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when thinkers stopped trying to make sense of

the world exclusively in terms of theological and

ethical concepts and began searching for the

underlying principles that organize the realities

of social life. Isaac Newton’s stunning discovery of

a small set of laws that explained the motions

of the material universe motivated social thinkers

to find similar devices in their fields as well. Considered

in this way, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of

Nations (1776) may well be the earliest work in

classical social theory to be well received by a

large audience. Smith’s theories assumed a truly

Newtonian form with little regard for ethical

inspiration. However, other classical theorists

began with an ethical vision of the meaning of

social life even as they sought to discover how

social life actually operates and is organized.

From dramatically different ethical positions,

Comte and Karl Marx drew inspiration from their

respective moral visions, systematically integrating

into their work philosophies of history that

proceeded from dysfunctional societies of the past

and present, to the radical reduction of socially

created human suffering in a utopian society –

a terminus ad quem preordained ultimately to

emerge. Although classical theorists such as

Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville saw human history

as too complex and too dependent upon

local events to constitute a single trajectory (in

Marx’s metaphor, a single riddle), or to possess a

single ethical meaning of any kind, the residual

influence of theology and ethical philosophy was

still evident in most classical theoretical works.

The important change after 1930 was that the

majority of social theorists relinquished the compulsive

search for theological or ethical meaning

in social life, and fixed their gaze more narrowly

on making sense of social life as a realm of multiple,

diverse structures and processes that we do

not understand. The shift is quite evident in the

career of Talcott Parsons, who constructed several

vast and systematically integrated conceptual

schemes, none of which made the kind of ethical

prophecies or social critiques that are so evident

in Marx, Comte, and other classical theorists such

as Durkheim. Parsons believed that his purely

abstract theoretical reasoning ultimately would

be supported by a large body of empirical research.

Others had their doubts. Robert K. Merton,

for one, believed that sociology had yet to find a

major thinker who would transform sociology

into a discipline with both an adequate empirical

methodology and an analytical framework. In

light of the difficulties in connecting sociological

reasoning with empirical fact, Merton devised

what he termed theories of the middle range

in order to understand the organizing principles

of distinctive, conceptually defined sectors or

moments of social life.

Merton was not the only contemporary sociologist

to find that sociology’s greatest challenge was

to make as much sense as possible of specific

segments of the social world in the absence of a

comprehensive conceptual scheme. Beginning in

the 1920s and 1930s with the pragmatic philosophy

of George Herbert Mead and the phenomenological

sociology of Alfred Schutz, social

theorists became intrigued by the intricate, halfhidden

contingencies of social interaction. Indeed,

one prominent theorist of interaction, the ethnomethodologist

Harold Garfinkel, went so far that

in his work empirical contingencies often seem to

overshadow theoretical reasoning altogether.

However, Erving Goffman, arguably as close to a

“genius” as anyone contemporary social theory

has so far produced, set the study of social interaction

on a somewhat more abstract course, with

exquisitely chosen metaphors that suggest sociological

correspondences as well as literary


If students of interaction find contingencies in

locally produced encounters, contemporary historical

sociologists find contingencies on a much

grander scale in the developmental patterns of

societies and civilizations, especially those patterns

and contingencies associated with the rise

of modernity, first in western civilization and

then across all cosmopolitan regions around the

globe. Weber established the legitimacy of historical

sociology in the classical era and his example

inspired other European theorists, most notably

Norbert Elias. Barrington Moore, Jr.’s Social Origins

of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) reinvigorated

the Weberian tradition in contemporary sociology,

shedding new light on the much-neglected

development of alternative organizational forms

of the modern state, a topic that attracted the

interest of other contemporary historical social

theorists including Reinhard Bendix, Theda

Skocpol, and Michael Mann. Other contemporary

historical sociological theorists such as Charles

Tilly and Perry Anderson draw inspiration from

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Marx. Immanuel Wallerstein has developed the

