Beginning classical social theory introduces students and educated general readers to thirteen key social theorists by way of examining a single, exemplary text by each author. After an introductory reflection on the concept of ‘social theory’, the book is organized chronologically, ranging from Comte to Adorno. The chapters address key themes of classical social theory, including modernity, democracy, gender, class, the commodity form, community, social facts, race, capitalism, strangeness, love and marriage. They present a diverse range of arguments that introduce readers to how classical theorists thought and wrote. The book is written as a tool that promotes independent, critical engagement with, rather than reproduction of knowledge about theory. It answers the need for a book that helps students develop the skill to critically read theory. After short, contextualizing introductions to each author, every chapter presents a close reading of one single key text demonstrating how to break down and analyze their arguments. Rather than learning how to admire the canonical theorists, readers are alerted to the flow of their arguments, the texts’ contradictions and limitations and to what makes them ‘classical’. Having gotten ‘under the skin’ of one key text by each author will provide readers with a solid starting point for further study. The book will be suitable as the principal textbook in social theory modules as much as alongside a more conventional textbook as a recommended additional tool for self-study. It will appeal to undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as educated lay readers.
This chapter looks at an essay published in 1912 by Marianne Weber, a key representative of liberal feminism, ‘Authority and Autonomy in Marriage’. Weber explores the contradictory character of marriage as both diminishing individual autonomy and making a meaningful, ethically autonomous life possible for the individual. She is particularly interested in the idea that the spiritual deepening of monogamy has disciplined men.
Max Horkheimer’s essay ‘Critical and Traditional Theory’ (1937) is the most explicitly programmatic statement of the Critical Theory of the ‘Frankfurt School’. It addresses the interrelations between the mode of how to organize social research and the nature of the social reality that is being researched. He rejects what both empiricism and rationalism share, namely a conceptual separation of facts and theories. For both, empiricism and rationalism, facts are to be collected like books in a library and theories are like the catalogue that organizes them. Horkheimer’s critique affects our understanding of what ‘facts’ are and what ‘theories’ are. Critical Theory is presented as neither ‘deeply rooted’ in any existing reality, nor detached from societal interests, but committed to the ‘obstinacy of fantasy’ that must be in conflict also with views prevailing amongst the oppressed.
Although society maintains that ‘woman is always woman’, it also complains that ‘woman is losing her ways’. Apparently not every female human being is a woman – the latter requires possession of a mysterious something called ‘femininity’. In The Second Sex (1949), one of the emblematic texts of the feminist tradition, Simone de Beauvoir argues that ‘civilization as a whole’ produces ‘woman’. To be this or that means to have become, though, and thus not necessarily to remain, this or that. One must actively become what society has set out in advance, and thereby one may also change it (sometimes more, sometimes less).
This final chapter looks at a short, but densely argued article by Theodor W. Adorno that was first published in 1965 as a handbook entry titled ‘Society’. Adorno agrees with Durkheim that society is a bit like a thing – ‘thing-like’ – but emphasises that it is also very different from actual things as it cannot be experienced immediately: society is essentially ‘mediation’, namely a specific form of relationships between people, between people and things, and between people treating each other as things. Not only ‘society’, though, but also individuals are mediated – structured, ruled, determined – by institutions and cannot exist otherwise. Institutions, in turn, cannot exist without that which they mediate – us. We made this world, and therefore we can re-make it, too. The problem is that we made it in such a way that it has become quasi-independent, namely thing-like, and this in particular makes it so difficult for us to change it. A tricky situation…
This chapter examines the concept and the function of theory. I argue that social theory is ‘good theory’, i.e. worth your while, only if it adds something to the perception of the social world that cannot be perceived otherwise: theory in this sense must be somewhat mysterious (and mystifying). If it is not, it is just the banal, wordy, laborious and often pompous restatement of the obvious.
Auguste Comte was the main promoter of the concepts of ‘sociology’ and ‘positivism’. This chapter examines his early programmatic text ‘Plan of the Scientific Work Necessary for the Reorganization of Society’ (1822-24) that sets out what the new science of sociology was to be all about: the safeguarding of the changes brought about by the French Revolution, but also the safeguarding of (modern, still precarious) society from the perceived danger of more revolutions to come.
This chapter looks at sections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40). Tocqueville uses ‘democracy’ as a social rather than narrowly political concept, i.e. a concept that points to a general tendency underlying the development of modern society. Tocqueville regrets the decline of aristocratic society and its values but thinks it is irreversible. Instead, he finds in the USA some of the mechanisms – including religion and ‘individualism properly understood’ – that can turn democracy into a good thing, after all.
This chapter examines a chapter from one of the founding texts of feminist socialism, The Workers’ Union (1843) by Flora Tristan. She made the case that workers have to constitute themselves as a class in the form of an internationalist organization, and that equality of women had to be one of its priorities.
In the first volume of Capital (1867), Karl Marx sarcastically turns the concept of ‘fetishism’, a concept with which defenders of bourgeois capitalist modernity including Hegel, Comte and Tyler classified (and denigrated) non-European civilizations, against modern civilization itself. In his description of the ‘commodity-fetish’ as the basic structure of the form and dynamic of modern society Marx unfolds what all subsequent sociology would address as the complex play of structure and agency.