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Scholars of sociology, commonly defined as the scientific study of social relations, social institutions, and societies, conceive the objectives, uses, styles, and methods of their discipline in various ways. One type of sociologist grants it primarily an informative function, that of producing data and analyses to aid decision makers. A second type sees it as serving a critical function, that of identifying the various defects of societies. Finally, a third type sees sociology as a means of explaining social phenomena. These three orientations characterize contemporary as well as classical sociology. Sociologists also endorse a range of methodological and theoretical positions. While some oppose a positivist to an antipositivist approach, others oppose a holistic to an individualistic stance, a rational to an irrational theory of behavior, or a utilitarian to a nonutilitarian view of rationality. Max Weber’s sociology is of particular value, for it offers a paradigm capable of transcending these alternatives. One may effectively refute the skepticism that has developed toward sociology and its variety of approaches by focusing on its genuine achievements and demonstrating how actual research has overcome theoretical oppositions in various cases.
- Sociology: A Unique or Multiple Discipline?
- Three Types of Objectives
- Several Types of Orientations
- A Few Genuine Achievements of Sociology
- The Rational Choice Model
- Interpretation versus Explanation
- A Complex Identity of Sociology
The institutionalization of sociology followed a long and circuitous path. The actual term was coined by Auguste Comte and institutionalized in periodicals. The existence of sociology was also recognized implicitly, however. When, in the very first sentence of The Old Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville (1986) wrote “[t]his book is not a book of history,” he meant that it dealt with what we would today call ‘comparative sociology.’ He did not use a word that was still uncommon and probably even considered Comte an eccentric figure. Weber too expressed doubts as to whether his work should be classified as sociology. The gradual institutionalization of the term and discipline owes much to Emile Durkheim and later, the Chicago school of sociology.
Sociology: A Unique or Multiple Discipline?
Despite being contemporaries and able to read each other’s works, Durkheim never quoted Weber, nor Weber Durkheim. All the same, as Nisbet (1966) maintains, common inspiration can be detected in the works of Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Durkheim. All appear to agree that the rational utopian theory of society developed by the Enlightenment was unacceptable. Consequently all perceived the social functions of religion, the hierarchical distinctions between social ranks, the role of tradition, and the distinction between ‘community’ and ‘society.’ Describing the identity of classical, and, even more, modern sociology can be more difficult than Nisbet proposes, for both classical and modern sociologists see very different uses for sociology and the ways in which it should be practiced.
Three Types of Objectives
The first type of sociologist sees the discipline as having an essentially informative function, however – that of producing data and analyses oriented implicitly and explicitly toward decision makers. Thus, in Les ouvriers europeens (1855), Frederic Le Play surveyed the conditions of life among European workers with the final objective of improving the social policies of the time. While the workers themselves would have known about their lives, this local knowledge was not directly available to societal decision makers. Collecting statistics related to crime is another example of sociology’s informative function. Such data are crucial to the determination of crime policy. Gabriel Tarde, for example, became a sociologist because, as a judge and later as the head of the French Bureau of Statistics on Crime, he was concerned with an increase in crime rates. Joseph Schumpeter qualified the informative dimension of the social sciences as ‘cameral’ (Kameralwissenschaften). In the 1970s, Paul Lazarsfeld et al. (1967) offered an overview of the production of this ‘cameral’ sociology in the Uses of Sociology.
The second type of sociologist sees the function of sociology as critical, that of identifying the defects of actual societies and devising remedies to correct them. Henri de Saint-Simon and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are considered pioneers in this type of sociology, while members of the Frankfurt School exemplify a modern version of ‘critical’ sociology.
The third type of sociologist sees sociology as having the same objective as other scientific disciplines, namely, that of explaining social phenomena that appear enigmatic at first glance. Weber, for example, wondered why peasants appeared more attracted to polytheistic than monotheistic religions, while Durkheim was interested in why all religions included the notion of ‘soul’ in one form or another. In such cases, the interests of sociologists are essentially of a cognitive character.