most ambitious of contemporary Marxist-based

historical social theories by charting the rise and

projecting the ultimate demise of the capitalist


The vestiges of classical theory, and even preclassical

philosophy, are not entirely absent in

other areas of contemporary sociological theory

either. Some theorists, such as Karl Mannheim

and Daniel Bell, thought in classical ways about

contemporary themes, combining vast erudition

with great sensitivity to grasp how modernity has

developed in recent times. A number of theorists

have been inspired by the classics to make sense

of socially generated misery and injustice. Until

the fall of the Soviet Union and the uprising in

Tiananmen Square, Marxist sociologists dedicated

themselves to theory in service to social ethics

as Marx had done before. Whereas some post-

1989 Marxist theorists struggled valiantly to

retain Marx’s redemptive philosophy of history,

others, taking an implicitly Nietzschean turn

originated by Georg Luka´cs, Theodor Wiesengrund

Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, assumed

the role of sociological Jeremiahs, interpreting

twentieth-century western civilization both sociologically

and ethically as a spiritual wasteland

that would nourish no truly meaningful ways of

life. Just when it appeared that the ethical mission

of social theory might disappear from

contemporary sociological theory altogether, the

ethical criticism of modern social institutions

was renewed in two different forms. On the one

hand, drawing on and uniting a vast array of

social theories and philosophies, Ju¨rgen Habermas

sought to transcend Horkheimer and Adorno’s

pessimism by developing a new systematic theory

of western modernity grounded in a conception

of communication that claims to identify ethical

universals of human life. On the other hand, sociologists

of gender and sexualities, inspired by

new developments in feminist politics and philosophy,

began to theorize forms of inequality

that sociology at large had previously ignored.

Though these sociological perspectives have yet

to be systematized, the commitment to egalitarian

ethics and the critique of discrimination and

injustice are quite evident among many thinkers,

including Arlie Russell Hochschild, Dorothy

Smith, and W. R. Connell.

Why did classical social theorists turn away

from pure philosophy and begin the move to analytical

themes capable of sustained empirical reference?

It was more than just science that inspired

this turn. Of equal importance was the radical

disruption of premodern forms of social organization

and the rapid emergence of new forms of

institutional orders that marked the first phase

of modernity. In their own lifetimes, classical

theorists witnessed feudal and aristocratic institutions

overpowered by capitalism and the nationstate,

human-powered technologies rendered obsolete

by the industrial revolution, and traditionbound,

communal cultures severely weakened

by the rise of the culture of individualism. The

political, economic, and social arrangements that

were in decline were still too recent to forget.

But the modern institutions that were replacing

them were so different, so powerful, and so difficult

to control that the supreme intellectual

task for all social thinkers at the time was simply

to comprehend the nature of modernity as a

civilizational form.

Perhaps it says something about the enduring

features of modernity that the agenda of themes

contemporary sociology inherits from classical

sociology continues to shape so much sociological

thought today. This is not to say that the

classical theorists got everything right. They

exaggerated some features of modernity, underemphasized

others, and could not have anticipated

more recent developments at all. For

example, no classical theorist anticipated twentieth-

century genocide or world wars; the end of

colonialism; or the information technology that

has facilitated the globalization of numerous

networks of production, distribution, and finance,

transnational political organizations and alliances

of nation-states around the world, and

global competition and specialization among academic

scientists, as well as industrial designers

and engineers.

Both Adam Smith and Marx saw that capitalism

would shape and reshape every aspect of society.

No contemporary sociological theorist addresses

capitalism today without drawing upon the enduring

legacies of these two sociological masters

from the past. De Tocqueville, in Democracy in

America (1835 and 1840 [trans. 2003]), which is

classical sociology’s most underappreciated masterpiece,

saw that egalitarian values and democratic

institutions would transform states on the

one hand and civic culture on the other. Though

he focused on the United States in the Jacksonian

era, his insights are relevant in all parts of the

world where democratic institutions organize

political life, or where egalitarian values are

regarded as cultural ideals. Durkheim understood

several things about modernity that remain with

us today. He was vitally concerned with the

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tension between the ubiquitous human need for

solidarity with others and the more specifically

modern need for individual autonomy. A century

after he wrote, the tension between integration

and autonomy remains as fraught with consequences

as ever in every region where the modern

seeds of individualism have found fertile ground.

