From Organisational Theory to the New Communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni. (Note on Society/Reflexion Sur la Societe)

By Prideaux, Simon | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

From Organisational Theory to the New Communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni. (Note on Society/Reflexion Sur la Societe)


Prideaux, Simon, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

Across a wide range of social commentators and social disciplines there has been little doubt that the thoughts and sentiments of Amitai Etzioni have influenced a communitarian attempt to establish a new moral order within which modern society should develop. Ruth Levitas (1998), to name but one, points to the characteristic centrality Etzioni gives to the family as well as to community. On another level, Finn Bowring (1997) draws upon Etzioni's calls for the revival of individual responsibility and social morality as a means to create social cohesion. Both recognise that it is precisely this emphasis upon family, community, social discipline, obligation and responsibility as opposed to an indiscriminate conferral of rights that is at the heart of new communitarianism and its growing popularity.

Nevertheless, what has not been commonly recognised -- and what has not been fully explored -- is from where Amitai Etzioni actually drew his inspiration. How did he arrive at such an influential social philosophy, and what factors affected its formulation? Through a comparison of Etzioni's later works with those of earlier times, it is my contention that Etzioni has not said anything new or innovative. Nor has he provided a social prescription that actually traverses the old political and socio-economic boundaries. More to the point, it is possible to show how Etzioni continues to reiterate the thoughts and impressions he had gained from his functionalist days as an organisational theorist during the 1950s and 1960s: the only difference being that the earlier micro-theories of organisations have now been transposed to fit a macro-theory about the perceived ills and remedies pertinent to contemporary 'mainstream' society.

Although it has been pointed out before that organisational theorists fundamentally restrict themselves to the search for efficiency within the confines of North American relations of capital (cf Allen, 1975), it is not a charge that has been rigorously applied to Amitai Etzioni. Least of all to The Spirit of the Community (1995) and The New Golden Rule (1997). With a deeper analysis of the specific methodology employed, it is again possible to reveal the reliance Etzioni puts upon his sociological origins and thus expose the underlying limitations of his societal projections. Moreover, it will become apparent that this form of methodological analysis is myopically used to substantiate an argument for the promotion of a normative society remarkably reminiscent of America in the 1950s.

Finally in this 'Note on Society,' I will discuss the ramifications of Etzioni's approach. Such theoretical and methodological limitations are bound to affect the efficacy and applicability of the communitarian ideal. Especially when the revival of a sense of community is still reliant upon the relatively unfettered continuation of a competitive market.

American Society in the 1950s: A 'Baseline' Templet

When introducing The Essential Communitarian Reader (1998), Etzioni succinctly defines the communitarian movement as he understands it. He is at pains to distinguish the new communitarians from the communitaranism of the nineteenth century by distancing his position from the old blinkered "stress upon the significance of social forces, of community, of social bonds" (1998:x) and of the elements that individualistic theory neglected. Instead, he argues, new communitarians concern themselves with "the balance between social forces and the person, between community and autonomy, between the common good and liberty, between individual rights and social responsibilities" (ibid). Elsewhere, Etzioni sees himself -- and, for that matter, this new form of communitarianism -- as a responsive harbinger of social equilibrium locked in a quest to revitalise society through a unique blending of some elements in "tradition (order based on virtues) with elements of modernity (well protected autonomy)" (Etzioni, 1997:xviii). …

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