a structural component of the social system. Status refers to a structural position within the social system, and role is what the actor does in such a position, seen in the context of its functional significance for the larger system. The actor is viewed not in terms of thoughts and actions but instead (at least in terms of position in the social system) as nothing more than a bundle of statuses and roles.

In his analysis of the social system, Parsons was interested primarily in its structural components. In addition to a concern with the status-role, Parsons was concerned with such large-scale components of social systems as collectivities,

social system The Parsonsian action system responsible for coping with the integra- tion function by controlling its component parts; a number of human actors who interact with one another in a situation with a physical or environmental context.

status A structural position within the social system. role What an actor does in a status, seen in the context of its functional significance for

the larger system.

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norms, and values. In his analysis of the social system, however, Parsons was not simply a structuralist but also a functionalist. Thus, he delineated a number of the functional prerequisites of a social system (these are more specific than the four functional prerequisites [AGIL] that apply to all action systems):

1. Social systems must be structured so that they operate compatibly with other systems.

2. To survive, social systems must have the requisite support from other systems.

3. The system must meet a significant proportion of the needs of its actors. 4. The system must elicit adequate participation from its members. 5. It must have at least a minimum of control over potentially disruptive

behavior. 6. If conflict becomes sufficiently disruptive, it must be controlled. 7. A social system requires a language in order to survive.

It is clear in Parsons’s discussion of the functional prerequisites of the social system that his focus was large-scale systems and their relationship to one another (societal functionalism). Even when he talked about actors, it was from the point of view of the system. Also, the discussion reflects Parsons’s concern with the maintenance of order within the social system.

However, Parsons did not completely ignore the issue of the relationship between actors and social structures in his discussion of the social system. Given his central concern with the social system, of key importance in this inte- gration are the processes of internalization and socialization; Parsons was inter- ested in the ways that the norms and values of a system are transferred to the actors within the system. In a successful socialization process these norms and values are internalized; they become part of actors’ consciences. As a result, in pursuing their own interests, the actors are, in fact, serving the interests of the system as a whole. During socialization actors acquire value orientations that to a large degree fit the dominant values and the basic structure of roles within the social system.

In general, Parsons assumed that actors are usually passive recipients in the socialization process. Children learn not only how to act but also learn the norms and values, the morality, of society. Socialization is conceptualized as a conservative process in which need-dispositions (drives molded by society) bind children to the social system, and it provides the means by which the need- dispositions can be satisfied. There is little or no room for creativity; the need for gratification ties children to the system as it exists. Parsons sees socialization as a lifelong process. Because the norms and values inculcated in childhood tend to be very general, they do not prepare children for the many specific situations that they encounter in adulthood. Thus, socialization must be supplemented throughout the life cycle with a series of more specific socializing experiences.

need-dispositions To Parsons, drives that are shaped by the social setting.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 83

Despite this need later in life, the norms and values learned in childhood tend to be stable and, with a little gentle reinforcement, tend to remain in force throughout life.

Despite the conformity induced by lifelong socialization, there is a wide range of individual variation in the system. The question is: Why is this nor- mally not a major problem for the social system, given its need for order? For one thing, a number of social control mechanisms can be employed to induce conformity. However, as far as Parsons was concerned, social control is strictly a second line of defense. A system runs best when social control is used only sparingly. In addition, the system must be able to tolerate some variation, some deviance. A flexible social system is stronger than a brittle one that accepts no deviation. Finally, the social system should provide a wide range of role oppor- tunities that allow different personalities to express themselves without threat- ening the integrity of the system.

Socialization and social control are the main mechanisms that allow the social system to maintain its equilibrium. Modest amounts of individuality and deviance are accommodated, but more extreme forms must be met by reequili- brating mechanisms. Thus, social order is built into the structure of Parsons’s social system. No one deliberately planned it, but in our type of social system vicious circles of deviance that might threaten the system are forestalled by such simple and mundane efforts as approving or disapproving of an action, or rewarding some and punishing others.

Again, Parsons’s main interest was the system as a whole rather than the actor in the system—how the system controls the actor, not how the actor cre- ates and maintains the system. This interest reflects Parsons’s commitment on this issue to societal functionalism.

Society Although the idea of a social system encompasses all types of collectiv- ities (e.g., church groups, schools, families), one specifi c and particularly impor- tant social system is society. A society is a relatively self-suffi cient collectivity; the members can live entirely within the framework of society and provide enough to satisfy their needs as individuals and collectivities. As a structural functionalist, Parsons distinguished among four structures, or subsystems, in society in terms of the functions (AGIL) they perform (see Figure 4.3 ).

• The economy is the subsystem that performs the function for society of adapting to the environment. On the one hand, owners, managers, and workers must adapt to their environment. For example, if no oil is avail- able, they might shift to nuclear energy. On the other hand, they must adapt the environment to society’s needs. For example, if certain types of crops are not indigenous to a society, the seeds necessary to grow them

society To Parsons, a relatively self-sufficient collectivity. economy To Parsons, the subsystem of society that performs the function of adapting

to the environment.

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must be imported and cultivated. Through work, the economy adapts the environment to society’s needs, and it helps society adapt to these external realities.

• The polity (or political system) performs the function of goal attainment by pursuing societal objectives and mobilizing actors and resources to that end. Thus, in 1957 the United States was shocked by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the first rocket into space. A few years later President John F. Kennedy declared a dangerous space gap between the United States and the Soviet Union and successfully mobilized people and resources in order to make the United States a leader in space exploration. The goal was achieved when the United States became the first, and still the only, nation to land people on the moon.

• The fiduciary system (e.g., in the schools, the family) handles the pattern maintenance and latency function by transmitting culture (norms and val- ues) to actors and seeing to it that it is internalized by them. Thus, parents and teachers socialize children into internalizing such values as economic success and such norms as getting a good education and working hard in order to achieve such success.

• Finally, the integration function is performed by the societal community (e.g., the law), which coordinates the various components of society. Laws that relate to the economy, the polity, and the fiduciary system serve to make sure that each functions as it should and that they relate well to one another. For example, laws about minimal levels of education required of everyone not only ensure that the educational system has ample students, but they

Fiduciary System

Societal Community

Economy Polity





FIGURE 4.3. Society, Its Subsystems, and the Functional Imperatives

polity To Parsons, the subsystem of society that performs the function of goal at- tainment by pursuing societal objectives and mobilizing actors and resources to that end.

fiduciary system To Parsons, the subsystem of society that handles the pattern main- tenance and latency function by transmitting culture (norms and values) to actors and seeing to it that it is internalized by them.

societal community To Parsons, the subsystem of society that performs the integra- tion function, coordinating the various components of society.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 85

also help to make sure that people will be at least adequate workers and that they will be reasonably knowledgeable participants in political issues and debates.

As important as the structures of the social system were to Parsons, the cul- tural system was more important. In fact, the cultural system stood at the top of Parsons’s action system, and Parsons labeled himself a cultural determinist.

Cultural System Parsons conceived of culture as the major force binding the various elements of the social world, or, in his terms, the action system. Culture mediates interaction among actors in the social system and integrates the per- sonality and the social systems. Culture has the peculiar capacity to become, at least in part, a component of the other systems. Thus, in the social system, culture is embodied in norms and values, and in the personality system it is internalized by the actor. But the cultural system is not simply a part of other systems; it also has a separate existence in the form of the social stock of knowl- edge, symbols, and ideas. These aspects of the cultural system are available to the social and personality systems, but they do not become part of them.

Parsons defined the cultural system, as he did his other systems, in terms of its relationship to the other action systems. Thus, culture is seen as a patterned, ordered system of symbols that are objects of orientation to actors, internalized aspects of the personality system, and institutionalized patterns in the social system. Because it is largely symbolic and subjective, culture is readily trans- mitted from one system to another. Culture can move from one social system to another through diffusion and from one personality system to another through learning and socialization. However, the symbolic (subjective) character of cul- ture also gives it another characteristic, the ability to control Parsons’s other action systems. This is one of the reasons that Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist.

Personality System The personality system is controlled not only by the cul- tural system but also by the social system. That is not to say that Parsons did not accord some independence to the personality system. It has its own unique characteristics because of the uniqueness of peoples’ life experiences. Although it is weak, the personality system is not insignifi cant in Parsonsian theory, although it is certainly reduced to secondary or dependent status in it.

Personality is defined as the individual actor’s organized system of orienta- tion to, and motivation for, action. The basic component of the personality, the most significant aspect of motivation, is the need-disposition. Need-dispositions should be differentiated from drives, which are innate tendencies. Because of the physiological energy associated with them, drives make action possible. In other words, drives are better seen as part of the biological organism. Need- dispositions are defined as the same tendencies, but those that are acquired

personality To Parsons, the individual actor’s organized system of orientation to, and motivation for, action.

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socially rather than being innate. In other words, need-dispositions are drives that are shaped by the social setting.

Need-dispositions impel actors to accept or reject objects presented in the environment or to seek out new objects if the available ones do not adequately satisfy their need-dispositions. Parsons differentiated among three basic types of need-dispositions. The first type impels actors to seek love, approval, and so forth, from their social relationships. The second type includes internalized val- ues that lead actors to observe various cultural standards. Finally, role expecta- tions lead actors to give and get appropriate responses.

This view yields a very passive image of actors. They seem to be either impelled by drives, dominated by the culture, or, more usually, shaped by a combination of drives and culture (i.e., by need-dispositions). A passive per- sonality system is clearly a weak link in an integrated theory, and Parsons seemed to be aware of it. On various occasions, he tried to endow the personal- ity with some power and creativity. For example, people are capable of modify- ing culture in creative ways as they internalize culture. Despite views such as these, the dominant impression that emerges from Parsons’s work is one of a passive personality system.

Parsons’s emphasis on need-dispositions creates other problems. Because it leaves out so many other important aspects of personality, this system is impoverished. It can be argued that even when Parsons analyzed the personal- ity system, he was not really focally interested in it. This is reflected in the vari- ous ways that Parsons linked the personality to the social system. First, actors must learn to see themselves in a way that fits with the positions they occupy in society. Second, expectations are attached to each of the roles occupied by individual actors, and actors must fulfill those expectations, at least to a high degree. Actors must also learn self-discipline, internalize value orientations, and so forth. All these forces point toward the integration of the personality system with the social system, which Parsons emphasized. He also pointed out the possibility of the malintegration of the two, which represents a problem for the system that needs to be overcome.

Another aspect of Parsons’s work—his interest in internalization as the personality system’s side of the socialization process—also reflects the passiv- ity of the personality system. In emphasizing internalization and the superego, Parsons once again manifested his conception of the personality system as pas- sive and externally controlled.

Although Parsons was willing to talk about the subjective aspects of per- sonality in his early work, he progressively abandoned that perspective. In so doing, he limited his possible insights into the personality system. Parsons made it clear that he was shifting his attention away from the internal mean- ings that the actions of people may have.

Behavioral Organism Though he included the behavioral organism as one of the four action systems, Parsons had very little to say about it. It is included because it is the source of energy for the other systems. Although it is based on

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 87

genetic constitution, its organization is affected by the processes of conditioning and learning that occur during the individual’s life. The behavioral organism is clearly a residual system in Parsons’s work, but at the minimum Parsons is to be lauded for including it as a part of his sociology, if for no other reason than that he anticipated the interest in sociobiology and the sociology of the body by some sociologists.

Thus, from his structural-functional perspective, Talcott Parsons offers several useful portraits of the social world, especially his AGIL scheme of functional prerequisites and the four action systems. We turn now to the work of Parsons’s leading student, Robert Merton (1910–2003), who is best known for his outline of structural functional theory. His theory stands in contrast to that of Parsons, who offered structural-functional portraits of the social world. Merton felt that in order to do more adequate structural-functional analyses of that world, what was needed was a clearer and better sense of the nature of structural functionalism. Merton criticized some of the more extreme and indefensible aspects of structural functionalism. But equally

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) A Biographical Vignette

Robert Merton was one of Parsons’s students when Parsons was just beginning his teaching career at Harvard. Merton, who became a noted theorist in his own right, made it clear that graduate students came to Harvard in those years not to study with Parsons but rather with Pitirim Sorokin, the senior member of the department, who was to become Parsons’s archenemy:

Of the very first generation of graduate students coming to Harvard . . . precisely none came to study with Talcott. They could scarcely have done so for the simplest of reasons: In 1931, he had no public identity whatever as a sociologist.

Although we students came to study with the renowned Sorokin, a subset of us stayed to work with the unknown Parsons.

Merton’s reflections on Parsons’s first course in theory are interesting too, espe- cially because the material provided the basis for one of the most influential theory books in the history of sociology:

Long before Talcott Parsons became one of the grand old men of world sociology, he was for an early few of us its grand young man. This began with his first course in theory . . . [It] would provide him with the core of his masterwork, The Structure of Social Action which . . . did not appear in print until five years after its first oral publication.

Although all would not share Merton’s positive evaluation of Parsons, they would acknowledge the following:

The death of Talcott Parsons marks the end of an era in sociology. When [a new era] does begin . . . it will surely be fortified by the great tradition of sociological thought which he has left to us.

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important, his new conceptual insights helped to give structural functionalism a continuing usefulness.

Robert Merton’s Structural Functionalism

Although both Merton and Parsons are associated with structural functional- ism, there are important differences between them. For one thing, while Par- sons advocated the creation of grand, overarching theories, Merton favored more limited middle-range theories. For another, Merton was more favorable toward Marxian theories than was Parsons. In fact, Merton and some of his students (especially Alvin Gouldner) can be seen as having pushed structural functionalism more to the left politically.

A Structural-Functional Model Merton criticized what he saw as the three basic postulates of functional analysis. The fi rst is the postulate of the func- tional unity of society. This postulate holds that all standardized social and cul- tural beliefs and practices are functional for society as a whole as well as for individuals in society. This view implies that the various parts of a social sys- tem must show a high level of integration. However, Merton maintained that although it may be true of small, primitive societies, the generalization cannot be extended to larger, more complex societies; that is, in modern societies struc- tures may exist that are not necessarily functional for society as a whole or for individuals within society. For example, the various structures (e.g., factories, highways) that produce environmental pollution of various types are not func- tional for society as a whole as well as for individuals who are exposed to the pollution. Similarly, not all parts of society are highly integrated. Our poorly funded and inadequate primary and secondary school system, for example, is not well equipped to supply people with the skills needed to fi t into our high- tech work world.

Universal functionalism, the second postulate, states that all standard- ized social and cultural forms and structures have positive functions. Merton argued that this idea contradicts what we find in the real world. It is clear that not every structure, custom, idea, belief, and so forth has positive functions. For example, rabid nationalism can be highly dysfunctional in a world of prolifer- ating nuclear arms.

Third is the postulate of indispensability, which argues that all standard- ized aspects of society not only have positive functions but also represent indis- pensable parts of the working whole. This postulate leads to the idea that all structures and functions are functionally necessary for society. No other struc- tures and functions could work quite as well as those currently found within society. Merton’s criticism, following Parsons, was that we must at least be willing to admit that there are various structural and functional alternatives to

middle-range theories Theories that seek a middle ground between trying to explain the entirety of the social world and a very minute portion of that world.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 89

be found within society. Thus, it is not necessarily true that a system of social stratification is indispensable to society. A different structure could be put in place in which people are motivated to occupy high-level positions, not because of the money and power associated with them, but because of the gratification that comes from performing invaluable services for society.

Merton’s position was that all these functional postulates rely on nonem- pirical assertions based on abstract, theoretical systems. At a minimum, the sociologist’s responsibility is to examine each empirically. Merton’s belief that empirical tests, not theoretical assertions, are crucial to functional analysis led him to develop his paradigm of functional analysis as a guide to the integration of such theory and research.

Merton made it clear from the outset that structural-functional analysis focuses on groups, organizations, societies, and cultures. He stated that any object that can be subjected to structural-functional analysis must be a standardized— repetitive and patterned—unit. He had in mind such things as social roles, insti- tutional patterns, cultural patterns, social norms, group organization, social structure, and social control mechanisms. In other words, Merton was a societal functionalist.

Early structural functionalists tended to focus almost entirely on the func- tions of one social structure or institution for another. However, in Merton’s view, early analysts tended to confuse the subjective motives of individuals with the functions of structures or institutions. The focus of the structural functionalist should be on social functions rather than on individual motives. Functions, according to Merton, are defined as observable consequences that help a particular system adapt or adjust. However, there is a clear ideological bias when one focuses only on adaptation or adjustment, for the consequences are always positive. It is important to note that one social structure can have negative consequences for another social structure (recall the example of pol- lution). To rectify this serious omission in early structural functionalism, Mer- ton developed the idea of dysfunctions. Just as structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of other parts of the social system, they also could have negative consequences for them; they could have an adverse effect on the ability of those parts to adapt or adjust. Slavery in the southern United States, for example, clearly had positive consequences for white Southerners, such as supplying cheap labor, support for the cotton economy, and social status. It also had dysfunctions, such as making Southerners overly dependent on an agrarian economy and therefore unprepared for industrialization. The lingering disparity between the North and the South in industrialization can be traced, at least in part, to the dysfunctions of the institution of slavery in the South.

functions Consequences that can be observed and that help a particular system adapt or adjust.

dysfunctions Observable consequences that have an adverse effect on the ability of a particular system to adapt or adjust.

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Merton also posited the idea of nonfunctions, which he defined as conse- quences that are simply irrelevant to the system under consideration. Included here might be social forms that are survivals from earlier historical times. Although they may have had positive or negative consequences in the past, they have no significant effect on contemporary society. One example, although a few might disagree, is the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. It may

Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) An Autobiographical Vignette

I wanted . . . to advance sociological theories of social structure and cultural change that will help us understand how social institutions and the character of life in soci- ety come to be as they are. That concern with theoretical sociology . . . led me to avoid the kind of subject specialization that has become (and, in my opinion, has for the most part rightly become) the order of the day in sociology, as in other evolv- ing disciplines. For my purposes, study of a variety of sociological subjects was essential.

In that variety, only one special field—the sociology of science— . . .  persistently engaged my interest. During the 1930s, I devoted myself almost entirely to the social contexts of science and technology, especially in 17th-century England, and focused on the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action. As my theoretical interests broadened, I turned, during the 1940s and afterward, to studies of the social sources of nonconforming and deviant behavior, of the workings of bureau- cracy, mass persuasion, and communication in modern complex society, and to the role of the intellectual, both within bureaucracies and outside them. In the 1950s, I centered on developing a sociological theory of basic units of social structure: the role-set and status-set and the role models people select not only for emulation but also as a source of values adopted as a basis for self-appraisal (this latter being the theory of reference groups). I also undertook, with George Reader and Patricia Ken- dall, the first large-scale sociological study of medical education, aiming to find out how, all apart from explicit plan, different kinds of physicians are socialized in the same schools of medicine, this being linked with the distinctive character of pro- fessions as a type of occupational activity. In the 1960s and 1970s, I returned to an intensive study of the social structure of science and its interaction with cognitive structure, these two decades being the time in which the sociology of science finally came of age, with what’s past being only prologue. Throughout these studies, my primary orientation was toward the connections between sociological theory, meth- ods of inquiry, and substantive empirical research.

Source: Copyright 1981 by Robert K. Merton.

nonfunctions Consequences that are irrelevant to the system under consideration.

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Contemporary Grand Theories I 91

have been useful in its day in limiting alcoholism, but today it clearly has no impact on that social problem.

To help answer the question of whether positive functions outweigh dys- functions, or vice versa, Merton developed the concept of net balance. How- ever, we never can simply add up positive functions and dysfunctions and objectively determine which outweighs the other, because the issues are so complex and based on so much subjective judgment that they cannot easily be calculated and weighed. The usefulness of Merton’s concept comes from the way it orients the sociologist to the question of relative significance. In the example of slavery, the question becomes whether, on balance, slavery was more functional or dysfunctional to the South. Still, this question is too broad and obscures a number of issues (e.g., that slavery was functional for groups like white slaveholders).

To cope with problems like these, Merton added the idea that there must be levels of functional analysis. Functionalists had generally restricted them- selves to analysis of the society as a whole, but Merton made it clear that analysis also could be done on an organization, institution, group, or any standardized and repetitive social phenomenon. Returning to the issue of the functions of slavery for the South, it would be necessary to differentiate several levels of analysis and ask about the functions and dysfunctions of slavery for black fami- lies, white families, black political organizations, white political organizations, and so forth. In terms of net balance, slavery was probably more functional for certain social units and more dysfunctional for other social units. Addressing the issue at these more specific levels helps in analyzing the functionality of slavery for the South as a whole.

Merton also introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions. These two terms have also been important additions to functional analysis. In simple terms, manifest functions are those that are intended, whereas latent functions are unintended. The manifest function of slavery was to increase the economic productivity of the South, but it had the latent function of providing a vast underclass that served to increase the social status of southern whites, both rich and poor. This idea is related to another of Merton’s concepts— unanticipated consequences. Structures have both intended and unintended

net balance The relative weight of functions and dysfunctions. levels of functional analysis Functional analysis can be performed on any standard-

ized repetitive social phenomenon ranging from society as a whole, to organiza- tions, institutions, and groups.

manifest functions Positive consequences that are brought about consciously and purposely.

latent functions Unintended positive consequences. unanticipated consequences Unexpected positive, negative, and irrelevant


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Key Concepts Social Structure and Anomie

One of the best-known contributions to structural functionalism, indeed to all of sociology, is Merton’s analysis of the relationship between culture, structure, and anomie. Merton defined culture as the organized set of normative values shared by those belonging to a group or society that govern their behavior. Social struc- ture is the organized set of social relationships in which societal or group mem- bers are involved. Anomie can be said to have occurred when there is a serious disconnection between social structure and culture, between structurally created abilities of people to act in accord with cultural norms and goals and the norms and goals themselves. In other words, because of their position in the social struc- ture of society, some people are unable to act in accord with normative values. The culture calls for some type of behavior that the social structure prevents from occurring.

In American society, for example, the culture places great emphasis on material success. However, many people are prevented, by their position within the social structure, from achieving such success. If one is born into the lower socioeconomic classes and as a result is able to acquire, at best, only a high school degree, then one’s chances of achieving economic success in the generally accepted way (e.g., through succeeding in the conventional work world) are slim or nonexistent. Under such cir- cumstances (and they are widespread in contemporary American society) anomie can be said to exist, and, as a result, there is a tendency toward deviant behavior. In this context, deviance often takes the form of alternative, unacceptable, and some- times illegal means of achieving economic success. Becoming a drug dealer or a prostitute in order to achieve economic success is an example of deviance generated by the disjunction between cultural values and social-structural means of attaining those values. This is one way in which the structural functionalist would seek to explain crime and deviance.

In this example of structural functionalism, Merton is looking at social (and cultural) structures, but he is not focally concerned with the functions of those structures. Rather, consistent with his functional paradigm, he is mainly concerned with dysfunctions, in this case, anomie. More specifically, as we have seen, Merton links anomie with deviance and thereby is arguing that disjunctions between culture and structure have the dysfunctional consequence of leading to deviance within society.

It is worth noting that implied in Merton’s work on anomie is a critical attitude toward social stratification (e.g., for blocking the means of some to achieve socially desirable goals). Thus, although Davis and Moore wrote approvingly of a stratified society, Merton’s work indicates that structural functionalists can be critical of a structure like social stratification.

anomie To Merton, a situation in which there is a serious disconnection between social structure and culture; between structurally created abilities of people to act in accord with cultural norms and goals and the norms and goals themselves.

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consequences. Slavery may have been instituted to help strengthen the South economically, but its unanticipated consequence was to slow industrialization and ultimately weaken that area from an economic point of view. Although everyone is aware of the intended consequences, sociological analysis is required to uncover the unintended consequences; indeed, to some this is the very essence of sociology. Peter Berger has called this debunking, or looking beyond stated intentions to real effects.

Merton made it clear that unanticipated consequences and latent functions are not the same. A latent function is one type of unanticipated consequence, one that is functional for the designated system. But there are two other types of unanticipated consequences: those that are dysfunctional and those that are irrelevant.

As further clarification of functional theory, Merton pointed out that a structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole and yet may continue to exist. One might make a good case that discrimination against blacks, females, and other minority groups is dysfunctional for American society; yet it continues to exist because it is functional for a part of the social system; for example, discrimination against females is generally functional for males. However, these forms of discrimination are not without some dysfunctions, even for the group for which they are functional. Males do suffer from their discrimination against females; similarly, whites are hurt by their discriminatory behavior toward blacks. One could argue that these forms of discrimination adversely affect those who discriminate by keeping vast numbers of people underproductive and by increasing the likelihood of social conflict.

Merton contended that not all structures are indispensable to the workings of the social system. Some parts of our social system can be eliminated. This helps functional theory overcome another of its conservative biases. By recog- nizing that some structures are expendable, structural functionalism opens the way for meaningful social change. Our society, for example, could continue to exist (and even be improved) by the elimination of discrimination against vari- ous minority groups.

Merton’s clarifications are of great utility to sociologists who wish to per- form structural-functional analyses.


Conflict theory can be seen as a development that took place, at least in part, in reaction to structural functionalism. However, it should be noted that conflict theory has other roots, such as Marxian theory and Georg Simmel’s work on

debunking Looking beyond stated intentions to real effects.

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social conflict. In the 1950s and 1960s, conflict theory provided an alternative to structural functionalism, but it was superseded by a variety of neo-Marxian theories (see Chapter 5). Indeed, one of the major contributions of conflict theory was the way it laid the groundwork in the United States for theories more faithful to Marx’s work, theories that came to attract a wide audience in sociology. The basic problem with conflict theory is that it never succeeded in divorcing itself sufficiently from its structural-functional roots. It was more a kind of structural functionalism turned on its head than a truly critical theory of society. As such, conflict theory, like structural functionalism, offers a portrait of society, albeit one that is different in many ways.

C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) A Biographical Vignette

C. Wright Mills was not a great neo-Marxian theorist (he made no original contri- butions of his own to the theory), but he was a great critic of American society (and of American sociological theory, especially the theorizing of Talcott Parsons—see above) from a Marxian, or more generally leftist, perspective. He critiqued union leaders for being insufficiently radical and did not see the labor movement and the working class as truly revolutionary forces. He critiqued white collar work- ers for, among other things, their great concern for elevating their personal status and their resulting disinterest in larger social change. Most importantly, he saw a “power elite” (composed of an interlocking group of corporate leaders, govern- ment officials, and military leaders) emerging in American society and he worried about the control they were exercising over society. But Mills made many other kinds of contributions to sociology, especially his idea of the “sociological imagina- tion” and the need to think imaginatively about various social issues, especially the intersection between individual biography and social history, “character” and “social structure,” as well as “private troubles” and “public issues.”

Mills was not only a radical intellectually, but also personally. He generally refused to play the academic game according to the “gentlemanly” rules of the day (sociology was dominated by males in the mid-20th century). Beginning in gradu- ate school, he attacked the professors in his department, and later in his career he took on senior theorists in that department (calling one a “real fool”), leaders of American sociological theory (such as Parsons), and the dominant survey research methods (and methodologists) in the field. Eventually he came to be estranged and isolated from his colleagues at Columbia University. Mills said of himself: “I am an outlander . . . down deep and good.”

However, Mills did not restrict his critiques to conservative and establishment elements in the United States. Late in his life, Mills was invited to the Soviet Union and honored as a major critic of American society. Instead of meekly accepting the award, Mills took the occasion to attack censorship in the Soviet Union with a toast to a Soviet leader who had been purged and murdered by the Stalinists: “To the day when the complete works of Leon Trotsky are published in the Soviet Union!”

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The Work of Ralf Dahrendorf

Like functionalists, conflict theorists are oriented toward the study of social structures and institutions. Conflict theory is little more than a series of conten- tions that are often the direct opposites of functionalist positions. This antith- esis is best exemplified by the work of Ralf Dahrendorf, in which the tenets of conflict and functional theory are juxtaposed:

• To the functionalists, society is static or, at best, in a state of moving equi- librium, but to Dahrendorf and the conflict theorists, every society at every point is subject to processes of change.

• Where functionalists emphasize the orderliness of society, conflict theorists see dissension and conflict at every point in the social system.

• Functionalists (or at least early functionalists) argue that every element in society contributes to stability; the exponents of conflict theory see many societal elements contributing to disintegration and change.

• Functionalists tend to view society as being held together informally by norms, values, and a common morality. Conflict theorists believe whatever order there is in society stems from the coercion of some members by those at the top. Whereas functionalists focus on the cohesion created by shared societal values, conflict theorists emphasize the role of power in maintain- ing order in society.

Dahrendorf was the major exponent of the position that society has two faces (conflict and consensus) and that sociological theory therefore should be divided into two components—conflict theory and consensus theory (one example of which is structural functionalism). Consensus theorists should examine value integration in society, and conflict theorists should examine conflicts of interest and the coercion that holds society together in the face of these stresses. Dahrendorf recognized that society could not exist without both conflict and consensus, which are prerequisites for each other; thus, we cannot have conflict unless there is some prior consensus. For example, French house- wives are highly unlikely to conflict with Chilean chess players because there is no contact between them, no prior integration to serve as a basis for conflict. Conversely, conflict can lead to consensus and integration. An example is the alliance between the United States and Japan that developed after World War II.

Despite the interrelationship between consensus and conflict, Dahrendorf was not optimistic about developing a single sociological theory encompassing both processes. Eschewing a singular theory, Dahrendorf set out to construct a separate conflict theory of society.