These three basic orientations can appear in combination. Marx was concerned both with explaining social mechanisms and changing society. Durkheim gathered data on suicide with the aim to explain variations in suicide rates, but also considered them indicators of the general state of modern society. All the same, the works of de Tocqueville, Weber, and Durkheim achieved the status of ‘classics’ essentially because they contained scientifically valid explanations for puzzling social phenomena, rather than for their diagnoses of the society of their time. Durkheim deemed sociology as socially useful only if it was scientifically sound, meaning that good criticism could derive only from valid explanation. In contrast to Durkheim or Weber, the Frankfurt School is better known for its criticism of modern societies than for convincing explanations of puzzling phenomena.
These three orientations characterize modern, contemporary, and classical sociology. Marcel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is generally recognized more a ‘critical’ than a ‘scientific’ contribution to the field (Foucault, 1975). According to the ‘labeling theory,’ some features of individual A can be interpreted as a ‘label’ by observer B and can structure B’s behavior and expectations toward A. This is common knowledge, however, so the theory does not introduce anything new. Its ‘critical’ function is more undebatable than its cognitive one. So, the ‘labeling theory’ is not a theory in the scientific sense. Yet as Foucault’s theory, it has had a notable influence on our views and those of public officials as to the way in which prisoners should be considered and treated.
Several Types of Orientations
Sociology is often perceived as a discipline with a weak identity, not only because of the existence of its three basically different goals, but also because those sociologists who consider the main goal of their discipline to be the production of valid new knowledge on social phenomena endorse a variety of methodological and theoretical orientations. Weber’s work, for example, is seen as illustrating a particular style of ‘comprehensive’ sociology that is currently opposed to a ‘positivist’ conception of the field. While the former proposes to analyze social phenomena as the outcome of comprehensible individual actions, the latter analyzes relations between social phenomena. Weber himself considered his version of ‘comprehensive’ sociology as being very different from that of others, and repeatedly spoke of ‘comprehensive sociology in my sense (in meinem Sinne).’ In the 1960s, ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ sociology were perceived as irreconcilable rivals; while the former deemed the collection of standardized data capable of being subjected to statistical analysis as the most effective research procedure, the latter insisted that such an approach produced biased findings and thus proposed more flexible methods. Robert Merton’s ‘middle range theory,’ which aimed at explaining specific social phenomena, was seen as the proper alternative to the sort of general theory on ‘society’ as a whole proposed by Parsons, which C. Wright Mills polemically referred to as ‘Grand Theory.’ These notions illustrate some of the main more or less permanent and distinguishable conceptions of sociology.
Such diversity within the basic theoretical orientations of sociology is also one of its permanent features, observable in contemporary as well as classical sociology. In the early twentieth century, a ‘methodological quarrel’ set those who believed that sociology should follow the path of other scientific disciplines in opposition to those who, like Heinrich Rickert, maintained that while the goal of natural sciences was ‘explanation,’ the goal of the social sciences was ‘interpretation.’ In the 1960s, the quarrel was reopened with the ‘positivists,’ as their challengers called them, set against the ‘hermeneuticians,’ who once again saw sociology as charged with disentangling the ‘meaning’ and ‘interpreting’ social phenomena rather than identifying their causes, that is, ‘explaining’ them. Theodore Adorno and Karl Popper, were the main protagonists of the ‘antipositivist’ and ‘positivist’ groups, respectively (Adorno et al., 1972). This ‘quarrel’ has reappeared chronically in various forms. Thus, not long ago, ethnomethodologists claimed that the idea of producing an objective social knowledge was self-contradictory since social phenomena were understandable only from the inside of a social group: one could interpret, but not explain them.
Weber’s sociology is particularly important for it defines a third way between ‘positivism’ and ‘antipositivism.’ To Weber, explaining a phenomenon means uncovering its causes. The causes of any social phenomenon reside in the set of individual actions, beliefs, or attitudes of the individuals responsible for it. The sociologist thus has to make these individual actions, beliefs, or attitudes ‘understandable.’ At the same time, however, understanding an individual action requires finding the action’s meaning to the actor, in other words, the motivations and reasons behind it. For Weber this operation amounts to building a theory on the motivations of social actors that is subject to the ordinary criteria that every scientific theory must meet. Thus, if I see somebody cutting wood in his yard on a hot summer day, I would reject the theory that he is cutting wood because he is cold. On the whole, Weber holds that ‘understanding’ is a crucial moment in the ‘explanation’ of any social phenomenon.
