Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview
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plicit. Since such criteria are very difficult to formulate, and virtually impossible to gain agreement upon, this concretizing function of the classics is very important. Rather than having to define equilibrium and the nature of systems, one can argue about Parsons, about the relative 'functionality' of his early and later works, about whether his theory (whatever that may be precisely) can actually explain conflict in the real world. Or, rather than explicitly exploring the advantages of an affective or normative perspective on human action, one can argue that such a perspective was, in fact, actually taken by Durkheim's most important works.

The third functional advantage is an ironic one. Because a common classical medium of communication is taken for granted, it becomes possible not to acknowledge the existence of generalized discourse at all. Thus, because the importance of the classics is accepted without argument, it is possible for a social scientist to begin an empirical study--in, for example, industrial sociology--by discussing the treatment of labour in Marx's early writings. While it would be quite illegitimate for him to suggest that non-empirical considerations about human nature, let alone utopian speculations about human possibility, form the baseline for industrial sociology, this is precisely what he has implicitly acknowledged by referring to Marx's work.

Finally, because the condensation provided by the classics gives them such privileged power, reference to the classics becomes important for purely strategic and instrumental reasons. It is in the immediate self-interest of every ambitious social scientist and every rising school to be legitimated vis-à-vis the classical founders. Even if no genuine concern for the classics exists, they still must be criticized, re-read, or rediscovered if the discipline's normative criteria for evaluation are to be challenged anew.❖

James S. Coleman ( 1926-1995) was born in Bedford, Indiana. After a brief career as a chemist, Coleman went to Columbia University in 1951 to study sociology when the Columbia department was at its strongest. Like many Columbia sociology students in those days, Coleman went on to a distinguished career in the field. After teaching at Johns Hopkins, Coleman went to the University of Chicago, where he was university professor until his death in 1995. Coleman was a president of the American Sociological Association. His books include Community Conflict ( 1957), The Adolescent Society ( 1961), Introduction to Mathematical Sociology ( 1961), and Foundations of Social Theory ( 1990), from which the selection is taken.

The New Social Structure and the New Social Science

James S. Coleman ( 1990)

Nation-States Versus Multinational Corporations

. . . The nation-state is a corporate actor of intermediate form, exhibiting some properties of premodern corporate actors based on primordial bonds and some properties of modern purposive corporate actors. Many nation-states evolved from

Excerpt from Foundations of Social Theory ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 660-664. Reprinted by permission of the publishers. Copyright 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


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Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings
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