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.
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.
This chapter examines an essay by Ferdinand Tönnies that serves as the ‘Introductory Article’ to the English edition of his famous Community and Association (originally 1887; more often rendered Community and Society). Tönnies proposes to examine societies under the perspective of how their members will and want things, and distinguishes between ‘natural’ and ‘deliberate will’, from which he derives his two ideal-types of society-as-community and society-as-society (or association). Tönnies is on the one hand nostalgic about a lost world of (village-type) communal life, on the other hand describes modern society merely as a temporary form of appearance of what still remains its essence – community life.
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.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, one of the pioneers of sociology in the USA, formulated in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903) a powerful argument on identity in modern society. He describes post-emancipation Afro-Americans as ‘born with a veil’ as they are only indirectly able to gain consciousness of themselves, namely through the eyes of the others who despise them; at the same time, though, the resulting ‘double consciousness’ of being both of and not of this society, can be turned into an advantage: the broken, indirect and precarious vision may see more and deeper. Du Bois talks about more than cognition and epistemology, though: both the African and the American strive to be ‘co-workers’ in the ‘kingdom of culture’. Overcoming ‘the color-line’ is indispensable to the creation of a better, modern, human and humane civilization.
In his famous double-essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05) Max Weber translated a generally felt discontent with modern capitalist civilization into a theme for the (then still emergent) discipline of sociology. Like many of his contemporaries, Weber both affirmed and critiqued modern liberal, capitalist society, celebrating capitalism’s dynamism and creative energy (propelling Western civilization to its well-deserved world-dominating position) while deploring its tendency to become an ‘iron casing’ through which it fetters and destroys itself. Weber felt promoting what he perceived as the original, Puritan capitalist spirit against corrupt ‘utilitarian’, hedonistic capitalism might help slowing down, or even reversing, the decay of Western civilization.
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 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.
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.
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.