Social thought

Social thought

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. [cite book |title=Social Theory: A Historical Introduction |author=Callinicos, A. |year=1999 |publisher=New York University Press |pages=p. 10] Classical social theory has generally been presented from a perspective of Western philosophy, and often regarded as Eurocentric.


Greek philosophy

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. [cite book |author=Heilbron, Johan |title=The Rise of Social Theory |year-1995 |publisher=Cambridge University Press]

Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun, an influential Muslim scholar described in "Muqaddimah" "(Introduction to History)", two types of societies including: (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. [cite book |author=Althusser, L. |title=Politics and History |year=1972] 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. [cite book |title=Social Theory: A Historical Introduction |author=Callinicos, A. |year=1999 |publisher=New York University Press |pages=p. 23]


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. [cite book |title=Social Theory: A Historical Introduction |author=Callinicos, A. |year=1999 |publisher=New York University Press |pages=p. 15]

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. [cite book |author=Meek, Rodney L. |title=Economics and Ideology and Other Essays |year=1967]

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 Nature".

ocial questions

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?

Other issues relating to modernity that were addressed by social thinkers include social atomization, alienation, loneliness, social disorganization, and secularization.

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.

French social thought

* Claude Henri Saint-Simon
* August Comte
* Emile Durkheim

British social thought

British social thought, with thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, addressed questions and ideas relating to political economy and social evolution.

German social thought

Important German philosophers and social thinkers included Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel.

Italian sociology

Important Italian social scientists include Antonio Gramsci, Gaetano Mosca, and Umberto Eco.

Chicago school

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. [cite journal |author=Abbott, Andrew |title=Of Time and Space: The Contemporary Relevance of the Chicago School |journal=Social Forces |year=1997 |volume=75(4) |pages=p. 1149–82 |doi=10.2307/2580667] George Herbert Mead, a member of the Philosophy department at the University of Chicago, was also influential.



August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto were aligned with the positivist perspective, which favored use of rigorous scientific methodology in developing and testing theories. This approach incorporated determinism and empiricism in formulating theories.

Critical theory

Critical theorists including Hegel and Marx and rejected the "objective", scientific approach. They sought to frame theories within ideologies of human freedom.


Karl Marx wrote and theorized about the importance of political economy on society, and focused on the "material conditions" of life. [cite book |title=Social Theory: A Historical Introduction |author=Callinicos, A. |year=1999 |publisher=New York University Press |pages=p. 4]

Other perspectives

Other theories include:
* Social constructionist theory
* Rational choice theory
* Structural functionalism - influenced by Spencer and Durkheim
* Action theory - influenced by Weber and Pareto
* Conflict theory - influenced by Marx, Simmel
* Symbolic interaction - influenced by George Herbert Mead


Postmodernism was defined by Jean-Francois 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. [cite book |author=Lyotard, Jean-Francois |title=The Postmodern Condition |year=1979]

ee also

* Political philosophy
* Social evolution


Further reading


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