Sociologists who are mainly interested in the ‘cognitive’ function of their discipline, namely, in its capacity to produce valid new knowledge, can thus be classified along a first principal dimension, according to whether they see it as capable of producing ‘explanations,’ in the manner of other scientific disciplines, or merely generating ‘interpretations’ of an unavoidably subjective character. Here, however, one needs to introduce a secondary distinction that opposes those who, like Durkheim in his Rules, believe that the subjectivity of social actors should be ignored by sociologists (Durkheim, 1895), and those who, like Weber (1951), consider that the subjectivity of social actors is essential to sociological knowledge and in no way incompatible with the discipline’s scientific ambitions.
This last distinction correlates with another one. Some sociologists regard individuals as the atoms of sociological analysis, while others claim that sociology should ignore individuals and concern itself with analyzing associations between social phenomena and variables. While the former follow the principles of what Schumpeter called ‘methodological individualism,’ the latter preach ‘methodological holism.’ Weber explicitly declares that to him, individuals are the atoms of every sociological analysis and that sociology should be ‘individualistic as far as its method is concerned’ (Mommsen, 1965). Durkheim, by contrast, sees sociology as devoted to the analysis of the associations between observable social variables. He offers a theoretical defense of this viewpoint in Rules (1895) and a practical one in Suicide (Durkheim, 1897).
It suffices to evoke a few modern sociological schools to see that the above distinctions, according to which classical sociological works can be categorized, can also be used for modern studies. Thus, ‘structuralism’ falls on the side of positivism as it proposes to identify the stable relations that prevail between social variables and claims to be hard science; on the other hand, it is holistic, since it treats individuals as the mere products or reflections of ‘structures.’ ‘Rational choice theorists,’ in turn, propose to analyze social phenomena as the effects of individual actions; they firmly believe that sociology can be as objective and scientific as any other discipline but on the condition that it respects the postulate that social phenomena are the outcome of individual actions motivated by individual interests. ‘Ethnomethodologists’ believe that sociology is an interpretative rather than an explanatory discipline, but are mainly concerned with the interpretations offered by individuals who are embedded in the social setting in question. Following the footsteps of Jakob Burckhardt or Fernard Braudel, holistic sociologists of history, such as Norbert Elias or Immanuel Wallerstein, focus on detecting diffuse orientations within the course of historical and social processes. They are more concerned with the interpretation than the explanation of social phenomena and are interested mainly in identifying global macroscopic trends.
The lasting relevance of the various conceptions of sociology emerging from the typologies discussed above explains why sociology appears as less of a unitary discipline than do many others. Furthermore, the relative popularity of each of these conceptions tends to follow an ‘oscillatory’ process, as Pareto would have termed it. In the 1960s, many circles considered structuralism the orientation that would make the social sciences genuinely scientific. Sharply criticized, however, it became obsolete. Viewed as ‘positivist’ and ‘holistic,’ it was replaced by antipositivist and individualistic currents such as ethnomethodology or ‘phenomenology’ in the sociological sense.
A Few Genuine Achievements of Sociology
The best way to refute those skeptical of sociology’s diversity is to examine the successes of its various typologies as outlined above.
Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) is a classical example of the holistic-positivist type of sociology. The work offers systematic analysis of correlations between rates of suicides and a number of independent variables, such as gender, urban versus rural residence, religious affiliation (Protestant, Catholic, Jew), and so forth. Through his research, Durkheim discovered that rates of suicide increase with a rise in anomie. Other things being equal, professionals are exposed to more anomie than are peasants and are thus more prone to suicide. Anomie is also greater during economic booms when expectations tend to be too optimistic and open the way to disillusion, which eventually leads to higher rates of suicide. Durkheim’s Suicide provides a methodological model that has inspired many writers. Thus, for example, Cusson (1990) has asked why rates of criminality have been characterized by similar trends in most Western countries with the exception of Japan and Switzerland. He attributes this exception to the fact that primary social control is more developed in these two countries, where, for historical reasons, networks of interpersonal relations typical of traditional societies have been maintained even in large cities.
