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and the processing of information

and learning via feedback mechanisms.

The functionalist sociologist, Talcott Parsons,

developed a theory of the social system in the

1950s; from the 1960s onwards, he increasingly

used the language of cybernetics and biological

systems theory. In “Some Problems of General

Theory in Sociology,” in Edward Tiryakian (ed.),

Theoretical Sociology (1970: 230), Parsons describes

the social system as a structurally differentiated

system of social roles and expectations that is

maintained by four functional imperatives (adaptation,

goal-attainment, integration, and latency)

social structure social systems theory


as it operates in its environment(s), writing that,

“the concept function is central to the understanding

of all living systems . . . [and] is simply

the corollary of the concept living system, delineating

certain features in the first instance of

the system–environment relation and in the

second, of the internal differentiation of the

system itself.” The social system operates in an

environment of other systems, including the

system of the organism, the personality system,

and the cultural system. Parsons outlines a “cybernetic

hierarchy,” ordered with the cultural

system, highest in information, at the top and

the system of the organism at the bottom.

In that sense, Parsons declares himself to be a

“cultural determinist.”

Parsons analyzes social systems in terms of an

analytical postulate of perfect integration, arguing

that this is to be distinguished from concrete

social systems as such, which are to be analyzed

in terms of their tendencies towards integration,

and not in terms of integration as a fully realized

state. This has been restated by Jeffrey Alexander

in his “Introduction” to Neofunctionalism (1985) as

the basis of a neofunctionalist paradigm of social

systems, where “equilibrium is taken as a reference

point for functionalist systems analysis,

though not for participants in actual social

systems as such.”

Nonetheless, critics argued that this analytic

emphasis on integration neglects conflict, and

overemphasizes equilibrium theoretically, if not

concretely. For some systems theorists, the problem

is the overgeneralized nature of Parsons’s

theory. According to Walter Buckley (1921– ),

systems theory could be applied directly to concrete

systems without any assumption of the priority

of equilibrium over “chaotic complexity,” or

of consensus over conflict, and without the artificial

constraint of just four functions with which

to account for differentiation.

Parsons developed his theory of the social

system on an action frame of reference; his aim

was to integrate the analysis of systems of action

with that of the agency of individuals. Critics

such as Anthony Giddens and Ju¨rgen Habermas

argue that he came to neglect action and overemphasized

systems. Nonetheless, each comes to

offer a very similar account of social systems

to that of Parsons. Giddens’s theory of structuration

sets out a level of social interaction whose

internal differentiation is organized by four structural

principles, those of allocation, authorization,

legitimation, and signification. Habermas,

for his part, sets out a level of society and a

division between the system and the lifeworld,

where each operates in terms of two functions

defined similarly to those of Parsons and Giddens.

The Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana

(1928– ) and his student Francisco Varela (1946–

2001), coined the term autopoiesis in the 1970s

to describe the self-regulation of living systems.

This concept was developed by the German sociologist

and student of Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, to

develop a constructivist, or self-referential, account

of systems. Unlike Habermas, with whom

he was engaged in debate, Luhmann argued that

the structure/agency and system/lifeworld divisions

were false ones. The divisions can be appropriately

conflated within a systems theory based

on the communicative coupling of actors and

systems. Communication, not action, should be

the core concept of sociology; modern societies,

or social systems, are too complex to be reducible

to actors’ reasons for acting, which can be multifarious.

According to Luhmann, autopoietic social

systems construct themselves self-referentially

as social relationships made up of differentiated

subsystems. These subsystems interact, but have

their own relatively autonomous logics, and are

not limited by a pregiven set of functions.

Differentiation increases communication and

the scale and complexity of society. Like Buckley,

Luhmann argues that this form of system theory

avoids the priority given to integration in the

Parsonian scheme. His theory is not about the

reestablishment of equilibrium in the face of

contingent disturbances from the environment,

but about the renewal of system elements; all

elements must pass away in time and reproduction

is a matter of “dynamic stability.” According

to Luhmann in his Social Systems (1984 [trans.

