Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Society and the Individual: A Theoretical Exploration of the Contemporary Era

Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Society and the Individual: A Theoretical Exploration of the Contemporary Era

Article excerpt

If asked to give a simple explanation to the field of sociology, one could say it is the study of the relationship between individuals and society. This deceivingly simple axiom becomes increasingly complicated as one tries to understand just how the relations between individuals and society affect, influence, and perpetuate our everyday lives. The academic work intending to better explain this core principle of sociology is vast and heterogeneous in content. However, one cannot hope to completely grasp the complexity and multidimensionality of this concept in reading one theoretical perspective alone. Therefore, it is necessary to examine, evaluate, and compare multiple theoretical perspectives to truly begin to understand the relationship between society and the individual. That will be the key thesis of this paper, to identify how various theorists of the modern and contemporary eras have conceptualized the individual-societal dynamic. To do so, this paper will recognize classical theoretical influences as they shaped the perspectives and work of the theorists to be discussed, establish the role ideology plays in determining the relationship in question, and compare and contrast multiple theoretical perspectives along the way with the intent to highlight the complexity of the task at hand.

A logical approach to organizing a discussion of theoretical perspectives on the relationship between society and they individual would be to place the theorists in question on somewhat of a continuum. For the purposes of this paper, the poles of the continuum at hand will be represented by the perspective of societal structures dominating individual behavior on one end, and the perspective of individuals leading autonomous lifestyles, free from the influence of structures on the other. To begin, this paper will examine theorists who align with the idea that social structures largely influence individuals.

Louis Althusser addresses the significance of structures in society throughout his discussion of the reproduction of the means of production. Largely built upon the Marxian perspective of power and coercion utilized by structures within society, Althusser acknowledges that in order for social formations to exist, they must continuously reproduce their objectives while they are being produced in society. This is accomplished, according to Althusser, through the means of ideological and repressive state apparatuses (Althusser 1971). The term ideological state apparatus, or ISA, refers to institutions that ideologically reinforce state goals. Examples of ISAs include educational systems, religions, and families. ISAs are distinguishable from Althusser's concept of repressive state apparatuses, or SAs, in that ISAs primarily utilize ideological coercion to mold their subjects whereas repressive state apparatuses predominantly utilize physical force or punishment to enforce the power of the state (Althusser 1971). Examples of SAs include prisons and the military.

It is the objective of ISAs and SAs to see that the subjects of a society undergo the process of interpellation and take in the ideological values provided by the apparatuses in power in order to continue the production of those apparatuses (Althusser 1971). In this sense, Althusser recognizes that societal structures are in place and maintained through normalizing processes and producing cultural realities.

Karl Mannheim also contributed to the discussion of ideology. However, Manheim's contributions to ideology allow us to take a step away from the structure-dominating end of the continuum. To a certain degree, Althusser's ISAs force their ideologies upon the subjects within a society. Such acts are necessary in order to maintain the production and reproduction of those ideologies. Although Manheim recognizes a significant structural component present in the historical context of ideology, his concept of the ideology of knowledge permits individuals to establish various perspectives on issues as they present themselves (Mannheim [1936]1955). …

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