One of the main concerns of theorists of society in the 20th century has been the question of the relation between structure and agency. Describe three different schools of thought in social theory (make sure that you identify the main figures in relation to that question and compare each school’s views on the possibilities of social change).
The enterprise of sociology is about trying to figure out social structures. All of us think that we think independently and are autonomous individuals but there are structures in this world that contain, shape, and inform your actions. Many of them are hidden to us and sociologists highlight their presence, actions, etc.. There is structure and then there is agency and sociology then studies how they interact with one another. Below are three different schools of thought in social theory that question the relation between structure and agency: structuralism, symbolic interactionism, and post-structuralism.
Structuralism sees language as the site for the social world and where meaning is made through relational signification. Understanding language as the center of any world view then the outside world is unintelligible to us or isn’t understood about the physical and/or social without the mediation of language. We cannot have any idea about what the world is without the mediation of language. The relationship between the signifier and sign is arbitrary. The world of meaning then is constructed through a series of arbitrary relationships between the signifier and signified. The relationship between signifier and signified has nothing to do with the physical world and is just a contract between communities that generates that system of meaning.
The main theorists in the structuralist school of thought include Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and Pierre Bourdieu. Saussure, Barthes, and Levi-Strauss’ scholarship provides the ground work for linguistic structuralism, with the assumption that sound images corresponded to physical realities. According to Saussure, language is the product of social interaction; “for language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity” (Saussure 1986:14). Language is a social institution that is unlike other institutions, it is a semiological system that includes the sign and the sign-mechanisms of individuals. Sign-mechanisms represent the means of execution or rather speech while signs are social and in some way “always eludes the individual or social will” (Saussure 1986:17). Levi-Strauss saw language as more of a value than a sign. Levi-Strauss argued that when we speak of structure, we are in the realm of language and thus in the realm of the social world which represents human thought and informs human action/speech. Thus these scholars’ work theorized how language became action. Continue Reading
What is Karl Marx’s conceptualization of the self? How is it shaped by labor processes? According to Karl Marx, an individual’s self-identity influences their local context or is it always the converse? Refer to at least two contexts – for example: the workplace, neighborhood, family, etc.
Karl Marx’s conceptualization of the self can be best understood through his reflections on the impact of the labor process resulting in the alienation of the species’ being. Alienation occurs when the labour of man becomes materialized in an object as private property. This relation between man, labour, product, and property is hence also about the relationship between men. Objects are alienated because they are not produced for the worker. They are made by the worker for the capitalist and in essence a part of the worker is crystalized and sold to belong to another for the purpose of generating capital. As Robert C. Tucker elaborates, “History, particularly under modern capitalism, is seen as a story of man’s alienation in his life as producer, and communism is presented as the final transcendence of alienation via a revolution against private property” (1978:66). This reveals that everything that we see about capitalism is very much about exchanging people. Thus exploitation and alienation is about the commodification of life itself. Marx’s conception of the self then is best understood within the dialectic of alienation and unalienation (Ollman 1977). For Marx, unalienation, is a life that only exists under communism. Alienation is, “used by Marx to refer to any state of human existence which is ‘away from’ or ‘less than’ unalienation” (Ollman 1977). A person as well as their way of life can be alienated. Alienation differed though for each person based on their class position, thus their relation to the means of production: the property owners and the property-less (who have nothing to sell but their labor). Continue Reading
The basic premise of all classical sociological theory is that the contemporary world is the outcome of a transition from “traditional” to “modern” societies. Explain how Karl Marx, Max Weber, & Emile Durkheim describe this transition. How do they define the consequences of such a transition on western societies? What do they think about the future of modernity?
Sociological theory aims to understand what we know as the modern world. This is approached through understanding the transition from pre-modern or traditional societies to modern societies. The theorists commonly known as the founders or fathers of sociological theory are also three key figures in understanding this transition, its consequences, and ultimately what it will lead to in the future. Before this transition can be understood, the characteristics that define traditional and modern societies must be operationalized. Putting it into the colonial context then we can understand part of the defining characteristic of the transition to modernity as the development of the nation state (through what Cedric J. Robinson (2005) referred to as the monopoly of force that began in the 16th century). Modernity is defined by the rise of nation states and also a new conception of the individual whose thoughts and desires is independent of others. The characteristics that motivated that transition has been presented by three sociologists commonly referred to as ‘founding fathers’ of classic sociological thought.
The classical sociological canon is framed by the works of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Karl Marx relied on a particular understanding of historical materialism and ‘laws of history’ (Tucker 1978; Seidman 2004). Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism is a critique of Marx’s historical materialism to argue that the material conditions required to fuel capitalism are not enough and that capitalism also requires ideological formulations to help create the conditions needed to transition fully from feudalism to capitalism. Emile Durkheim on the other hand argued that transition from traditional/primitive to modern/advanced societies is an evolutionary process that requires intervention into primitive societies by advanced societies as well as natural changes.