1995: 48]) disintegration and reproduction are

intertwined: “systems with temporalized complexity

depend on constant disintegration. Continuous

disintegration creates, as it were, a place and

a need for succeeding elements; it is a necessary,

contributing cause of reproduction.”


social theory

The systematic reflection on the nature of society

and social relationships, social theory is intimately

tied to the fate of sociology as a discipline

concerned with the empirical study of social life.

Historians of social science frequently associate

both social theory and sociology with the rise

in the late eighteenth century of capitalist modernity

and its distinctive institutional separation

of state and civil society. Associated with this

social systems theory social theory


“transformation of the public sphere” by Ju¨rgen

Habermas (1962 [trans. 1989]), society – as distinct

from the more standard concern with the nature

of political obligation – became an object of attention

for a new stratum of public intellectuals,

concerned with the underlying conditions of

civility and social life.

As capitalism matured and developed more

complex institutions, the expansion of universities

provided the conditions for the development

of disciplinary social science. In Structure

of Social Action (1937), Talcott Parsons famously

associated the 1890–1920 generation of European

social scientists and social theorists with the

founding of sociology as an empirical discipline

based on the theoretical presuppositions of an

action frame of reference. He believed this had

come to fruition in the post-World War II period

of affluence and political consensus; the end of

ideology coincided with a new “age of sociology.”

Sociological theory would replace social theory,

which remained tied to ideological concerns that

had been transcended. Even those who disagreed

with Parsons’s particular conception of sociological

theory frequently shared his view that a

scientific, discipline-based sociology would provide

useful knowledge that could be harnessed to

address the social problems of advanced welfare


In this period, social theory as a distinct field

was frequently regarded as a historical throwback,

under the continuing influence of European

Marxism, or something pursued by lone individuals

posing as social critics. The latter – for

example, Robert Staughton Lynd and David Riesman

in the United States – frequently decried

professional sociology’s lack of public purpose.

The rapid expansion of higher education in the

postwar period, however, not only gave rise to

disciplinary consolidation, but also created opportunities

for posts outside networks of professional

patronage. This coincided with the breakdown of

the postwar social and political consensus and

the rise of new social movements, associated

with women’s rights, race and ethnicity, struggles

against colonialism, environmental rights, and

alternative sexualities.

In his Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970),

Alvin W. Gouldner criticized the claim to professional

expertise on the part of disciplinary

sociology and called for “new theoretical communities”

to be formed with links to these new

social movements. Similar arguments were made

by Alain Touraine in France. Others, such as

Anthony Giddens and Habermas, argued for a

reengagement with the classical tradition in social

theory to reinvigorate the discipline, while the

work of Michel Foucault was important in identifying

the politics of knowledge claims and the

techniques of power to which expert knowledges

were allied. The women’s movement and the

movement for gay rights developed feminist and

queer critiques of sociology (see queer theory)

and developed distinctive forms of social theory.

Edward Said utilized Foucault to develop postcolonial


Increasingly, social theory has reemerged as a

distinctive field to displace sociological theory.

Where the latter is concerned with the development

of distinctive paradigms and collective programs

of research, the former tends to be focused

on a small number of prominent thinkers, is

weakly integrated, and is concerned with novel

interpretations of social issues, such as Ulrich

Beck’s idea of risk society, or Manuel Castell’s

information society. This new generation of social

theorists advocates the role of public intellectual,

rather than that of professional expert.



Socialists come in so many shapes and forms that

some argue that there is no socialism: there are

only socialisms. Despite differences over questions

of religion, nationalism, parliament, democracy,

and liberalism, all socialists have an optimistic

view of human nature, stress the importance of

cooperation, see freedom in terms of material

resources, and support equality. Socialism is

more than a notion that individuals can only survive

in a society since socialists challenge both

conservative ideas of hierarchy and the liberal

notion that humans can only flourish when they

acquire private property and produce through a


Marxists divide socialists into those who are

utopian and those who are scientific. Utopian socialism,

Marxists argue, is a creed that links

socialism to supposedly timeless values like equality

and justice. Nineteenth-century utopians

sought to establish egalitarian communities

rather than transform whole societies, but Marxists

also criticize utopian socialists for their failure

to connect socialism to a particular group

in society, a particular period of history, and a

revolutionary political project.

