Social theories are frameworks of empirical evidence used to study and interpret social phenomena. A tool used by social scientists, social theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies (e.g. positivism and antipositivism), as well as the primacy of either structure or agency. Certain social theories attempt to remain strictly scientific, descriptive, and objective. Conflict theories, by contrast, present ostensibly normative positions, and often critique the ideological aspects inherent in conventional, traditional thought.
Тhe origins of social theory are difficult to pinpoint, but debates frequently return to ancient Greece (Berberoglu 2005, p. xi). From these foundations in Western philosophy arose Enlightenment social contract theory, sociological positivism, and modern social science. Today, 'social science' is used as an umbrella term to refer to sociology, economics, political science, jurisprudence, and other disciplines. Social theory is interdisciplinary and draws upon ideas from fields as diverse as anthropology and media studies. Social theory of an informal nature, or authorship based outside of academic social and political science, may be referred to instead as "social criticism" or "social commentary". Similarly, "cultural criticism" may be associated both with formal cultural and literary scholarship, as well as other non-academic or journalistic forms of writing.
Social theory as a distinct discipline emerged in the 20th century and was largely equated with an attitude of critical thinking, based on rationality, logic and objectivity, and the desire for knowledge through a posteriori methods of discovery, rather than a priori methods of tradition.
The origins of the term are ancient and are derived from two words; ‘social’ from the Latin socius and ‘theory’ from the Greek theoria (Harrington 2005).
Social thought provides general theories to explain actions and behavior of society as a whole, encompassing sociological, political, and philosophical ideas. Social theory is used to make distinctions and generalizations among different types of societies, and to analyze modernity as it has emerged in the past few centuries. Classical social theory has generally been presented from a perspective of Western philosophy, and often regarded as Eurocentric.
Ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, did not see a distinction between politics and society. The concept of society did not come until much later, during the Enlightenment period. The term, société, was probably first used as key concept by Rousseau in discussion of social relations.
Pre-enlightenment social theory
The earliest proto-social scientific observations are to be found in the founding texts of Western philosophy (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Polybius and so on), as well as in the non-European thought of figures such as Confucius. Prior to the enlightenment, social theory took largely narrative and normative form. Expressed as stories and fables, it may be assumed the pre-Socratic philosophers and religious teachers were the precursors to social theory proper.
Saint Augustine (354–430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225–1274) concerned themselves exclusively with the idea of the just society. St. Augustine describes late Ancient Roman society but through a lens of hatred and contempt for what he saw as false Gods, and in reaction theorized City of God. Similarly, in China, Master Kong (otherwise known as Confucius) (551–479 BCE) envisaged a just society that went beyond his contemporary society of the Warring States. Later on, also in China, Mozi (circa 470 – circa 390 BCE) recommended a more pragmatic sociology, but ethical at base.
Sociology in medieval Islam
There is evidence of early Muslim sociology from the 14th century: Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddimah (later translated as Prolegomena in Latin), the introduction to a seven volume analysis of universal history, was the first to advance social philosophy and social science in formulating theories of social cohesion and social conflict. He is thus considered by many to be the forerunner of sociology.
Ibn Khaldun, an influential Muslim scholar, described in Muqaddimah (Introduction to History), published in 1377, two types of societies: (1) the city or town-dweller and (2) the mobile, nomadic societies.
Montesquieu, in The Spirit of Laws, was possibly the first to suggest a universal explanation for history. Another innovative aspect of Montesquieu's thinking was that he included changes in mores and manners as part of his explanation of political and historic events.
Political philosophy and social contract theory
During the Age of Enlightenment, political entities expanded from basic systems of self-governance and monarchy to the complex democratic and communist systems that exist in the Industrialized and the Modern Eras. In the 18th century, after Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws established that social elements influence human nature, the pre-classical period of social theories developed a new form that provides the basic ideas for social theory, such as: evolution, philosophy of history, social life and social contract, public and general will, competition in social space, organistic pattern for social description and so forth. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in this time played a significant role in social theory. He revealed the origin of inequality, analyzed the social contract (and social compact) that forms social integration and defined the social sphere or civil society. He also emphasized that man has the liberty to change his world, a revolutionary assertion that made it possible to program and change society.
