Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
THE QUESTION OF EXPLANATION IN WORKING-CLASS HISTORY

In the past five chapters we have covered many important sectors of British working-class history -- the history of strikes and the development of trade-unionism; the rise of factory agitation and the pattern of factory legislation; the excesses of early co-operation and the emergence of co-operative stores; the occurrence of violence and pleas for assistance, and so on. Furthermore, we have related these and other phenomena to one major explanatory principle, namely that the family economy of several classes of labour was undergoing a process of structural differentiation.

To appreciate this explanation, we must consider it on several levels. First we constructed an abstract model of change which proposed that under appropriate historical pressure, the units of a social system would differentiate by a determinate sequence -- dissatisfaction, disturbance, handling and channelling, encouragement of ideas, attempts to specify new social units, attempts to establish new social units, and routinization of established units. Second, we phrased this model in terms of the family as a social system, thus specifying the precise units of the family which are subject to historical pressure and which might differentiate structurally. Finally, we examined the course of working-class history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in order to illustrate that much social turmoil, unrest, experimentation, and legislation fitted into appropriate sequences by which the family economy was emerging as a more specialized social unit. Hence the nature of our "explanation" was to relate a multitude of complex social phenomena to a single set of analytical propositions without varying the logic of the propositions themselves.

The scheme of structural differentiation certainly is not meant to encompass all other possible explanations of the same phenomena. To be sure, it overlaps with some explanations -- e.g., that which traces the factory operatives' unrest to their desire to maximize their short-term wages and protect their long-term economic

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