Dahrendorf began with, and was heavily influenced by, structural func- tionalism. He noted that to the functionalist, the social system is held together by voluntary cooperation or general consensus or both. However, to the con- flict (or coercion) theorist, society is held together by enforced constraint; thus, some positions in society are delegated power and authority over others. This fact of social life led Dahrendorf to his central thesis that systematic social con- flicts are always caused by the differential distribution of authority.

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Dahrendorf (like societal functionalists) concentrated on larger social struc- tures. Central to his thesis is the idea that various positions within society have different amounts of authority. Authority does not reside in individu- als but in positions. Dahrendorf was interested not only in the structure of these positions but also in the conflict among them. The structural origin of these conflicts is to be traced to the relationship between positions that possess authority and those that are subject to that authority. The first task of conflict analysis, to Dahrendorf, was to identify various authority roles within society. In addition to making the case for the study of large-scale structures like sys- tems of authority roles, Dahrendorf was opposed to those who focus on the individual level. For example, he was critical of those who focus on the psy- chological or behavioral characteristics of the individuals who occupy such positions. He went so far as to say that those who adopted such an approach were not sociologists.

The authority attached to positions is the key element in Dahrendorf’s anal- ysis. Authority always implies both superordination and subordination. Those who occupy positions of authority are expected to control subordinates; that is, they dominate because of the expectations of those who surround them, not because of their own psychological characteristics. Like authority, these expec- tations are attached to positions, not people. Authority is not a generalized

Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) A Biographical Vignette

Ralf Dahrendorf is best known in sociology for his conflict theory, heavily influ- enced by Marxian theory. He had quite an illustrious career as a public figure, cul- minating in being named Baron Dahrendorf in 1993 by Queen Elizabeth II.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Dahrendorf had a fascinating life. As a teenager, he resisted the Nazis and was imprisoned (as his father had been) for his opposition to that regime. He was released by an SS officer from the camp where he was impris- oned in early 1945 as the Russian army approached. He studied at the University of Hamburg and earned a doctorate there, as well as another from the London School of Economics. He taught in various German universities, and later became both a public intellectual and a public figure. Among the positions he held were Member of the German Parliament, Secretary of State in the German Foreign Office, Com- missioner in the European Commission in Brussels, and Director of the London School of Economics. He became a British citizen in 1988.

While his conflict theory was influenced by Marxian ideas, Dahrendorf was never a Marxist. He described himself as a liberal. Nevertheless, he was strongly influenced by the Marxian notion of integrating theory and practice. In fact, he led a life in which he developed theory and applied it to practical matters in academia and, more importantly, in the larger society.

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social phenomenon; those who are subject to control, as well as permissible spheres of control, are specified in society. Finally, because authority is legiti- mate, sanctions can be brought to bear against those who do not comply.

Authority is not a constant as far as Dahrendorf was concerned, because authority resides in positions and not persons. Thus, a person with authority in one setting does not necessarily hold a position of authority in another setting. Similarly, a person in a subordinate position in one group may be in a superor- dinate position in another. This follows from Dahrendorf’s argument that soci- ety is composed of a number of units that he called imperatively coordinated associations. These may be seen as associations of people controlled by a hier- archy of authority positions. Since society contains many such associations, an individual can occupy a position of authority in one and a subordinate position in another.

Authority within each association is dichotomous; thus two, and only two, conflict groups can be formed within any association. Those in positions of authority and those in positions of subordination hold contrary interests. Here we encounter another key term in Dahrendorf’s theory of conflict: interests. Groups on top and at the bottom are defined by their common concerns. Dahrendorf continued to be firm in his thinking that even these interests, which sound so psychological, are basically large-scale phenomena; that is, interests are linked to social positions and not to the psychological characteristics of those individuals who occupy those positions.

Within every association, those in dominant positions seek to maintain the status quo while those in subordinate positions seek change. A conflict of interest within any association is at least latent at all times, which means that the legitimacy of authority is always precarious. This conflict of interest need not be conscious in order for superordinates or subordinates to act on it. The interests of superordinates and subordinates are objective in the sense that they are reflected in the expectations (roles) attached to positions. Individuals do not have to internalize these expectations or even be conscious of them in order to act in accord with them. If they occupy given positions, then they will behave in the expected manner. Individuals are adjusted or adapted to their roles when they contribute to conflict between superordinates and subordinates. Dahrendorf called these unconscious concerns latent interests. Manifest interests are latent interests that have become conscious. Dahrendorf viewed the analysis of the connection between latent and manifest interests as a major task of conflict theory. Nevertheless, actors need not be conscious of their interests in order to act in accord with them.

imperatively coordinated associations Associations of people controlled by a hierar- chy of authority positions.

interests Concerns, usually shared by groups of people. latent interests Unconscious interests that translate, for Dahrendorf, into objective

role expectations. manifest interests Latent interests of which people have become conscious.

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Groups, Conflict, and Change

Next, Dahrendorf distinguished three broad types of groups. The first is the quasi group, or a number of individuals who occupy positions that have the same role interests. These are the recruiting grounds for the second type of group: the interest group. Interest groups are true groups in the sociological sense of the term, possessing not only common interests but also a structure, a

Key Concepts The Functions of Social Conflict

While structural functionalism and conflict theory are discussed separately, and are at odds with one another in many ways, it is possible to discuss them together. In this box we do just that by discussing the functions of social conflict.

Conflict may serve to solidify a loosely structured group. In a society that seems to be disintegrating, conflict with another society may restore the integrative core. The cohesiveness of Israeli Jews might be attributed, at least in part, to the long-standing conflict with the Arab nations in the Middle East. The possible end of the conflict might well exacerbate underlying strains in Israeli society. Conflict as an agent for solidifying a society is an idea that has long been recognized by propagan- dists, who may construct an enemy where none exists or seek to fan antagonisms toward an inactive opponent.

Conflict with one group may serve to produce cohesion by leading to a series of alliances with other groups. For example, conflict with the Arabs has led to an alliance between the United States and Israel. Lessening of the Israeli-Arab conflict might weaken the bonds between Israel and the United States.

Within a society, conflict can bring some ordinarily isolated individuals into an active role. The protests over the Vietnam war motivated many young people to take vigorous roles in American political life for the first time. With the end of that conflict a more apathetic spirit emerged again among American youth.

Conflict also serves a communication function. Prior to conflict, groups may be unsure of their adversary’s position, but as a result of conflict, positions and boundaries between groups often become clarified. Individuals therefore are better able to decide on a proper course of action in relation to their adversary. Conflict also allows the parties to get a better idea of their relative strengths and may well increase the possibility of rapprochement, or peaceful accommodation.

From a theoretical prospective, it is possible to wed functionalism and conflict theory by looking at the functions of social conflict. Still, it must be recognized that conflict also has dysfunctions.

quasi group A number of individuals who occupy positions that have the same role interests.

interest group Unlike quasi groups, interest groups are true groups in the sociological sense of the term, possessing not only common interests, but also a structure, a goal, and personnel. Interest groups have the capacity to engage in group conflict.

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goal, and personnel. Interest groups have the capacity to engage in group con- flict. Out of all the many interest groups emerge conflict groups, those groups that actually engage in conflict.

Dahrendorf felt that the concepts of latent and manifest interests, of quasi groups, interest groups, and conflict groups, were basic to an explanation of social conflict. Under ideal conditions no other variables would be needed. How- ever, because conditions are never ideal, many different factors do intervene in the process. Dahrendorf mentioned technical conditions such as adequate per- sonnel, political conditions such as the overall political climate, and social condi- tions such as the existence of communication links. The way people are recruited into the quasi group was another social condition important to Dahrendorf. He felt that if the recruitment is random and determined by chance, then an interest group, and ultimately a conflict group, is unlikely to emerge. In contrast to Marx, Dahrendorf did not feel that the lumpenproletariat (the mass of people who stand below even the proletariat in the capitalist system) would ultimately form a conflict group, because people are recruited to it by chance. However, when recruitment to quasi groups is structurally determined, these groups provide fer- tile recruiting grounds for interest groups and, in some cases, conflict groups.

The final aspect of Dahrendorf’s conflict theory is the relationship of con- flict to change. Here Dahrendorf recognized the importance of Lewis Coser’s work, which focused on the functions of conflict in maintaining the status quo. Dahrendorf felt, however, that the conservative function of conflict is only one part of social reality; conflict also leads to change and development.

Briefly, Dahrendorf argued that once conflict groups emerge, they engage in actions that lead to changes in social structure. When the conflict is intense, the changes that occur are radical. When it is accompanied by violence, struc- tural change will be sudden. Whatever the nature of conflict, sociologists must be attuned to the relationship between conflict and change as well as that between conflict and the status quo. In other words, they must be sensitized to the dynamic relationships among the various elements involved in this portrait of society. Thus, theoretical portraits need not necessarily be static. This idea is even clearer in the next section on system theory.


The Work of Niklas Luhmann

Though Niklas Luhmann’s (1927–1998) theories have not been widely acknowledged in North America, internationally he is recognized as one of the most important social theorists of the last thirty years. Luhmann worked

conflict group A group that actually engages in group conflict. lumpenproletariat The mass of people who stand below even the proletariat in the

capitalist system.

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within the tradition of general systems theory to develop the earlier insights of structural-functional theory, in particular the work of Talcott Parsons (though, as we will see, Luhmann disagrees with Parsons on some important points). General systems theory is an interdisciplinary research area. It draws on fields such as biology, cognitive psychology, organizational theory, computer science and information theory (cybernetics), and sociology (among others). General systems theory assumes that phenomena as diverse as biological organisms, ecosystems, human cognition, and information processing can all be treated as systems that operate according to a shared set of principles. As a sociolo- gist, Luhmann’s most important contribution to systems theory is his analysis of social systems. In this review, we describe three concepts that are of central importance to Luhmann’s analysis of the social system: the distinction between the system and environment, autopoiesis, and differentiation. In brief, the the- ory argues that social systems bring themselves into existence when they dif- ferentiate themselves from their surrounding environment and then generate further divisions within themselves.

System and Environment

The key to understanding what Luhmann means by a system can be found in the distinction between a system and its environment. Every system is situated in an environment and a system is separated from its environment by a bound- ary. An example of a boundary is the distinction between a human body and the world around it. The human body is a system situated in an environment that contains, among other things, other people and objects. Another example of a boundary is the distinction between a nation-state, such as the United States, and the surrounding nation-states to which it relates. The United States is the system and the collection of other nations is the environment for that system.

Central to Luhmann’s definition of system is the concept of complexity. The world is complex, meaning that it is filled with numerous incalculable possi- bilities for action and interaction. In fact, the world is so complex that unless human beings find ways to manage complexity they would be overwhelmed by the world. With this in mind, Luhmann says that systems, in particular social systems, emerge when they are able to reduce the complexity of the world. This reduction of complexity—making the world simpler than it actually is—creates the distinction between a system and its environment. The system is always less complex than its environment. In other words, by putting up boundaries, by ignoring parts to the environment, the system carves out a unique place for itself in the environment. For example, while a country such as the United States might be concerned with the foreign policy of a nation like China, it is not nec- essarily concerned with the way that art is made and produced in China. The United States reduces the complexity of its environment by focusing on some aspects of the environment (foreign policy) and not others (art production).

Another way that Luhmann deals with this is to say that the system selects the components of its environment with which it will relate. It chooses to interact with Chinese foreign policy rather than the field of art production. In so doing

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the system defines its limits and boundaries. This kind of selection has implica- tions for the system. By ignoring parts of the environment it may put itself at risk. Events may occur in parts of the environment that the system has ignored and that later will threaten its functionality. This said, what should also be clear is that the system is attuned to such environmental risks and when risks become too much a threat, a system can re-organize itself. To use evolutionary language, the system is able to adapt to changes in its environment. This gives systems the qual- ity of contingency. Contingency means that the organization of a system is context bound and open to continual change. The selections that a system makes in rela- tionship to its environment can change over time. Indeed, in contrast to previ- ous structural-functional theories that emphasized the stability and universality of systems (see for example Talcott Parsons’s theory), Luhmann emphasizes the idea that systems continually redefine themselves and their relationships to their environment. The system, then, has to be viewed as an entity that has a certain level of organizational stability but at the same time is in a state of flux and change.


Luhmann is best known for his thinking on autopoiesis. He borrows the con- cept from the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. The word is derived from classical Greek: “poiesis” refers to the act of making, and “auto” refers to the self. As such, autopoiesis means that systems are self-making or, more broadly, self-generating, or self-organizing. There is no super-entity out- side of a system that determines the development and evolution of a system. In other words the system is ultimately responsible for its own organization and development. In the previous discussion, we have described the most basic sense in which systems are autopoietic. They come into existence when they make a distinction between themselves and their environment. The system in effect cre- ates itself when it draws a boundary between itself and the rest of the world.

Luhmann’s focus on autopoiesis implies a number of related features of social systems. As self-making entities, social systems are self-referential. Another way of saying this is that systems are self-monitoring; they operate on the basis of feedback mechanisms. The system creates structures, and then the system constantly “checks in” on itself and its structures to ensure that they are function- ing properly. Other theorists, such as Harold Garfinkel (Chapter 6) and Anthony Giddens (Chapter 5) call this self-monitoring feature reflexivity. So systems generate structures, and they develop mechanisms by which they can monitor structures. Luhmann also says that systems create the elements that make up the system. Elements are the building blocks of a system. For example, many social systems distinguish between institutions such as religion and politics. These institutions are made up of various elements. In religious institutions, elements include things like sacred objects, rituals, and belief systems. Each of these ele- ments is required for the continued existence of the religious institution.

autopoiesis The idea that systems are self-making or, more broadly, self-organizing.

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The important point in all of this is not only that the system generates its own structures and elements. In addition, autopoesis means that the system must constantly create and recreate itself. This is what distinguishes Luhmann from previous structural-functional scholars like Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. These earlier functionalists took for granted the existence of social structures; cer- tain kinds of structures were universal and ever-present. Parsons, for example, assumed that structures associated with the AGIL schema would be present in every system, social and otherwise. But Luhmann argues that the makeup of an autopoietic system is never given or guaranteed. It must constantly be created. This is very similar to the ethnomethodological idea (see Chapter 6) that social life is an ongoing accomplishment of its members. In their actions and activities peo- ple, and on a larger scale social systems, are constantly making up the structures within which they live. On the one hand, this means that the creation of a social system is an extraordinary, and Luhmann even suggests, unlikely, achievement. On the other hand, this means that social systems are also quite adaptive. Since they are always making their structures and elements, they can also remake these elements in ways that respond to changes and demands of the environment.


From what we have already said it should be clear that differentiation is a key concept in Luhmann’s systems theory. Most simply, differentiation refers to the process by which systems make distinctions. In Luhmann’s theory there are two basic kinds of distinctions, two general forms of differentiation. The first is the

differentiation The process by which systems make distinctions.

Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) A Biographical Vignette

As a system theorist, Niklas Luhmann’s name is almost always closely tied to that of Talcott Parsons. As we saw earlier in this chapter, Parsons wrote a great deal about systems and his ideas influenced the later thinking of Luhmann. Further- more, Luhmann got to know Parsons when he studied public administration at Harvard in 1960–1961. This inevitably led to an assumed linkage between Luhmann and structural functionalism (the theory for which Parsons was most famous). Since structural functionalism fell out of favor by the late 1960s, Luhmann’s linkage to it led him to have less influence than he otherwise might have had, especially in the United States. However, in recent years it has become clear that while Luhmann is a system theorist, he is not a structural functionalist and, among other things, has a very different sense of structure than Parsons and rejects Parsons’s focus on such things as value consensus in society and social order. As it is increasingly freed of its linkages to structural functionalism, Luhmann’s system theory has an increasing influence on social theory around the world.

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distinction between the system and its environment. The second is the distinc- tions that a system makes within itself, internal distinctions. In other words, once a system has distinguished itself from its environment it proceeds to develop subsystems. Over time, systems can become increasingly complex, meaning that they are characterized by a growing number of internal distinctions. This growth in internal complexity makes a system incredibly rich and dynamic.

Perhaps the most practical aspect of Luhmann’s social systems theory is his description of the different forms of internal differentiation. There are at least four ways that social systems are divided and organized—segmentation, strati- fication, center-periphery, and functional differentiation:

Segmentary Differentiation Segmentary differentiation divides parts of the system on the basis of the need to fulfi ll identical functions over and over. For instance, an automobile manufacturer has functionally similar factories for the production of cars at many different locations. Every location is orga- nized in much the same way; each has the same structure and fulfi lls the same function—producing cars.

Stratificatory Differentiation Stratifi catory differentiation is a vertical differ- entiation according to rank or status. This kind of differentiation is hierarchical. Every rank fulfi lls a particular and distinct function in the system. In the auto- mobile fi rm, we fi nd different ranks. The manager of the new department of international relations occupies the top rank within the hierarchy of that depart- ment. The manager has the function of using power to direct the operations of that department. A variety of lower-ranking workers within the department handle a variety of specifi c functions (e.g., word processing).

Center-Periphery Differentiation The third type of differentiation, center- periphery differentiation, is a link between segmentary and stratifi catory differentiation. It refers to a component within the system that co-ordinates rela- tions between elements in the periphery with those in the center. For instance, some automobile fi rms have built factories in other countries; nevertheless, the headquarters of the company remains the center, ruling and, to some extent, controlling the peripheral factories.

Differentiations of Functional Systems Functional differentiation is the most complex form of differentiation and the form that dominates modern society.

segmentary differentiation The division of parts of the system on the basis of the need to fulfill identical functions over and over.

stratificatory differentiation Vertical differentiation according to rank or status in a system conceived as a hierarchy.

center-periphery differentiation Differentiation between the core of a system and its peripheral elements.

functional differentiation The most complex form of differentiation and the form that dominates modern society. Every function within a system is ascribed to a particu- lar unit.

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Every function within a system is ascribed to a particular unit. For instance, an automobile manufacturer has functionally differentiated departments such as production, administration, accounting, planning, and personnel.

Functional differentiation is more flexible than stratificatory differentia- tion, but, if one system fails to fulfill its task, the whole system will have great

Contemporary Applications Is the “War on Terror” Functional?

In the aftermath of September 11, the United States embarked on a so-called war on terror. As a social phenomenon, that “war” is analyzable from a variety of theo- retical perspectives, including the structural-functional perspective discussed in this chapter. It qualifies for such analysis because it is a structure that is both repetitive and patterned. This is best exemplified by the Department of Homeland Security, but it applies as well to the many places and ways in which that “war” is being fought.

The first issue to be addressed is the “functions” of this war, the ways in which it has helped the United States adjust and adapt to the reality that there are external enemies able and willing to inflict significant damage on the country. Among the things that can be mentioned here is that Osama bin Laden (the al-Qaeda leader behind the 9/11 attacks) was hounded, forced into hiding, and in 2011 killed by American forces; Saddam Hussein (falsely presumed to be an ally and supporter of al-Qaeda) was forced from power and executed; all sorts of security measures have been put in place in and around the United States; and perhaps most important of all, there have been no additional terror incidents in the United States (such inci- dents have occurred elsewhere, notably the Madrid and London train bombings) since 9/11 and there is some evidence that several have been warded off.

However, there are also a number of “dysfunctions” associated with the war on terror. Among them is the high economic cost of fighting this war, especially in the occupation of Iraq and in fighting those who opposed the American presence there. Of course, the economic cost is small in comparison with the loss of human lives in Iraq. Then there are the enemies that the United States has made as a result of its military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other actions such as the cap- ture and abduction of thousands of people and their incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. There are many seemingly tangential dysfunctions such as that poppy growing in Afghanistan has grown dramatically since the funda- mentalist and repressive Taliban were forced from power, thereby increasing the source of cocaine for illegal sale in many countries, including the United States. In the United States, many programs—social welfare, spending on infrastructure—are being starved for funds because the money is being spent elsewhere.

The big question in terms of net balance becomes: Do the functions of this war outweigh the dysfunctions, or vice versa? For some groups, it is certainly functional (e.g., defense contractors) and for others it is dysfunctional (most Iraqis, American welfare recipients), but what of the United States as a whole? A systematic analysis of the functions and dysfunctions of the war on terror does not yield a ready and simple answer for the nation as a whole, but it does offer a systematic way of trying to think through what such an answer would look like.

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trouble surviving. However, as long as each unit fulfills its function, the differ- ent units can attain a high degree of independence. In fact, functionally differ- entiated systems are a complex mixture of interdependence and independence. For instance, although the planning division is dependent upon the accounting division for economic data, as long as the figures are accurate, the planning division can be blissfully ignorant of exactly how the accountants produced the data.

This indicates a further difference between the forms of differentiation. In the case of segmentary differentiation, if a segment fails to fulfill its func- tion (e.g., one of the automobile manufacturer’s factories cannot produce cars because of a labor strike), it does not threaten the system. However, in the case of the more complex forms of differentiation such as functional differentiation, failure will cause a problem for the social system, possibly leading to its break- down. On the one hand, the growth of complexity increases the abilities of a system to deal with its environment. On the other hand, complexity increases the risk of a system breakdown if a function is not properly fulfilled. In most cases, this increased vulnerability is a necessary price to pay for the increase in possible relations between different subsystems. Having more types of possible relations between the subsystems means more variation to use to select struc- tural responses to changes in the environment.


1. Structural functionalism is a theory that focuses on the structures of society and their functional significance (positive and negative consequences) for other structures.

2. One type of structural functionalism is societal functionalism, which focuses on the large-scale social structures and institutions of society, their interrelationships, and their constraining effects on actors.

3. To structural functionalists, stratification is a functional necessity. All societies need such a system, and this need brings into existence a system of stratification. The stratification system is viewed as a societal-level structure, referring not to the indi- viduals in the stratification system but rather to a system of positions (e.g., occupa- tions like laborer and manager).

4. People must be offered great rewards in order to do what is necessary to occupy the high-ranking and crucially important positions in the stratification system.

5. The functional theory of stratification has come under great attack. The key point is that there are ways to motivate people to do things other than offering them inordi- nate benefits.

6. To Parsons any system is faced with four functional imperatives: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance (or latency).

7. The four action systems in order of their control over the system below them are cultural, social, personality, and behavioral organism.

8. Robert Merton developed a sophisticated model of a structural-functional approach involving a focus not only on functions, but also dysfunctions, nonfunctions, net balance, levels of functional analysis, manifest and latent functions, and unantici- pated consequences.

9. Conflict theory developed in reaction to structural functionalism and is in many ways its mirror image, focusing on change (rather than equilibrium), dissension and

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conflict (rather than order), forces that contribute to disintegration (rather than inte- gration), and the coercion that holds society together (rather than norms and values).

10. Dahrendorf’s focus was on authority, which always implies superordination and subordination. The organizations in which authority positions are found are called imperatively coordinated associations.

11. Groups within these associations are defined by their interests; superordinate and subordinate groups each have common interests.

12. Three types of groups are formed in imperatively coordinated associations, espe- cially among those in subordinate positions. The quasi group is a number of indi- viduals who occupy positions that have the same role interests. These are the recruiting grounds for interest groups that have the capacity to engage in group conflict. Out of all the many interest groups emerge conflict groups, or those groups that actually engage in conflict.

13. Conflict has the capacity to lead to change. 14. Key to understanding Luhmann’s distinction between system and environment is

the fact that the system is always less complex than the environment. 15. Autopoiesis refers to the fact that systems are self-making or self-organizing.

This means that systems constantly create and recreate their own structures and elements.

16. Differentiation is the system’s ability to make distinctions, first between itself and its environment and then within itself.

17. The four types of differentiation are segmentary, stratificatory, center-periphery, and functional.

18. Functional differentiation is the most complex form and the one that dominates society.

Suggested Readings

M ark A brahamson Functionalism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall , 1978 . Interest- ing brief introduction to structural functionalism.

M elvin T umin “Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis.” American Socio- logical Theory 18, 1953 : 387–394 . The classic critique of the structural functional the- ory of stratification.

V ictor L idz “Talcott Parsons.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley- Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 511–558. Overview of the life and work of Talcott Parsons authored by one of his former students.

R ichard M unch “Talcott Parsons.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 550–555 . Overview of some of Parsons’s most important ideas by a leading German disciple.

P iotr S ztompka Robert K. Merton: An Intellectual Profile. London and New York: Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press , 1986 . Book-length treatment of Merton’s life and work.

Charles Crothers “Robert Merton.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 65–88. Thor- ough review of Merton’s life and work that provides an overarching framework for organizing his many contributions.

P iotr S ztompka “Robert Merton.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 499–500 . A brief sketch of Merton’s perspective that is barely able to scratch the surface on Merton’s many

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contributions to social theory. The author is an intellectual biographer and disciple of Merton.

R andall C ollins Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science. New York: Aca- demic Press , 1975 . Important, more contemporary, and micro-oriented contribution to conflict theory.

L ewis C oser The Functions of Social Conflict. New York: Free Press , 1956. Classic effort to integrate conflict theory and structural functionalism.

J onathan T urner “Conflict Theory.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 134–138 . Nice overview of some of the major types of conflict theory by an important contributor to that theory and to social theory in general.

N iklas L uhmann “Modern Systems Theory and the Theory of Society.” In V. Meja , D. Misgeld , and N. Stehr , eds., Modern German Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press , 1987 , pp. 173–186 . Early but comparatively readable rendition of some of Luhmann’s basic ideas on systems theory.

G erd N ollmann “Niklas Luhmann.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 454–457 . Brief overview of Luhmann’s ideas with particular attention to the relationship between his ideas and those of Parsons.

K enneth B ailey “General Systems Theory.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 309–315 . A prominent systems theorist offers a broad overview of this theory that puts Luhmann’s contri- bution in the context of the work of other theorists and theoretical ideas.

Rudolf Stichweh “Niklas Luhmann.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 287–309. Very interesting and rich study of Luhmann’s life, social context, and major theo- retical contributions.

Endnote 1This is an adaptation of a section that was originally co-authored by Douglas Goodman and Matthias Junge.

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C H A P T E R 5

Contemporary Grand Theories II

Neo-Marxian Theory The Civilizing Process The Colonization of the Lifeworld The Juggernaut of Modernity Summary Suggested Readings

T his chapter deals with four more important modern grand theories. We begin with neo-Marxian theory, which encompasses such a broad range of the- ories that we are able to focus on only two of its main varieties—critical theory and theories of the nature of space in the contemporary world. We then turn to grand theories closely associated with contemporary theorists—Norbert Elias’s civilizing process, Jürgen Habermas’s (a later critical theorist) colonization of the lifeworld, and Anthony Giddens’s juggernaut of modernity. The theories covered here and in the previous chapter constitute only a small sample of the wide range of contemporary grand theories.


Many theorists followed Marx and over the years took his theories in many different directions; there are a number of neo-Marxian theories. It is worth noting that not all neo-Marxian theories offer grand narratives, but several, including the two to be discussed here, do closely follow Marx in the sense of offering theories of great sweep.

Critical Theory and the Emergence of the Culture Industry

Critical theory was founded in 1923 at the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. However, in the 1930s the Institute was taken over by the Nazis and the theorists associated with it were forced to flee, many of them to the United States. Many of critical theory’s most important ideas were formulated in the United

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States, but with the end of World War II many of its practitioners gradually returned to Germany.

As the name suggests, the critical theorists were social (and intellectual) crit- ics. In this they were following Marx, who was a critic of capitalism. The focus of Marx’s work was on the economy because in the era in which he lived (the height of the Industrial Revolution) the economy was of overwhelming impor- tance. However, critical theory is based on the idea that in the half century or so between Marx’s Capital and the heyday of the critical school, capitalism had undergone a dramatic change. The most important aspect of society was in the process of shifting from the economy to the culture; people were more and more likely to be controlled by the culture rather than the economy. Thus, the critical school had to focus its critical gaze not on the economy (where Marx and many of his followers, even to this day, concentrated), but rather on the culture.

Marx, and those who followed immediately in his wake, tended to think of culture, along with the state, as a superstructure erected on an economic base. In other words, the economy is of prime importance and everything else in society is based on it. The capitalist economy was seen as especially powerful and it played a central role in determining and controlling culture and the state. Both tended to be seen as mechanisms manipulated by the capitalists in order to further their own economic interests. What the critical theorists argued was that culture, as well as those who lead and control it, has achieved significant autonomy from the capitalists. In this and in their focus on the culture industry, the critical theorists took a position radically different from virtually all Marxists who had come before them.

Culture At the most general level, the critical theorists were most concerned with what they called the culture industry and its increasing domination of society in general and of individuals in particular. The critical theorists were sensitized to the rise of what has come to be called mass culture. In their day, the major disseminators of culture to the masses were newspapers, magazines, and the relatively new movies and radio broadcasts. Those media continue to be important today, but we now have newer and far more powerful dissemi- nators of mass culture, most notably television and the Internet. Although it is clear that if the critical theorists were right in their day to be interested in the culture industry, there is far more reason to be concerned with it today.

superstructure To Marx, secondary social phenomena, like the state and culture, that are erected on an economic base that serves to define them. Most extremely, the economy determines the superstructure.

base To Marx, the economy, which conditions, if not determines, the nature of every- thing else in society.

culture industry To the critical theorists, industries such as movies and radio that were serving to make culture a more important factor in society than the economy.

mass culture The culture (e.g., radio quiz shows) that had been made available to, and popular among, the masses.

