Social theory

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Social theory is the use of theoretical frameworks to study and interpret social structures and phenomena within a particular school of thought.

An essential tool used by scholars in the analysis of society, social theories are interdisciplinary, drawing ideas from and contributing to such disciplines as anthropology, economics, history, human geography, literary theory, mass communications, philosophy, sociology, and theology.

Тhe origins of social theory are difficult to pinpoint, but many arguments return to Ancient Greece. Berch Berberoglu cites Plato, Socrates and Aristotle as influencing social theory throughout the enlightenment up to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Berberoglu 2005, p. xi). "Critical" social theories, such as neomarxist theories and feminist theories, argue that because theories are generally based on premises that entail normative positions, it is necessary to critique the ideological aspects of theories and related oppressive social relations.


[edit] Social theory as a discipline

Harrington (2005) discusses the etymology of social theory, stating that while the term did not exist in any language before the twentieth century, its origins are ancient and lie in two words; ‘social’ from the Latin socius and ‘theory’ from the Greek theoria. Social theorising aided the Greeks in making sense of their lives, and in questioning the value and meaning of things around them.

Social theory as a distinct discipline emerged in the 20th century and was largely equated with an attitude of critical thinking, based on rationality, logic and objectivity, and the desire for knowledge through aposteriori methods of discovery, rather than apriori methods of tradition. With this in mind it is easy to link social theory to deeper seated philosophical discussions.

[edit] Social theory in relation to natural science

Social theory always had an uneasy relationship with academic disciplines; many of its key thinkers never held a university position.

Compared to disciplines within the objective natural sciences -- such as physics or chemistry -- social theorists may make less use of the scientific method, and their conclusions and data may be interpreted more subjectively. A frequent criticism of social theorists is their tendency to tackle very large-scale social trends and structures using hypotheses that may not be easily proven, except over the course of time. Extremely critical theorists, such as deconstructionists or postmodernists, may argue that any type of research or method has inherent flaws. Often, however, thinkers may present their ideas as social theory because the social reality that those ideas describe appears so overarching as to remain unprovable. The social theories of modernity or anarchy can exemplify this.

However, social theories still play a major part in sciences such as sociology, anthropology and economics. Objective science-based research often begins with a hypothesis formed from a social theory. Likewise, science-based research can often provide support for social theories, or spawn new ones. For instance, statistical research grounded in the scientific method that finds a severe income disparity between women and men performing the same occupation can complement the underlying premises of the complex social theories of feminism or of patriarchy.

In general, and in particular among adherents of pure sociology, social theory has appeal because it takes the focus away from the individual (the way in which most westerners look at the world) and focuses it on the society itself and the social forces which influence individuals' lives. This sociological insight (often termed the sociological imagination) has appealed to students and others dissatisfied with the status quo because it looks beyond the assumption of societal structures and patterns as purely random.

[edit] History

[edit] Pre-classical social theorists

Prior to 19th century, social theory took largely narrative and normative traits. Expressed in story form, it both assumed ethical principles and recommended moral acts. Thus one can regard religious figures as the earliest social theorists.

Saint Augustine (354 - 430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225 - 1274) concerned themselves exclusively with a just society. St. Augustine describes late Ancient Roman society but through a lens of hatred and contempt for what he saw as false Gods, and in reaction theorized The City of God. Similarly, in China, Master Kong (otherwise known as Confucius) (551 - 479 BCE) envisaged a just society that went beyond his contemporary society of the Warring States. Later on, also in China, Mozi (circa 470 - circa 390 BCE) recommended a more pragmatic sociology, but ethical at base.

In the 18th century, after Montesquieu's The Spirit of Law established that social elements influences human nature, pre-classical period of social theories have changed to a new form that provide the basic ideas for social theory. Such as: evolution, philosophy of history, social life and social contract, public and general will, competition in social space, organistic pattern for social description and ... Jean-Jacques Rousseau in this time played a significant role in social theory. He revealed the origin of inequality, analyzed the social contract(and social compact) that forms social integration and defined the social sphere or civil society. He also emphasized that man has the liberty to change his world, a revolutionary assertion that made it possible to program and change society.

[edit] Classical social theory

The first “modern” social theories (known as classical theories) that begin to resemble the analytic social theory of today developed almost simultaneously with the birth of the science of sociology. Auguste Comte (1798 - 1857), known as the 'father of sociology', laid the groundwork for one of the first social theories - social evolutionism. In the 19th century three great classical theories of social and historical change emerged: the social evolutionism theory (of which Social Darwinism forms a part), the social cycle theory and the Marxist historical materialism theory.

Another early modern theorist, Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903), coined the term "survival of the fittest" (and incidentally recommended avoidance of governmental action on behalf of the poor). Some Post-Modern social theorists like Shepard Humphries, draw heavily upon Spencer's work and argue that many of his observations are timeless (just as relevant in 2008 as 1898). Vilfredo Pareto (1848 - 1923) and Pitirim A. Sorokin argued that 'history goes in cycles', and presented the social cycle theory to illustrate their point. Ferdinand Tönnies (1855 - 1936) made community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, 1887) the special topics of the new science of "sociology", both of them based on different modes of will of social actors. Emile Durkheim postulated a number of major theories regarding anomie and functionalism. Max Weber theorized on bureaucracy, religion, and authority. Karl Marx theorized on the class struggle and social progress towards communism and laid the groundwork for the theory that became known as Marxism. Marxism became more than a theory, of course, carrying deep implications over the course of 20th century history (including the Russian Revolution of 1917).

