Social theory

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Social theory refers to the use of abstract and often complex theoretical frameworks to explain and analyze social patterns and large-scale social structures.

Though many commentators consider social theory a branch of sociology, it functions inherently in an interdisciplinary manner, as it uses ideas from and contributes to a plethora of disciplines such as anthropology, economics, theology, history, and many others.

Social theory attempts to answer the question 'what is?', not 'what should be?'. One should therefore not confuse it with philosophy or with belief.


Social theory in relation to hard science

Main article: sociology versus social theory

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

Compared to workers in disciplines within the “objectivenatural sciences -- such as physics or chemistry -- social theorists may make less use of the scientific method and of other fact-based methods to prove a point. Instead, they tackle very large-scale social trends and structures using hypotheses that they cannot easily prove, except over the course of time. Criticism from opponents of social theories often objects to this. 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 the sciences of sociology, anthropology, economics, and others. 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 can 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 humans look at the world) and focuses it on the society itself and the social forces which control 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.


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.

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 (socialism) as a positive act). Vilfredo Pareto (1848 - 1923) and Pitirim A. Sorokin argued that 'history goes in cycles', and presented the social cycle theory to illustrate their point. 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, 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, close to historicism, has been criticized by many modern sociologists and theorists, among them Karl Popper, Robert Nisber, Charles Tilly and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Modern social theory

Although the majority of 19th-century social theories now 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 Interaction Theory 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.

Post-modern social theory

See also post-modern feminism and postmodernism.

See also

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