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Why were the critical theorists so concerned about culture? For one thing, the impact of culture is more pervasive than that of work. Work largely affects people while they are on the job, but the impact of culture is felt around-the- clock, seven days a week. Another reason is that culture’s impact is far more insidious—gradually working its way into people’s consciousness and alter- ing the way they think, feel, and act. Third, at work people know that they are being dominated. This is quite clear when they are given orders, when they are being forced to do certain things over and over again by technologies like the assembly line, and when they are laid off or fired. In the case of culture, control is largely invisible. In fact, people crave more and more mass culture (more radio and TV shows, and today, more time on the Internet) without realizing the way it exercises domination over them. In a sense, the critical theorists came to the realization that people had come to seek out their own domination.

Culture came to dominate people in various ways. The most important was what Marx called an opiate of the masses. Lulled into semiconsciousness by the culture industry, the proletariat would not be receptive to revolutionary mes- sages. This was a very pleasant kind of control. Rather than being controlled at gun point, or by the whip, the masses were controlled in the 1930s, for example, by a steady diet of Hollywood B-movies that did not elevate their tastes, but reduced them to the lowest common denominator. In addition, there was the string of nightly radio programs with listeners tuned in for hours to low-brow comedies, dramas, and contests of one kind or another. Radio also served to bring mass sports into people’s homes so that additional hours could be spent listening to the exploits of one’s favorite professional and college teams. People entertained for many hours a week were likely to lose whatever hostility they might have had to the capitalist system. Furthermore, the sheer amount of time listening to the radio or going to the movies, combined with the hours spent at work, left little time for revolutionary reading and thinking, let alone action.

Today, of course, other media play the central role in narcotizing the masses. Television is a key player, with endless soap operas during the day followed by one reality show after another at night. The latter are, at least for the moment, among the most watched programs on network television. Millions of viewers devote several hours a week to watching people compete with one another to win the money they need, without having to work for it or to be players in the capitalist economic system. Instead of rebelling against the capitalist system, viewers are left to daydream about what they would do with all that money.

But the culture industry of the 1930s, 1940s, and today has played a much more direct role in the maintenance of capitalism by turning more and more people into consumers. As mass consumers, people came to play another cen- tral role (the other was as worker) in the capitalist system. Their consump- tion served as an important motor of capitalist production. In the early 1900s that ultimate capitalist Henry Ford recognized this by paying his workers an adequate enough wage to buy his products as well as those of other capitalist enterprises. Of course, the key development was the growing magnitude and sophistication of the advertising industry. Radio was a wonderful new medium

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for advertising, while the mass magazines and newspapers (especially the tabloids) were a more traditional medium for advertisers. Spurred on by these advertisements, people spent more and more time shopping; once again, time was not being used to think about and undertake social revolution. Furthermore, the burgeoning needs of consumers meant that they had to work as much as they could, seek as much overtime as possible, and even work second jobs, in order to be able to afford all those goodies being advertised everywhere. Working not only further reduced the amount of time for revolutionary activities, but the additional time at work and the energy expended working meant that the prole- tariat had even less energy for revolution. They had just about enough strength left at the end of the workday or workweek to drag themselves home, switch on the radio, and doze off during lulls in the action.

If this was true of America in the 1930s, it is far more true of America in the early years of the 21st century. However, in the interim the culture indus- try has grown far more powerful and infinitely more sophisticated. Few of us switch on the radio at night, but virtually all of us turn on the television set, often for many hours. We still go the movies on occasion, but with the advent of DVDs and on-demand movies we no longer need to go out to see a movie. Magazines are more numerous and more spectacular than their pre- decessors. Newspapers are less prevalent, but those that remain are emulat- ing USA Today and becoming more attractive and seductive. Then there are the home computer and the Internet. Although they are wonderful tools for education, most people use them for online social networking (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), entertainment (especially video games) and, increasingly, to shop 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Because shopping is the favorite leisure activ- ity of Americans, they spend many long hours after work and on weekends at the shopping mall. Vacation is likely to be spent consuming services and goods in places like a Las Vegas casino-hotel, a cruise ship, or Disney World. Today’s opiates are far more numerous, ever-present, and sophisticated than those the critical theorists were so concerned about. The tools at the disposal of advertisers are much more sophisticated and their ability to manipulate us into consuming is much greater. And there is infinitely more time available for shopping and many more venues, both real and virtual, in which we can do our shopping.

All of this means, of course, that there is much less interest in and time for revolutionary thinking and action. As the critical theorists might put it, people are too anesthetized by the mass media, too busy shopping and working to afford what they buy when they shop, to think very much about revolution, let alone to act on such thoughts. This said, since the recession, which began in 2007, people have had less money to engage in widespread consumption. This suggests at least the possibility that the consumer culture will loosen its grip on people. And while, in general, there is no sign that people in the United States are interested in revolution, recent protests such as those initiated by the Occupy Movement indi- cate at least some people are able to see through the manipulations of consumer culture and envision alternative social arrangements (see the Contemporary Applications box on the Occupy Movement later in this chapter).

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Implied in this critique is the idea that even though the consumer culture promises happiness, it does not offer true happiness. So it’s worth asking the question: What kind of society would bring the greatest happiness? For this critical theorists combined Marxian theory and Freudian psychoanalytic the- ory. In addition to their focus on culture, the critical theorists were known for their fusion of large-scale Marxian analysis with a more psychologically attuned Freudian analysis. Following Sigmund Freud, critical theorists hold that human beings are fundamentally sexual/sensual beings who find the greatest satisfaction in acting on those instincts. Repression of these instinctual desires leads to frustration and unhappiness. Freud argued that humans are destined for unhappiness because in entering society they must repress their most powerful desires. However, people can make up for this loss by find- ing creative outlets for the expression of their repressed desires. They may not fully be able to act out those desires, but they can find very satisfying substitute expressions of those desires, for example in artistic and scientific activity, or as we will see in a moment, through meaningful work.

Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) A Biographical Vignette

Herbert Marcuse was a member of the Critical School and a major contributor to critical theory. He became a major public intellectual in the United States and in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s because his ideas resonated well with the revolution- aries, especially students, who were protesting the Vietnam War and oppression in its various forms. Marcuse was a critic of repression wherever he found it, but especially in advanced capitalist society, and its negative effects on people. This theme is apparent in his best-known book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), published just before the advent of the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and a pow- erful influence on them. Among other things, Marcuse singled out modern technol- ogy, especially television (were he alive today he might have said many of the same things about the computer and the Internet), for advances in repression, especially its ability to make repression seem so pleasant. Television, and other contempo- rary technologies, invade individuals and serve to whittle them down. As a result people become “one-dimensional.” They become more-or-less what these repres- sive, but oh so pleasant, technologies tell them to be. In the process they lose a key dimension—the ability to think critically and negatively about many things, includ- ing the society and technologies that are repressing them. The answer, for Marcuse, is not the elimination of modern technologies (they are here to stay and will only increase), but the wresting of control of them away from oppressive forces and put- ting them in the hands of free people. Clearly, such a critique and political program were attractive to student (and other) radicals of the late 1960s and, to some, they remain attractive today in light of continuing advances in television technology and the development of new technologies (e.g., iPod, Xbox) that make repression even more ubiquitous and deeply implicated in our everyday lives.

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In general, the critical theorists agree with this idea, but Herbert Marcuse adds a particularly interesting variation. He says that some kinds of societies impose greater degrees of repression on their members than others and allow fewer substitute forms of satisfaction. This is especially the case with capital- ism. On the surface, consumer capitalism seems to provide people satisfaction of all their desires. Indeed, from a psychoanalytic perspective consumer capi- talism works precisely because it provides channels for expressing otherwise repressed desire. However, critical theorists point out that the kind of satisfac- tion provided by consumer culture is inadequate to human need. Remember that critical theorists were Marxists. For Marx, pleasure comes in the capac- ity for meaningful work. Critical theorists argue that if a society is to be free and happy people must be able to find satisfaction—sensual gratification of the Freudian kind—in their work. This cannot happen in a society where work is increasingly monotonous, individualizing, and deadening. In this view, while consumer capitalism promises happiness, this kind of happiness is a poor substitute for the more authentic kind that would stem from meaningful, co-operative work. According to critical theory, a communist society would allow people both the creative and sensual gratification that comes from work- ing in the world with other persons. Presumably this would also allow for the development of more meaningful and satisfying forms of consumption.

Modern Technology Implicit in the critique of the culture industry is the critical school’s attack on modern technology. Obviously, many of today’s key elements of the culture industry—television, computers, the Internet—are the result of technological advances that occurred after the heyday of the critical school. But the critical school itself confronted new technologies (e.g., the radio) that it saw as creating major problems for, and sources of control over, people. Rather than being controlled by people, these technologies controlled people. However, the main thrust of the work of the critical school was to argue that it was not technology per se that was the problem, but the way technology was deployed and employed in capitalism. Thus, the capitalists used technology to control people, deaden their critical capacities, and greatly limit their ability to revolt against this inherently exploitative system. Critical theorists believed that in another economic system, say, socialism, technology could be used to make people more conscious, more critical, and resistant to exploitative systems like capitalism. Thus, instead of offering mediocre programs designed mainly to help sell things, radio programs could be truly stimulating and educational.

Focusing on the role of technology, Herbert Marcuse argued that it was being used to create what he called a one-dimensional society. In an ideal

one-dimensional society To Herbert Marcuse, the breakdown in the dialectical rela- tionship between people and the larger structures so that people are largely con- trolled by such structures. Lost is the ability of people to create and to be actively involved in those structures. Gradually, individual freedom and creativity dwindle away into nothingness, and people lose the capacity to think critically and nega- tively about the structures that control and oppress them.

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world Marcuse, like Marx and many other Marxists, saw a dialectical relation- ship between people and the larger structures, like technology, that they cre- ated. In other words, people should be fulfilling their needs and expressing their abilities as they create, employ, and alter technologies. In this way, both people and technology would flourish. However, in capitalism this is trans- formed into a one-sided relationship. People create technology, but it is owned and controlled by the capitalists and it is used by them to their own advantage to control and exploit workers. Thus, instead of expressing themselves through the use of technology, people are impoverished by the control exerted over them by technology. Individuality is suppressed as everyone conforms to the demands of technology. Gradually, individual freedom and creativity dwindle away into nothingness. As a result, people lose the capacity to think critically and negatively not only about technology but the society that controls and oppresses them. Without that ability, people are unable to revolt against and overthrow the capitalist system. The answer to this problem from Marcuse’s perspective is the creation of a society in which people (i.e., the proletariat) con- trol technology rather than being controlled by it.

The technologies employed by the capitalists, such as the assembly line, tend to be highly rationalized; this fact relates to another central concern of the critical theorists. Strongly influenced not only by Karl Marx but also Max Weber, they tended to argue that society was growing increasingly rational- ized. Like Weber, some of them even came to see that increasing rationalization, rather than capitalism, was the central problem of their day. This rationaliza- tion undergirded not only the technologies being put into place but also the culture industry; both were growing increasingly rationalized.

In their view, increasing rationality tends to lead to technocratic thinking. That is, people grow concerned with being efficient, with simply finding the best means to an end without reflecting on either the means or the end. An exam- ple is the Nazis associated with the concentration camps (given their origins in Germany, many observers feel that the critical theorists anticipated the horrors associated with Nazism), who focused all of their attention and energies on the goal of killing the greatest number of Jews using the most efficient means (e.g., the gas chambers) possible. Such thinking serves the interests of those in power.

In the case of capitalism, both the capitalists and the proletariat were domi- nated by this kind of thinking. However, the critical theorists were most inter- ested in and concerned about the proletariat. For example, an assembly line worker is led, even forced, to concentrate on working as efficiently as possible. The continual pressure of the assembly line leaves workers little or no time to reflect on how they are doing the work and how tiring and debilitating it is to do one thing over and over. Furthermore, it leaves them even less time and energy to think about the ends of the production process, say, the automobiles that roll off the assembly line and the fact that they kill and maim many thousands of people each year, pollute the air, use up valuable natural resources, and so on.

technocratic thinking Concern with being efficient, with simply finding the best means to an end without reflecting on either the means or the end.

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What is lost in the process is the alternative to technocratic thinking, reason, which assesses means to ends in terms of ultimate human values such as justice, freedom, and happiness. Reason, to critical thinkers, is the hope for humanity. Auschwitz, for example, was a very rational place, but it was certainly not rea- sonable. If the Nazis had employed reason rather than technocratic thinking, the Holocaust would never have occurred because the actions associated with it flew in the face of all human values. Much the same could be said of capitalism: It is very rational but not very reasonable. To the critical theorists the hope for society was the creation of a society dominated by reason rather than techno- cratic thinking, where human values take precedence over efficiency.

Key Concept Knowledge Industry

Another sector of society that came under attack by the critical school was what they called the knowledge industry. Paralleling the idea of the culture industry, this term refers to those entities in society concerned with knowledge production and dissemination, especially research institutes and universities. Like the cul- ture industry, these settings achieved a large measure of autonomy within soci- ety, which allowed them to redefine themselves. Instead of serving the interests of society as a whole, they have come to focus on their own interests; this means that they are intent on expanding their influence over society. Research institutes help to turn out the technologies needed by the culture industry, the state, and the capitalists and, in so doing, help to strengthen their position in, and influence over, society. Universities come to serve a similar series of interests, but perhaps more importantly serve to foster technocratic thinking and, in the process, help to sup- press reason. Universities are dominated by technocratic administrators who run the university much like any bureaucracy and who impose rules on professors and students alike. Furthermore, the universities become increasingly dominated, not by the liberal arts that might encourage reason, but by the business, professional, and technical schools that are dominated by technocratic thinking. Furthermore, instead of challenging students to think, universities become more like factories for the manufacture of hordes of students. The focus is not on making them reasonable human beings, but on processing as many students as possible in the most efficient way. Universities come to turn out students in much the same way that factories turn out automobiles or sausages.

knowledge industry To the critical theorists, those entities in society concerned with knowledge production and dissemination, especially research institutes and uni- versities. Like the culture industry, these settings achieved a large measure of autonomy within society, which allowed them to redefine themselves. Instead of serving the interests of society as a whole, they have come to focus on their own interests; this means that they are intent on expanding their influence over society.

reason People assess the choice of means to ends in terms of ultimate human values such as justice, freedom, and happiness.

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In other words, despite the seeming rationality of capitalism, it is a sys- tem rife with irrationality. This is the notion of the irrationality of rationality; rational systems inevitably spawn a series of irrationalities. In the rational world of capitalism, it is irrational that such a system is destructive of individuals and their needs and abilities; that technology makes them one-dimensional; that the culture industry controls them rather than helping them to express their finest aspirations and abilities; and that despite the existence of more than sufficient wealth, many people remain impoverished, repressed, exploited, and unable to fulfill themselves.

Pessimism about the Future All of this, but especially the focus on increasing rationalization, leads the critical theorists, unlike Marx and most Marxists, to a very pessimistic view of the future. Instead of the overthrow of the capital- ists by the proletariat, the critical theorists envision continued and expanding rationalization. This is true within the culture, technology, and the knowledge industry ( see Key Concept box ). However, each of these was likely not only to grow increasingly rational, but each was expected to grow more important in its own right. Thus, the future is seen as a kind of iron cage composed of increasingly rational cultural, technological, and educational systems that inter- penetrate to control people and make them increasingly one-dimensional. This kind of thinking has far more in common with the pessimistic views of Max Weber than the optimistic perspectives of Marx and most other neo-Marxists.

This kind of pessimistic thinking about the future did not endear the critical theorists to other Marxists. After all, Marxists were not supposed to be merely thinkers, but also people of action intent on relating their theories to revolu- tionary movements. The pessimism of the critical theorists seemed to foreclose the possibility of action, let alone revolution. The proletariat were left to await their inevitable fate—imprisonment in the iron cage of rationality being put in place by the various elements of the culture industry. From the point of view of the critical theorists, the masses did not view this as an unpleasant fate. In fact, the iron cage has been made as pleasant and comfortable as possible. It is nicely padded and furnished. It is loaded with amenities like People magazine and USA Today; labor-saving devices like dishwashers and microwave ovens; televisions, TiVos, DVDs, and all the tapes and disks one could ever want; com- puters with free and continuous access to video games, movies, Facebook, and shopping sites on the Internet, and so on. People have come to love their cages and they are eager to fill them with more of the goodies being churned out by the capitalist system. However, this situation is precisely the problem. In love with their cages and the consumer toys that crowd them, people see no need to revolt; indeed, they are no longer even able to see that there are such problems as exploitation and control. In the end, these attractive and pleasant methods of control are far more effective than the oppressive actions of the capitalists and their lackeys that characterized the early years of capitalism.

irrationality of rationality The idea that rational systems inevitably spawn a series of irrationalities.

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 117

Neo-Marxian Spatial Analysis

In the past, Marxist theories have primarily focused on the analysis of capital- ism as it develops over time. Marx, for example, analyzed the processes that led to the shift from feudal society to capitalist society and then, it was hoped, to communist society. In contrast to this focus on temporal process, in recent years Marxist social theorists have been interested in the relationship between capitalism and space. These theorists argue that the focus on time does not adequately address the way that capitalism spreads across and controls space. This includes everything from the way capitalism shapes people’s movement through their everyday lives (do you walk or drive to work?), to the way that cities are organized (how many suburbs does your city have?), to the way that capitalism shapes the development of international trade routes (which parts of the world do your groceries come from?). In this section, we describe the main ideas of two of the most prominent Marxist theorists of space.

Henri Lefebvre on Space According to Lefebvre, in the past, social theo- rists have not suffi ciently theorized the nature of space and its relationship to social life. They have primarily treated space as a neutral backdrop to the more important events that occurred in space. To these older theories, space was a place in which things happened, but space in itself did not have meaning or sig- nifi cance. In contrast, Lefebvre argues that space is not neutral. Space is made by human beings to refl ect human interests. In the simplest sense, this means that people actively shape their environments, cutting down trees, rerouting rivers and digging holes in the ground so that they can build villages and cities in those spaces. But Lefebvre’s argument is even richer than this. It is not sim- ply that humans modify space. In modifying space they inject human mean- ings into space. People inject meaning into the spaces in which they live all the time. For example, when people move into new homes or apartments, they paint the walls their favorite color, they hang art on the wall, and they bring cherished items of furniture from previous spaces in which they lived. In short, they make the space their own. Lefebvre sees a similar process taking place on a grand social scale. Human societies build, shape and ultimately dominate the spaces in which they live. In this act of building, they turn space into something that embodies the meanings, interests, and values of their particular society.

As a Marxist, Lefebvre is particularly interested in the way that capitalism shapes the spaces in which people live. To better understand the capitalist dom- ination of space, Lefebvre provides a history of the ways in which space has been shaped by human societies. Early pastoral and agricultural societies did not dominate space. They lived quite close to nature and, if anything, Lefebvre suggests that these early societies were dominated by the spaces and forces of nature. They lived in response to the demands placed on them by their imme- diate geography. This starts to change with the development of what Lefeb- vre calls absolute space. Absolute space is shaped by religious and political

absolute space Spaces built in natural locations that embody religious and political principles. Ultimately these spaces serve the interests of political and religious elites.

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Contemporary Applications The Occupy Movement and Neo-Marxian

Spatial Analysis

The Occupy Movement began in Zuccotti Park in New York City in September 2011. In contrast to the traditional protest march, “occupiers” set up camp and refused to leave the park. Through continuing occupation of the park the goal was to draw attention to social inequality in the United States and around the world. Famously, occupiers distinguished between the 1% who own most of the wealth and have most of the power in the United States and the remaining 99% of the population for whom wealth and power is significantly less and diminishing, especially after the financial collapse of 2008. While the movement has been criticized for offering no clear goals, in general the occupiers sought to eliminate economic inequality and take power back from corporations. Beginning in Zuccotti Park, the style of protest quickly spread so that by mid-Fall 2011 there were numerous Occupy sites around the United States and the world. While in name the Occupy Movement continues to this day, most of the occupied spaces were cleared of protestors by state authorities before the end of 2011.

From the perspective of Lefebvre’s neo-Marxian spatial theory, Occupy is inter- esting precisely because the movement works through the occupation of space. In contrast to forms of political protest such as petitioning or public marches, Occupy shows that power is not merely exercised in language or even physical visibility, but also through the everyday control and use of space. In Lefebvre’s terms, con- temporary America produces abstract spaces—spaces which allow domination and control in the name of bureaucratic efficiency and capitalist value production.

The way that occupiers use space demonstrates an alternative to the produc- tion of abstract space. For example, according to Lefebvre, abstract space fragments social practice and thereby destroys the unity of life. Social functions are dispersed and located in separate spaces: politics are practiced at the legislature, leisure and recreation are practiced at the mall or the park, education is practiced in schools and libraries, sleeping and eating are practiced in the family home. In contrast, the Occupy Movement brought all of these functions together in the same place—the park. This becomes a place of political protest and decision making, but it is also a place where people learn together (a makeshift library was set up in Zuccotti Park), and a place where people sleep, make food, and eat together. Further, occupiers bring the space to life through music, art, and dance. In other words, where abstract space separates various social practices, the occupiers bring these practices together and relate them to one another.

concerns. These spaces are built in places like mountaintops and caves. Exam- ples include Greek temples and Christian tombs and cemeteries. On the surface, Lefebvre says, these spaces seem to draw their power from nature. For exam- ple the ancient Greek temple is built in a natural setting and it is constructed to reflect natural geometrical principles of order and symmetry. Similarly the Christian cemetery is built in a natural setting and it puts us into contact with the natural force of death. Ultimately, however, these spaces dominate nature.

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 119

They are, after all, built spaces and built spaces necessarily impose their order on the natural world that they displace. In addition, the elites who control these spaces use their symbolic power to dominate human populations.

The next kind of space is called historical space. This kind of space starts to be produced in early modern Europe. Even though Lefebvre spends rela- tively little time discussing historical space, it is an important bridge between absolute space and the abstract space of the present moment. Historical space is secular. It breaks with the religious connection to nature found in absolute

historical space The kind of space produced when separate nations vie with one another for power and the accumulation of wealth.

Contemporary Applications—Continued

Though the occupied space is clearly not intended as a more general model of social organization, and it had failings (assault, theft and internal inequality were problems), it is an example of what Lefebvre has in mind when he talks about dif- ferential space. By bringing together different kinds of people engaged in different kinds of social practices, a new kind of dynamism is created. The occupiers, then, demonstrate the production of a new kind of space—one that challenges the control exercised through abstract space. This is underlined by the fact that the occupiers spent large amounts of time deliberating over their own use of space. For example, occupiers wanted to avoid authoritarian decision making. Instead, they relied upon a leaderless, mass democracy in which the space, in its more political moments, became a forum for shared discussion and decision making.

The importance of spatial control to the reproduction of society is also high- lighted by the aggressive and violent responses of authorities to the Occupy Move- ment. At first, when Occupy appeared to be short-lived, authorities remained vigilant but did not interfere. However, once the Occupy Movement began to draw widespread public attention, and to challenge the normal uses of space (i.e., they stayed in one place for a very long time), the state intervened: riot police arrested occupiers, removed tents, and in some of the more notorious instances used pep- per spray to subdue protestors. Supporters of the state argued that protestors were removed in the name of public safety and a respect for the law: parks are to be used only during posted hours, parks should not be used for sleeping or camping, unorthodox use of space might lead to health risks. From Lefebvre’s perspective, though, this is precisely the point. Challenges to dominant modes of social power require novel and unanticipated uses of space. Why should the state, or the private enterprise that owns a particular space, be permitted to decide how space is used? How do they determine the difference between a safe space and a risky space? Why should a particular space be used only for leisure and that leisure be exercised only at certain times of the day? The Occupy Movement, then, shows that the everyday use of space is by no means a neutral issue. Normally we take for granted and don’t think about the ways in which our spaces are organized. However, when these spaces are persistently and stubbornly used in unfamiliar ways we see not only that space is something that is produced, but that it is produced with powerful political and economic interests in mind.

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space. Historical space is produced as separate nations vie with one another for power and the accumulation of wealth. This space is produced with human interests in mind, rather than nature or religion. Ultimately historical space gives way to the abstract space.

Abstract space is the kind of space produced within the modern, indus- trial, capitalist society. Abstract space involves the total domination of nature and society. In order to ensure as much profit as possible, the capitalist, work- ing alongside the state, tries to exert as much control over space as possible. Indeed, for Lefebvre the control of space is essential to the growth of capitalism. This kind of control requires that the capitalist take an abstract view of space. Within a capitalist society professions like urban planning and architecture serve the purpose of producing abstract representations of space. The abstract representations treat space as a series of problems to be analyzed and solved. It treats space more like a mathematical grid than a place in which people live their lives. Indeed, instead of seeing space from the perspective of the person who uses space, planners seek to maximize the efficient and profitable use of space: How can space be most efficiently used? How can space be organized to benefit the growth of the economy? From this view, it is not only the factory that generates profit, but also the bus routes, railway lines, and highways that provide routes into the factory for workers and raw materials and out of the factory for finished products. The city, the country, and ultimately the planet is treated as a monolithic problem in spatial management.

As should be clear, the production of abstract space has implications for the everyday experience of space. Abstract space controls the way that people use and move through space and in so doing it also determines the way that people experience and live their lives. For example, North American cities designed in the latter half of the 20th century were organized around the interests of the automobile industry. City planners chose to build highways and intricate road systems that stretched into suburbs, rather than planning walkable cities like those found in Europe. People who live in the former kinds of cities are likely to experience the city through the lens of high speed traffic and congestion. They will spend many hours commuting to and from work in single passenger cars and their homes in the suburbs will become the self-enclosed center of their existence.

This said, as a good Marxian theorist, Lefebvre emphasizes that abstract space is also full of contradictions that will ultimately bring about its demise. Indeed the point of most Marxist analysis is to show that built into the very struc- tures of capitalism are the forces that will undermine capitalism. For example, one of the consequences of capitalism is a clear and growing distinction between the rich and the poor. Spatially, this inequality has been realized through the development of wealthy suburbs and gated communities. Gated communities

abstract space The kind of space produced within modern capitalist society. It domi- nates nature and all unique human forms. It views space as a problem to be solved and calculated.

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 121

are designed in order to defend the property of the wealthy against intrusions by the poor who live in low income neighborhoods and slums. If inequality continues to grow (as Marxists predict), then we can also expect to see further spatial divisions between rich and poor. Although, until the present, scholars have only commented on the inequalities made apparent through these spaces, Lefebvre suggests that recognition of these kinds of contradictions will eventu- ally produce challenges to these spatial divisions and the emergence of a new kind of space.

This brings us to Lefebvre’s fourth kind of space: differential space. While abstract space seeks to control and homogenize everyone and everything, dif- ferential space accentuates difference and freedom from control. While abstract space breaks up the natural unity that exists in the world, differential space restores that unity. Differential space allows for the use of space that is not imagined through the principles of abstraction and calculation. A differential space would be one in which space is produced from the perspective of those who live within it rather than from the perspective of the system of capitalism. It would also, Lefebvre suggests, bring people closer to the power of natural spaces that have for so long been dominated by human interests. Indeed, dif- ferential space is revolutionary and transformative because it allows room for tension, difference, and unique forms of human spatial expression to thrive. In contrast to abstract space, then, differential space is a dynamic space that is accountable and responsive to the variety of people who live in that space (see Contemporary Application: The Occupy Movement and Neo-Marxian Theories of Space).

Within the context of Marxian theory then, Lefebvre’s analysis of space is important for two reasons. First, it offers a new focus of analysis and critique. Our attention should shift from the capitalist production of wealth through the means of production to the way that capitalism shapes the total space of con- temporary society. The forces of capital, in other words, are not only found in factories and financial exchange centers but they also organize the spaces of everyday life. Second, Lefebvre conducts this analysis in order to motivate social change. We live in a world in which the state, the capitalist, and the bour- geoisie dominate space. It is a closed, sterile world, one that is being emptied out of contents (e.g., highways are replacing and destroying local communi- ties). Lefebvre argues that we need instead a world in which people would work with others to produce the kinds of spaces that they need to survive and prosper. They would not try to dominate space, but rather would modify natu- ral space in order to serve their collective needs. Thus, Lefebvre’s goal is the production of space that is a product and reflection of human beings rather than abstract systems. It would be planet-wide space that would serve as the basis for transforming everyday life. Needless to say, state and private owner- ship of the means of production would wither away under such a system.

differential space A hoped-for space that accentuates difference and freedom from control; it would restore the natural unity that is broken by abstract space.

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David Harvey on Space One aspect of David Harvey’s complex body of work that is particularly relevant to this discussion of neo-Marxian theory is his analysis and critique of the geographical arguments made by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1868). Harvey sees what he calls the ”spatial fi x” as central to the argument made in the Manifesto. That is, the need to create ever-higher profi ts means that capitalist fi rms must, among other things, continually seek new geographic areas (and markets) to exploit and fi nd more ways of exploiting more intensively the areas in which they already operate. While such geographical arguments occupy an important place in the Manifesto, they characteristically are subordinated, as Foucault argued, to a perspective that prioritizes time and history (e.g., the history of class struggles, especially proletariat vs. capitalists) at the expense of space and geography.

Harvey wants to see more attention paid to the way the world, including capitalism, is organized geographically. Thus, for example, it is not enough to say that the state is controlled by the capitalists; the way a territorially defined state is organized and administered is also of great importance. For example, loosely connected provinces have to be brought together to form the nation. However, territories do not remain set in stone once they have been trans- formed into states. All sorts of things alter territorial configurations, including revolutions in transportation and communication, differences in resources, and the uneven outcomes of class struggle. Furthermore, boundaries between ter- ritories are always porous and products, money, and workers flow through them rather easily. Thus, territories are being redefined and reorganized con- tinually, with the result that any model that envisions a final formation of the state on a territorial basis is overly simplistic. The implication is that we need to be attuned continuously to territorial changes in a world dominated by capital- ism (as well as any other economic system).

