Social theory

Social theory

Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, 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, not just to sociology, but also to economics, political science, jurisprudence, and other disciplines. Social theory is accordingly interdisciplinary; drawing 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 discipline

Harrington discusses the etymology of social theory, stating that while the term did not exist in any language before the twentieth century, its origins are ancient and lie in two words; ‘social’ from the Latin socius and ‘theory’ from the Greek [theoria] (Harrington 2005). Social theorising aided the Greeks in making sense of their lives, and in questioning the value and meaning of things around them.

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. With this in mind it is easy to link social theory to deeper seated philosophical discussions to assure the responsibility in every human also.

Social theory in relation to the natural sciences

Compared to disciplines within the objective natural sciences -- such as physics or chemistry -- social theorists may make less use of the scientific method, and their conclusions and data can be interpreted more subjectively. While standards of rigor do exist within quantitative social science methodologies, their precision is bounded by a degree of uncertainty inherent in human behavior. However, because social theorists consider experiments in the natural sciences to be social artifacts, and social theory treats social artifacts as being constructed, social theorists posit that even experiments in the natural sciences and their concomitant results are social constructions.

The concept that social theory may supersede certain aspects of the natural sciences is called the social construction of reality. Social theory takes knowledge, the manner in which we acquire knowledge, and the institutions by which knowledge is reified and disseminated among a human collectivity to be socially constructed. In effect, the laws of nature can only be derived using social tools within a social context. According to social theory, the understanding of natural phenomena is predicated on the understanding of social phenomena, as the interpretation of natural phenomena is a social activity. Responding to such contentions, physicist Alan Sokal once quipped, "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor)."

This interpretation of the natural sciences leads to some deeper epistemological questions. By questioning the methods by which we deem knowledge to be "objective," we necessarily put into question any scientific knowledge whatsoever. Social theory does not exist in mutual exclusion to the natural sciences; one is often complementary to the other. Rather, social theory calls for natural scientists to examine their methodologies with a critical eye by situating said methodologies within a social context.


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.[1] 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.[2][3]

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 Law 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.

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,[4] 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.

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 different 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.

In modern times, generally speaking, social theory began to stress free will, individual choice, subjective reasoning, and the importance of unpredictable events in place of the classic determinism – thus social theory has become much more complex. Rational Choice Theory and Symbolic Interactionism furnish two examples. Most modern sociologists deem there are no great unifying 'laws of history', but rather smaller, more specific, and more complex laws that govern society.

Post-modern social theory

Scholars and historians most commonly hold postmodernism to be a movement of ideas arising from, but also critical of elements of modernism[citation needed]. Because of the wide range of uses of the term, different elements of modernity are chosen as being continuous, and 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[citation needed].

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 in which 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, is often[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Users of the term often argue[citation needed] 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 1970s in developing postmodern theory.

See post-modern feminism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism.

Theory construction

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, I 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 I expect to see in a particular sample, e.g. “a battered child will grow up to be shy or violent.” I can then test my hypothesis by looking to see if it is consistent with data in the real world. I 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.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Macionis, John J.; Plummer, Ken (2005). Sociology. A Global Introduction (3rd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education. p. 12. ISBN 0-131-28746-X. 
  2. ^ H. Mowlana (2001). "Information in the Arab World", Cooperation South Journal 1.
  3. ^ Dr. S. W. Akhtar (1997). "The Islamic Concept of Knowledge", Al-Tawhid: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought & Culture 12 (3).
  4. ^ Auguste Comte: Stanford

Further reading

  • Baert, Patrick; Silva, Filipe Carreira da (2010). Social Theory in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. ISBN 978-0745639819. 
  • Bell, David (2008). Constructing Social Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742564282. 
  • Berberoglu, Berch (2005). An Introduction to Classical and Contemporary Social Theory: A Critical Perspective, Third Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742524934. 
  • Berger, Peter; Luckmann, Thomas (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City NY: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-05898-5. 
  • Harrington, Austin (2005). Modern Social Theory: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199255702. 

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