Marxism claims to be a scientific socialism on

the grounds that socialism is tied in an empirically

demonstrable way to the material interests of

workers. Although individuals from other social

social theory socialism


classes can join the socialist cause, only the

working class has the organizational experience

to bring about a socialist society. Attaining socialism

is not simply a matter of will-power, as utopians

suppose, but can be established only when a

capitalist society has demonstrated its productive

strengths and weaknesses. The stark incompatibility

between the material interests of the bourgeoisie

and those of the workers means that

capitalism has to be transformed through revolution

– although not necessarily by force – and this

process requires workers to form a new state.

However, as a classless society is established,

the state itself would “wither away.” Although

Marxists see capitalism as an immoral system,

socialism is not merely ethically desirable, but

historically necessary.

Anarchists expressed concern about the Marxist

emphasis on the need for political parties and

the state, and towards the end of the nineteenth

century a German socialist, Eduard Bernstein

(1850–1932), argued that the notion of a capitalism

increasingly paralyzed by its internal contradictions

did not fit the historical facts. A

revolutionary overthrow of capitalism was now

irrelevant as workers had shown that they could

win seats in parliament, and establish valuable

reforms. Indeed, the whole notion that socialism

is tied to one class in society was archaic, since

democracy and citizenship demonstrated that

people across the class divide can cooperate. Moreover

it was wrong to think of socialism as some

kind of hermetically sealed alternative to capitalism.

The formation of trade unions and cooperatives

had already shown that socialist elements

could be introduced into a capitalist society so

that a more democratic and socially fairer order

was emerging. Socialism was not, as the Marxists

argued, the stern antithesis of liberalism, but a

liberalism put into practice, and extended to

those sections of society, in particular the women

and workers, whom traditional liberalism had

“left out.” Finally Bernstein challenged the idea

that socialism was “inevitable.” It was certainly

desirable, but socialist reforms depended upon

moral values and not some kind of “natural” process

that would necessarily create a socialist


Bernstein’s arguments generated fierce controversy

and he was accused of “revisionism.” But

he was influential not just in his native Germany:

his arguments seem to fit British experience.

Bernstein, who lived in Britain for a number of

years, had been impressed by the Fabian Society,

which took its name from the Roman emperor,

Fabius, a commander famed for his gradual approach

to military campaigns. The Fabians argued

that socialism is a highly focused concern with

the organization of industry and the distribution

of wealth. The Society still exists today. Examine

its pamphlets, and what do you find? There are

specific proposals on organizing the civil service,

the health service, tax reforms, social security

benefits, European Monetary Union, and the like.

The British Labour Party grew out of the Labour

Representative Committee – a body formed by

trade unions in 1900 since they felt that they

needed a political voice. The party received a constitution

in 1918, but the famous Clause IV that

spoke of common ownership of the means of production

was not intended to be taken seriously.

The Labour Party supported “its” side during

World War I, entered into a national government,

and opposed V. I. Lenin’s Russian Revolution.

Not surprisingly, when the Bolsheviks formed the

Third International, urging socialist parties to

rename themselves “communist” and affiliate to

the new body, the Labour Party declined to do

so, nor would it work with the newly formed Communist

Party of Great Britain. Its 1922 program

made it clear that it stood for “common sense

and justice,” and Labour’s politics have always

been of a liberal and constitutional nature. When

Labour won a landslide electoral victory after

World War II, it adopted a policy of domestic

reform and American-aligned foreign policy.

Harold Wilson (1916–1995), who led the party in

the 1960s, argued that Karl Marx should remain

buried at Highgate cemetery, and Tony Blair

(1958– ) succeeded in doing what an earlier Labour

leader tried, but failed, to achieve: the removal

of the “symbolic” Clause IV from the party’s


Although a controversial figure among traditional

“Labourites” such as Roy Hattersley (1932– ),

Blair has stressed the ethical values of a democratic

socialism – social justice, fairness, and community.