Another of the spatial arguments made in the Communist Manifesto is that capitalism (e.g., its factories, offices) tends to become concentrated in the cit- ies. This, in turn, leads to the concentration of the proletariat in those cities (they were formerly scattered throughout the countryside). Instead of conflict between isolated workers and capitalists, it becomes more likely that a collec- tivity of workers will confront capitalists, who are themselves now more likely to be organized into a collectivity. Thus, the nature and likelihood of class struggle is strongly affected by spatial changes.

There is much more to be said about the relationship between space and class struggle, and this is amply demonstrated in the more recent history of capitalism. For example, capitalists in the late nineteenth century dispersed fac- tories from the cities to the suburbs and small towns in an effort, at least in part, to limit the concentration of workers and their power. And in the late twentieth century we witnessed the dispersal of factories to remote areas of the world in order not only to reduce labor costs, but as a further effort to weaken the proletariat and to strengthen the capitalists. Most generally, capitalism itself has grown ever-more widespread throughout the world; it has become increas- ingly global (see Chapter 10).

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 123

Key Concept The Modern World-System

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930– ) chose a unit of analysis unlike those used by most Marxian thinkers. He did not look at workers, classes, or even states, because he found most of these too narrow for his purposes. Instead, he looked at a broad economic entity with a division of labor not circumscribed by political or cultural boundaries. He found that unit in his concept of the world-system, a largely self- contained social system with a set of boundaries and a definable life span (i.e., it does not last forever). It is composed internally of a variety of social structures and mem- ber groups. He viewed the system as being held together by a variety of forces in inherent tension. These forces always have the potential for tearing the system apart.

Wallerstein argued that thus far we have had only two types of world-systems: One was the world empire, of which ancient Rome was an example; the other is the modern capitalist world-economy. A world empire was based on political (and military) domination, whereas a capitalist world-economy relies on economic domi- nation. A capitalist world-economy is seen as more stable than a world empire for several reasons. It has a broader base because it encompasses many states, and it has a built-in process of economic stabilization. The separate political entities within the capitalist world-economy absorb whatever losses occur, while economic gain is dis- tributed to private hands. Wallerstein foresaw the possibility of a third world-system, a socialist world government. Whereas the capitalist world-economy separates the political from the economic sector, a socialist world-economy reintegrates them.

Within the capitalist world-economy, the core geographical area is dominant and exploits the rest of the system. The periphery consists of those areas that pro- vide raw materials to the core and are heavily exploited by it. The semiperiphery is a residual category that encompasses a set of regions somewhere between the exploiting and the exploited. To Wallerstein the international division of exploita- tion is defined not by state borders but by the economic division of labor in the world.

world-system A broad economic entity with a division of labor that is not circum- scribed by political or cultural boundaries. It is a social system, composed internally of a variety of social structures and member groups, that is largely self-contained, has a set of boundaries, and has a definable life span.

core The geographical area that dominates the capitalist world-economy and exploits the rest of the system.

periphery Those areas of the capitalist world-economy that provide raw materials to the core and are heavily exploited by it.

semiperiphery A residual category in the capitalist world-economy that encompasses a set of regions somewhere between the exploiting and the exploited.

Harvey also points out that the Manifesto tended to focus on the urban proletariat and thereby largely ignored rural areas, as well as agricultural workers and peasants. Of course, the latter groups have over the years proved

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to be very active in revolutionary movements. Furthermore, Marx and Engels tended to homogenize the world’s workers, to argue that they have no coun- try and that national differences are disappearing in the development of a homogeneous proletariat. Harvey notes that not only do national (spatial) differences persist, but capitalism itself produces national (and other) differ- ences among workers. In addition, labor plays a role here in sustaining spatial distinctions by, for example, using organizations based in given territories to mobilize workers and creating loyalties rooted in those places. Finally, Har- vey notes the famous call in the Manifesto for workers of the world to unite and argues that given the increasingly global character of capitalism, such an exhortation is more relevant and more important than ever. An ever more global capitalism makes a reaction, even a revolution, against it increasingly likely to be global in scope.

In addition to critiquing the ideas of the Communist Manifesto, Harvey devel- ops many of his own ideas under the heading of ”spaces of hope.” With this perspective, he wishes to counter what he perceives to be a pervasive pessimism among scholars today. He wants to acknowledge that there are spaces in which political struggle exists and, as a result, there is hope for society as a whole. Finally, he describes a utopian space of the future that offers hope to those con- cerned about the oppressiveness of today’s spaces.

Thus, in these and many other ways, Harvey builds on Marx’s (and in this case Engels’s) limited insights into space and capitalism to develop a richer and more contemporary perspective on their relationship to each other. In that sense, what Harvey is doing here is a model of neo-Marxian spatial analysis.


Norbert Elias’s (1897–1990) life work was the study of a long-term historical development he called the civilizing process. He arbitrarily chose as his starting point Europe in the Middle Ages, and he was interested in changes in everyday behaviors. The source of much of Elias’s information was books on manners written between the 13th and the 19th centuries. What he found was a long- term change in manners as they relate to daily behavior. Everyday behaviors that were once acceptable have, over time, become increasingly unacceptable. We are more likely to observe the everyday behaviors of others, to be sensitive

civilizing process The long-term change in the West in manners as they relate to daily behavior. Everyday behaviors once acceptable have, over time, become increas- ingly unacceptable. We are more likely to observe the everyday behaviors of others, to be sensitive to them, to understand them better, and, perhaps most importantly, to find an increasing number of them embarrassing. What we once found quite acceptable now embarrasses us enormously. As a result, what was once quite pub- lic is now hidden from view.

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 125

to them, to understand them better, and, perhaps, most importantly, to find an increasing number of them embarrassing. What we once found quite acceptable now embarrasses us enormously. As a result, what was once quite public is now hidden from view. Because others are likely to find certain mundane behaviors offensive, we are more likely to engage in those behaviors out of public view.

Examples of the Civilizing Process

Take some examples from eating at the table. In the 13th century most people found it acceptable to gnaw on the bones of animals and then put them back in the serving dish. They became self-conscious about it only when others com- mented on it and brought their attention to the offensive nature of the behavior. Most people also had to be told that it was unacceptable to pick their noses while eating. The need to warn people about such behaviors makes it clear that many were accustomed to engaging in them. They were not embarrassed by them; they did know that they were uncivilized. However, as the decades and centuries passed, the lessons were learned and increasing attention was given in books on manners to such things as picking one’s nose at the table. When nose picking finally became a behind-the-scenes behavior (except for very young children), attention turned to other, less egregious violations. For example, a 16th century document warned against such things as licking one’s fingers at the table or stirring sauce with one’s fingers. Such behaviors have now been eliminated from the table.

A similar trend is found in various natural functions such as expelling wind. A 14th century book for schoolchildren had various pieces of advice about such behavior:

• It is best to expel wind without a sound. • However, better to expel it with a noise than to hold it back. • To avoid offending others with the sound, press your buttocks firmly

together. • A cough is an excellent way of concealing the sound of wind being expelled.

Again, the point is that the need to offer advice about such things makes it clear that the public expelling of wind, often quite noisily, was very common. Clearly, in the more civilized 21st century there would be no need for such a document or such admonitions. Few people today expel wind noisily in public, unless they cannot avoid it or they think no one is nearby. As Elias puts it, the frontier of embarrassment has moved to encompass the expelling of wind.

The blowing of one’s nose followed the same trajectory. In the 15th century readers of books on manners were warned about blowing their noses with the same hand that held their meat. In the 16th century there was an admonishment about opening one’s handkerchief after blowing one’s nose and admiring the results. However, although by the 18th century advice was still being offered about blowing one’s nose, the kinds of behaviors discussed had largely disap- peared behind the shame frontier.

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Sexual relations experienced a similar fate. In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for men and women, who may have been little more than acquain- tances, to spend the night in the same room and to sleep naked. On a couple’s wedding night in the Middle Ages, a procession accompanied the bride and groom to their bed. Bridesmaids undressed the bride. For a marriage to be con- sidered valid, the bed had to be mounted by the couple in the presence of others. Bride and groom had to be laid together. All of this, of course, has now passed behind the shame frontier and bride and groom spend their wedding nights only in one another’s presence.

Explaining the Changes: Lengthening Dependency Chains

Elias described historical changes in mundane behaviors. However, how did he explain these changes? Although Elias explained changes in everyday life, that which explains those changes occurs, at least at first, at the macro-level of the state. A crucial development was the emergence of a strong head of state, a king. With the king emerged a stable central government in control of taxes and warfare. Around the king a court developed, in which power was relatively equally divided. The court was central to Elias’s argument.

Norbert Elias (1897–1990) A Biographical Vignette

Norbert Elias had an interesting and instructive career. He produced his most important work in the 1930s, but it was largely ignored at the time and for many years thereafter. During World War II, and for almost a decade after, Elias bounced around with no secure employment and remained marginal to British academic circles. However, in 1954 Elias was offered two academic positions and he accepted one at Leicester. Thus, Elias began his formal academic career at the age of 57! Elias’s career blossomed at Leicester and a number of important publications followed. However, Elias was disappointed with his tenure at Leicester because he failed in his effort to institutionalize a developmental approach that could stand as an alter- native to the kind of static approaches (of Talcott Parsons and others) that were then pre-eminent in sociology. He was also disappointed that few students adopted his approach; he continued to be a voice in the wilderness at Leicester, where students tended to regard him as an eccentric voice from the past. Reflective of this feeling of being on the outside was a recurrent dream reported by Elias during those years in which a voice on the telephone repeated, “Can you speak louder? I can’t hear you.” Throughout Elias’s years at Leicester none of his books was translated into English and few English sociologists of the day were fluent in German.

However, on the Continent, especially in the Netherlands and Germany, Elias’s work began to be rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s Elias began to receive not only academic, but public, recognition in Europe. Throughout the rest of his life Elias received a number of significant awards.

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Prior to the emergence of a court, warriors were pre-eminent and they were able to engage in violence because they had what Elias called short dependency chains. Relatively few people were dependent on them and they were dependent on a small number of other people. Thus, when warriors engaged in violent behavior, their behavior affected those against whom the violence was aimed, as well as a relatively small number of other people. In a sense, warriors were free to engage in violence because it did not affect or disrupt too large a portion of society. In contrast, the court nobles developed long dependency chains, which

Key Concept Figurations

Elias was involved in an effort to overcome the tendency of sociologists to distin- guish between individuals and society. In order to help achieve his integrative goal (see Chapter 7), Elias proposed the concept of figuration, an idea that makes it pos- sible to overcome our inability to think of people as both individuals and societies.

Figurations can be seen, above all, as processes. In fact, later in his life Elias came to prefer the term process sociology to describe his work. Figurations are social processes involving the interweaving of people. They are not structures external to and coercive of relationships between people; they are those interrelationships. Indi- viduals are seen as open and interdependent; figurations are made up of such indi- viduals. Power is central to social figurations and they are, as a result, constantly in flux. Figurations emerge and develop, but in largely unseen and unplanned ways.

Central to this discussion is the fact that the idea of a figuration applies to every social phenomenon between small groups and societies, even China with well over a billion people.

Elias refuses to deal with the relationship between individual and society. In other words, both individuals and societies (and every social phenomenon in between) involve people—human relationships. The idea of chains of interdepen- dence is as good an image as any of what Elias means by figurations and what con- stitutes the focus of his sociology. He is interested in how people are linked together and why that linkage occurs.

Elias’s notion of figuration is linked to the idea that individuals are open to, and interrelated with, other individuals. He argues that most sociologists operate with a sense of single individuals totally independent of all other human beings. Such an image does not lend itself to a theory of figurations; an image of open, inter- dependent actors is needed for figurational sociology.

figurations Social processes involving the interweaving of people who are seen as open and interdependent. Power is central to social figurations; they are constantly in flux. Figurations emerge and develop, but in largely unseen and unplanned ways.

dependency chains The chain of relationships involving those people that a person is dependent on as well as those people’s dependency on the person.

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served to prevent violence. They became dependent on those who provided them with the goods and services they desired (warriors had far fewer such needs and desires), and others depended on the nobles for that business. In this case, violence engaged in by nobles affected large numbers of people, perhaps the society as a whole. Long dependency chains forced nobles to become increas- ingly sensitive to the needs and expectations of others. Sensitized to others, the nobles were disinclined to commit violence against them. They were even less likely to engage in violence against others that might offend those involved in their dependency chains. Another factor serving to inhibit the nobles from engaging in violence was the fact that the king not only controlled the money needed to buy weapons, but the weapons themselves.

Now the issue is: What does the change at the top of society (among the nobles and their dependency chains) have to do with picking one’s nose and expelling wind? The answer is that the situation confronting, and the behav- ior engaged in by, the nobles came to be the reality for more and more people throughout society. Dependency chains grew progressively longer for more and more people. As a result, the majority of people, like the nobles, grew more sensitive to those around them and they had to be sensitive to the needs of more people. The longer dependency chains meant that engaging in untoward behav- iors would not just be known to, and affect, a few people in the immediate envi- ronment, but also large numbers of people far removed along the dependency chain. Thus, if one picked one’s nose at the table or expelled wind at a party, large numbers of people would eventually come to know of these behaviors. Knowledge of this new reality and increasing sensitivity to it led people to be increasingly circumspect about expelling gas or picking their noses in public.

Over time people have grown more concerned about, and better able to control, their baser instincts. We might think that this is all to the good. After all, aren’t we all better off when people are likely to be less violent or less likely to expel wind in our presence? Life has grown less dangerous, less base, less unpredictable; but it has also grown less exciting, less interesting. Unable to act out various behaviors, people are likely to become increasingly repressed, bored, and restless.

A Case Study: Fox Hunting

In addition to looking at great expanses of history, Elias also applied his ideas to more specific arenas such as sports in general and fox hunting in particu- lar. Following the general line of his argument, we have witnessed a general decline in the violence associated with sports. In the early years, fox hunting was quite vicious, dominated by humans killing and eating the fox. However, over the years fox hunting has become increasingly civilized (in 2005, Great Britain legally banned fox hunting). For example, instead of people doing the killing, the hounds do it. Furthermore, it is no longer the norm for people to eat the fox. However, with such “sportization” comes boredom; fox hunting and many other sports are just not as interesting or exciting as they once were. The need for more excitement is reflected in the violence that frequently erupts

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at European, especially British, soccer matches. Furthermore, violence has certainly not disappeared. It is found regularly in the taverns, on the streets, and in skirmishes and open warfare between nations. Perhaps if we allowed more violence in sport, if sport were less civilized, then we might have some- what less violence elsewhere in the world. More generally, Elias does not think that civilization is necessarily a good thing. Less civilized societies had many advantages over more civilized ones, and increasing civilization has meant the loss of various things that are important to people.


Jürgen Habermas is a neo-Marxian theorist; in fact, in his early years as a scholar he was associated directly with the critical school. Although he made important contributions to critical theory, over the years he has fused Marxian theory with many other theoretical inputs to produce a very distinctive set of theoretical ideas. One is his grand theory of the increasing colonization of the lifeworld.

An understanding of what Habermas means by the colonization of the life- world requires a prior understanding of what he means by lifeworld, as well as of what is doing the colonizing, the system.

Lifeworld, System, and Colonization

The lifeworld is a concept used by Alfred Schutz (and others associated with phenomenology and phenomenological sociology) to refer to the world of everyday life. Schutz was primarily concerned with intersubjective relations within the lifeworld, but Habermas has a different interest within the lifeworld. Habermas is primarily concerned with the interpersonal communication that takes place within the lifeworld. Ideally, that communication would be free and open, with no constraints. To Habermas free and open communication means the rationalization of communication within the lifeworld. Although the concept of rationalization has been used in a negative sense, and in another context Habermas will use it that way, within the confines of the lifeworld and communication, rationalization takes on a positive connotation. Those who interact with one another will be rationally motivated to achieve free and open communication, leading to mutual understanding. Rational methods will be employed to achieve consensus. Consensus will be arrived at, and understand- ing achieved, when the better argument wins the day. In other words, external forces like the greater power of one party should play no role in achieving con- sensus. People debate issues and the consensus reached is based solely on what is the best argument.

lifeworld To Schutz, the commonsense world, the world of everyday life, the mun- dane world; that world in which intersubjectivity takes place. Habermas is more concerned with interpersonal communication in the lifeworld.

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The system has its source within the lifeworld, but it comes to develop its own distinctive structures, such as the family, the legal system, the state, and the economy. As these structures develop, they grow increasingly distant and separated from the lifeworld. Like the lifeworld, the system and its structures undergo progressive rationalization. However, the rationalization of the system takes a different form than the rationalization of the lifeworld. Rationalization here means that the system and its structures grow increasingly differentiated, complex, and self-sufficient. Most importantly, the power of the system and its structures grows and with it their ability to direct and control what transpires in the lifeworld. This has a number of ominous implications for the lifeworld; most importantly it colonizes (intrudes upon) the lifeworld. This colonization of the lifeworld takes many forms, but none is more important than the fact

Jürgen Habermas (1929– ) A Biographical Vignette

In 1956 Habermas arrived at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt and became associated with the Frankfurt school. He became research assistant to one of the most illustrious members of that school, Theodor Adorno, as well as an asso- ciate of the institute. Although the Frankfurt school is often thought of as highly coherent, that was not Habermas’s view:

For me there was never a consistent theory. Adorno wrote essays on the critique of cul- ture and also gave seminars on Hegel. He presented a certain Marxist background— and that was it.

Although he was associated with the Institute for Social Research, Habermas demonstrated from the beginning an independent intellectual orientation. A 1957 article by Habermas got him into trouble with the leader of the institute, Max Hork- heimer. Habermas urged critical thought and practical action, but Horkheimer was afraid that such a position would jeopardize the publicly funded institute. Hork- heimer strongly recommended that Habermas be dismissed from the Institute. Horkheimer said of Habermas, “He probably has a good, or even brilliant, career as a writer in front of him, but he would only cause the Institute immense damage.” The article was eventually published, but not under the auspices of the institute and with virtually no reference to it. Eventually, Horkheimer enforced impossible conditions on Habermas’s work and the latter resigned.

system To Habermas, the structures (such as the family, the legal system, the state, and the economy) that have their source within the lifeworld, but which come to develop their own distinctive existence and to grow increasingly distant and sepa- rated from the lifeworld.

colonization of the lifeworld As the system and its structures grow increasingly dif- ferentiated, complex, and self-sufficient, their power grows and with it their ability to direct and control what transpires in the lifeworld.

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that the system imposes itself on communication in the lifeworld and serves to limit the ability of actors to argue things through and achieve consensus within it. In other words, the rational structures of the system, instead of enhancing the capacity to communicate and reach understanding and consensus, threaten those processes through the exertion of external control over them.

For example, a group of close friends may meet in order to decide through free and open discussion how they might go about pooling their resources in order to earn more money in the future. They may want to use knowledge derived from the fact that they are all well-placed officers of important com- panies to form a stock club in order to invest in the stocks of some of those companies. However, they are prevented from doing so, and even prevented from getting very far in discussing it, by laws that forbid insider trading. An officer of one company is prohibited from sharing with other members of the group information about upcoming developments that might affect the com- pany’s share prices. Thus, the law prohibits free and open discussion of this way of acquiring wealth within the lifeworld of this group. We might think that

Key Concept Ideal Speech Situation

Underlying much of Habermas’s thinking is his notion of free and open communi- cation (in the lifeworld), or what he calls the “ideal speech situation.” In most cases, power determines which argument wins out over all of the others. However, for Habermas, the ideal speech situation is one that is free of all distorting influences, especially power. It is one in which the better argument wins out rather than the one that is backed by the most powerful individual or group. The better argument is the one that, for example, has the most evidence behind it and that is made most convincingly. A consensus arises out of this contest of ideas as to what is the truth. Thus, the truth arises from consensus and not because it is a copy of reality.

The problem in the contemporary world is that very little communication is undistorted. It is especially the case that power affects virtually all communication with the result that not only is all communication distorted, but there is a general failure to arrive at a true consensus and, therefore, at the truth. Given his Marxian orientation, there is a set of practical and political implications to this diagnosis of contemporary ills. That is, the barriers to free and open communication, especially the power that so distorts it, need to be removed so that people can freely arrive at consensus and the truth.

ideal speech situation A speech situation that is free of all distorting influences, espe- cially power; one in which the better argument wins out rather than the one that is backed by the most powerful individual or group. A consensus arises out of this contest of ideas as to what is the truth; truth arises from consensus and not because it is a copy of reality.

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insider trading should be banned, but the fact remains that the law in this case prohibits the achieving of consensus through free and open communication.

Given these views on the lifeworld and the system, Habermas is arguing that while they stem from the same roots, they have been decoupled from one another. Once they are separated, it is possible for the system to colonize the lifeworld. This colonization has a destructive effect on the lifeworld in general and especially on communication within it. Communication becomes increas- ingly rigidified, impoverished, and fragmented; the lifeworld itself is pushed to the brink of dissolution. However, even when colonization is quite extensive, the lifeworld continues.

Rationalization of System and Lifeworld

The problem for Habermas is that the system and the rationalization character- istic of it have gained ascendancy over the lifeworld and its distinctive form of rationalization. The solution to this problem for Habermas lies in the rational- ization, each in their own way, of both lifeworld and system. The system and its structures need to be allowed to grow more differentiated and complex, while the lifeworld needs to be refined so that free communication is possible and the better argument is permitted to emerge victorious. The full rationalization of both would permit the lifeworld and the system to be recoupled in such a way that each enhances, rather than negatively affects, the other. A more rational system should be used to enhance rational argumentation in the lifeworld; that argumentation should, in turn, be used to figure out ways of further rational- izing the system. In this way the two systems would be mutually enriching rather than, as in the present situation, the system deforming the lifeworld.

For example, a more rationalized system might permit groups of people to discuss exchanges of certain types of information that heretofore would have been considered insider trading. For their part, such groups through free and open communication might come up with better guidelines on what should and should not be considered insider trading. In a world in which both system and lifeworld were rationalized, these views on new guidelines would be fed back into the system and lead to changes there and to a more refined sense of what is and is not insider trading.


Anthony Giddens considers himself a modern social theorist and argues that we continue to exist in a modern world, albeit one that is in its advanced stages. He does not reject the idea that we may at some time move into a postmod- ern world, but his ideas about such a world are very different from those who associate themselves with postmodern social theory (see Chapter 9). Although a modernist, Giddens has a very different view of the modern world than clas- sical theorists of modernity like Marx and Weber.

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The Juggernaut

Giddens sees modernity as a juggernaut, a massive force that moves forward inexorably riding roughshod over everything in its path. Imagine a trailer truck the size of the Titanic careening down a busy city street. People steer this jug- gernaut but, given its size and bulk, they cannot totally control the path it takes and the speed at which it travels. There is the ever-present possibility that they could lose control and the juggernaut, and everyone in it or nearby, could be destroyed. For those who control it, as well as those in its path, the juggernaut can bring great rewards (the huge truck may be bringing a great supply of new drugs needed by the population), but also great dangers, including a constant anxiety that those who drive it might at any moment lose control, threatening the lives of many people.

The notion of a juggernaut is quite abstract. What, more specifically, does Giddens have in mind with this metaphor and the dangers posed by it? Take the specific example of the trailer truck delivering medical supplies. The truck could be delivering drugs that seem to be worthwhile, but that, in the future, cause more harm than good. This was the case with Fen Phen, a weight-control drug that was very popular for a time but was taken off the market when it was learned that many who took it developed heart valve problems. Other concrete examples of human creations that appear worthwhile, but could turn out disas- trously, include nuclear technology (e.g., power plants) and genetic research. All are produced by humans who are also in day-to-day control of them. However, that control is tenuous and there is the ever-present possibility of disasters such as the meltdown of a nuclear reactor (as occurred at Chernobyl), or the unleash- ing of genetic mutations that threaten the future of humankind.

Space and Time

Our ability to control the various components of the modern juggernaut is com- plicated by the fact that they have tended to grow quite distant from us in space and time (Giddens calls this distanciation ). Whereas in a premodern society, or even in early modern societies, such components tended to be physically close to us, they are now spread out across the globe. A nuclear submarine with enormous capacity for destruction may be half a world away from those who direct its activities. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl affected people thou- sands of miles away. The same point can be made about time. Things that were created long ago (the nuclear waste that has been accumulating for more than a

juggernaut Giddens’s metaphor for the modern world as a massive force that moves forward inexorably riding roughshod over everything in its path. People steer the juggernaut, but it always has the possibility of careening out of control.

distanciation The tendency for various components of the modern juggernaut to grow quite distant from us in space and time.

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half century) can have disastrous effects on us. Similarly, things that we are in the process of creating (e.g., genetic technology) can have adverse effects well into the future.

Because of these changes in time and space, those who live in the modern world are forced to develop a sense of trust in both systems and the people who control and operate them. For example, we need to trust that the captain of a nuclear submarine will not take it upon himself to launch a multiwarhead nuclear attack, or that those doing genetic research will take the precautions needed to protect future generations. In other words, the nature of the modern world requires that we place our trust in a variety of experts.


People in the modern world, however, are not content simply to leave things to the experts. People are reflexive, constantly examining big issues like nuclear technology and genetic research, as well as the most mundane of their everyday activities. Although reexamination of the big issues may have little effect on them, it does leave people with a constant sense of uneasiness about them and their implications for their lives. More importantly, by our constantly examin- ing and reforming our own actions, we have an even greater degree of uneasi- ness. Few things are ever done once and for all. Rather, everything is constantly open to reexamination and to a revision or modification of actions taken. We not

Anthony Giddens (1938– ) A Biographical Vignette

As a theorist, Giddens has been highly influential in the United States, as well as many other parts of the world. Interestingly, his work has often been less well received in his home country of Great Britain than in many other parts of the world. This lack of acceptance at home may be attributable, in part, to the fact that Giddens has succeeded in winning the worldwide theoretical following that many other British social theorists sought and failed to achieve: “Giddens has perhaps realized the fantasies of many of us who committed ourselves to sociology dur- ing the period of intense and exciting debate out of which structuration theory developed.”

Giddens’s career took a series of interesting turns in the 1990s. Several years of his undergoing therapy led him to a greater interest in personal life and books such as Modernity and Self-Identity and The Transformation of Intimacy. Therapy also gave him the confidence to take on a more public role and to become an advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 1997 he became director of the highly prestigious London School of Economics (LSE). He moved to strengthen the scholarly reputation of LSE as well as to increase its voice in public discourse in Great Britain and around the world. Some believe that all this has had an adverse effect on Giddens’s scholarly work (his recent books lack the depth and sophistication of his earlier works).

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only reflect on our actions, but we reflect on our thinking about those actions. This succeeds in leaving us with an even more pervasive sense of uneasiness than our reflection on things like the dangers of nuclear technology.

Insecurity and Risks

In what Giddens calls high modernity, we are all faced with great insecurity about life. The insecurity is made manageable by childhood socialization that

Key Concept Risk Society

While the idea of risk is important to Giddens, it lies at the center of the work of a contemporary German theorist, Ulrich Beck (1944– ), as reflected in the title of his best-known book, Risk Society (1992). Beck sees society today as being defined by risk and the ways in which it can be prevented, minimized, or channeled. Thus, instead of finding solidarity the way previous generations did in the pursuit of such great positive goals as greater equality, what unifies people today is the largely neg- ative goal of being spared the dangers associated with various risks.

Many of today’s risks stem from modern industry, but what makes them unique is not just that they are more dangerous than ever before (an accident at a nuclear power plant is far more dangerous than one in a conventional power plant), but that they are not restricted by place or time. For example, a nuclear accident, such as the one at Chernobyl in 1986, was not restricted to the geographic area around the plant, but affected many parts of the world, some quite remote from the original site. Furthermore, its impact was not restricted to the time at which the accident occurred, but its effects have lingered as the site and its environs remain dangerous to this day and, more importantly, people continue to suffer the ill effects of radia- tion exposure with some experiencing new symptoms or developing symptoms for the first time.

Risk, like many other things in the social world, is stratified. Rich nations and the upper classes in every nation are less likely to experience risk than poor nations and the lower classes. Risks are much more likely to exist in poor nations than rich (and the latter export risks to the former) and in areas where the lower rather than the upper classes live. Nevertheless, even the upper classes cannot be free from risk in the contemporary world. One reason is the boomerang effect whereby risks strike back on the upper classes and rich nations most responsible for their pro- duction. Thus, rich nations and upper classes seek to place factories that adversely affect the environment as far away from them as possible, but many of those risks find their way back to them in the form of polluted air and water, a widening hole in the ozone layer, global warming, and the like. Thus, in many ways, there is no way for anyone to hide from, or escape, the risk society.

boomerang effect Risks strike back on the upper classes and rich nations most respon- sible for their production.

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leaves us with the ability to trust not only our parents but also authority fig- ures in general. In addition, we all follow a set of daily routines that make it seem as if our lives are safe. However, we remain painfully aware of the risks that surround us. These risks are global in nature and involve not only the things previously discussed, but also things like increasing global economic interdependence and the likelihood that an economic crisis in one part of the world could bring the entire global economy crashing down around us. We also know that while we generally trust the experts, they cannot fully control the juggernaut. The actions they take can cause crises and the actions they take to deal with those crises can easily serve to worsen them.

Why the risks? Or, to put it another way, why is the juggernaut always threatening to rush out of control? Giddens offers four answers:

1. Those who designed the juggernaut and its various components made mis- takes; the juggernaut has design faults. For example, those involved in the design and creation of Chernobyl (and undoubtedly other nuclear reactors around the world) made a number of mistakes that led to the meltdown.