Many philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot, developed new social ideas during the Enlightenment period that were based on reason and methods of scientific inquiry. These ideas did not draw on ideas of the past from classical thinkers, nor involved "blindly" following religious teachings and authority of the monarch. An important idea was that with new discoveries challenging the status quo way of thinking, scientists were required to find new normativity. This process allowed scientific knowledge and society to progress. French thought during this period focused on moral critique and criticisms of the monarchy.
Modernity arose during the Enlightenment period, with the emergence of the world economy and exchange among diverse societies, bringing sweeping changes and new challenges for society. During the Eighteenth century, many French and Scottish intellectuals and philosophers embraced the idea of progress and ideas of modernity.
Adam Smith addressed the question of whether vast inequalities of wealth represented progress. He explained that the wealthy often demand convenience, employing numerous others to carry out labor to meet their demands. He argued that this allows wealth to be redistributed among inhabitants, and for all to share in progress of society. Smith explained that social forces could regulate the market economy with social objectivity and without need for government intervention. Smith regarded the division of labor as an important factor for economic progress. John Millar suggested that improved status of women was important for progress of society. Millar also advocated for abolition of slavery, suggesting that personal liberty makes people more industrious, ambitious, and productive.
Voltaire's Lettres Philosophiques presented new scientific and philosophical ideas developed by Isaac Newton, John Locke, and others, introducing them to the French. Methods used to study scientific phenomenon were extended to study social and moral issues. David Hume used this approach in his Treatise of Human Naturena lie
Philosophical questions addressed by social thinkers often centered around modernity, including:
- Can human reason make sense of the social world and shape it for the better?
- Did the development of modern societies, with vast inequalities in wealth among citizens, constitute progress?
- How do particular government interventions and regulations impact natural social processes?
- Should the economy/market be regulated or not?
European social thought
Adam Ferguson, Montesquieu, and John Millar, among others, were the first to study society as distinct from political institutions and processes. In the nineteenth century, the scientific method was introduced into study of society, which was a significant advance leading to development of sociology as a discipline.
At the time of the Enlightenment, European societies were still largely rural, with minimal involvement of government in everyday life of citizens. With industrialization and urbanization, societies were significantly transformed, and new ways of thinking about society arose.
In the 19th century, questions involving social order gained importance. The French Revolution freed French society of control by the monarchy, with no effective means of maintaining social order until Napoleon came to power.
Classical social theory
The first "modern" social theories (known as classical theories) that begin to resemble the analytic social theory of today developed almost simultaneously with the birth of the science of sociology. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), known as the "father of sociology" and regarded by some as the first philosopher of science, laid the groundwork for positivism – as well as structural functionalism and social evolutionism. In the 19th century three great classical theories of social and historical change emerged: the social evolutionism theory (of which Social Darwinism forms a part), the social cycle theory and the Marxist historical materialism theory.
Another early modern theorist, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), coined the term "survival of the fittest". Some Post-Modern social theorists like Shepard Humphries, draw heavily upon Spencer's work and argue that many of his observations are timeless (just as relevant in 2008 as 1898). Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) and Pitirim A. Sorokin argued that 'history goes in cycles', and presented the social cycle theory to illustrate their point. Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936) made community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, 1887) the special topics of the new science of "sociology", both of them based on different modes of will of social actors.
Most of the 19th century pioneers of social theory and sociology, like Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, John Stuart Mill or Spencer, never held university posts. In this sense they were broadly regarded as philosophers. Emile Durkheim, however, endeavoured to formally established academic sociology, and did so at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method. In 1896, he established the journal L'Année Sociologique. Durkheim's seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy.
Many of the classical theories had one common factor: they all agreed that the history of humanity is pursuing a certain fixed path. They differed on where that path would lead: social progress, technological progress, decline or even fall, etc. Social cycle theorists were much more skeptical of the Western achievements and technological progress, however, arguing that progress is but an illusion of the ups and downs of the historical cycles. The classical approach has been criticized by many modern sociologists and theorists, among them Karl Popper, Robert Nisbet, Charles Tilly and Immanuel Wallerstein.
