The Structure of Social Theory

The Structure of Social Theory

The Structure of Social Theory

The Structure of Social Theory


Over the last three decades, social theory has become an increasingly important subdiscipline within sociology. Social theory has attempted to elucidate the philosophical basis of sociology by defining the nature of social reality. According to social theory, society consists of objective institutions, structure, on the one hand, and individuals, agency on the other, it promotes human social relations, insisting that in every instance social reality consists of these relations.


Sociologists today have an underdeveloped sense of humour. For all their talk of reflexivity, they themselves conspicuously lack a sense of self-awareness. This is unfortunate since it ensures that sociologists are incapable of appreciating the irony of their predicament. From its origins in the early nineteenth century, sociology made a distinctive intellectual contribution. Sociology sought to examine the general nature of social reality and to analyse the specific characteristics of emergent modern society. Auguste Comte, who invented the term 'sociology', emphasised the importance of this discovery of social reality. For him, the expansion of knowledge to this new and hitherto under-examined realm of human existence promised intellectual benefits on a par with physics or the other natural sciences. Although Comte's method was untenably positivistic, his neologism 'sociology' remains a useful reminder of the original purpose of the discipline. Sociology seeks to demonstrate the decisive role which the social context plays in all human activity. In particular, sociology has illuminated the extraordinary potency of social relations between humans which are implicated in even the most apparently private individual acts. These all-pervading social relations cannot be reduced to psychological, biological or economic factors. Social relations constitute a fascinating reality which must be understood in its own terms. To use Durkheim's term, social relations are sacred; in their effervescent interaction, humans develop a powerful emotional attachment to each other which binds them together, inspiring them to particular forms of activity.

It [collective life] brings about a state of effervescence which changes the conditions of psychic activity. Vital energies are over-excited, passions more active, sensations stronger; there are even some which are produced only at this moment. A man does not recognise himself; he feels himself transformed and consequently he transforms the environment which surrounds him.

(Durkheim 1976:422)

In the course of social interaction, humans mutually transform each other to produce a completely new level of reality. This social reality is the world which

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