2. Those who run the juggernaut (its operators) made mistakes; the jugger- naut is subject to operator failure. Thus, the meltdown at Chernobyl may have been caused by fatal errors made by those who ran the plant on a daily basis. In fact, the meltdown was undoubtedly the result of some com- bination of operator failure and design faults.

3. We cannot always foresee accurately the consequences of modifying the juggernaut or creating new components for it; such actions often have unintended consequences. For example, we are at present at the beginning of a genetic revolution, but we cannot foresee all of the consequences of the genetic changes we are now undertaking. Similarly, the manufacturers of Fen Phen had no idea that it would lead to heart valve defects in patients who took the drug.

4. People in general, and experts in particular, are constantly reflecting on the juggernaut and, in the process, creating new knowledge about it. Such new knowledge applied to the juggernaut makes it likely that it will move at a different pace and/or direction. However, this new pace or direction may bring with it a series of negative consequences. For example, at times the Federal Reserve system increases interest rates in order to keep inflation under control. However, rising interest rates bring with them the possibil- ity of an economic recession; the economy could slow down too much.


1. Critical theory is focally interested in the culture industry and the increasing control of culture over people. Key to this control is mass culture, especially that dissemi- nated by the mass media.

2. Critical theorists are critical of technology, especially the way it is used in capitalism. 3. The predominance of technology is producing a one-dimensional society in which

people lose their ability to think creatively and critically.

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Contemporary Grand Theories II 137

4. Critical theorists are concerned with the effect of technology on thinking: People seek only the best means to an end without reflecting on the means or end. People lose the capacity for reason; this is part of the irrationality of rational systems.

5. Unlike most Marxists, critical theorists have a pessimistic view of the future, seeing only increasing technological control and rationalization.

6. Some neo-Marxists have shifted their attention to spatial analysis, especially the way space reproduces capitalist class relationships and the need to restructure space in a more egalitarian manner.

7. Lefevbre makes a distinction between absolute space, historical space, abstract space, and differential space.

8. Lefebvre wants to see a transition from production in space to production of space. 9. David Harvey reanalyzes The Communist Manifesto in order to uncover its spatial

implications and the weaknesses in its spatial arguments. He also uses this analysis to develop a more positive image of the future in terms of “spaces of hope.”

10. Norbert Elias’s grand theory deals with the civilizing process whereby a number of once visible behaviors have come to be seen as uncivilized and have disappeared from public view.

11. A key factor in this change was the emergence of the court with its long depen- dency chains and, more generally, the lengthening dependency chains of more and more people.

12. Jürgen Habermas’s grand theory deals with the colonization of the lifeworld by the system and the prevention of free and open communication.

13. The lifeworld, to Habermas, is the realm of everyday communication. 14. The system, to Habermas, has its origin in the lifeworld, but comes to develop its

own structures (e.g., the family, the state) that grow more distant and separate from the lifeworld.

15. Anthony Giddens’s grand theory deals with the juggernaut of modernity, a mas- sive force, which, although it is steered by people, always has the possibility of lurching out of control.

16. Among the factors that can cause the juggernaut of modernity to rush out of con- trol are design faults, operator error, unintended consequences, and the use of new knowledge that sends the juggernaut in unanticipated directions.

Suggested Readings

M artin J ay The Dialectical Imagination. Boston: Little Brown , 1973 . Important over- view of neo-Marxian theory, especially as it relates to the critical school.

R olf W iggershaus The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press , 1994 .

D ouglas K ellner “Frankfurt School.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 290–293 . Concise summary of the importance of this school, also known as critical theory, by an important con- temporary exponent of this approach.

Harry F. Dahms “Theodor W. Adorno.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume 1 – Classical Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 559–581. A detailed essay on the sociological relevance of this leading figure of the Frankfurt School.

A ndy M errifield Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge , 2006 .

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Kanishka Goonewardena “Henri Lefebvre.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 44–54. Comprehensive essay which describes Lefebvre’s theory of space as well as other, lesser-known aspects of his theory.

R ichard K ilminster and S tephen M ennell “Norbert Elias.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley- Blackwell, 2011, pp. 13–43. Recent overview of Elias’s life and work.

S tephen M ennell Norbert Elias: An Introduction. Dublin: University College Dublin Press , 1998 . For those who crave more detail about Elias’s perspective.

J ohn R undell “Norbert Elias.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 239–245 . Recent overview of Elias’s work focusing on his most important theoretical ideas.

Gerd Nollman “Jürgen Habermas.” In George Ritzer, ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005, pp. 351–352. Brief look at just a few of the highlights of Habermas’s theoretical contributions.

W illiam O uthwaite “Jürgen Habermas.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp.  339–360. An overview of Habermas’s perspective including his more recent work on science, religion and post-nationalism.

W illiam O uthwaite Habermas: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press , 1994 . For those who want greater detail—in this case, on Habermas’s work.

R ob S tones “Anthony Giddens.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social The- ory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 321–327 . Broad overview of Giddens’s theoretical work with special attention to his later theorizing.

C hristopher G. A. B ryant and D avid J ary In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp.  432–463. Helpful overview of Giddens’s life and work including his more recent writing on the environment and climate change.

S tjepan G. M estrovic Anthony Giddens: The Last Modernist. London and New York: Routledge , 1998 . Interesting for its critiques (often outrageous) of Giddens’s work.

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C H A P T E R 6

Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life

Symbolic Interactionism Dramaturgy Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis Exchange Theory Rational Choice Theory Summary Suggested Readings

T he preceding two chapters dealt with contemporary grand theories of large-scale changes in the social world. In this chapter we remain focused on contemporary theories, but this time those that are oriented to a variety of small-scale phenomena associated with everyday life. We begin with symbolic interactionism, a theory strongly influenced by the thinking of George Herbert Mead (see Chapter 3). This is followed by an examination of dramaturgy that sees much of social life as analogous to a theatrical performance. Ethnometh- odology is concerned with the methods we all use regularly to accomplish our lives on a daily basis. Next is exchange theory that looks at social relationships in terms of rewards and costs and argues, among other things, that we are likely to continue in relationships that are rewarding and discontinue those that are costly. Finally, we discuss rational choice theory that focuses on actors making choices that maximize the satisfaction of their needs and wants.


The focus of symbolic interactionism, like the other theories discussed in this chapter, is on everyday life. Its distinctive focus, as its name suggests, is on

symbolic interactionism The school of sociology that, following Mead, focused on symbolic interaction.

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interaction (as well as action and people as agents) and the symbols (and their meanings) that are deeply implicated in it. We can get a handle on this theory by enumerating some of its most fundamental assumptions and principles.

First, people act toward things, but they do so on the basis of the mean- ings those things have for them. Thus, we act toward the American flag, say by saluting it, based on the meaning that flag has for us (our homeland) and not simply on its physical characteristics. This also means that others can act toward it in other ways (say, by burning or defacing it) because it has other meanings (a symbol of U.S. imperialism) for them.

Second, these meanings stem from our interactions with other people. Thus, we may have learned about the flag as a positive symbol through inter- actions at school while enemies of the United States may have learned theirs through interactions with groups of revolutionaries.

Third, people do not simply internalize the meanings that they learn through social interaction, but they are also able to modify them through an interpretive process. Thus, while one may have learned to see the flag as a posi- tive symbol, dissatisfaction with, say, America’s foreign policies might lead one to reinterpret the flag and to feel a bit less positive toward, or even develop negative sentiments about, it and what it stands for. Conversely, those who develop negative views in a revolutionary cell may become more positive about the flag and what it symbolizes as a result of U.S. actions that satisfy some of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Fourth, people, in contrast to other animals, are unique in their ability to use and rely on symbols. While other animals react directly or blindly to stimuli, peo- ple are able to give them meaning (turn them into symbols) and then act on the basis of that meaning. To put this another way, other animals react instinctively to objects, while we think through their meaning. Thus, a hungry animal might eat a poison mushroom, but we would be able to think through the fact that we had bet- ter not eat it because it might be poisonous.

Fifth, people become human through social interaction, especially in the early years with family members and then in school. We are born with the capacities to become human, but that potential can only be realized through human interaction. Thus, feral children—those raised in the wild by animals (e.g., wolves)—cannot become human, but begin to become human when they are rescued and begin to interact with other humans.

Sixth, as George Herbert Mead made clear (see Chapter 3), people are conscious, capable of reflecting on themselves and what they do, and there- fore capable of shaping their actions and interactions. In Mead’s terms, then, people have both a “mind” and a “self.” Particularly important is our ability to interact with ourselves in order to decide how to interact with objects in our world. This gives us a large measure of autonomy in our actions, but we certainly are not totally free to do as we wish—there are many external con- straints on our actions.

Seventh, people have purposes when they act in, as well as toward, situ- ations. We define situations, give them meaning, and then act toward them.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 141

Key Concepts The Conceptual Contributions of Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) is best known for his concept of the looking-glass self. We form our sense of ourselves by looking in some sort of mirror. That mir- ror is the other people with whom we interact. We use others as mirrors to assess who we are and how we are doing. We look at their eyes and their body language and we listen to their words. Looking in that mirror, we determine whether we are who we want to be and whether our actions are having the desired effect. If we see what we expect to see, if people evaluate us the way we hope, if they do what we want them to do, then the mirror confirms ourselves and we continue on as we have been thinking and acting. However, if the reverse occurs, then we may need to reassess our actions and even our sense of who we are. If the looking glass continues to show us a reflection that is different from what we think we are, then we may need to re-evaluate our sense of who we are, in other words, re-evaluate our self- images. The looking-glass self reflects Cooley’s interest, like that of others associated with symbolic interactionism, in the mind, self, and interaction.

Another key concept associated with Cooley is the primary group, an intimate face-to-face group that plays a crucial role in linking the individual to the larger society. Of special importance are the primary groups of the young, mainly the fam- ily and friendship groups, within which the individual grows into a social being. It is mainly within the primary group that the looking-glass self develops and the child makes the transition from thinking mainly about himself to taking others into consideration. As a result of this transformation, the child begins to develop the capabilities that will enable him to become a contributing member of society.

Cooley also made an important methodological contribution arguing for the need for sociologists to put themselves in the place of the actors they were study- ing (usually in the real world) in order to better understand the operation of their mental processes. Cooley called this sympathetic introspection—putting oneself in the places and the minds of those being studied, doing so in a way that is sym- pathetic to who they are and what they are thinking, and trying to understand the meanings and the motives that lie at the base of their behavior. This method con- tinues to be one of the cornerstones of the study of everyday life, at least for some sociologists.

looking-glass self The idea that we form our sense of ourselves by using others, and their reactions to us, as mirrors to assess who we are and how we are doing.

primary group An intimate face-to-face group that plays a crucial role in linking the individual to the larger society. Of special importance are the primary groups of the young, mainly the family and friendship groups.

sympathetic introspection The methodology of putting oneself in the places and the minds of those being studied. Researchers do so in a way that is sympathetic to who others are and what they are thinking, and they try to understand the meanings and the motives that lie at the base of peoples’ behavior.

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We choose ends and then act toward them (although not always successfully or in a linear manner since we may encounter all sorts of barriers and roadblocks).

Eighth, we can see society as consisting of people engaging in social inter- action. Thus, society is not some macro-level entity separable from people. People produce society; society is the joint action of people.

There is, of course, much more to symbolic interactionism than this, but this brief overview, as well as the earlier, more detailed discussion of Mead’s ideas, should give the reader a sense of this theoretical perspective.

However, one more basic point needs to be made before we move on. Sym- bolic interactionists are inclined to do social research rather than to develop abstract theories. This means they often go out and study people and get at their meanings from their point of view. To do so means they must often ven- ture into the real world and observe and interact with people.

Contemporary Applications Antidepressants: A Symbolic Interactionist View

Recent years have seen a growing number of people using antidepressant medications such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. Most people think of antidepressant medications as a wholly biological technology. They help people to overcome depression and anxi- ety by modifying brain chemistry. However, the symbolic interactionist David Karp argues that there is also a sociological dimension to antidepressant use. For many people the use of antidepressants is an occasion for the redefinition of their self. This is because, in contemporary society, antidepressants and mental illness have powerful symbolic meanings which have implications for the way that people think about themselves and their psychological suffering. For example, people who are depressed sometimes blame themselves for their depression. They may think that they are failures because they cannot will their depression away. However, when people take antidepressants they learn that they are not to blame for their illness. Instead they learn that their depression is caused by imbalanced brain chemistry. This not only gives depressed people a feeling of relief, but it also allows them to think about their self in new and sometimes empowering ways: I’m not to blame, it’s the illness. The symbolic meaning associated with antidepressants can also be negative. Even though cultural understandings of mental illness have changed sig- nificantly over the past 50 years, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. People may be afraid to take antidepressants because they know they will fall into the stigmatized category of mentally ill person. They can no longer think of them- selves as merely sad. Rather, the fact that they are taking a powerful psychiatric medication becomes proof to them that they have a real illness called depression. In fact, the power of this negative connotation associated with mental illness can be so strong that people will avoid or stop taking antidepressant medications. Whether antidepressants have positive meanings, negative meanings, or a combination of positive and negative meanings, what should be clear is that they do have socially determined symbolic meanings that impact the construction of the self.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 143

A key figure in this tradition of social research in the real world is Robert E. Park (1864–1944). Park had been a reporter before becoming a sociologist, and as a reporter he was accustomed to collecting data on and observing whatever social reality he was writing about. When he became a sociologist, Park urged his students as well as colleagues to do much the same thing. In one sense, he was encouraging them to do what has come to be known as fieldwork: that is, venturing into the field to observe and collect relevant data. More specifi- cally, as a result of the urging of Park (and others), the key method of symbolic interactionists became observation. The attraction of being an observer is that researchers can both engage in sympathetic introspection and put themselves in the place of actors to try to understand their meanings and motives and observe the various actions that people take. Thus, observation was a perfect way for those associated with symbolic interactionism to study the thought processes, the actions, and the interactions of everyday life.


The concept of self is very important to, and lies at the heart of, symbolic interactionism. Herbert Blumer defined the self in extremely simple terms as the fact that people can be the objects of their own actions: that is, people have the ability to act not only toward others, but also toward themselves (e.g., by admonishing themselves for saying something foolish). Both types of actions are based on the kinds of objects people are to themselves (e.g., whether they look upon themselves in a positive or negative light). Being able to do this, to act toward themselves, allows people to act in a conscious manner rather than merely reacting to external stimuli. People actually inter- act with themselves to point out the things toward which they are acting and the meaning of those things. They interpret the meaning of things and alter those interpretations on the basis of the situation they are in and what they hope to accomplish.

The most important work on the self in symbolic interactionism is Presenta- tion of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Goffman’s conception of the self is deeply indebted to Mead’s (see Chapter 3) ideas, in particular his discussion

fieldwork A methodology used by symbolic interactionists and other sociologists that involves venturing into the field (the day-to-day social world) to observe and col- lect relevant data.

observation A methodology closely related to fieldwork, in which the symbolic inter- actionist (and other sociologists) studies the social world by observing what is transpiring in it. In the case of symbolic interactionism, this enables researchers to engage in sympathetic introspection and put themselves in the place of actors in order to understand meanings and motives and to observe the various actions that people take.

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of the tension between I, the spontaneous self, and me, social constraints within the self. This tension is mirrored in Goffman’s work on what to him was a criti- cal discrepancy between our all-too-human selves on the one hand and our socialized selves on the other. The tension results from the difference between what we may want to do spontaneously and what people expect us to do. We are confronted with demands to do what is expected of us; moreover, we are not supposed to waver. In order to cope with this tension and to maintain a stable self-image, people perform for their social audiences. As a result of this interest in performance, Goffman focused on dramaturgy, or a view of social life as a series of dramatic performances akin to those performed in the theater.


Goffman’s sense of the self was shaped by his dramaturgical approach. To Goffman (and to most other symbolic interactionists), the self is not a posses- sion of the actor but rather the product of the dramatic interaction between actor and audience. In other words, the self is a sense of who one is that is a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate scene being presented. Because the self is a product of dramatic interaction, it is vulnerable to disruption during the performance. Much of Goffman’s dramaturgy is concerned with the pro- cesses by which such disturbances are prevented or dealt with. Although the bulk of his discussion focuses on these dramaturgical contingencies, Goffman pointed out that most performances are successful. The result is that in ordinary circumstances a firm self is accorded to performers, and it appears to emanate from the performers.

Goffman assumed that when individuals interact, they want to present a certain sense of self that will be accepted by others. However, even as they pres- ent that self, actors are aware that members of the audience can disturb their performance. For that reason actors are attuned to the need to control the audi- ence, especially those members of it who might be disruptive. The actors hope that the sense of self that they present to the audience will be strong enough for the audience to define the actors as the actors want to be defined. The actors also hope that this will cause the audience to act voluntarily as the actors want them to. Goffman characterized this central interest as impression management. It involves techniques actors use to maintain certain impressions in the face of problems they are likely to encounter and methods they use to cope with these problems.

dramaturgy A view of social life as a series of dramatic performances akin to those that take place in the theater.

self To Goffman, a sense of who one is that is a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate dramaturgical scene being presented.

impression management The techniques actors use to maintain certain impressions in the face of problems they are likely to encounter and the methods they use to cope with these problems.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 145

Front Stage Following the theatrical analogy, Goffman spoke of a front stage, that part of the performance that generally functions in rather fi xed and general ways to defi ne the situation for those who observe the performance. A profes- sor lecturing to a class may be said to be in her front stage, as would a stu- dent at a fraternity party. Within the front stage, Goffman further differentiated between the setting and the personal front. The setting refers to the physical scene that ordinarily must be there if the actors are to perform. Without it, the actors usually cannot perform. For example, a surgeon generally requires an operating room, a taxi driver a cab, and an ice skater an ice rink. The personal front consists of those items of expressive equipment that the audience identi- fi es with the performers and expects them to carry with them into the setting. A surgeon, for instance, is expected to dress in a medical gown, have certain instruments, and so on.

Goffman subdivided the personal front into appearance and manner. Appearance includes those items that tell us the performer’s social status (e.g., the taxi driver’s license). Manner (e.g., the expression of confidence on the surgeon’s face) tells the audience what sort of role the performer expects to play in the situation. A brusque manner and a meek manner indicate quite different kinds of performances. In general, we expect appearance and manner to be consistent.

Although Goffman approached the front and other aspects of his system as a symbolic interactionist, he did discuss their structural character. He argued that fronts tend to become institutionalized, so collective representations arise about what is to go on in a certain front. Very often when actors take on estab- lished roles, they find particular fronts already established for such perfor- mances. The professor who appears before a class has a front that has been established by many professors and students who have come before her. The result, Goffman argued, is that fronts tend to be selected, not created. This idea conveys a much more structural image than we would receive from most sym- bolic interactionists.

Despite such a structural view, Goffman’s most interesting insights lie in the domain of interaction. He argued that because people generally try to present

front stage That part of a dramaturgical performance that generally functions in rather fixed and general ways to define the situation for those who observe the performance.

setting The physical scene that ordinarily must be there if the actors are to engage in a dramaturgical performance.

personal front Those items of expressive equipment that the audience identifies with the performers and expects them to carry with them into the setting.

appearance The way the actor looks to the audience; especially those items that indi- cate the performer’s social status.

manner The way an actor conducts himself; tells the audience what sort of role the actor expects to play in the situation.

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an idealized picture of themselves in their front-stage performances, inevitably they feel that they must hide things in their performances:

1. Actors may want to conceal secret pleasures engaged in prior to the per- formance (e.g., the professor who consumed alcohol just before entering class) or in past lives (e.g., physicians who had been drug addicts but had overcome their addiction) that are incompatible with their performance.

2. Actors may want to conceal errors made in the preparation of the perfor- mance as well as steps taken to correct these errors. For example, a surgeon may seek to hide the fact that he prepared to do an appendectomy when, in fact, he was scheduled to do open heart surgery. A professor who brings the wrong notes to class may be forced to improvise during the class period in order to conceal that fact.

3. Actors may find it necessary to show only end products and to conceal the process involved in producing them. For example, professors may spend several hours preparing a lecture, but they may want to act as if they have always known the material.

Key Concept Role Distance

Another of Goffman’s interests was the degree to which an individual embraces a given role. In his view, because of the large number of roles, few people get com- pletely involved in any given role. Role distance deals with the degree to which individuals separate themselves from the roles they are in. For example, if older children ride on a merry-go-round, they are likely to be aware that they are really too old to enjoy such an experience. One way of coping with this feeling is to dem- onstrate distance from the role by, in a careless, lackadaisical way, performing seem- ingly dangerous acts while on the merry-go-round. In performing such acts, the older children are really explaining to the audience that they are not as immersed in the activity as small children might be or that if they are, it is because of the special things they are doing.

One of Goffman’s key insights is that role distance is a function of one’s social status. High-status people often manifest role distance for reasons other than those of people in low-status positions. For example, a high-status surgeon may manifest role distance in the operating room to relieve the tension of the operating team. People in low-status positions usually manifest more defensiveness in exhibiting role distance. For instance, people who clean toilets may do so in a lackadaisical and uninterested manner. They may be trying to tell their audience that they are too good for such work.

role distance The degree to which individuals separate themselves from the roles they are in.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 147

4. It may be necessary for actors to conceal from the audience that dirty work was involved in the making of the end products. Dirty work may include doing things that are immoral, illegal, or degrading. For example, a manu- facturer of peanut butter may seek to conceal from government inspectors the fact that an inordinate number of rodent droppings and rodent hairs found their way into the finished product.

5. In giving a certain performance, actors may have to let other standards slide. For example, in order to keep up with a busy surgical schedule, the surgeon may not be able to find the time to do enough reading to keep up with recent developments in his field.

6. Finally, actors probably find it necessary to hide any insults, humiliations, or deals made so that the performance could go on. A surgeon may well want to hide the fact that he has been admonished by his superiors for not keeping up with recent developments and that he will be suspended if he does not demonstrate that he is reducing his surgical schedule so that he has time to do so.

Generally, actors have a vested interest in hiding all of the facts discussed from their audience.

Another aspect of dramaturgy in the front stage is that actors often try to convey the impression that they are closer to the audience than they actually are. Actors may try to foster the impression that the performance in which they are engaged at the moment is their only performance or at least their most impor- tant one. Thus, a physician must try to convey the impression to every patient that he or she is the most important patient and the object of her undivided atten- tion. To do this, actors have to be sure that their audiences are segregated so that the falsity of the performance is not discovered. The physician’s patients would be upset to learn that an effort is made by the doctor to make each one of them feel as if he or she is the most important patient. Even if it is discovered, Goffman argued, the audiences themselves may try to cope with the falsity, to avoid shattering their idealized image of the actor. Thus, patients may console themselves with the fact that that’s the way doctors are and, in any case, the doc- tor does excellent work. This reveals the interactional character of performances. A successful performance depends on the involvement of all the parties.

Another example of this kind of impression management is an actor’s attempt to convey the idea that there is something unique about this perfor- mance as well as his or her relationship to the audience. Thus, a car salesperson may seek to convey the idea that he really likes a particular customer and is giving her a far better deal than he would give anyone else. The audience, too, wants to feel that it is the recipient of a unique performance. Car buyers want to feel that their salesperson is not giving them the same old spiel and that they have a special relationship with the salesperson.

Actors try to make sure that all the parts of any performance blend together. A priest might seek to ensure consistency and continuity among his Sunday sermons. In some cases, a single discordant aspect can disrupt a per- formance. However, performances vary in the amount of consistency required.

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A slip by a priest on a sacred occasion would be terribly disruptive, but if a taxi driver made one wrong turn, it would not be likely to damage the overall performance greatly.

Another technique employed by performers is mystification. Actors often tend to confound their audience by restricting the contact between themselves and the audience. They do not want the audience to see the very mundane things that go into a performance. Thus, a professor may prepare a lecture by simply reading a textbook not being used in a particular class, but she will cer- tainly conceal this fact and attempt to act as if she has known this material and much else for a long time. By generating social distance between themselves and the audience, actors try to create a sense of awe in the audience. Students are supposed to be awed by how much a professor knows and how effortlessly a mass of information can be brought to bear on a particular lecture. This awe, in turn, keeps the audience from questioning the performance. Goffman pointed out that the audience is involved in this process and often seeks to maintain the credibility of the performance by keeping its distance from the performer. In the case being discussed here, students would not want to know how the pro- fessor prepares for class because it would demystify the whole process.

Goffman also had an interest in teams. To Goffman, as a symbolic interac- tionist, a focus on individual actors obscured important facts about interaction. Thus, Goffman’s basic unit of analysis was not the individual but the team. A team is any set of individuals who cooperate in staging a single routine. The preceding discussion of the relationship between the performer and audience is really about teams. Each member is reliant on the others because all can dis- rupt the performance and all are aware that an act is being put on. Goffman concluded that a team is a kind of secret society. A class is such a secret society and class members cooperate with the professor in making each class a credible performance. Of course, at times a professor makes so many slips, or reveals so many weaknesses, that the students can no longer ignore them and the per- formance is disrupted, if not destroyed. However, this a rarity and something students and professors, audiences and performers, seek to avoid at all costs.

Back Stage and Outside Goffman also discussed a back stage, where facts suppressed in the front stage or various kinds of informal actions may appear. A back stage is usually adjacent to the front stage, but it is also cut off from it. Performers can reliably expect no members of their front audience to appear

mystification An effort by actors to confound their audience by restricting the contact between themselves and the audience, concealing the mundane things that go into their performance.

team Any set of individuals who cooperate in staging a single performance. back stage Where facts suppressed in the front stage or various kinds of informal

actions may appear. A back stage is usually adjacent to the front stage, but it is also cut off from it. Performers can reliably expect no members of their front audience to appear in the back.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 149

in the back. Furthermore, they engage in various types of impression manage- ment to make sure of this. A performance is likely to become diffi cult when actors are unable to prevent the audience from entering the back stage. The doctors’ lounge is the back stage relative to the offi ce where physicians inter- act with patients. Safely in the back stage lounge, doctors can say things about their patients, their expertise, or their performance that they would never say to patients in the front stage. A doctor would rarely, if ever, tell a patient that she dislikes him, has no idea what ails him, or what to do about it.

A third, residual domain is the outside, which is neither front nor back. For example, a brothel is (usually) outside, relative to the doctor’s office and lounge. However, it is possible that a brothel could become a back stage if it is visited

Key Concept Stigma

Goffman was interested in stigma, or the gap between what a person ought to be, virtual social identity, and what a person actually is, actual social identity. Stigma involves a gap between virtual and actual social identity. Goffman focuses on the dra- maturgical interaction between stigmatized people and normals. The nature of that interaction depends on which of two types of stigma an individual has. In the case of discredited stigma, the actor assumes that the differences are known by the audience members or are evident to them (e.g., a paraplegic or someone who has lost a limb). A discreditable stigma is one in which the differences are neither known by audience members nor perceivable by them (e.g., a person who has had a colostomy or a homo- sexual passing as straight). For someone with a discredited stigma, the basic drama- turgical problem is managing the tension produced by the fact that people know of the problem. For someone with a discreditable stigma, the dramaturgical problem is managing information so that the stigma remains unknown to the audience.

Most of the text of Goffman’s Stigma is devoted to people with obvious, often grotesque, stigmas (e.g., the loss of a nose). However, as the book unfolds, the reader realizes that Goffman is really saying that we are all stigmatized at some time or other, or in some setting or other. His examples include the Jew passing in a predominantly Christian community, the fat person in a group of people of normal weight, and the individual who has lied about his past and constantly must be sure that the audience does not learn of this deception.

virtual social identity What a person ought to be. actual social identity What a person actually is. stigma A gap between virtual and actual social identity. discredited stigma The actor assumes that the stigma is known by the audience mem-

bers or is evident to them. discreditable stigma The stigma is neither known by audience members nor discern-

ible by them. outside Neither front nor back; literally outside the realm of the performance.

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by doctors or patients who then bend the ear of the hooker by complaining about each other.

The latter illustrates the idea that no area is always one of these three domains. Also, a given area can occupy all three domains at different times. A professor’s office is front stage when a student visits, back stage when the stu- dent leaves, and outside when the professor is at a university basketball game.

Impression Management

In general, impression management is oriented to guarding against a series of unexpected actions, such as unintended gestures, inopportune intrusions, and faux pas, as well as intended actions, such as making a scene. Goffman was interested in the various methods of dealing with such problems.

1. One set of methods involves actions aimed at producing dramaturgical loyalty by, for example, fostering high in-group loyalty, preventing team members from identifying with those outside the performance, and chang- ing audiences periodically so that they do not become too knowledgeable about the performers.

2. Goffman suggested various forms of dramaturgical discipline, such as hav- ing the presence of mind to avoid slips, maintain self-control, and manage the facial expressions and verbal tone of one’s performance.

3. He identified various types of dramaturgical circumspection, such as determining in advance how a performance should go, planning for emergencies, selecting loyal teammates, selecting good audiences, being involved in small teams where dissension is less likely, making only brief appearances, preventing audience access to private information, and set- tling on a complete agenda to prevent unforeseen occurrences.

Erving Goffman (1922–1982) A Biographical Vignette

Erving Goffman died in 1982 at the peak of his fame. He had long been regarded as a cult figure in sociological theory. This status was achieved in spite of the fact that he had been professor in the prestigious sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley, and later held an endowed chair at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania.