Karl Marx rejected Comtean positivism but nevertheless aimed to establish a science of society based on historical materialism, becoming recognised as a founding figure of sociology posthumously. At the turn of the 20th century, the first wave of German sociologists, including Max Weber and Georg Simmel, developed sociological antipositivism. The field may be broadly recognised as an amalgam of three modes of social scientific thought in particular; Durkheimian sociological positivism and structural functionalism, Marxist historical materialism and conflict theory, and Weberian antipositivism and verstehen critique.
French social thought
British social thought
British social thought, with thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, addressed questions and ideas relating to political economy and social evolution. The political ideals of John Ruskin were a precursor of social economy (Unto This Last had a very important impact on Gandhi's philosophy).
German social thought
The Chicago school developed in the 1920s, through the work of Albion Woodbury Small, W. I. Thomas, Ernest W. Burgess, Robert E. Park, Ellsworth Faris, and other sociologists at the University of Chicago. The Chicago school included focus on patterns and arrangement of social phenomenon across time and place, and within context of other social variables. George Herbert Mead, a member of the Philosophy department at the University of Chicago, was also influential.
Karl Marx wrote and theorized about the importance of political economy on society, and focused on the "material conditions" of life. His theories strongly centered around capitalism and its affect on class-struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.
Other theories include:
- Social constructionist theory
- Rational choice theory
- Structural functionalism – influenced by Spencer and Durkheim
- Social action – influenced by Weber and Pareto
- Conflict theory – influenced by Marx, Simmel
- Symbolic interaction – influenced by George Herbert Mead
- False necessity
Postmodernism was defined by Jean-François Lyotard as "incredulity towards metanarratives" and contrasted that with modern which he described as "any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse... making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.
Modern social theory
Much of 19th-century classical social theory has been expanded upon to create newer, more contemporary social theories such as multilineal theories of evolution (neoevolutionism, sociobiology, theory of modernization, theory of post-industrial society) and various strains of Neo-Marxism.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social theory became most closely related to academic sociology while other related studies such as anthropology, philosophy, and social work branched out into their own disciplines. Such subjects as "philosophy of history" and other such multi-disciplinary subject matter became part of social theory as taught under sociology.
Attempts to recapture a space for discussion free of disciplines began in earnest in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research provides the most successful historical example. The Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago followed in the 1940s. In the 1970s, programs in Social and Political Thought were established at Sussex and York. Others followed, with various emphases and structures, such as Social Theory and History (University of California, Davis). Cultural Studies programs, notably that of Birmingham University, extended the concerns of social theory into the domain of culture and thus anthropology. A chair and undergraduate program in social theory was established at the University of Melbourne and a number of universities now specialize in social theory (UC-Santa Cruz is one example). Social theory at present seems to be gaining more acceptance as a classical academic discipline.
Post-modern social theory
Scholars most commonly hold postmodernism to be a movement of ideas arising from, but also critical of elements of modernism. The wide range of uses of this term resulted in, different elements of modernity are chosen as being continuous. As the different elements of modernity are held to be critiqued. Each of the different uses also is rooted in some argument about the nature of knowledge, known in philosophy as epistemology. Individuals who use the term are arguing that either there is something fundamentally different about the transmission of meaning, or that modernism has fundamental flaws in its system of knowledge.
The argument for the necessity of the term states that economic and technological conditions of our age have given rise to a decentralized, media-dominated society. These ideas are simulacra, and only inter-referential representations and copies of each other, with no real original, stable or objective source for communication and meaning. Globalization, brought on by innovations in communication, manufacturing and transportation. Globalization itself is often cited as one force which has driven the decentralized modern life, creating a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society, lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production. The postmodern view is that inter-subjective knowledge, and not objective knowledge is the dominant form of discourse under such conditions, and the ubiquity of copies and dissemination fundamentally alters the relationship between reader and what is read, between observer and the observed, between those who consume and those who produce. Not all people who use the term postmodern or postmodernism see these developments as positive. Users of the term often argue that their ideals have arisen as the result of particular economic and social conditions, including what is described as "late capitalism" and the growth of broadcast media, and that such conditions have pushed society into a new historical period.
