Social Theory

Social theory emerged as a secular alternative to religions in an attempt to provide answers to questions about society and authority. In social theory, there are three traditions that are important for the social sciences. The first comes from Thomas Hobbes (1588 to 1679). Following years of bloody conflict in the British Isles between Catholics and Protestants, Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), offered a worldly theory of social order.

As an early example of what would later be termed "ideology critique," Hobbes asked "cui bono?", in whose interest does this idea serve? According to Hobbes, people obey because of fear of violent death. Thus, social order depends on the one who has ultimate power over violence. If there is not final authority, everyone would turn against everyone else. So it is better for a society to be founded on fear of a great leviathan, whose power guarantees stability.

Hobbes traced all "higher," ideas to "lower things," such as power, fear, death, the body, violence, and in this way set the tone for one main strand of social theorizing. Writers from Karl Marx (1818 to 1883) to Michel Foucault (1926 to 1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930 to 2002) also followed this approach. The first type of social theory finds hidden power structures behind everyday institutions.

As a result of Hobbes's stress on fear, others raised a question about other motives behind social order. Such questions helped the creation of a second strand of social theory, which stemmed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 to 1778). According to him, not fear but devotion was the foundation of social order. He said it was the struggle for recognition and status that regulated social order, not power. For Rousseau, justice, which depends on the social contract, wherein each person must totally submit to the general will, can transcend nature and equality. Rousseau's connections between social solidarity and religious sentiment were later pursued by Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917).

The lawgiver was transformed by Marx and Vladimir Lenin (1870 to 1924) into the revolutionary vanguard. They redefined the social contract and saw the abolition of private property as the condition of freedom and justice. Critical theorists, including Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Axel Honneth, explored the way modern societies create vast inequalities. They focused on the "culture industry," the popular press, music, movies, advertising and fashions, expanding Rousseau's ideas that culture can create unnecessary dependencies. Rousseau's amour propre, the idea that we love ourselves based upon how much others love us, was extended by some, like David Riesman, to the conformism of American "other-directedness," of the 1950s. Thus key foundations of power were identified by social theory.

While the first two strands of social theory invoke a strong state to right social wrongs, the third tradition is more cautious. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 to 1859) pondered the implications of equality. According to him, the strongest social structures emerged through citizens' voluntary development of shared commitments in local associations, which trained future leaders. This voluntary, bottom-up approach informs a third tradition of social theorizing. Max Weber (1864 to 1920) stressed voluntarism when he probed the religious roots of capitalism, while Talcott Parsons (1902 to 1979) extended voluntarism to critique beyond social theories.

These three strands have been revised and combined in a number of attempts at interpreting deep social changes. According to Marx's theory, conflicts between classes such as proletarians and capitalists drove history. Durkheim focused on the division of labor, claiming that in modern societies social cohesion arises from interdependence, with individuals performing specialized functions.

Weber stressed the hierarchical rationality of government bureaucratic officials, stating that modern society is increasingly subject to "rational authority," in contrast with "traditional," or "charismatic authority." Juergen Habermas and other critical theorists and postmodernists focused on the analysis and criticism of rationalism in modern society, making it one of the most doggedly pursued strands of social theory in the 20th century.

Since Marx, Durkheim and Weber, social theories have continued to seek to capture the times. The new social forces have given rise to new topics. Social theorists continue to pursue the causes and meanings of subjects including the massive rise of cities and new urban lifestyles, electronic media, mass media and mass education. Growing global interconnection, a general rise in leisure time across societies and the global power of religions also attract the interest of social theorists.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings
Charles Lemert.
Westview Press, 1999 (2nd edition)
Scoping the Social: An Introduction to the Practice of Social Theory
Anthony Woodiwiss.
Open University Press, 2005
Value in Social Theory: A Selection of Essays on Methodology
Gunnar Myrdal; Paul Streeten.
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958
Informality: Social Theory and Contemporary Practice
Barbara A. Misztal.
Routledge, 2000
Modernist Radicalism and Its Aftermath: Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism in Radical Social Theory
Stephen Crook.
Routledge, 1991
Ethics and the Urban Ethos: An Essay in Social Theory and Theological Reconstruction
Max L. Stackhouse.
Beacon Press, 1972
Social Capital versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium
Ben Fine.
Routledge, 2001
Property and Power in Social Theory: A Study in Intellectual Rivalry
Dick Pels.
Routledge, 1998
Interpreting Culture: Rethinking Method and Truth in Social Theory
Joseph D. Lewandowski.
University of Nebraska Press, 2001
The Social Theory of Georg Simmel
Nicholas J. Spykman.
University of Chicago Press, 1925
Auguste Comte and the Religion of Humanity: The Post-Theistic Program of French Social Theory
Andrew Wernick.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment
Christopher J. Berry.
Edinburgh University Press, 1997
Social Theory after the Holocaust
Robert Fine; Charles Turner.
Liverpool University Press, 2000
The Resurgence of Race: Black Social Theory from Reconstruction to the Pan-African Conferences
William Toll.
Temple University Press, 1979
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