By the 1980s he had emerged as a centrally important theorist. He had been elected president of the American Sociological Association in the year he died but was unable to give his presidential address because of advanced illness. Given Goffman’s maverick status, Randall Collins says of his address: “Everyone wondered what he would do for his presidential address: a straight, traditional presentation seemed unthinkable for Goffman with his reputation as an iconoclast . . . we got a far more dramatic message: presidential address cancelled, Goffman dying. It was an appro- priately Goffmanian way to go out.”

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The audience also has a stake in successful impression management by the actor or actors. The audience often acts to save the show through such devices as giving great interest and attention to it, avoiding emotional outbursts, not noticing slips, and giving special consideration to neophyte performers.

One thing that many critics of Goffman’s thinking on dramaturgy have pointed out is his cynical view of actors. He believed that actors are putting on performances and they are well aware of that fact. They cynically manipulate their performances or the impressions they seek to make in order to accomplish their objectives. They are generally quite aware that some aspects of what they say and do are false, but they persevere nonetheless.

Contemporary Applications September 11, 2001, and the Stigmatization of Muslims

Prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, relatively little hostility was aimed at Muslims in the United States. They were simply yet another group of immigrants who had integrated, or were integrating, into the United States. It was other groups—mainly Blacks and Mexican immigrants (espe- cially those here illegally)—that were often stigmatized; Muslims largely escaped this process. However, the heinous acts of September 11—planned and committed largely, if not exclusively, by Muslims associated with Osama bin Laden and al- Qaeda—changed all that. There is an increasing and palpable tendency for many Americans to stigmatize Muslims both in and out of the United States. Some Muslims have a discredited stigma since their physical appearance, accent, mode of dress, and so on, make it clear to others (or seem to) that they are Muslims. Other Muslims whose appearance, accent, and way of dressing are not dissimilar from most other Americans are more likely to confront the stresses and strains of a dis- creditable stigma. Because of this, others who are mistakenly thought to be Muslim are also stigmatized.

One indicator of the increasing stigmatization of Muslims is the growing ten- dency for movies and television shows to depict the villains as Muslims. This was the case, for example, in the 2004–2005 season of the TV series 24 in which a group of ruthless Muslims (one of whom was willing to kill his own son and wife for the cause) were depicted as intent on death and destruction in the United States by, for example, causing a meltdown of nuclear reactors throughout the country. The stigmatization of Muslims was so blatant that the show had to issue disclaimers. At one point, the show’s star, Kiefer Sutherland, appeared in a spot in which he claimed that the stigmatization of Muslims was not the intent of the show and that many Muslims were good Americans. In one episode, two clearly Muslim shop owners were depicted allying themselves with Jack Bauer (Sutherland’s character on the show) and taking up arms against a private army employed by a ruthless defense contractor. Such disclaimers and actions did little to counter the stigmatization of Muslims on the show . . . and increasingly in the larger society.

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Given its Greek roots, the term ethnomethodology literally means the methods that people use on a daily basis to accomplish their everyday lives. To put it slightly differently, the world is seen as an ongoing practical accomplishment. People are viewed as rational, but they use practical reasoning, not formal logic, in accomplishing their everyday lives.

Defining Ethnomethodology

The definition of ethnomethodology is the study of ordinary members of soci- ety in the everyday situations in which they find themselves and the ways in which they use commonsense knowledge, procedures, and considerations to gain an understanding of, navigate in, and act on those situations.

We can gain insight into the nature of ethnomethodology by examining efforts by its founder, Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011), to define it. Like Durkheim (see Chapter 2), Garfinkel considers social facts to be the fundamental socio- logical phenomenon. However, Garfinkel’s social facts are very different from Durkheim’s social facts. For Durkheim, social facts are external to and coercive of individuals. Those who adopt such a focus tend to see actors as constrained or determined by social structures and institutions and able to exercise little or no independent judgment. In the acerbic terms of the ethnomethodologists, such sociologists tended to treat actors like judgmental dopes.

In contrast, ethnomethodology treats the objectivity of social facts as the accomplishment of members (see below)—as a product of members’ method- ological activities. In other words, ethnomethodology is concerned with the organization of everyday, ordinary life. To the ethnomethodologist, the ways in which we go about organizing our ordinary, day-to-day lives are extraordinary.

Ethnomethodology is certainly not a macrosociology in the sense intended by Durkheim and his concept of a social fact, but its adherents do not see it as a microsociology either. Thus, while ethnomethodologists refuse to treat actors as judgmental dopes, they do not believe that people are continually thinking about themselves and what they ought to do in every situation that presents itself. Rather, they recognize that most often action is routine and relatively unreflective. The problem is to understand how these routines are created and then re-created every time that people get together. Ethnomethodologists do not focus on actors or individuals, but rather on members. However, members

ethnomethodology The study of ordinary members of society in the everyday situa- tions in which they find themselves and the ways in which they use commonsense knowledge, procedures, and considerations to gain an understanding of, navigate in, and act on those situations.

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are viewed not as individuals, but rather as membership activities, or the artful practices through which people produce what are for them both large-scale structures (e.g., bureaucracy, society) and the structures of everyday life (e.g., patterns of day-to-day interaction). In sum, ethnomethodologists are interested in neither microstructures nor macrostructures; they are concerned with the artful practices that produce people’s sense of both types of struc- tures. What Garfinkel and the ethnomethodologists have sought is a new way of getting at the traditional concern of sociology with objective structures, both small- and large-scale.


One of Garfinkel’s key points about ethnomethods is that they are reflexively accountable. Accounts are the ways in which actors explain (describe, criticize, and idealize) specific situations. Accounting is the process by which people offer accounts in order to make sense of the world. Ethnomethodologists devote a lot of attention to analyzing people’s accounts, as well as to the ways in which accounts are offered and accepted (or rejected) by others. This is one of the rea- sons that ethnomethodologists are preoccupied with analyzing conversations. For example, when a student explains to her professor why she failed to take an examination, she is offering an account. The student is trying to make sense out of an event for her professor. Ethnomethodologists are interested in the nature of that account but more generally in the accounting practices by which the student offers the account and the professor accepts or rejects it. In analyzing accounts, ethnomethodologists adopt a stance of ethnomethodological indif- ference. They do not judge the nature of the accounts but rather analyze them in terms of how they are used in practical action. They are concerned with the accounts as well as the methods needed by both speaker and listener to proffer, understand, and accept or reject accounts.

Extending the idea of accounts, ethnomethodologists take great pains to point out that sociologists, like everyone else, offer accounts. Reports of socio- logical studies can be seen as accounts, and they can be analyzed by ethno- methodologists in the same way that all other accounts can be studied. This perspective on sociology serves to demystify the work of sociologists, indeed, all scientists. A good deal of sociology (indeed, all sciences) involves com- monsense interpretations. Ethnomethodologists can study the accounts of the sociologist in the same way that they can study the accounts of the layperson.

accounts The ways in which actors explain (describe, criticize, and idealize) specific situations.

accounting The process by which people offer accounts in order to make sense of the world.

accounting practices The ways in which one person offers an account and another person accepts or rejects that account.

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Thus, the everyday practices of sociologists and all scientists come under the scrutiny of the ethnomethodologist.

We can say that accounts are reflexive in the sense that they enter into the constitution of the state of affairs they make observable and are intended to deal with. When we offer an account of a situation that we are in, we are in the process altering the nature of that situation. If I am interacting with someone, realize that I have just made a faux pas, and seek to explain (account for) that mistake, in doing so I am changing the nature of that interaction. This is as true for sociologists as it is for laypeople. In studying and reporting on social life, sociologists are, in the process, changing what they are studying; subjects alter their behavior as a result of being the subject of scrutiny and in response to descriptions of that behavior.

Some Examples

Ethnomethodology has gained much notoriety through its research.

Breaching Experiments In breaching experiments, social reality is violated in order to shed light on the methods by which people construct social reality. The assumption behind this research is not only that the methodical production of social life occurs all the time but also that the participants are unaware that they are engaging in such actions. The objective of the breaching experiment is to disrupt normal procedures so that the process by which the everyday world is constructed or reconstructed can be observed and studied.

breaching experiments Experiments in which social reality is violated in order to shed light on the methods by which people construct social reality.

Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) A Biographical Vignette

Harold Garfinkel was drafted in 1942 and entered the Air Force. Eventually he was given the task of training troops in tank warfare on a golf course on Miami Beach in the complete absence of tanks. Garfinkel had only pictures of tanks from Life Magazine. The real tanks were all in combat. The man who would insist on con- crete empirical detail in lieu of theorized accounts was teaching real troops who were about to enter live combat to fight against imagined tanks in situations where things like the proximity of the troops to the imagined tank could make the differ- ence between life and death. The impact of this on the development of his views can only be imagined. He had to train troops to throw explosives into the tracks of imaginary tanks and to keep imaginary tanks from seeing them by directing fire at imaginary tank ports. This task posed, in a new and very concrete way, the prob- lems of the adequate description of action and accountability that Garfinkel would take up as theoretical issues.

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Lynch offers the example ( Figure 6.1 ) of breaching, derived from earlier work by Garfinkel. This, of course, is a game of tic-tac-toe. The rules allow par- ticipants in the game to place a mark within each of the cells, but the rules have been breached in this case and a mark has been placed by player 1 between two cells. If this breach were to occur in a real game of tic-tac-toe, the other player (player 2) would likely insist on its being erased and placed correctly. If such a new placement did not occur, player 2 would try to explain (offer an account of) why player 1 had taken such an extraordinary action. The actions of player 2 would be studied by the ethnomethodologist to see how the everyday world of tic-tac-toe is reconstructed.

In another experiment, Garfinkel asked his students to spend between 15 minutes and an hour in their own homes imagining that they were boarders and then acting on the basis of that assumption. They were told to behave in ways that are usually not found in a family situation. For example, they were instructed to be polite, cautious, impersonal, and formal; they were to speak only when family members spoke to them. In the vast majority of cases, fam- ily members were dumbfounded and outraged by such behavior. The students reported (offered accounts of) family members who expressed astonishment, bewilderment, shock, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger. Family members charged that the students who engaged in these behaviors were mean, incon- siderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite. These reactions indicate how important it is that people act in accord with the commonsense assumptions about how they are supposed to behave.

What most interested Garfinkel was how the family members sought com- monsense ways to cope with such a breach. They demanded explanations from the students for their behavior. In the questions they asked of students, they often implied an explanation of the aberrant behavior. They asked whether the students were ill, had been fired, were out of their minds, or were just stupid.

Family members also sought to explain the behaviors to themselves in terms of previously understood motives. For example, a student was thought to be behaving oddly because she was working too hard or had had a fight with

FIGURE 6.1. Breaching in Tic-Tac-Toe. Source: Michael Lynch , 1991. “Pictures of Nothing? Visual Constructs in Social Theory.” Sociological Theory 9: 15 .

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her fiancè. Such explanations are important to participants—the other family members, in this case—because the explanations help them feel that under nor- mal circumstances interaction would occur as it always had.

If the student did not acknowledge the validity of such explanations, family members were likely to withdraw and to seek to isolate, denounce, or retaliate against the culprit. Deep emotions were aroused because the effort to restore order through explanation was rejected by the student. The other family mem- bers felt that more intense statements and actions were necessary to restore the equilibrium. In one case, the student was told that if he did not stop behav- ing in this way, he had better move out. In the end, the students explained the experiment to their families, and in most situations harmony was restored. However, in some instances hard feelings lingered.

Breaching experiments are undertaken to illustrate the way people order their everyday lives. These experiments reveal the resilience of social reality, since the subjects (or victims) move quickly to normalize the breach—that is, to ren- der the situation accountable in familiar terms. It is assumed that the way people handle these breaches tells us much about how they handle their everyday lives. Although these experiments seem innocent enough, they often lead to highly emotional reactions. These extreme reactions reflect how important it is to people to engage in routine, commonsense activities. Reactions to breaches are some- times so extreme that ethnomethodologists have been warned in more recent years not to perform the kinds of breaching experiments performed by Garfinkel.

Accomplishing Gender

It seems incontrovertible that one’s gender—male or female—is biologically based. People are seen as simply manifesting the behaviors that are an out- growth of their biological makeup. People are not usually thought of as accom- plishing their gender. In contrast, sexiness is clearly an accomplishment; people need to speak and act in certain ways in order to be seen as sexy. However, it is generally assumed that one does not have to do or say anything to be seen as a man or a woman. Ethnomethodology has investigated the issue of gender, with some very unusual results.

The ethnomethodological view is traceable to one of Harold Garfinkel’s now classic demonstrations of the utility of this orientation. In the 1950s Garfinkel met a person named Agnes, who seemed unquestionably a woman. Not only did she have the figure of a woman, but it was virtually a perfect figure with an ideal set of measurements. She also had a pretty face, good com- plexion, no facial hair, and plucked eyebrows—and she wore lipstick. This was clearly a woman, or was it? Garfinkel discovered that Agnes had not always appeared to be a woman. In fact, at the time he met her, Agnes was trying, eventually successfully, to convince physicians that she needed an operation to remove her male genitalia and create a vagina.

Agnes was defined as a male at birth. In fact, she was by all accounts a boy until she was 16 years of age. At that age, sensing something was awry, Agnes

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ran away from home and started to dress like a girl. She soon discovered that dressing like a woman was not enough; she had to learn to act like (to pass as) a woman if she was to be accepted as one. She did learn the accepted practices and as a result came to be defined, and to define herself, as a woman. Garfinkel was interested in the passing practices that allowed Agnes to function like a woman in society. The more general point here is that we are not simply born men or women; we all also learn and routinely use the commonplace practices that allow us to pass as men or women. Only in learning these practices do we come to be, in a sociological sense, a man or a woman. Thus, even a category like gender, which is thought to be an ascribed status, can be understood as an accomplishment of a set of situated practices.


Another theory of everyday behavior is exchange theory. Although there are a number of varieties of exchange theory in sociology, the focus here is on the work of George Homans.

The Exchange Theory of George Homans

Although there are a variety of inputs into George Homans’s development of exchange theory, perhaps the most important is the psychological theory known as behaviorism. The behavioral sociologist is concerned with the relationship between the effects of an actor’s behavior on the environment and the impact on the actor’s later behavior. This relationship is basic to operant conditioning, or the learning process by which the consequences of behavior serve to modify that behavior. One might almost think of this behavior, at least initially in the infant, as a random behavior. The environment in which the behavior exists, whether social or physical, is affected by the behavior and in turn acts back in various ways. That reaction—positive, negative, or neutral—affects the actor’s later behavior. If the reaction has been rewarding to the actor, the same behav- ior is likely to be emitted in the future in similar situations. If the reaction has been painful or punishing, the behavior is less likely to occur in the future. The behavioral sociologist is interested in the relationship between the history of environmental reactions or consequences and the nature of present behavior. Past consequences of a given behavior govern its present state. By knowing what elicited a certain behavior in the past, we can predict whether an actor will produce the same behavior in the present situation.

The heart of George Homans’s exchange theory lies in a set of fundamen- tal propositions powerfully influenced by behaviorism. Although some of

operant conditioning The learning process by which the consequences of behavior serve to modify that behavior.

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Homans’s propositions deal with at least two interacting individuals, he was careful to point out that these propositions are based on psychological princi- ples. According to Homans, they are psychological for two reasons: (1) They are usually the province of psychologists and (2) they deal with individual behav- ior rather than large-scale structures like groups or societies. As a result of this position, Homans admitted to being a psychological reductionist. To Homans, reductionism involves showing that the propositions of one science (in this case sociology) are derived from the more general propositions of another science (in this case, psychology).

Although Homans made the case for psychological principles, he did not think of individuals as isolated. He recognized that people are social and spend a considerable portion of their time interacting with other people. He attempted to explain social behavior with psychological principles. In other words, the principles that apply to the relationship between human beings and the physical environment are the same as those that relate to instances where the environment is made up of other human beings. Homans did not deny the Durkheimian position of emergence—that something new emerges from inter- action. Instead, he argued that those emergent properties can be explained by psychological principles; there is no need for new sociological propositions to explain social facts. He used the basic sociological concept of a norm as illustra- tion. Homans does not doubt that norms exist and that they lead to conformity. However, people do not conform automatically. They do so because they see it as an advantage to conform to those norms.

Homans detailed a program to bring people back into sociology, but he also tried to develop a theory that focuses on psychology, people, and the elemen- tary forms of social life. In terms of the latter, he focused on social behavior involving at least two people in the exchange of tangible and intangible activi- ties. Such behavior would vary in terms of the degree to which it was rewarding or costly to the people involved.

For example, Homans sought to explain the development of power-driven machinery in the textile industry, and thereby the Industrial Revolution, through the psychological principle that people are likely to act in such a way as to increase their rewards. More generally, in his version of exchange theory, he sought to explain elementary social behavior in terms of rewards and costs. Homans set for himself the task of developing propositions that focus on the psychological level; these form the groundwork of exchange theory.

Roots in Behaviorism In Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms, Homans acknowledged that his exchange theory was derived, in large part, from behavioral psychology. In fact, Homans regretted that his theory was labeled exchange theory because he viewed it as behavioral psychology applied to spe- cifi c situations. Homans began with a discussion of the work of the leading fi g- ure in psychological behaviorism, B. F. Skinner—in particular, Skinner’s study of pigeons born with the ability to explore their environments by pecking at the things that confronted them. Placed in an experimental cage, pigeons begin to peck and eventually peck at a target placed there by the researcher. When the

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 159

pigeon does so, it is rewarded with a bit of grain. Since the pigeon has been rewarded for pecking the target, the chances are good that it will do so again. In formal, behaviorist terms, the pecking at the target is the operant, that operant has been reinforced, and the reinforcer was the bit of grain. Thus, the pigeon has undergone a process of operant conditioning: The pigeon has learned to peck the target because it has been rewarded for doing so.

Skinner was interested in this instance in pigeons; Homans’s concern was humans. According to Homans, Skinner’s pigeons are not engaged in a true exchange relationship with the psychologist. The pigeon is engaged in a one- sided exchange relationship, whereas human exchanges are at least two-sided. The pigeon is being reinforced by the grain, but the psychologist is not truly being reinforced by the pecks of the pigeon. The pigeon is carrying on the same sort of relationship with the psychologist as it would with the physical envi- ronment. Because there is no reciprocity, Homans defined this as individual

George Caspar Homans (1910–1989) An Autobiographical Vignette

I had long known Professor Talcott Parsons and was now closely associated with him in the Department of Social Relations. The sociological profession looked upon him as its leading theorist. I decided that what he called theories were only con- ceptual schemes, and that a theory was not a theory unless it contained at least a few propositions. I became confident that this view was correct by reading several books on the philosophy of science.

Nor was it enough that a theory should contain propositions. A theory of a phenomenon was an explanation of it. Explanation consisted in showing that one or more propositions of a low order of generality followed in logic from more general propositions applied to what were variously called given or boundary conditions or parameters. I stated my position on this issue in my little book The Nature of Social Science (1967).

I then asked myself what general propositions I could use in this way to explain the empirical propositions I had stated in The Human Group and other propositions brought to my attention by later reading of field and experimental studies in social psychology. The general propositions would have to meet only one condition: In accordance with my original insight, they should apply to individual human beings as members of a species.

Such propositions were already at hand—luckily, for I could not have invented them for myself. They were the propositions of behavioral psychology as stated by my old friend B. F. Skinner and others. They held good of persons both when acting alone in the physical environment and when in interaction with other persons. In the two editions of my book Social Behavior (1961 and revised in 1974), I used these propositions to try to explain how, under appropriate given conditions, relatively enduring social structures could arise from, and be maintained by, the actions of individuals, who need not have intended to create the structures. This I conceive to be the central intellectual problem of sociology.

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behavior. He seemed to relegate the study of this sort of behavior to the psy- chologist, whereas he urged the sociologist to study social behavior in which the activities of two (or more) human beings reinforce (or punish) the activities of the other. In other words, Homans is interested in behavior in which each per- son influences the other. However, it is significant that, according to Homans, no new propositions are needed to explain social behavior as opposed to individual behavior. The laws of individual behavior as developed by Skinner in his study of pigeons explain social behavior as long as we take into account the complica- tions of mutual reinforcement. Homans admitted that he might ultimately have to go beyond the principles derived by Skinner, but only reluctantly.

In his theoretical work, Homans restricted himself to everyday social inter- action. It is clear, however, that he believed that a sociology built on his prin- ciples would ultimately be able to explain all social behavior. Homans used the case of two office workers to exemplify the kind of exchange relationships he was interested in. According to office rules, each person was to do his job on his own. If help was needed, a supervisor was to be consulted. However, suppose one of the workers (worker A) had trouble completing his work from time to time, but he could do it better and more quickly with help. According to the rules, he should consult his supervisor, but to do so would make his incompe- tence clear to the supervisor and adversely affect his future with the organiza- tion. It is far safer to ask his colleague (worker B) for help, especially if she has more experience and greater capacity to do the work. It is also assumed that such a consultation will not come to the supervisor’s attention. One worker gives the needed assistance and the other offers thanks and approval. In other words, an exchange has occurred between them—help in exchange for approval.

Basic Propositions

Focusing on this sort of situation, and basing his ideas on Skinner’s findings, Homans developed several propositions.

1. The success proposition states that the more often a person is rewarded for a particular action, the more likely the person is to perform the rewarded action. In terms of the office situation example, this proposition means that worker A is more likely to ask others for advice if he has been rewarded in the past with useful advice. Furthermore, the more often a person received useful advice in the past, the more often he or she will request advice in the future. Similarly, the other person (worker B) will be more willing to give advice and give it more frequently if he or she often has been rewarded with approval in the past. Generally, behavior in accord with the success proposition involves three stages: first, a person’s action; next, a rewarded result; and finally, a repetition of the original action or at minimum one similar in at least some respects.

Homans specified a number of things about the success proposition. First, although it is generally true that increasingly frequent rewards lead to increasingly frequent actions, this reciprocation cannot go on indefinitely.

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At some point individuals simply cannot act that way as frequently. Sec- ond, the shorter the interval between behavior and reward, the more likely a person is to repeat the behavior. Conversely, long intervals between behavior and reward lower the likelihood of repeat behavior. Finally, it was Homans’s view that intermittent rewards are more likely to elicit repeat behavior than regular rewards. Regular rewards lead to boredom and satia- tion, whereas rewards at irregular intervals (as in gambling) are very likely to elicit repeat behaviors.

2. The stimulus proposition asserts that if in the past a person’s action has been rewarded as a result of responding to a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli, then the person is more likely to perform the same action (or something similar) when stimuli are applied that are similar to those in the past. In the office worker example, if, in the past, the two workers in question found the giving and getting of advice rewarding, then they are likely to engage in similar actions in similar situations in the future. Homans offered an even more down-to-earth example when he argued that those who catch fish in dark pools are more likely to fish in such pools in the future.

Homans was interested in the process of generalization, the tendency to extend behavior to similar circumstances. In the fishing example, one aspect of generalization is to move from fishing in dark pools to fishing in any pool with any degree of shadiness. Similarly, success in catching fish is likely to lead from one kind of fishing to another (e.g., freshwater to saltwater) or even from fishing to hunting. However, the process of discrimination is also important. The actor may fish only under the specific circumstances that proved successful in the past. For one thing, if the conditions under which success occurred were too complicated, then similar conditions may not stimulate behavior. If the crucial stimulus occurs too long before behav- ior is required, then it may not actually stimulate that behavior. An actor can become oversensitized to stimuli, especially if they are very valuable to the actor. In fact, the actor could respond to irrelevant stimuli, at least until the situation is corrected by repeated failures. All this is affected by the indi- vidual’s alertness or attentiveness to stimuli.

3. The value proposition states that the more valuable people find the results of their action, the more likely they are to perform that action. In the office worker example, if the rewards each worker offers to the other are consid- ered valuable, the workers are more likely to perform the desired behaviors than if the rewards are not seen as valuable. At this point, Homans intro- duced the concepts of rewards and punishments. Rewards are actions with positive values; an increase in rewards is more likely to elicit the desired

generalization The tendency to extend behavior to similar circumstances. discrimination The tendency to manifest behavior only under the specific circum-

stances that proved successful in the past. rewards Actions with positive values; an increase in such actions is more likely to

elicit the desired behavior.

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behavior. Punishments are actions with negative values; an increase in pun- ishment means that the actor is less likely to manifest undesired behaviors. Homans found punishments to be an inefficient means of getting people to change their behavior, because people may react in undesirable ways to the punishment. It is preferable simply not to reward undesirable behavior (e.g., anger); then such behavior eventually becomes extinguished. Rewards are clearly to be preferred, but they may be in short supply. Homans did make it clear that his is not simply a hedonistic theory; rewards can be either materialistic (e.g., money) or altruistic (helping others).

4. The deprivation-satiation proposition contends that the more often in the recent past people have received a particular reward, the less valuable will be future rewards of that type. In the office example, the two workers may reward each other so often for giving and getting advice that the rewards cease to be valuable to each other. Time is crucial here; people are less likely to become satiated if particular rewards are stretched over a long period of time.

At this point, Homans defined two other critical concepts: cost and profit. The cost of any behavior is defined as the rewards lost in forgoing alterna- tive lines of action. Profit in social exchange is seen as the greater number of rewards gained over costs incurred. The latter led Homans to recast the deprivation-satiation proposition as the greater the profits people receive as a result of particular actions, the more likely they are to perform those actions.

5. There are two aggression-approval propositions. In Proposition 5A Homans argues that when people do not receive expected rewards for their actions, or they receive unanticipated punishment, they become angry, more likely to act aggressively, and to find the results of such aggressive behavior more valuable.

In the office worker example, if worker A does not get the advice he or she expects and worker B does not receive the praise he or she anticipates, both are likely to be angry. We are surprised to find the concepts of frus- tration and anger in Homans’s work, because they would seem to refer to mental states. Purists in behaviorism would not deal with such states of mind. Homans went on to argue that frustration of such expectations need not refer only to an internal state. It can also refer to wholly external events, observable not just by worker A but also by outsiders.

Proposition 5A on aggression-approval refers only to negative emo- tions, whereas Proposition 5B deals with more positive emotions and argues that people will be pleased when they receive an expected reward, espe- cially one that is greater than expected; they will, as a result, be more likely to perform the behavior that has received approval and the results of that

punishments Actions with negative values; an increase in such actions means that the actor is less likely to manifest undesired behaviors.

cost Rewards lost in adopting a specific action and, as a result, in forgoing alternative lines of action.

profit The greater number of rewards gained over costs incurred in social exchange.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 163

behavior will become of increasing value. For example, in the office worker example, when worker A gets the advice that he or she expects and worker B gets the praise that he or she expects, both are pleased and more likely to get or give advice. Advice and praise become more valuable to each.

6. In the rationality proposition people are seen as choosing from the available alternatives, the action for which, given the person’s perception at the time, there are greater rewards and greater probability of getting those rewards. Although the earlier propositions rely heavily on behaviorism, the rationality proposition demonstrates most clearly the influence of rational choice theory (see the next section) on Homans’s approach. In economic terms, actors who act in accord with the rationality proposition are maximizing their utilities.

Basically, people examine and make calculations about the various alternative actions open to them. They compare the amount of rewards associated with each course of action. They also calculate the likelihood that they will actually receive the rewards. Highly valued rewards are devalued if the actors think it unlikely that they will obtain them. On the other hand, lesser-valued rewards will be enhanced if they are seen as highly attain- able. Thus, there is an interaction between the value of the reward and the likelihood of attainment. The most desirable rewards are those that are both very valuable and highly attainable. The least desirable rewards are those that are not very valuable and difficult to attain.

Homans related the rationality proposition to the success, stimulus, and value propositions. The rationality proposition tells us that whether or not people perform an action depends on their perceptions of the prob- ability of success. But what determines this perception? Homans argued that perceptions of whether chances of success are high or low are shaped by past successes and the similarity of the present situation to past success- ful situations. The rationality proposition also does not tell us why an actor values one reward more than another; for this we need the value proposi- tion. In these ways, Homans linked his rationality principle to his more behavioristic propositions.

In the end, Homans’s theory can be condensed to a view of the actor as a rational profit seeker. However, Homans’s theory was weak on mental states and large-scale structures. For example, on the subject of consciousness Homans admitted the need for a more fully developed psychology.

Despite such weaknesses, Homans remained a behaviorist who worked resolutely at the level of individual behavior. He argued that large-scale struc- tures can be understood if we adequately understand elementary social behav- ior. He contended that exchange processes are identical at the individual and societal levels, although he granted that at the societal level there is greater complexity to the ways in which fundamental processes are put together to form large-scale phenomena.

utilities Actor’s preferences, or values.

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Although it influenced the development of exchange theory, rational choice theory was generally marginal to mainstream sociological theory. Largely through the efforts of one man, James S. Coleman, rational choice theory has become one of the “hot” theories in contemporary sociology. For one thing, in 1989 Coleman founded a journal, Rationality and Society, devoted to the dis- semination of work from a rational choice perspective. For another, Coleman published an enormously influential book, Foundations of Social Theory, based on this perspective. Finally, Coleman became president of the American Socio- logical Association in 1992 and used that forum to push rational choice theory and to present an address entitled “The Rational Reconstruction of Society.”

A Skeletal Model

The basic principles of rational choice theory are derived from neoclassical eco- nomics (as well as utilitarianism and game theory). Based on a variety of differ- ent models, it is possible to piece together what can be described as a skeletal model of rational choice theory.

The focus in rational choice theory is on actors. Actors are seen as being purposive, or as having intentionality; that is, actors have ends or goals toward which their actions are aimed. Actors are also seen as having preferences (or values, utilities). Rational choice theory is unconcerned with what these prefer- ences, or their sources, are. Of importance is the fact that action is undertaken to achieve objectives consistent with an actor’s preference hierarchy.