What emerged after 1914 as the social democratic

version of socialism – before then all socialists

had called themselves social democrats – has been

endorsed internationally by European, Asian, and

Latin American socialists, and social democrats still

attend an international gathering from time to


There are of course numerous currents of socialist

thought within the broad camps of social

democracy and Communism, and the collapse of

so many of the Communist Party states in 1989

dented the prestige not only of “scientific socialism,”

but also of socialism generally. Nevertheless,

socialism socialism


socialism remains a significant theory and practice,

and arguably will continue as long as a

capitalist society exists. JOHN HOF FMAN

socialist feminism

This term is used to describe the western feminism

of the 1970s onward, which maintained a commitment

to social class, as much as gender, divisions

in the social world. The history of socialist feminism

is, however, much longer than a part of the

twentieth century, since, from the early nineteenth

century, women had organized collectively

as part of working-class movements. In Britain,

Sheila Rowbotham (in Hidden from History, 1971)

had argued that the history of workingclass

women had been largely ignored; that comment

encouraged the work of feminist historians

such as Barbara Taylor, Sally Alexander, and

Anna Davin. In the work of all these authors there

was a determination to show that class is as much

a part of social identity as gender and that social

change is not merely accomplished by the renegotiation

of gender norms.

Other feminist writers (for example, Sonia

Kruks) have outlined the transformation of

women’s situation by socialist regimes (such as

Cuba and China) while still others (for example,

Barbara Einhorn) have suggested that state socialism

gave women advantages not known by

women in capitalist societies. The fall of the

Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disappearance of

the command economies of state socialist regimes

have marginalized the position of socialist

feminism as a major theoretical position within

feminism, as have significant changes in the structure

of western labor markets, which have seen

the eradication of traditional workplace divisions

of gender, together with related – and deeply gendered

– trade unions. In the United States, debates

about social class and gender have emerged in

the exchanges between Nancy Fraser and Judith

Butler, the former arguing that a crucial element

of any discussion of gender has to be a recognition

of the existence of capitalist social relations.



Historically both sociology, for example Charles

Horton Cooley in Human Nature and the Social

Order (1902), and psychology — for example

Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id (1923 [trans.

1927]), reissued in The Standard Edition (1961:

3–66) — have been preoccupied with the question

of “human nature,” and, more specifically, with

the manner in which, and process whereby,

neonates come to be recognized as more-or-less

competent members of a shared social order.

The term socialization has, most usually, been

employed to refer to this (developmental) process

(sometimes referred to as primary socialization). It

has been used to examine the social roles of

parents, peers, and social institutions such as the

school as agents of socialization. The term has also

focused on locally specific issues such as work,

occupation, social role (such as parenthood), or

political socialization (often referred to as secondary

socialization). Similarly, socialization is now

increasingly understood to be not a one-off, onceand-

for-all, matter, but rather, via the differentiation

of the concept, issues such as anticipatory

socialization or re-socialization (the anticipatory

rehearsal, or instantiation of new, patterns of conduct

[re-socialization], when circumstances change

as persons move through the life-course) have been

explored. Erving Goffman’s early work (such as

Asylums, 1961) on “degradation ceremonies” had a

major influence on these developments.

The problem of socialization has been understood

in two essentially different ways. The first,

and dominant, way has been concerned to conceptualize

socialization by asking how it is that persons

come to learn, or to internalize, the values,

attitudes, and norms of the culture or society (or

local setting such as a workplace in which they

live) and how it is that they come to be able to

enact culturally congruent social roles and culturally

appropriate practices. This approach has

tended to see socialization as a something that

happens to people, rather than understanding socialization

as a process which (even young) people

take part in as active agents. A second approach to

socialization, often associated with the work of

George Herbert Mead in Mind, Self, and Society

(1934) and the symbolic interactionist tradition,

has been to see socialization as being a matter of

the development of a linguistically mediated reflexive

self(-concept). This tradition, and more

recent developments drawing from it, such as

ethnomethodology and discursive psychology, represent

an interesting recapitulation of Cooley’s

notion (1902: 2) that societies and their members

are “collective and distributive aspects of the

same thing.” This tradition rejects the idea that

“self ” and “society,” or “identity” and “culture,”

are separate or separable things and dismisses the

commonsense assumption that they are binary

contrasts. Instead each informs and co-produces

the other.

Most mainstream sociological and psychological

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