The term "postmodernism" was brought into social theory in 1971 by the Arab American Theorist Ihab Hassan in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes were influential in the 1970s in developing postmodern theory.
Social theory today
In the past few decades, largely in response to postmodern critiques, social theory has begun to stress free will, individual choice, subjective reasoning, and the importance of unpredictable events in place of deterministic necessity. Rational Choice Theory and Symbolic Interactionism furnish two examples of more recent developments. False necessity is another. A not uncommon view among contemporary sociologists is that there are no great unifying 'laws of history', but rather smaller, more specific, and more complex laws that govern society.
Philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger has more recently attempted to revise classical social theory by exploring how things fit together, rather than to provide an all encompassing single explanation of a universal reality. He begins by recognizing the key insight of classical social theory of society as an artifact, and then by discarding the law-like characteristics forcibly attached to it. Unger argues that classical social theory was born proclaiming that society is made and imagined, and not the expression of an underlying natural order, but at the same time its capacity was checked by the equally prevalent ambition to create law-like explanations of history and social development. The human sciences that developed claimed to identify a small number of possible types of social organization that coexisted or succeeded one another through inescapable developmental tendencies or deep-seated economic organization or psychological constraints. Marxism is the star example.
Calling his efforts "super-theory," Unger has thus sought to develop a comprehensive view of history and society, but to do so without subsuming deep structure analysis under an indivisible and repeatable type of social organization or with recourse to lawlike constraints and tendencies. His most forceful articulation of such a theory is in False Necessity: anti-necessitarian social theory in the service of radical democracy, where he employs deep-logic practice to theorize human social activity through anti-necessitarian analysis.
Unger begins by formulating the theory of false necessity, which claims that social worlds are the artifact of human endeavors. There is no pre-set institutional arrangement that societies must adhere to, and there is no necessary historical mold of development that they will follow. Rather, we are free to choose and to create the forms and the paths that our societies will take. However, this does not give license to absolute contingency. Rather, Unger finds that there are groups of institutional arrangements that work together to bring about certain institutional forms—liberal democracy, for example. These forms are the basis of a social structure, which Unger calls formative context. In order to explain how we move from one formative context to another without the conventional social theory constraints of historical necessity (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), and to do so while remaining true to the key insight of individual human empowerment and anti-necessitarian social thought, Unger recognized that there are an infinite number of ways of resisting social and institutional constraints, which can lead to an infinite number of outcomes. This variety of forms of resistance and empowerment make change possible. Unger calls this empowerment negative capability. Unger is clear to add, however, that these outcomes are always reliant on the forms from which they spring. The new world is built upon the existing one.
Selecting or creating appropriate theory for use in examining an issue is an important skill for any researcher. Important distinctions: a theoretical orientation (or paradigm) is a worldview, the lens through which one organizes experience (i.e. thinking of human interaction in terms of power or exchange); a theory is an attempt to explain and predict behavior in particular contexts. A theoretical orientation cannot be proven or disproven; a theory can. Having a theoretical orientation that sees the world in terms of power and control, one could create a theory about violent human behavior which includes specific causal statements (e.g. being the victim of physical abuse leads to psychological problems). This could lead to an hypothesis (prediction) about what one expects to see in a particular sample, e.g. “a battered child will grow up to be shy or violent.” One can then test my hypothesis by looking to see if it is consistent with data in the real world. One might, for instance, review hospital records to find children who were abused, then track them down and administer a personality test to see if they show signs of being violent or shy. The selection of an appropriate (i.e. useful) theoretical orientation within which to develop a potentially helpful theory is the bedrock of social science.
- Critical Theory
- Culture theory
- Engaged theory
- Feminist theory
- History of sociology
- History of the social sciences
- Literary Theory
- Political philosophy
- Political philosophy
- Political theory
- Post-colonial theory
- Queer Theory
- Social evolution
- Sociological theory
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- David Harris, Why is Social Theory So ‘Difficult’
- Teng Wang, Social Phenomena