Although rational choice theory starts with actors’ purposes or intentions, it must take into consideration at least two major constraints on action. The first is the scarcity of resources. Actors have different resources as well as differen- tial access to other resources. For those with lots of resources, the achievement of ends may be relatively easy. However, for those with few, if any, resources, the attainment of ends may be difficult or impossible.

Related to scarcity of resources is the idea of opportunity costs. In pursuing a given end, actors must keep an eye on the costs of forgoing their next most attractive action. An actor may choose not to pursue the most highly valued end if her resources are negligible, if, as a result, the chances of achieving that end are slim, and if in striving to achieve that end she jeopardizes her chances of achieving her next most valued end. Actors are seen as trying to maximize their benefits; that goal may involve assessing the relationship between the chances of achieving a primary end and what that achievement does for chances for attaining the second most valuable objective.

opportunity costs The costs of forgoing the next most attractive action when an actor chooses an action aimed at achieving a given end.

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A second source of constraints on individual action is social institutions. Such constraint occurs throughout the life course and is manifest through schools and their rules, the policies of employing organizations, and the laws of society. These all serve to restrict choices available to actors and, thereby, the outcome of actions. These institutional constraints provide both positive and negative sanc- tions that serve to encourage certain actions and to discourage others.

It is possible to enumerate two other ideas that can be seen as basic to rational choice theory. The first is an aggregation mechanism whereby a vari- ety of individual actions are combined to form a social outcome. The second is the importance of information in making rational choices. At one time, it was assumed that actors had perfect, or at least sufficient, information to make purposive choices among the alternative courses of action open to them. How- ever, there is a growing recognition that the quantity or quality of available information is highly variable and that variability has a profound effect on actors’ choices.

In his introductory comments to the first issue of Rationality and Society, Coleman made it clear that he gave allegiance to rational choice theory not only because of the strengths of the theory itself, but also because it is the only the- ory capable of producing a more integrative sociological approach. He views rational choice theory as providing the micro-level base for the explanation of macro-level phenomena. Beyond such academic concerns, Coleman wants work done from a rational choice perspective to have practical relevance to our changing social world. For example, the issue of public policies aimed at AIDS prevention has been studied from a rational choice perspective.

Foundations of Social Theory

Coleman argues that sociology should focus on social systems, but that such macro-phenomena must be explained by factors internal to them, ideally, indi- viduals. He favors working at the individual level for several reasons, includ- ing the fact that data are usually gathered at that level and then aggregated or composed to yield the system level. Among the other reasons for favoring a focus on the individual level is that this is where interventions are ordinarily made to create social changes. Central to Coleman’s perspective is the idea that social theory is not merely an academic exercise but should affect the social world through such interventions.

Given his focus on the individual, Coleman recognizes that he is a method- ological individualist, although he views his particular perspective as a special variant of that orientation. His view is special in the sense that it accepts the idea of emergence and that while it focuses on factors internal to the system, those factors are not necessarily individual actions and orientations. Micro- level phenomena other than individuals can be the focus of his analysis.

Coleman’s rational choice orientation is clear in his basic idea that peo- ple act toward goals in a purposive manner and both goals and actions are shaped by values (or preferences). But Coleman then goes on to argue that

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for most theoretical purposes, he will need a more precise conceptualization of the rational actor derived from economics, one that sees the actors choos- ing those actions that will maximize utility, or the satisfaction of their needs and wants.

The two key elements in his theory are actors and resources. Resources are those things over which actors have control and in which they have some interest. Given these two elements, Coleman details how their interaction leads to the system level. This is based on the fact that actors have resources and those resources are of interest to others. As a result, actors engage in actions that involve others and a system of action, a structure, emerges among them. In other words, interdependent actors, each seeking to maximize interests, form a social system.

Given his orientation to individual rational action, it follows that Coleman’s focus in terms of the micro-macro issue (see, especially, Chapter 7) is the micro-to-macro linkage, or how the combination of individual actions creates the larger system. While he accords priority to this issue, Coleman

James S. Coleman (1926–1995) A Biographical Vignette

Looking back from the vantage point of the mid-1990s, Coleman found that his macro-level approach had changed. For example, with respect to his work on social simulation games at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s, he said that they “led me to change my theoretical orientation from one in which properties of the system are not only determinants of action (à la Emile Durkheim’s Suicide study), to one in which they are also consequences of actions sometimes intended, sometimes unintended.” Coleman needed a theory of action, and he chose, in common with most economists,

the simplest such foundation, that of rational, or if you prefer, purposive action. The most formidable task of sociology is the development of a theory that will move from the micro-level of action to the macro-level of norms, social values, status dis- tribution, and social conflict.

This interest explains why Coleman is drawn to economics:

What distinguishes economics from the other social sciences is not its use of rational choice but its use of a mode of analysis that allows moving between the level of individual action and the level of system functioning. By making two assumptions, that persons act rationally and that markets are perfect with full communication, economic analysis is able to link the macro-level of system functioning with the micro-level of individual actions.

Another aspect of Coleman’s vision for sociology, consistent with his early work on schools, is that it be applicable to social policy. Of theory he says, “One of the criteria for judging work in social theory is its potential usefulness for informing social policy.”

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 167

is also interested in the macro-to-micro linkage, or how the macro-system constrains the orientations of actors. Finally, he is interested in the micro- micro aspect of the relationship, or the impact of individual behavior on the behavior of other individuals.

In spite of this seeming balance, there are at least three major weak- nesses in Coleman’s approach. First, he accords overwhelming priority to the micro-to-macro issue, thereby giving short shrift to the other relationships (macro-micro, micro-micro). Second, he ignores the macro-macro issue. Finally, his causal arrows go mainly in one direction (micro to macro); in other words, he ignores the ongoing reciprocal relationship among and between micro and macro phenomena.

Utilizing his rational choice approach and starting at the micro-level of rational individual behavior, Coleman seeks to explain a series of macro-level phenomena including collective behavior, norms, and the corporate actor.

Collective Behavior Coleman (and other rational choice theorists) chooses to deal with collective behavior (of, for example, a crowd) because its often disorderly and unstable character is thought to be diffi cult to analyze from a rational choice perspective. But Coleman’s view is that rational choice theory can explain all types of macro phenomena, not just those that are orderly and stable. What is involved in collective behavior is the unilateral transfer by rational actors of control over their actions to others (e.g., crowd organizers or leaders). They do this in an attempt to maximize their utility. Normally, such maximization involves a balancing of control among several actors; this bal- ance produces equilibrium within society. However, in the case of collective behavior, because there is a unilateral transfer of control, individual maximiza- tion creates an imbalance and does not necessarily lead to system equilibrium. Instead, there is the disequilibrium characteristic of collective behavior such as in the case of an unruly crowd.

Norms Another macro-level phenomenon that comes under Coleman’s scru- tiny is norms. Unlike collective behavior, norms are not only quite stable but they serve to produce order in society. While most sociologists take norms as given and invoke them to explain individual behavior, they do not explain why and how norms come into existence. Coleman wonders how, in a group of rational actors, norms emerge and are maintained. He argues that norms are created and maintained by some people who see benefi ts resulting from norms that control group behavior and see harm stemming from the violation of those norms. Thus, norms against smoking in public places have emerged because they protect nonsmokers (likely those who helped create the norms) from second-hand smoke and violation of such norms would lead to higher rates of lung cancer among them. People are willing to give up some control over their own behavior (others decide whether smoking in public places is permissible), but in the process they gain some individual and collective control (through norms) over the behavior of others (preventing them from smoking in such settings). Once again, people are seen as maximizing their utility by partially

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surrendering rights of control over themselves and gaining some control over others. Because the transfer of control is mutual, it is not unilateral as it is in the case of collective behavior, there is equilibrium in the case of norms.

Norms often act to the advantage of some people (e.g., nonsmokers) and to the disadvantage of others (smokers). In some cases (including smoking in public places), actors surrender the right to control their own actions to those who initiate and maintain the norms. Such norms become effective when a con- sensus emerges that some people have the right to control (through norms) the actions of other people. Furthermore, the effectiveness of norms depends on the ability to enforce that consensus (e.g., forcing violators to extinguish their cigarettes in public places). This consensus and enforcement are other factors that prevent the kind of disequilibrium characteristic of collective behavior.

Coleman recognizes that norms become interrelated (bans on smoking on airplanes and in airports), but he sees such a macro-macro (norm-norm) issue as beyond the scope of his work on the foundations of social systems. However, he is willing to take on the macro-to-micro issue of the internalization of norms. He sees the internalization of norms as the establishment of an internal sanctioning system; people sanction themselves when they violate a norm. Coleman looks at this in terms of the idea of one actor or set of actors endeavoring to control others by having norms internalized in them. Thus, it is in the interests of one set of actors to have another set of people internalize norms and be controlled by them.

The Corporate Actor Within such a collectivity as a corporation or a state, individual actors may not make choices among actions in terms of their self- interest but often must choose on the basis of the interest of the collectivity. Thus, a U.S. president might choose not to run for a second term even though it would be in his self-interest to do so. Rather, he chooses that option because it is in the interest of his political party, the nation, and its citizens.

There are various rules and mechanisms for moving from individual choice to collective (social) choice. The simplest is the case of voting and the procedures for tabulating the individual votes and coming up with a collective decision. This is the micro-to-macro dimension, while such things as the slate of candidates proposed by the collectivity involve the macro-to-micro linkage.

Coleman argues that both corporate actors and human actors have pur- poses. Furthermore, within a corporate structure such as an organization, human actors may pursue purposes of their own that are at variance with cor- porate purposes. This conflict of interest helps us understand the sources of revolts against corporate authority. The micro-to-macro linkage here involves the ways in which people divest authority from the corporate structure and vest legitimacy in those engaged in the revolt. But there is also a macro-to- micro linkage in that certain macro-level conditions lead people to such acts of divestment and investment.

As a rational choice theorist, Coleman starts with the individual and with the idea that is where all rights and resources exist. It is the interests

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 169

of individuals that should determine the course of events. However, this is often not the case, especially in modern society, where many rights, signifi- cant resources, and even sovereignty reside in corporate actors. In the modern world corporate actors have taken on increasing importance. The corporate actor may act to the benefit or the harm of the individual. How are we to judge the corporate actor in this regard? Coleman contends that we need to do this on the basis of the assumption that it is individual persons who are sovereign and the social system must be evaluated on the basis of how well it serves individual sovereignty.

Coleman differentiates between traditional structures based on the fam- ily, such as neighborhoods and religious groups, and purposive structures, such as economic organizations and the government. There have always been corporate actors, but the traditional ones, such as the family, are steadily being replaced by new, purposively constructed, free-standing corporate actors. He sees a progressive “unbundling” of the activities that once were tied together within, for example, the family. Such traditional structures are “unraveling” as their functions are dispersed and taken over by a range of corporate actors (e.g., child care centers in the case of the family). Coleman is concerned about this unraveling as well as about the fact that we are now forced to deal with positions in purposive structures (e.g., managers) rather than with the people who populated traditional structures. The existence of these new corporate actors raises the issue of how to ensure that they are socially responsible. Cole- man suggests that we can do this by instituting internal reforms or by chang- ing the external structure, such as the laws affecting such corporate actors or the agencies that regulate them.

The ultimate goal of Coleman’s work is the creation of a new social struc- ture as the traditional one upon which people depended disappears. The pass- ing of traditional structures and their replacement by purposive structures have left a series of voids that have not been filled adequately by the new social organizations. Social theory and the social sciences more generally are made necessary by the need to reconstruct a new society. The goal is not to destroy purposive structures but rather to realize the possibilities, and to avoid the problems, of such structures.

An overview of the field confirms Coleman’s views on rational choice theory. Work continues on many of the macro-issues identified by Coleman (e.g., collective behavior), but it has also expanded not only into other macro- areas (e.g., social stratification), but also to micro-areas (e.g., emotions) that one would not immediately think of as being amenable to rational choice analysis.

Although he has faith in rational choice theory, Coleman does not believe that this perspective, at least as yet, has all the answers. But it is clear that he believes that it can move in that direction. His hope is that work in rational choice theory will, over time, reduce the issues that cannot be dealt with by that theory.

Coleman recognizes that in the real world people do not always behave rationally, but he believes that this makes little difference in his theory; the same theoretical predictions would be made whether or not people behave rationally.

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1. Symbolic interactionism, like the other theories discussed in this chapter, focuses on everyday life, especially interaction (as well as action and people as agents) and the symbols (and their meanings) that are deeply implicated in it.

2. Symbolic interactionism is defined by a set of fundamental assumptions: a. People act toward things on the basis of the meanings those things have for

them and these meanings stem from their interactions with other people. b. People do not simply internalize the meanings that they learn through social

interaction, but they are also able to modify them through an interpretive process. c. People, in contrast to other animals, are unique in their ability to use and rely

on symbols. d. People become human through social interaction, especially in the early years

with family members and then in school. e. People are conscious, capable of reflecting on themselves and what they do,

and therefore capable of shaping their actions and interactions. f. People have purposes when they act in, as well as toward, situations. g. Society consists of people engaging in social interaction. 3. To Erving Goffman, dramaturgy views social life as a series of dramatic perfor-

mances akin to those performed in the theater. 4. From a dramaturgical perspective, the self is a sense of who one is that is a dramatic

effect that emerges from the immediate scene being presented. 5. Impression management involves techniques actors use to maintain certain impres-

sions in the face of problems they are likely to encounter, and methods they use to cope with these problems.

6. The front stage is that part of dramaturgical performance that generally functions in rather fixed and general ways to define the situation for those who observe the performance.

7. The back stage is where facts suppressed in the front stage or various kinds of infor- mal actions may appear.

8. Role distance deals with the degree to which individuals separate themselves from the roles they are in.

9. Stigma involves a gap between virtual (what a person ought to be) and actual (what a person actually is) social identity.

10. A discredited stigma occurs when the actor assumes that the differences are known by the audience members, or are evident to them, while a discreditable stigma is one in which the differences are neither known by audience members nor perceiv- able by them.

11. Ethnomethodology is the study of ordinary members of society in the everyday situations in which they find themselves and the ways in which they use common- sense knowledge, procedures, and considerations to gain an understanding of, nav- igate in, and act on those situations.

12. Ethnomethodologists are concerned with accounts, accounting, and accounting practices.

13. Breaching experiments violate social reality in order to shed light on the methods by which people construct social reality.

14. George Homans’s exchange theory is based primarily on behaviorist principles. 15. The heart of Homans’s exchange theory lies in the following propositions: a. The more often a person is rewarded for a particular action, the more likely the

person is to perform the rewarded action.

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Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life 171

b. If in the past a person’s action has been rewarded as a result of responding to a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli, then the person is more likely to perform the same action (or something similar) when stimuli are applied that are similar to those in the past.

c. The more valuable people find the results of their action, the more likely they are to perform that action.

d. The more often in the recent past people have received a particular reward, the less valuable will be future rewards of that type.

e. When people do not receive expected rewards for their actions, or they receive unanticipated punishment, they become angry and are more likely to act aggressively and to find the results of such aggressive behavior more valuable.

f. People are pleased when they receive an expected reward, especially one that is greater than expected; and they will, as a result, be more likely to perform the behavior that has received approval and the results of that behavior will become of increasing value.

g. People choose from the available alternatives the action for which, given the person’s perception at the time, there are greater rewards and greater probabil- ity of getting those rewards.

16. The focus in rational choice theory is on actors. 17. Actors are seen as being purposive, or as having intentionality; that is, actors have

ends or goals toward which their actions are aimed. 18. Actors are also seen as having preferences (or values, utilities). Rational choice

theory is unconcerned with what these preferences, or their sources, are. Of impor- tance is the fact that action is undertaken to achieve objectives consistent with an actor’s preference hierarchy.

19. In addition, rational choice theory must take into account scarcity of resources and opportunity costs, or the costs of forgoing their next most attractive action, as well as the constraints imposed by social institutions.

20. Utilizing a rational choice approach and starting at the micro-level of rational indi- vidual behavior, Coleman seeks to explain a series of macro-level phenomena, including collective behavior, norms, and the corporate actor.

Suggested Readings

K ent S andstrom and S herryl K leinman “Symbolic Interaction.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 821–826 . Nice overview of the basic principles of symbolic interactionism as well as of current trends and future directions.

E rving G offman The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor , 1959 . Goffman’s works tend to be quite readable. This is the best source on dramaturgy.

E rving G offman Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall , 1963 . One of Goffman’s most interesting and insightful works.

Greg Smith “Erving Goffman.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 125–154. Comprehensive overview of Goffman’s life and major theoretical contributions.

P hilip M anning “Dramaturgy.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social The- ory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 210–213 . A look at dramaturgy

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focusing on the contributions of Erving Goffman, although it also includes a look at the perspective after Goffman as well as some of the basic criticisms of it.

A nne R awls “Harold Garfinkel.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 89–124. Rare personal glimpse into Garfinkel’s life and work.

R ichard H ilbert “Ethnomethodology.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 253–257 . Informative look at some of the background of ethnomethodology, its relationship to the social sciences, its terminology, and some of its basic studies. Also includes a brief discussion of con- versation analysis.

A nne R awls “Conversation Analysis.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 145–149 . More detailed examination of conversation analysis, including its ties to ethnomethodology.

G eorge H omans Coming to My Senses: The Autobiography of a Sociologist. New Bruns- wick, NJ: Transaction Books , 1984 . The title is self-explanatory.

J on C lark, ed. James S. Coleman. London: Falmer Press , 1996 . Excellent collection of essays on Coleman’s contributions to sociology and sociological theory.

Guillermina Jasso “James S. Coleman.” In George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepnisky, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists: Volume II – Contemporary Social Theorists. Malden, MA, and Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 219– 239. A personal account of Coleman’s work and life focusing on the mathematical elements of the theory.

D ouglas H eckathorn “Rational Choice.” In George Ritzer , ed., The Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 2 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2005 , pp. 620–624 . Overview of the varieties of rational choice theory authored by one of the important contributors to that theory.

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C H A P T E R 7

Contemporary Integrative Theories

A More Integrated Exchange Theory Structuration Theory Culture and Agency Habitus and Field Summary Suggested Readings

I n previous chapters we have dealt with a variety of contemporary theories that focus either on the large-scale structures and institutions of society (Chapters 4 and 5) or on the micro-levels we associate with everyday life (Chapter 6). In this chapter we deal with theoretical efforts that have sought to deal with the full range of micro-macro issues in a more integrative fashion.


While George Homans was involved in an effort to create a microreduction- istic exchange theory, Richard Emerson sought to create a more integrated version of that theory. He published two related essays written in 1972 that had a profound effect on the development of exchange theory. Three basic factors served as the impetus for this new body of work. First, Emerson was interested in exchange theory as a broader framework for his earlier interest in power and dependence. It seemed clear to Emerson that power was cen- tral to the exchange theory perspective. Second, Emerson felt that he could use behaviorism (operant psychology) as the base of his exchange theory but avoid some of the problems that had befallen Homans. Homans and other exchange theorists had been accused of assuming an overly rational image of human beings, but Emerson felt he could use behaviorism without assuming a ratio- nal actor. In addition, Emerson felt he could avoid the charge of reductionism

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(one that Homans reveled in) by being able to develop an exchange perspec- tive capable of explaining macro-level phenomena. Third, Emerson wanted to deal with social structure and social change by analyzing social relations and social networks and using them as foundations that could be employed from the most microscopic levels of analysis to the most macroscopic. In addition, the actors in Emerson’s system could be either individuals or larger corporate structures (albeit, structures working through agents). Thus, Emerson used the principles of operant psychology to develop a theory of social structure.

In his two essays published in 1972, Emerson developed the basis of his integrative exchange theory. In the first essay Emerson dealt with the psycho- logical basis for social exchange, while in the second he turned to the macro- level and exchange relations and network structures. Later, Emerson made the micro-macro linkage more explicit, and the linkage between micro- and macro- levels of analysis was exchange network structures. Karen Cook, Emerson’s most important disciple, pointed out that it is the idea of exchange network structures that is central to the micro-macro linkage; it can link single individu- als and two-person groups to larger collectivities such as organizations and political parties.

Both Emerson and Cook accept and begin with the basic, micro-level prem- ises of exchange theory, especially the rewards that people get from, and con- tribute to, social interaction. More specifically, Emerson accepts behavioristic principles as his starting point. Emerson outlines three core assumptions of exchange theory: (1) When people are engaged in situations that they find reward- ing, they will act rationally and, as a result, the situations will occur; (2) as people become satiated with the rewards they obtain from situations, those situations will be of declining importance to them; (3) benefits obtained depend on ben- efits provided in exchange. Therefore, exchange theory focuses on the flow of rewards (and costs) in social interaction. All this is quite familiar, but Emerson begins to point behavioristically oriented exchange theory in a different direc- tion at the close of his first micro-oriented 1972 essay by arguing that he wants to move on to dealing with more complex situations than those usually dealt with by behaviorism.

This theme opens the second 1972 essay in which Emerson makes it clear that he wants to include social structure as a dependent variable in exchange theory. Whereas in the first 1972 essay Emerson was concerned with a single actor involved in an exchange relation with his or her environment (e.g., a per- son fishing in a lake), in the second essay Emerson turns to social-exchange relationships as well as to exchange networks.

Exchange Relationships and Networks

The actors in Emerson’s macro-level exchange theory can be either individuals or collectivities. Emerson is concerned with the exchange relationship among

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actors. An exchange network has the several components. First, such a web of social relationships involves a number of either individual or collective actors. Second, the various actors have a variety of valued resources. All actors, individual and collective, in the network have exchange opportunities and exchange relations with one another. Finally, a number of these exchange rela- tions exist and interrelate with one another to form a single network structure; thus, at least two exchange relations between actors can be seen as forming a social structure.

The connection between exchange relations is of great importance and is critical to linking exchange between two actors (dyadic exchange) to more macro-level phenomena. What is crucial is the contingent relationship between dyadic exchanges. We may say that two dyadic-exchange relations, A-B and A-C, form a minimal network ( A-B-C ) when exchange in one is contingent on exchange (or nonexchange) in the other. It is not enough for A, B, and C to have a common membership for an exchange network to develop; there must be a contingent relationship between exchanges in A-B and B-C.

Richard Emerson (1925–1982) A Biographical Vignette

Richard Emerson was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1925. Raised near mountains, he never seemed to stray too far away from rivers, mountain peaks, and glaciers. One of his most prized personal accomplishments was his participation in the suc- cessful ascent of Mt. Everest in 1963. Aspects of this experience are captured in his publication “Everest Traverse” in the December 1963 edition of the Sierra Club Annual Bulletin and in an article published in Sociometry in 1966. He received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study group performance under prolonged stress on this climb. This project earned him the Hubbard Medal, presented to him by President Kennedy on behalf of the National Geographic Society in July 1963.

His love of mountains and the rural social life of the mountain villages of Pakistan became a constant source of sociological inspiration for Richard Emerson during his career. His studies of interpersonal behavior, group performance, power, and social influence were often driven by his close personal encounters with expe- dition teams for which the intensity of cooperation and competition were exacer- bated by environmental stress.

Source: This biographical vignette was written by Karen Cook.

exchange network A web of social relationships involving a number of either individ- ual or collective actors and the various actors have a variety of valued resources as well as exchange opportunities and exchange relations with one another. A number of these exchange relations exist and interrelate with one another to form a single network structure.

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Each exchange relation is embedded within a larger exchange network consisting of two or more such relationships. If the exchange in one rela- tionship affects exchange in another, they can be said to be connected. That connection can be positive when the exchange in one positively affects the exchange in another (e.g., the money obtained from one is used to gain social status in another); negative when one serves to inhibit the exchange in the other (e.g., time spent earning money in one relationship reduces the ability to spend time with friends in another); or it can be mixed.


Emerson defined power as the potential cost that one actor can induce another to accept. Dependence involves the potential cost that an actor is willing to tolerate within a relationship. These definitions lead to Emerson’s power- dependence theory, which can be summarized by saying that in an exchange relationship the power of one actor over another is a function of that actor’s dependence on the other actor. Unequal power and dependence lead to imbal- ances in relationships, but over time these move toward a more balanced power-dependence relationship.

Actors’ dependence on one another is critical in Emerson’s work. Among other things, this mutual dependence determines the nature of their inter- action and the amount of power they exercise over one another. A sense of dependence is linked to Emerson’s definition of power. Thus, the power of actor A over actor B is equal to and based on actor B’s dependence on actor A. There is balance in the relationship between actor A and actor B when the dependence of A on B equals the dependence of B on A. Where there is an imbalance in the dependencies, the actor with less dependence has an advan- tage in terms of power; thus, power is a potential built into the structure of the relationship between A and B. Power can also be used to acquire rewards from the relationship. Even in balanced relationships, power exists, albeit in a kind of equilibrium.

Power-dependence studies have focused on positive outcomes—the ability to reward others. However, in a series of studies, Linda Molm has emphasized the role of negative outcomes—punishment power—in power-dependence relationships; power can be derived from both the ability to reward and the ability to punish others. In general, Molm has found that punishment power is weaker than reward power, in part because acts of punishment are likely to elicit negative reactions. However, in one of her recent studies, Molm has suggested that the relative weakness of punishment power may arise because it is not widely used and not because it is inherently less effective than reward

power To Emerson, the potential cost that one actor can induce another to accept. dependence The potential cost that an actor will be willing to tolerate within a


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power. Molm and her coauthors found that the use of punishment power is more likely to be perceived as fair when it is used by those who also have the power to reward.

A More Integrative Exchange Theory

In explaining power dependence, exchange theory focuses on the dyadic relation between actors. In order to move away from the dyadic approach of exchange theory and toward a focus on the power of a position within a structure, Cook and Emerson argue that the determination of the power of a position is based on the amount of dependence of the entire structure on that position. Such systemwide dependence will, in their view, be a function of both the structural centrality of the position and the nature of power-dependence relationships. They are adopting a vulnerability approach in an effort to raise power-dependence theory from a microscopic to a more macroscopic level of analysis. Vulnerability involves the networkwide dependence on a particular structural position.

Cook, Jodi O’Brien, and Peter Kollock define exchange theory in inher- ently integrative terms as being concerned with exchanges at various levels of analysis, including those among interconnected individuals, corporations, and nation-states. They identify two strands of work in the history of exchange—one at the micro-level, focusing on social behavior as exchange, and the other at the more macro-level, viewing social structure as exchange. They see the strength of exchange theory in micro-macro integration, since the basic propositions of this theory apply to individuals and collectivities. In addition, it is explicitly con- cerned with the impact that changes at one level have on other levels of analysis.

Cook, O’Brien, and Kollock identify three contemporary trends, all of which point toward a more integrative exchange theory: One is the increasing use of field research focusing on more macroscopic issues, which can comple- ment the traditional use of the laboratory experiment to study microscopic issues. Second, they note the shift, discussed earlier, in substantive work away from a focus on dyads and toward larger networks of exchange. Third, and most important, is the ongoing effort to synthesize exchange theory and struc- tural sociologies. There are a number of recent examples of efforts by exchange theorists to synthesize their approach with other theoretical orientations.


In creating one of the most satisfying efforts to develop an integrated theory that we will encounter in this chapter, Anthony Giddens began by surveying a wide range of theories that begin with either the individual/agent (e.g., symbolic inter- actionism) or the society/structure (e.g., structural functionalism) and rejected both of these polar alternatives. Rather, Giddens argues that we must begin with recurrent social practices. Indeed, Giddens says that society acquires its structural

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properties (its “patternedness”) precisely because practices are recursive, they can be repeated indefinitely. Social practices can range from mundane every- day actions such as buying groceries to less common but nevertheless repeatable social practices such as voting in elections. Thus, to structuration theory, the focus is neither on large-scale structures nor everyday actions and interactions, but on social practices that recur in a patterned way. As in much of his theory, time and space are significant to Giddens’s conception of these practices: They recur and are ordered over time; they not only occurred yesterday, and are occurring today, but are apt to recur tomorrow, next week, next year, and in the next century. Similarly, they recur and are ordered across space so that patterned social practices found in New York are also found in Chicago, Tokyo, and London, among other places.

At its core Giddens’s structuration theory, with its focus on social practices, is a theory of the relationship between agency and structure. What is thought of in the United States as the micro-macro issue is the agency-structure issue in Europe. Although there are some important differences between them, for the purposes of this discussion we will treat micro-macro and agency-structure as all but identical continua.

To Giddens, agency and structure cannot be conceived of apart from one an- other; they are two sides of the same coin. In Giddens’s terms, they are a duality (the next section discusses Archer’s critique of this orientation). All social action involves structure, and all structure involves social action. Agency and structure are inextricably interwoven in ongoing human activity or practice. This means several things: (1) Social practices are not created mentally (or any other way) by actors; (2) they are not created by the structural social conditions in which actors find themselves; (3) most importantly, as people are expressing themselves as human actors, they are creating their consciousness and the structural condi- tions that make these practices possible. Practices, consciousness, and structure are being created simultaneously by the actor. Activities are not produced by con- sciousness, by the social construction of reality, nor are they produced by social structure. Rather, in expressing themselves as actors, people are engaging in practice, and it is through that practice that both consciousness and structure are produced. Giddens is concerned with consciousness, or reflexivity. However, in being reflexive, the human actor is not merely self-conscious but is also engaged in the monitoring of the ongoing flow of activities and structural conditions. Most generally, it can be argued that Giddens is concerned with the dialecti- cal process in which practice, structure, and consciousness are produced. Thus, Giddens deals with the agency-structure issue in a historical, processual, and dynamic way.

recursive The idea that social practices can be repeated indefinitely. Giddens says that society acquires structure through recursive practices.

duality All social action involves structure and all structure involves social action. Agency and structure are inextricably interwoven in ongoing human activity or practice.