It should be noted, however, that though such analyses are explicitly holistic, they implicitly consider individual motivations. Thus, in Suicide, Durkheim contends that periods of political crises can be associated with a decline in suicide rates, and that – other things being equal – they were effectively lower during major political upheavals in France during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, as well as during the crisis between Prussia and Austria in the mid-1860s. Like other theories in Suicide, this one sees an association between two variables defined at the societal level, and, in this sense, is holistic. However, it rests implicitly on the ‘psychological’ assumption that in periods of serious political crises, people are not exclusively concerned with their personal problems. The same can be said of most of Durkheim’s analyses in Suicide. The activity of professionals, for example, is much less routinized than that of peasants; professionals cannot be content with following the same rules of behavior day after day, but instead are always devising new rules, objectives, procedures, or ideas. The greater uncertainty generated by such novelty breeds a higher level of anxiety. So, despite his official opposition to the psychological explanation of social facts and his recommendation that social facts be explained solely by social facts – as formulated in the Rules – Weber’s sense of ‘understanding’ is implicit in Durkheim’s Suicide. Thus, according to Durkheim, women in the nineteenth century had lower rates of suicide than did men because, being more exposed to social control, they were more guided by routinized rules and norms and thus less exposed to the anxiety generated by uncertainty.
The contrast between Durkheim’s holistic antipsychological sociology and Weber’s individualistic approach is therefore less marked than sometimes contended. Indeed, Weber is as interested as Durkheim in macroscopic relations. In his Essays in the Sociology of Religion, for example, he notes that Mithraism developed among Roman civil servants before reaching other strata (Weber, 1920–1921); it was more palatable to them than the old traditional Roman religion because they perceived it as a symbolic expression of the political philosophy that grounded Roman bureaucracy. Roman civil servants were hierarchized according to grades associated with specific functions; admission into the bureaucracy and promotion from one grade to the next was determined by impersonal procedures. Although the entire system was under the authority of the Emperor, he was regarded as the incarnation of the impersonal rules codified by Roman law. Now, Mithraism was a religion placed under the auspices of a God who too symbolized impersonal rules; as in the case of Freemasonry, so here, believers were admitted and graded according to a scale with the help of impersonal procedures. Weber therefore solved a macroscopic question – why are certain strata more receptive toward a particular religious doctrine? – in an explicitly ‘individualistic’ fashion, that is, by showing that Roman civil servants had strong reasons for perceiving Mithraism as being more attractive than the old Roman religion, which had originated in the context of a purely agrarian society. In Prussia, Freemasonry appealed more to civil servants than it did to other strata for similar reasons.
The Weberian vein is noticeable in many modern analyses. Merton’s classic analysis of the anti-Black attitudes of White American workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s rests on the assumption that White unionists had strong reasons to believe that Black workers, who came from large paternalist farms in the South, were less prepared than White workers from the South to be loyal to unions (Merton, 1949). Henri Bergeron (1999) wondered why methadone programs adopted in the Netherlands and Switzerland were rejected in France. His answer was that Lacanian theories, highly influential among French psychiatrists, had led them to diagnose drug addiction as the result of the disruption of social relations. French psychiatrists thus concluded that drug addicts could be cured by methodical restoration of their social relations. By contrast, Swiss and Dutch psychiatrists did not believe that there was a theory from which effective remedies against drug addiction could be drawn. As they did not feel capable of curing drug addiction, they believed that their main duty was to protect people, especially against the danger of AIDS, which could be contracted through drug addiction. The French had strong reasons for stressing that their role was to cure; the Dutch and Swiss, on the other hand, firmly believed that their job was to protect since they did not know how to cure. In an analysis such as this, one retrieves the highly flexible theory of rationality used by individualist sociologists who follow the Weberian tradition.
