Theorizing Classical Sociology

Theorizing Classical Sociology

Theorizing Classical Sociology

Theorizing Classical Sociology


• How did classical sociology emerge and take shape?

• What is the significance of classical sociology for current theoretical debates?

• How can the classical tradition in social theory inform our understanding of the crisis of modernity?

Social theory has been formed through elaboration and critique of the classical tradition, and this introductory volume illuminates current theoretical terrain by examining major classical theories - of Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Durkheim, Dilthey, Tonnies, Simmel and Weber - highlighting recurring themes and debates. It explains how classical sociology emerged through a debate with the Enlightenment, in which the concept of the 'social' took shape. This was constructed around various themes emphasizing contrasting components of social life - including material, cultural, rational and moral factors. These divergent theorizations set the scene for the play of theoretical oppositions that characterize much subsequent theoretical dispute. Along with these debates there were questions about the very identity of sociology, which in turn relate to a core issue in the discipline - grasping the crisis of modernity. This authoritative text introduces the key issues of classical sociology to undergraduates, making use of student-friendly features such as clear summaries, further reading and a glossary. It lays the foundations for an understanding of contemporary discussion, and will also be recognized at the postgraduate level as a key reference in the field.


This book is about classical social theory and its legacy. My main purpose is to provide an understanding of the central themes in classical theory while showing how these set the scene for subsequent debates. But what is the classical tradition? in part it is derived from the works that have shown the longest staying power, notably Marx, Weber, Durkheim and, latterly, Simmel. But like other 'traditions' it is in part a contemporary construction and the way we view sociology's past is closely linked to our present concerns. the classical corpus is not fixed but subject to both forgetting and remembering. To Parsons' (1949: 3) rhetorical question 'Who now reads Spencer?' one could add, who now reads Giddings, Sumner, Ward, Hobhouse, Sorokin, Veblin, von Mise and many others, each of whom could at some time have claimed entry into the classical pantheon? But understanding the classical legacy is less dependent on who is read at any one time, so much as an engagement with some central intellectual and social issues, which are the main focus here. So this is not a Marx-Durkheim-Weber centred account of classical sociology. There are many such excellent critical expositions available already, to which I shall refer in due course. the trinity of founding fathers does feature here (how could it not?) but the focus is more on classical sociology as part of a long quest for social understanding.

My intention is to offer an account of classical sociology and its intellectual background in the Enlightenment that also points forwards to what follows. Namely, the attempt by subsequent sociology to develop and apply sociological theory to twentieth century concerns. the classical tradition, I suggest, is an unfinished enterprise of imagining the social in various ways that drew on earlier themes. We remain to a large extent within these categories, which overlap, play against each other, and combine in the works of individual theorists.

But where should a study like this begin? This is not an easy question to answer, because social theory, broadly understood, has no clear starting . . .

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