Most of the 19th century pioneers of social theory and sociology, like Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, John Stuart Mill or Spencer, never held university posts. Most people regarded them as philosophers, because much of the their thinking was interdisciplinary and "outside the box" of the existing disciplines of their time (eg:, philology, law, and history).

Many of the classical theories had one common factor: they all agreed that the history of humanity is pursuing a certain fixed path. They differed on where that path would lead: social progress, technological progress, decline or even fall, etc. Social cycle theorists were much more skeptical of the Western achievements and technological progress, however, arguing that progress is but an illusion in of the ups and downs of the historical cycles. The classical approach has been criticized by many modern sociologists and theorists, among them Karl Popper, Robert Nisbet, Charles Tilly and Immanuel Wallerstein.

[edit] Modern social theory

Although the majority of 19th-century social theories know class as obsolete, they have spawned new, modern social theories. Some modern social theories represent some advanced version of the classical theories, like Multilineal theories of evolution (neoevolutionism, sociobiology, theory of modernization, theory of post-industrial society) and various strains of Neo-Marxism.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by a more or less arbitrary division of topics, the social theory became most closely related to academic sociology while other subjects such as anthropology, philosophy, and social work branched out into their own disciplines. Such subjects as "philosophy of history" withered, and their subject matter became part of social theory as taught in sociology.

Attempts to recapture a space for discussion free of disciplines began in earnest in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research provides the most successful example. The Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago followed in the 1940s. In the 1970s, programs in Social and Political Thought were established at Sussex and York. Others followed, with various different emphases and structures, such as Social Theory and History (University of California, Davis). Cultural Studies programs, notably that of Birmingham University, extended the concerns of social theory into the domain of culture and thus anthropology. A chair and undergraduate program in social theory was established at the University of Melbourne and a number of universities now specialize in social theory (UC-Santa Cruz is one example). Finally social theory seems to be gaining more acceptance as a classical academic discipline.

In modern times, generally speaking, social theory began to stress free will, individual choice, subjective reasoning, and the importance of unpredictable events in place of the classic determinism – thus social theory become much more complex. Rational Choice Theory and Symbolic Interactionism furnish two examples. Most modern sociologists deem there are no great unifying 'laws of history', but rather smaller, more specific, and more complex laws that govern society.

[edit] Post-modern social theory

Scholars and historians most commonly hold postmodernism to be a movement of ideas arising from, but also critical of elements of modernism[citation needed]. Because of the wide range of uses of the term, different elements of modernity are chosen as being continuous, and different elements of modernity are held to be critiqued. Each of the different uses also is rooted in some argument about the nature of knowledge, known in philosophy as epistemology. Individuals who use the term are arguing that either there is something fundamentally different about the transmission of meaning, or that modernism has fundamental flaws in its system of knowledge[citation needed].

The argument for the necessity of the term states that economic and technological conditions of our age have given rise to a decentralized, media-dominated society in which ideas are simulacra and only inter-referential representations and copies of each other, with no real original, stable or objective source for communication and meaning. Globalization, brought on by innovations in communication, manufacturing and transportation, is often[citation needed] cited as one force which has driven the decentralized modern life, creating a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production. The postmodern view is that inter-subjective knowledge, and not objective knowledge is the dominant form of discourse under such conditions, and the ubiquity of copies and dissemination fundamentally alters the relationship between reader and what is read, between observer and the observed, between those who consume and those who produce. Not all people who use the term postmodern or postmodernism see these developments as positive.[citation needed] Users of the term often argue[citation needed] that their ideals have arisen as the result of particular economic and social conditions, including what is described as "late capitalism" and the growth of broadcast media, and that such conditions have pushed society into a new historical period.

The term "postmodernism" was brought into social theory in 1971 by the Arab American Theorist Ihab Hassan in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes were influential in 1970s in developing postmodern theory.

See post-modern feminism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism (though some post-structuralists consider their perspective to be modernist).

[edit] Theory Construction

Almost all good research is guided by theory. Selecting or creating appropriate theory for use in examining an issue is thus an important skill for any researcher. Important distinctions: a theoretical orientation (or paradigm) is a worldview, the lens through which one organizes experience (i.e. thinking of human interaction in terms of power or exchange); a theory is an attempt to explain and predict behavior in particular contexts. A theoretical orientation cannot be proven or disproven; a theory can. Having a theoretical orientation that sees the world in terms of power and control, I could create a theory about violent human behavior which includes specific causal statements (e.g. being the victim of physical abuse leads to psychological problems). This could lead to an hypothesis (prediction) about what I expect to see in a particular sample, e.g. “a battered child will grow up to be shy or violent.” I can then test my hypothesis by looking to see if it is consistent with data in the real world. I might, for instance, review hospital records to find children who were abused, then track them down and administer a personality test to see if they show signs of being violent or shy. The selection of an appropriate (i.e. useful) theoretical orientation within which to develop a potentially helpful theory is the bedrock of social science.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  • Bell, David (2008). Constructing Social Theory. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742564282. 
  • Berberoglu, Berch (2005). An Introduction to Classical and Contemporary Social Theory: A Critical Perspective, Third Edition. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0742524934. 
  • Harrington, Austin (2005-02-24). Modern Social Theory: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199255702. 
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