Weber introduced yet another point of view on

modernity that remains with us today. He focused

most of the historically rich concepts he termed

ideal types on institutional and cultural orders

rather than entire societies or civilizations at

large. Nonetheless, in one realm after another,

from the rule-governed bureaucracies of the state

and the profit-oriented practices of capitalists to

the self-interested motives of modern politicians

and the efficiencies of scientific technology,

Weber perceived the displacement of ways of

life with ethical substance by instrumental motivations

and rigid, formally defined routines. The

roster of classical theorists whose visions of

modernity remain influential today does not

end here. Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de

Saint-Simon, Herbert Spencer, and Georg Simmel

should appear on everyone’s classical list. Furthermore,

a number of European sociologists might

well have sustained the classical way of doing

social theory into the middle of the twentieth

century were it not for their displacement from

their native lands by the ominous ascension of

Nazism to state power prior to World War II.

This last set of classical theorists includes Joseph

Alois Schumpeter on democracy, capitalism, and

socialism, and Karl Polanyi on the contradictions

of the market society.

The transition from classical to contemporary

sociological theory was accompanied by, and in

some ways induced by, an increasing methodological

self-consciousness. Prior to 1930, sociology

in many academic cultures lacked the legitimacy

of rival disciplines such as history, philosophy,

theology, and political economy. Like newcomers

to any cultural organization, sociologists were

anxious to demonstrate their respectability. Given

the unrivaled prestige of science at the time,

social theorists sought to establish their discipline

by adhering to strict codifications of the scientific

method. Indeed, it may well be that no other

discipline has ever tried as diligently as sociology

to emulate the rules of scientific method in their

purest form as reconstructed by logical empiricist

philosophers of science. Charles Darwin felt no

need to write a philosophical treatise on scientific

method in biology in order to justify his theory

of evolution, nor did Albert Einstein frame his

theories of relativity with a methodological legitimation

of any kind. But when Parsons wrote The

Structure of Social Action (1937), he concluded with

a fifty-page discussion of the methodological

status and implications of his work. Merton was

even more methodologically self-aware than

Parsons, devoting five long essays, which ultimately

appeared together as the opening chapters

in Social Theory and Social Structure (1968), to erudite

and engagingly written accounts of the scientific

status and techniques of what he termed

(following Thomas H. Marshall) theories of the

middle range. In doing so, Merton stressed a tight

integration between theoretical concepts and

models on the one hand, and systematically collected

and analyzed empirical evidence on the

other. This tight integration between theory and

data was highly prized in American sociology at

the time, and it remains a hallmark of self-consciously

scientific American sociology today.

Indeed, in the period from 1945 to 1970, American

sociologists produced a long shelf of volumes on

the methodology of scientific theory construction.

As guides for their work, most of these

authors adopted logical empiricist philosophies

of science prepared by authorities such as Ernest

Nagel and Carl Hempel. Few of these methodological

schemes yielded actual sociological theories

of enduring value. However, the logical

empiricist approach at large has successfully

shaped a number of notable sociological works.

These include Peter M. Blau’s Inequality and Heterogeneity

(1977) and James Coleman’s Foundations of

Social Theory (1990), as well as the works of four

communities of theorists who work on expectations,

theories of the state, theory, network, and

rational choice theory.

Methodological self-consciousness is by no

means confined to those devoted to logical empiricist

philosophies of science. Even in the

classical era, Wilhelm Dilthey, Heinrich Rickert,

and other German scholars advocated a social

science focused prevalently on the cultural

meaning of historical constellations of events,

artworks, and moral or spiritual beliefs. These

arguments entered sociology via Weber’s methodological

writings. However, Weber’s methodological

views did not influence the mainstream of

social theory, which remained enthralled by

formal scientific methods. Indeed, the Canadian

American theorist Dennis Hume Wrong put the

situation quite well when he spoke of a Weberian

underground that resisted the scientific methods

which reached their highwater mark in the late


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Two intellectual currents arose in the early

1960s that stemmed the scientific tide. The first

was the growing interest in the highly contingent

nature of locally produced social interaction. The

symbolic interactionist tradition founded by

Mead’s student Herbert Blumer, the ethnomethodological

community founded by Garfinkel, and

those who loosely expanded upon Goffman’s

works actively resisted rigidly rationalized guidelines

for scientific theory. Newly released from

methodological dogma, these theorists created

new ways and means to analyze the social construction

and cultural meaning of interpersonal

relations. The best of these theorists devised

new techniques for observing social life, thereby

renewing the connection between theory and data

that is a necessary condition of sociology, whether

or not it conforms to any well-specified account of

the scientific method.