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Not only are social actors reflexive, but so are the social researchers who are studying them. This led Giddens to his well-known ideas on the double hermeneutic. Both social actors and sociologists use language. Actors use language to account (here Giddens draws on ethnomethodology) for what they do, and sociologists, in turn, use language to account for the actions of social actors. Thus, we need to be concerned with the relationship between lay and scientific language. We particularly need to be aware of the fact that the social scientist’s understanding of the social world may have an impact on the understandings of the actors being studied. In that way, social research- ers can alter the world they are studying and thus lead to distorted findings and conclusions.

Elements of Structuration Theory

Giddens’s structuration theory includes his thoughts on agents, who, as dis- cussed previously, continuously monitor their own thoughts and activities as well as their physical and social contexts. In their search for a sense of security, actors rationalize their world. By rationalization Giddens means the development of routines that not only give actors a sense of security, but enable them to deal efficiently with their social lives. Actors also have motivations to act and these motivations involve the wants and desires that prompt action. Thus, although rationalization and reflexivity are continuously involved in action, motivations are more appropriately thought of as poten- tials for action. Motivations provide overall plans for action, but most of our action, in Giddens’s view, is not directly motivated. Although such action is not motivated and our motivations are generally unconscious, motivations play a significant role in human conduct.

Also within the realm of consciousness, Giddens makes a (permeable) distinc- tion between discursive and practical consciousness. Discursive consciousness entails the ability to describe our actions in words. Practical consciousness involves actions that the actors take for granted, without being able to express in words what they are doing. The latter type of consciousness is particularly impor- tant to structuration theory, reflecting a primary interest in what is done rather than what is said.

double hermeneutic The social scientist’s understanding of the social world may have an impact on the understandings of the actors being studied, with the result that social researchers can alter the world they are studying and thus lead to distorted findings and conclusions.

rationalization To Giddens, this means the development of routines that not only give actors a sense of security but enable them to deal efficiently with their social lives.

discursive consciousness The ability to describe our actions in words. practical consciousness Involves actions that the actors take for granted, without

being able to express in words what they are doing.

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This focus on practical consciousness provides a smooth transition from agents to agency, the things that agents actually do. Thus, agency involves actions that are perpetrated by actors; that is, what occurs would not have occurred in that way were it not for the fact that the actor intervened and took the action in ques- tion. Thus, Giddens gives great (his critics say too much) weight to the importance of agency. He takes great pains to separate agency from intentions because he wants to make the point that actions often end up being different from what was intended; in other words, intentional acts often have unanticipated consequences. The idea of unintended consequences plays a great role in Giddens’s theory and is especially important in getting us from agency to the social-system level.

Consistent with his emphasis on agency, Giddens accorded the agent great power. Giddens’s agents have the ability to make a difference in the social world. Even more strongly, the notion of an agent makes no sense with- out according her power; that is, an actor ceases to be an agent if she loses the capacity to make a difference. Giddens certainly recognizes that there are con- straints on actors, but this does not mean that actors have no choices and make no difference. To Giddens, power is logically prior to consciousness because action involves power, or the ability to transform the situation. Thus, Giddens’s structuration theory accords power to the actor and action and is in opposition to theories that are disinclined to such an orientation and instead grant great importance either to the intent of the actor (phenomenology) or to the external structure (structural functionalism).

The conceptual core of structuration theory lies in the ideas of structure, system, and duality of structure. Structure is defined unconventionally as the structuring properties (specifically, rules and resources) that give similar social practices a systemic form. More specifically, it is what allows those social practices to exist across widely varying expanses of both time and space; thus, structure is made possible by the existence of rules and resources. Structures themselves do not exist in time and space. Rather, social phenomena have the capacity to become structured. Only through the activities of human actors can structure exist. Giddens offers a definition of structure that does not follow the Durkheimian pat- tern of viewing structures as external to and coercive of actors. He takes pains to avoid the impression that structure is outside or external to human action. Struc- ture gives shape and form to social life, but it is not itself either that form or shape.

Giddens does not deny the fact that structure can be constraining on action, but he feels that sociologists have exaggerated the importance of this constraint. Furthermore, they have failed to emphasize the fact that structure

agency Actions that are perpetrated by actors; what occurs would not have occurred in that way were it not for the fact that the actor intervened and took the action in question.

agents Actors who have the ability to make a difference in the social world; they have power.

structure To Giddens, the structuring properties (specifically, rules and resources) that give similar social practices a systemic form.

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is capable of both constraining and enabling action. Structures often allow agents to do things they would not otherwise be able to do. Although Giddens de-emphasizes structural constraint, he recognizes that actors can lose control over the structured properties of social systems as they stretch away in time and space. However, he is careful to avoid Weberian iron-cage imagery and notes that such a loss of control is not inevitable.

The conventional sociological sense of structure is closer to Giddens’s con- cept of social system. To Giddens, social systems are reproduced social prac- tices, or relations between actors or collectivities that are reproduced, becoming regular social practices. The idea of social system is derived from Giddens’s focal concern with practice. Social systems do not have structures, but they do exhibit structural properties. Structures do not themselves exist in time and space, but they do become manifested in social systems in the form of repro- duced practices. Although some social systems may be the product of inten- tional action, Giddens places greater emphasis on the fact that such systems are often the unanticipated consequences of human action. These unanticipated consequences may become unrecognized conditions of action and feed back into it. These conditions may elude efforts to bring them under control, but, nevertheless actors continue in their efforts to exert such control.

Thus structures are instantiated in social systems. In addition, they are also manifest in the memories of individual agents. As a result, rules and resources manifest themselves at both the macro-level of social systems and the micro- level of human consciousness.

The concept of structuration is premised on the idea, discussed previously, that agents and structures are a duality (not a dualism); they are not indepen- dent of one another. Instead, they are interrelated to such an extent that at the moment they produce action, people produce and reproduce the structures in which they exist. It is clear that structuration involves the dialectical relation- ship between structure and agency. Structure and agency are a duality; neither can exist without the other.

As previously indicated, time and space are crucial variables in Giddens’s theory. Both depend on whether other people are present temporally or spa- tially. The primordial condition is face-to-face interaction, in which others are present at the same time and in the same space. However, social systems extend in time and space, so others may no longer be present. Such distanc- ing in terms of time and space is made increasingly possible in the mod- ern world by new forms of communication and transportation. The central sociological issue of social order depends on how well social systems are

social system(s) Reproduced social practices, or relations between actors or collectivi- ties, that are reproduced, becoming regular social practices.

structuration Agents and structures are interrelated to such an extent that at the moment they produce action, people produce and reproduce the structures in which they exist; the dialectical relationship between structure and agency. Struc- ture and agency are a duality; neither can exist without the other.

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integrated over time and across space. One of Giddens’s most widely recog- nized achievements in social theory is his effort to bring the issues of time and space to the fore.


Margaret Archer has moved the issue of agency-structure in another direction by focusing on the linkage between agency and culture. One key difference between Giddens and Archer is Giddens’s case for dualities as opposed to Archer’s critique of Giddens’s devotion to dualities and her case for the util- ity of using (analytic) dualisms for analyzing the social world. In her view, as a dualism structure (and culture) and agency are analytically distinct, although they are intertwined in social life. Archer argued that Giddens (and others) are too eager to examine both sides of the coin simultaneously. In doing so, they are prevented from examining the interrelationship between one side and the other, between agency and structure. Of particular con- cern, Archer says that the focus on duality overshadows the very real ways in which structures can dominate people and impose social inequalities. She thought it was necessary that theorists resist any theory that prevents study of this interrelationship because it will then be impossible to unravel the rela- tionship between the two sides.

In our view, both dualities and dualisms have a role to play in analyz- ing the social world. In some cases it may be useful to separate structure and action, or micro and macro, in order to look at the way in which they relate to one another. In other cases, it may help to look at structure and action (micro and macro) as inseparable—as a duality. In fact, it may well be that the degree to which the social world is characterized by dualities or dualisms is an empirical question. In one case the social setting might better be analyzed using dualities, while in another case it might be better to use dualisms. Simi- lar points could also be made about different moments in time. We should be able to study and measure the degree of dualities and dualisms in any social setting at any given time.

A second major criticism of Giddens is that in his structuration theory the problem of structure and agency has overshadowed the issue of culture and agency. Archer sees, as do most sociologists, a distinction between structure and culture. However, the distinction is a conceptual one because structure and culture are obviously intertwined in the real world. Although structure is the realm of material phenomena and interests, culture involves nonmaterial phe- nomena and ideas. Not only are structure and culture substantively different, but they are also relatively autonomous. In Archer’s view, structure and culture

dualism Structure (and culture) and agency can be distinguished for analytic pur- poses, although they are intertwined in social life.

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must be dealt with as relatively autonomous, not lumped together under the heading of structure. However, in spite of the revival of cultural sociology, cul- tural analysis lags far behind structural analysis.


Pierre Bourdieu’s theory is animated by the desire to overcome what he consid- ers to be the false opposition between objectivism and subjectivism, or between the individual and society.

He places Durkheim and his study of social facts (see Chapter 2) within the objectivist camp. Durkheimians are criticized for focusing on objective structures and ignoring the process of social construction by which actors per- ceive, think about, and construct these structures and then proceed to act on that basis. Objectivists ignore agency and the agent, whereas Bourdieu favors a position that is structuralist without losing sight of the agent, or real-life actor.

Bridging Subjectivism and Objectivism

The goal of bridging subjectivism and objectivism moves Bourdieu in the direc- tion of a subjectivist position, one that is associated with symbolic interaction- ism (Chapter 6). The latter is viewed by Bourdieu as an example of subjectivism because of its focus on the way agents think about, account for, or represent the social world while largely ignoring the large-scale structures in which those processes exist. Bourdieu views theories such as symbolic interactionism as largely concentrating on agency and ignoring structure.

Bourdieu, on the other hand, focuses on the dialectical relationship between objective structures and subjective phenomena. For their part, objective struc- tures constrain thought, action, and interaction, as well as the way people rep- resent the world. However, those representations cannot be ignored because they ultimately affect objective structures.

To sidestep the objectivist-subjectivist dilemma, Bourdieu focuses on practice, which he views as the outcome of the dialectical relationship between structure and agency. Practices are not objectively determined, nor are they the product of free will. Reflecting his interest in the dialectic between structure and the way people construct social reality, Bourdieu labels his own orientation constructiv- ist structuralism, structuralist constructivism, or genetic structuralism. Bourdieu defines genetic structuralism as the study of objective structures that cannot be

practice To Bourdieu, actions that are the outcome of the dialectical relationship between structure and agency. Practices are not objectively determined, nor are they the product of free will.

genetic structuralism Bourdieu’s approach, which involves the study of objective structures that cannot be separated from mental structures that, themselves, involve the internalization of objective structures.

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separated from mental structures that, themselves, involve the internalization of objective structures.

He clearly subscribes, at least in part, to a structuralist perspective, but it is one that is different from that of most traditional structuralists. Although they

structuralist perspective The view that there are hidden or underlying structures that determine what transpires in the social world.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) A Biographical Vignette

Shortly before his death, Bourdieu wrote what conventionally would be called an autobiography—a story about his life. However, true to his reflexive sociology, Bourdieu warned readers that the book was not an autobiography but rather a sociological self-analysis. Like many poststructuralist thinkers, Bourdieu was wary of the idea that a person can be the sole author of his own life. So while Sketch for a Self-Analysis is filled with episodes from Bourdieu’s life, these are always placed in the context of the various social fields that shaped his life. Typical of his socio- logical style, he presents his life as something that was structured by fields through which he moved, but also a product of the moves that he made as an agent within those fields.

When Bourdieu first began his studies in French academia it was dominated by the likes of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. These scholars represented a closed and elitist approach to scholarship. Their per- sonalities and academic styles structured the field of French academia. Though Bourdieu took classes with some of these elites, he was drawn to those on the periphery, which included scholars like Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem. Even though Bourdieu would eventually become head of the prestigious College de France (replacing the sociologist Aron Raymond), his early intellectual development was defined through this opposition to mainstream academic life.

Bourdieu was also influenced by the time that he spent in war-torn Algeria, first in the French army and then as an assistant professor in Algiers. Throughout this time, Bourdieu positioned himself against the war. He wrote a book based on his time in Algeria that was intended to educate the French public on what he viewed as the true nature of French colonialism.

Ultimately Bourdieu traced his stubborn and rebellious “disposition” to his childhood upbringing in the peasant region of Béarn, France. Though his father had become a postal worker, both of his parents were from peasant families. They lived on a modest income that allowed them a very different lifestyle from the class- mates that Bourdieu would eventually study with at the university. Not only did Bourdieu think about the world differently than his peers, but he talked with a dif- ferent accent, held his body in a different way, and possessed a different kind of cultural capital. Bourdieu suggests that it is this habitus, and his resulting sympathy for outsiders, that lead him to challenge authority both in French academia and then in Algeria.

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focused on structures in language and culture, Bourdieu argues that structures also exist in the social world itself. Bourdieu sees a social world composed of objective structures that are independent of actors, but that can guide and con- strain their thoughts and practices. However, what truly differentiates Bourdieu from structuralists is the fact that he simultaneously adopts a constructivist perspective that allows him to deal with the genesis of schemes of perception, thought, and action as well as of social structures.

Although Bourdieu seeks to bridge structuralism and constructivism, and he succeeds to some degree, there is a bias in his work in the direction of struc- turalism. For this reason he is thought of as a poststructuralist. There is more continuity in his work with structuralism than there is with constructivism. Unlike the approach of most others (e.g., phenomenologists, symbolic interac- tionists), Bourdieu’s constructivism ignores subjectivity and intentionality. He does think it important to include within his sociology the way people, on the basis of their position in social space, perceive and construct the social world. However, the perception and construction that take place in the social world are both animated and constrained by structures. What he is interested in is the relationship between mental structures and social structures. Some micro- sociologists would be uncomfortable with Bourdieu’s perspective and would see it as little more than a more fully adequate structuralism. They would be particularly upset by his unwillingness and inability to deal with subjectivity. Yet there is a dynamic actor in Bourdieu’s theory, an actor capable of invention and improvisation. However, these are very limited in his work: The inven- tion is intentionless; the improvisation is regulated by structures. The heart of Bourdieu’s work, and of his effort to bridge subjectivism and objectivism, lies in his concepts of habitus and field, as well as their dialectical relationship to one another. While habitus exists in the minds of actors, fields exist outside their minds.


Bourdieu is most famous for his concept of habitus. Habitus is the mental or cognitive structure through which people deal with the social world. People are endowed with a series of internalized schemes through which they per- ceive, understand, appreciate, and evaluate the social world. Through such schemes people both produce their practices and perceive and evaluate them.

constructivist perspective The view that schemes of perception, thought, and action create structures.

poststructuralist A theorist, like Bourdieu, who has been influenced by a structuralist perspective but has moved beyond it to synthesize it with other theoretical ideas and perspectives.

habitus The mental or cognitive structures through which people deal with the social world.

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Dialectically, habitus is the product of the internalization of the structures of the social world. We can think of habitus as social structures that have been internalized; it is embodied social structures. It reflects objective divisions in the class structure, such as age groups, genders, and social classes. A habitus is acquired as a result of long-term occupation of a position within the social world. Thus, habitus varies depending on the nature of one’s position in that world; not everyone has the same habitus. However, those who occupy the same position within the social world tend to have a similar habitus.

In this sense, habitus can also be a collective phenomenon. The habitus allows an actor to make sense out of the social world, but the existence of a mul- titude of habitus means that the social world and its structures do not impose themselves uniformly on all actors.

A habitus available at any given time has been created over the course of col- lective history. The habitus manifested in any given individual is acquired over the individual’s life course and is a function of the particular point in social his- tory in which it occurs. Habitus is both durable and transposable—that is, trans- ferable from one field to another. However, it is possible for people to have an inappropriate habitus, to suffer from what Bourdieu calls hysteresis. A good example is someone who is uprooted from an agrarian existence in a contemporary precapitalist society and put to work on Wall Street. The habitus acquired in a pre- capitalist society would not allow one to cope very well with life on Wall Street.

The habitus both produces and is produced by the social world. On the one hand, habitus is a structuring structure, a structure that structures the social world. On the other hand, it is a structured structure; that is, it is a structure that is struc- tured by the social world. In other words, the habitus involves a double-sided dialectic: It involves the internalization of external structures, but also there is the externalization of things internal to the individual. The concept of habitus allows Bourdieu to escape from having to choose between subjectivism and objectivism.

Practice mediates between habitus and the social world. On the one hand, through practice the habitus is created; on the other, as a result of practice the social world is created. Although practice tends to shape habitus, habitus, in turn, serves to both unify and generate practice.

Although habitus is an internalized structure that constrains thought and choice of action, it does not determine them. This lack of determinism is one of the main things that distinguishes Bourdieu’s position from that of traditional structuralists. The habitus merely suggests what people should think and what they should choose to do. People engage in a conscious deliberation of options, although this decision-making process reflects the operation of the habitus. The habitus provides the principles by which people make choices and choose the strategies that they will employ in the social world. As a result, people, to Bourdieu, as to Garfinkel and the ethnomethodologists, are not judgmental dopes. However, people are not fully rational either (Bourdieu has disdain for

hysteresis The condition that results from having a habitus that is not appropriate for the situation in which one lives.

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Contemporary Integrative Theories 187

rational choice theory); they act in a reasonable manner—they have practical sense. There is a logic to what people do—the logic of practice.

Practical logic is polythetic; that is, our practical logic can sustain a number of confused and seemingly illogical (from the point of view of formal logic) means. This is important not only because it underscores the difference between practical logic and rationality (formal logic), but also because it reminds us of Bourdieu’s relationism. The latter is important in this context because it leads us to recognize that habitus is not an unchanging, fixed structure, but rather is adapted by individuals who are constantly changing in the face of the contra- dictory situations in which they find themselves.

The habitus is neither conscious nor are we able to articulate linguistically the ways in which it functions. We cannot scrutinize it introspectively, nor are we able to control it through acts of will. Although we are not conscious of

Key Concept Reflexive Sociology

Pierre Bourdieu calls for a reflexive sociology in which sociologists use their own tools to better understand their discipline. Sociologists, who spend their careers turning aspects of the social world into objects of study, ought to spend some time objectivizing their own practices. Using his own terminology, Bourdieu would favor examining the habitus and practices of sociologists within the fields of sociology as a discipline and the academic world, as well as the relationship between those fields and the fields of stratification and politics. He would also be concerned with the strategies of individual sociologists, as well as of the discipline itself, to achieve dis- tinction. For example, individual sociologists might use jargon to achieve high sta- tus in the field, and sociology might wrap itself in a cloak of science so that it could achieve distinction vis-à-vis the world of practice. In fact, Bourdieu has claimed that the scientific claims of sociology and other social sciences are really assertions of power. Of course, this position has uncomfortable implications for Bourdieu’s own work. He has sought to maintain his own symbolic power while at the same time criticizing the scientific approach that lies at the base of his own work.

Bourdieu makes an interesting case for metatheorizing when he argues that practicing sociologists need to avoid being toys of social forces that play on them and their work. The only way to avoid such a fate is to understand the nature of the forces acting upon the sociologist at a given point in history. Such forces can be understood only via metatheoretical analysis, or what Bourdieu calls socioanalysis. Once sociologists understand the nature of the forces (especially external-social and external-intellectual) operating on them, they will be in a better position to con- trol their impact on their work. Bourdieu, himself, seeks always to use sociology to cleanse his work of social determinants.

reflexive sociology The use by sociologists of their own theoretical and empirical tools to better understand their discipline.

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habitus and its operation, it manifests itself in our most practical activities, such as the way we eat, walk, talk, and even blow our noses. The habitus operates as a structure, but people do not simply respond mechanically to it or to external structures that are operating on them. Thus, in Bourdieu’s approach we avoid the extremes of unpredictable novelty and total determinism.


Bourdieu thinks of the concept of field relationally rather than structurally. The field is a network of relations among the objective positions within it. These relations exist apart from individual consciousness and will. They are not inter- actions or intersubjective ties among individuals. The occupants of positions may be either agents or institutions, and they are constrained by the structure of the field. The social world has a number of semi-autonomous fields (e.g., art, religion, higher education), all with their own specific logics and all generating among actors a belief about the things that are at stake in a field.

Bourdieu views the field, by definition, as an arena of struggle and battle with people occupying positions within fields and oriented, either as individu- als or collectivities, to defending their present position or to improving it. The structure of the field both lies at the base of, and guides, the strategies used to safeguard or improve positions. The field is a type of competitive market- place in which various kinds of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) are employed and deployed. However, the field of power (of politics) is of the utmost importance; the hierarchy of power relationships within the political field serves to structure all the other fields.

Bourdieu lays out a three-step process for the analysis of a field. The first step, reflecting the primacy of the field of power, is to trace out the relation- ship of any specific field to the political field. The second step is to map out the objective structure of the relations among positions within the field. Finally, the analyst should seek to determine the nature of the habitus of the agents who occupy the various types of positions within the field.

The positions of various agents in the field are determined by the amount and relative weight of the capital they possess. Bourdieu even uses military imagery (emplacements, fortresses) to describe the field and the struggles that take place within it. Capital allows one to control one’s own fate as well as the fate of others. Bourdieu usually discusses four types of capital. The idea is, of course, drawn from the economic sphere and the meaning of economic capital is obvious. Cultural capital involves various kinds of legitimate knowledge; social capital consists of valued social relations between people; symbolic capital stems from one’s honor and prestige.

field A network of relations among the objective positions. economic capital The economic resources possessed by an actor. cultural capital The various kinds of legitimate knowledge possessed by an actor. social capital The extent of the valued social relations possessed by an actor. symbolic capital The amount of honor and prestige possessed by an actor.

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Contemporary Integrative Theories 189

Occupants of positions within the field employ a variety of strategies. This idea shows, once again, that Bourdieu’s actors have at least some freedom. How- ever, strategies are not conscious or preplanned. Rather, they are structured and are structurally patterned and regular. The strategies deployed by actors depend upon their habitus and the nature of their position within the field.

Bourdieu views the state as the site of the struggle over the monopoly of what he calls symbolic violence. This is a soft form of violence because the agent against whom it is practiced is complicit in its practice. Symbolic vio- lence is practiced indirectly, largely through cultural mechanisms, and stands in contrast to the more direct forms of social control that sociologists often focus on. The educational system is the major institution through which sym- bolic violence is practiced on people. The language, the meanings, the symbolic system of those in power are imposed on the rest of the population. This serves to buttress the position of those in power by, among other things, obscur- ing what they are doing from the rest of society and getting subordinates to accept the legitimacy of that which dominates them. More generally, Bourdieu views the educational system as deeply implicated in reproducing existing power and class relations. In his ideas on symbolic violence, the political aspect of Bourdieu’s work is clearest. Bourdieu is interested in the emancipation of people from this violence and, more generally, from class and political domi- nation. Yet Bourdieu is no naive utopian; a better description of his position might be reasoned utopianism.

In underscoring the importance of both habitus and field, Bourdieu is re- jecting the split between methodological individualists and methodological holists and adopting a position that has been termed methodological rela- tionism, that is, he is focally concerned with the relationship between habitus and field. He sees this as operating in two main ways. On the one hand, the field conditions the habitus; on the other, the habitus constitutes the field as something that is meaningful, that has sense and value, and that is worth the investment of energy.

Applying Habitus and Field: Distinction Bourdieu does not simply seek to develop an abstract theoretical system; he also relates it to a series of empirical concerns and thereby avoids the trap of pure intellectualism. The application of his theoretical approach is illustrated in his empirical study Distinction, which examines the aesthetic preferences of different groups throughout society.

symbolic violence A soft form of violence (the agent against whom it is practiced is complicit in its practice) that is practiced indirectly, largely through cultural mechanisms.

methodological individualists Those social scientists who focus on the micro-level and view it as determining the macro-level.

methodological holists Those social scientists who focus on the macro-level and view it as determining the micro-level.

methodological relationism The position of social scientists who focus on the rela- tionship between macro- and micro-level phenomena.

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In this work, Bourdieu attempts, among other things, to demonstrate that culture can be a legitimate object of scientific study. He is attempting to reinte- grate culture in the sense of high culture (e.g., preferences for classical music) with the anthropological sense of culture, which looks at all its forms, both high and low (e.g., country or rap music). More specifically, in this work Bourdieu links taste for refined objects like fine foods with taste for the most basic food such as burgers and fries.

Because of structural invariants, especially field and habitus, the cultural preferences of the various groups within society (especially classes and fractions of classes) constitute coherent systems. Bourdieu is focally concerned with varia- tions in aesthetic taste, the acquired disposition to differentiate among the various cultural objects of aesthetic enjoyment and to appreciate them differentially. Taste is also practice that serves, among other things, to give an individual, as well as others, a sense of his or her place in the social order. Taste serves to unify those with similar preferences and to differentiate them from those with different tastes. Through the practical applications and implications of taste, people classify objects and, in the process, classify themselves. We are able to categorize people by the tastes they manifest, for example, by their preferences for different types of music or movies. These practices, like all others, need to be seen in the context of all mutual relationships, that is, within the totality. Thus, seemingly isolated tastes for art or movies are related to preferences in food, sports, or hairstyles.

Two interrelated fields are involved in Bourdieu’s study of taste: class relationships (especially within fractions of the dominant class) and cultural relationships. He sees these fields as a series of positions in which a variety of games are undertaken. The actions taken by the agents (individual or collec- tive) who occupy specific positions are governed by the structure of the field, the nature of the positions, and the interests associated with them. However, this game also involves self-positioning and use of a wide range of strategies to allow one to excel at the game. Taste is an opportunity both to experience and to assert one’s position within the field. But the field of social class has a profound effect on one’s ability to play this game; those in the higher classes are far better able to have their tastes accepted and to oppose the tastes of those in the lower classes. Thus, the world of cultural works is related to the hierar- chical world of social class and is itself both hierarchical and hierarchizing.

Needless to say, Bourdieu also links taste to his other major concept, habitus. Tastes are shaped far more by these deep-rooted and long-standing dispositions than they are by surface opinions and verbalizations. People’s preferences for even such mundane aspects of culture as clothing, furniture, or cooking are shaped by the habitus. And these dispositions serve to unify classes, albeit unconsciously. To put it another way, taste is a matchmaker. Through taste one habitus indicates its compatibility with another habitus. Dialectically, of course, it is the structure of the class that shapes the habitus.

Although both field and habitus are important to Bourdieu, their dialectical relationship is of utmost importance and significance; field and habitus mutu- ally define one another. Out of the dialectical relationship between habitus and field, practices, cultural practices in particular, are established.

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Bourdieu views culture as a kind of economy, or marketplace. In this market- place people utilize cultural rather than economic capital. This capital is largely a result of people’s social class origin and their educational experience. In the mar- ketplace, people accrue more or less capital and either expend it to improve their position or lose it, thereby causing their position within the economy to deteriorate.

People pursue distinction in a range of cultural fields—the beverages they drink (Perrier or cola), the automobiles they drive (Mercedes Benz or Kia), the newspapers they read ( The New York Times or USA Today ), or the resorts they visit (the French Riviera or Disney World). Relationships of distinction are objectively inscribed in these products and reactivated each time they are appropriated. In fact, when one looks at all of the fields taken together, there is an almost inexhaustible set of possible fields in which to pursue distinc- tion. The appropriation of certain cultural goods (e.g., a Mercedes Benz) yields profit, while appropriation of others (a Kia) yields no gain, or even a loss.

Bourdieu takes pains to make it clear that he is not simply arguing, following Thorstein Veblen’s famous theory of conspicuous consumption (see Chapter 3), that the motor force of human behavior is the search for distinction. Rather, he contends that his main point is that to occupy a position within a field is to differ from those who occupy neighboring positions—to be different. Through tastes people demonstrate differences from others. Thus, for example, one who chooses to own a grand piano is different from one who opts for an accordion. That one choice (the grand piano) is seen as worthy of high status, while another (the accordion) is considered vulgar is a result of the dominance of one point of view and the symbolic violence practiced against those who adopt another viewpoint.

A dialectic exists between the nature of the cultural products and tastes. Changes in cultural goods lead to alterations in taste, but changes in taste are also likely to result in transformations in cultural products. The structure of the field not only conditions the desires of the consumers of cultural goods but also structures what the producers create in order to satisfy those demands.

Changes in taste (and Bourdieu sees all fields temporally) result from the strug- gle between opposing forces in both the cultural (e.g., the supporters of old versus new fashions) and the class (the dominant versus the dominated fractions within the dominant class) arenas. However, the heart of the struggle lies within the class system, and the cultural struggle between artists and intellectuals, for example, is a reflection of the interminable struggle between the different factions of the domi- nant class to define culture, indeed the entire social world. Oppositions within the class structure condition oppositions in taste and in habitus. Although Bourdieu gives great importance to social class, he refuses to reduce it merely to economic matters or to the relations of production but sees class as defined by habitus as well.

Bourdieu offers a distinctive theory of the relationship between agency and structure within the context of a concern for the dialectical relationship between habitus and field. His theory is also distinguished by its focus on prac- tice (in the preceding case, aesthetic practice) and its refusal to engage in arid intellectualism. In that sense it represents a return to the Marxian concern for the relationship between theory and practice.

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