The Rational Choice Model
Contemporary sociology has developed a particular version of the individualistic tradition. Instead of the open, Weberian theory of rationality, it proposes to adopt the theory of rationality developed by economics, according to which social actors are allegedly moved by their interests and are capable of picking out the best means to serve their ends. This model, known as the ‘rational choice model,’ and first inspired by Jeremy Bentham, is useful. It has led to many constructive theories in several fields, most notably in the sociology of crime, education, and organizations. Its achievements have motivated some sociologists, such as James Coleman, to contend that in sociology it could serve the purpose of a general theory that is able to integrate heterogeneous findings. But this model cannot be deemed a realistic theory of behavior under all circumstances. Mancur Olson (1965) has stressed that his own theory of collective action, which applies the postulates of neoclassical economics, can explain why collective action does not occur as long as its axioms are believed to be realistic. He adds, however, that in many circumstances, it does not occur simply because people are moved and mobilized not only by their interests but also by their beliefs. Now, beliefs can seldom be satisfactorily explained by the interests of social actors alone. All in all, the ‘rational choice model’ has produced many convincing theories, but it cannot be regarded as a general theory, neither actually nor potentially.
What the styles of research illustrated by these examples hold in common are explanations of social phenomena that follow the criteria generally used in all scientific disciplines. In this sense, they belong to the ‘positivist’ category of the previous typology.
Interpretation versus Explanation
In his book on the methodology of the social sciences, Problems of the Philosophy of History, Simmel (1892) made the important point that history and the social sciences naturally raise two types of questions: one that can and one that cannot be given a unique, scientifically controlled answer. According to Rickert’s vocabulary, some questions raised by sociologists aim at ‘explaining’ while others aim at ‘interpreting’ social phenomena. In his Philosophy of Money, Simmel (1900) himself proposed an explanatory theory for the decline of feudalism: from the moment that peasants in the Middle Ages could pay their rents in money rather than in kind, they were able to decide what to grow; placed in a position that allowed them to produce and sell surpluses, they became eager to participate in collective actions against landowners. Thus an apparently minor institutional innovation generated a chain reaction that eroded the feudal organization of society.
Other questions, however, call for ‘interpretation’ (or ‘description’) rather than ‘explanation.’ What are the main features of modernity? Will the twenty-first century be characterized by a religious revival? What does it mean to be poor in an affluent society? How do people live in poor areas? Such questions, of course, cannot be answered in one way. There are many ways of describing life conditions in a poor area. In short, thanks to the very nature of such questions, answers to them are doomed to be at least partly subjective. Actually, as Simmel states, questions of this sort can be answered in an interesting fashion only if analysts are able to inject their own sensibility into their description or interpretation. On the whole, answering these questions requires an ability that makes sociologists akin to artists. A good biographer, for instance, cannot simply follow the criteria that define a scientific work. He or she must also be able to give unity to the numerous observations collected from witnesses on the subject of the biography, on that person’s behavior and decisions in innumerable circumstances. Many sociological works are faced with the same types of questions. Anthony Giddens’s (1984) study of postmodern society, like Burckhardt’s earlier study of the Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1952), is an example of a work that attempts to characterize the main features of a historical era or identify broad historical trends. Other works dealing not with societies as wholes, but rather with local phenomena also belong to the interpretative–descriptive rather than the explanatory category; although they deal with social reality, they evoke the procedures of novelists. Oscar Lewis’s The Children of Sanchez (1961) is a classic illustration of such ‘literary’ sociology. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) coined the expression ‘thick description’ to characterize the methodology of this type of work, while W.G. Runciman (1983–1997) developed methodological considerations that seem to elaborate on Simmel’s insights.
A Complex Identity of Sociology
In sum, all the types of sociology derived from the combination of these three principal ideal-typical objectives (explaining, informing, criticizing) and the four types generated by the combination of binary variables, ‘holism’ versus ‘individualism’ and ‘positivism’ versus ‘hermeneutics’ can be illustrated as easily through examples drawn from contemporary as from classical sociology. Perhaps this demonstrates that all these types are legitimate and fruitful. The price of this heterogeneity lies in the difficulty of pinpointing the identity of sociology, while its benefit lies in sociology’s ability to fill the gaps that other social sciences more devoted to a single paradigm, such as economics, are unable to fill.
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