The second current that stemmed the dogmatic

view of scientific methods in social theory

emerged quite suddenly with the publication of

Thomas Samuel Kuhn’s relatively brief and not

very well-written book, The Structure of Scientific

Revolutions (1962). Kuhn, who was trained first as

a physicist and then as a historian and philosopher

of science, recognized that philosophical

reconstructions of scientific method lacked authenticity

in terms of how scientific theories are

actually produced. His historically evidenced and

sociologically informed analysis demonstrated

that scientific knowledge includes an element

of communal agreement on concepts and exemplars

that is not subject to empirical dispute. One

implication of Kuhn’s work was that the integration

of theory and data was never as tightly

integrated as logical empiricist philosophers

liked to suppose. Indeed, Kuhn went so far as to

challenge the notion that science proceeds by

progressive accumulation and consolidation of

empirically documented propositions. Instead, unanswered

questions in one scientific community

challenge the most original thinkers to see the

world that they study in new ways. Ultimately

these new studies induce what Kuhn terms a shift

in paradigms. By the late 1960s, a new generation

of sociological theorists already recognized that

Kuhn’s arguments licensed a new methodological

priority for theoretical developments vis-a`-vis the

analysis of empirical data.

One of the great challenges of sociological

theory is to determine the most incisive ways

to conceive society, social structures, and social

action. No other mode of thought was ever as

widely accepted in this regard as was the

functionalist model during the period from 1945

to 1975. Functionalism is a generic term for an

array of theories, all of which begin with the

idea borrowed from biological theory that any

given social phenomenon is theoretically significant

in terms of its consequences for society or

other large social systems such as the capitalist

economy or the nation-state. Thus, to cite a common

example, social inequality was said by many

functionalists to make a positive contribution

to society by attracting the most talented and

energetic individuals to positions of great importance

for the well-being of a social group as

a whole.

Though functionalist models were extensively

employed by Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim,

functionalism reached its zenith in contemporary

sociology when it was elaborated in Parsons’s

famous AGIL format for theoretical analysis.

According to Parsons, every social system has

four basic functional requisites: adaptation to

the environment or the economic subsystem (A),

the determination and pursuit of goals or the

political subsystem (G), the integration of its constituent

members or parts or the cultural subsystem

(I), and the maintenance of latent social

patterns via socialization and other means, or the

subsystem concemed with problems of motivation

(L). Parsons ultimately developed concatenated

models of systems within systems, each of which

required means to satisfy its own functional

needs even as it contributed to satisfying certain

functional needs of larger systems.

Parsons’s functional models ultimately tested

the limits of sociological plausibility. But by the

time he reached this point, functionalism was

already in trouble. Merton’s essay on manifest

and latent functions in Social Theory and Social

Structure (1949), though widely regarded as an extremely

subtle elaboration of functional thought,

was also a cautionary analysis of the numerous

pitfalls that made functionalist reasoning a

logically suspect form of analysis. But, though

weakened by internal criticism, functionalism

might have survived were it not for ideologically

inspired attacks from left-wing groups who

objected to its concern for order and stability

rather than injustice, exploitation, and discrimination.

In recent decades, only Niklas Luhmann

has revised the functionalist model to take account

of these criticisms, arguing that the reduction

of complexity is a primary need of all social


With the eclipse of functional reasoning,

social theorists had to devise new means to

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conceptualize large social collectivities. Some

turned to structuralist models, importing analyses

of collective phenomena that had proven

useful in linguistics (for example Ferdinand de

Saussure) and anthropology (for example Claude

Le´vi-Strauss). But logically rigorous structuralist

models were difficult to associate with observable

social realities. Those who turned to the analysis

of positional and relational patterns had greater

success. Mark Granovetter and Ronald Burt, two

students of Harrison White, have used network

analysis to good effect in subtle demonstrations

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