Summary of Classical Sociological Theory

QUESTION(S): 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.


With the nation state being among the central markers defining the difference between traditional and modern societies, we can then come to understand how Karl Marx utilized historical materialism to understand society.  Marx’s philosophy of history is an inversion of Hegel’s ‘idealist conception of history’ that argues that society is determined at any given time by its material conditions.  Marx’s historical materialism reveals that no means of social reproduction can exist without the necessary material conditions.  This articulation also reveals that the very circumstances that create social phenomena also harbor the means for their demise: their contradiction.  Marx’s historical materialism and the dialectic focus on material conditions and their role in shaping social and political conditions.  Marx advanced his materialist conception of history through dialectics to reveal that every phenomena has contradictions, processes, and histories.  Dialectics places the notion of any phenomena within its context or within the material conditions and circumstances in from which it arrived.  This means that everything has a history and must be studied within the context of its material conditions.

Marx’s analysis of relations between people and land is a critical read of history and contemporary.  Marx analyzes the place of class struggle within feudalist relations to understand the origins of the capitalist nation state.  Marx discusses the rise of capitalist modernity in the terms of labor relations and private property.  In The German Ideology, Marx states that under feudalism,

…property consisted chiefly in the labour of each individual person.  Thus the chief form of property during the feudal epoch consisted on the one hand of landed property with serf labour chained to it, and on the other of the labour of the individual with small capital commanding the labour of journeymen.  The organisation both was determined by the restricted conditions of production– the small-scale and primitive accumulation of the land, and the craft type of industry. There was little division of labour in the heyday of feudalism (Tucker 1978).

Under feudalism nobility had power over serfs and serfs were attached to the land.  The material conditions that bore the rise of capitalism lie within private property.  Marx argues that the transformation from feudalism to capitalism harbors in it the contradictions of capitalist exploitation and plant the seeds for the revolt of the working class and give way to communism (Seidman 2004; Tucker 1978).  According to Marx, the conditions for capitalist means of production and exchange were generated in feudalist society.  In Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels state,

…the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.  Into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted to it, and by the economical and political sway of the bourgeois class (Tucker 1978).

The transition to modernity lies in the relationship between the propertied and laboring class thus the relations of production.  These relations have exploitative consequences that alienate workers from themselves, nature, and the products of their labor.  Marx argues that private property is the end product of alienated labour.  Private property is then the product of alienated labour and the means through which labour “alienates itself, the realization of this alienation” (Tucker, 1978:79).  Capitalism rises through the commodification of labour power and the objectification of nature.

As the serfs were freed from their land they had nothing to sell but their labor.  And to generate a profit, capitalism aims to produce a profit for the owners of the means of production and providing a mere means of subsistence that ensures that workers show up each day.  These means of exploitation that harbor the demise of capitalism.  Marx argued that the future of capitalism is thus its destruction,

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.  But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons-the modern working class-the proletarians (Tucker 1978).

Thus, the future of modernity for Marx is the rise of the working class resulting in the abolishment of private property.


The transition from traditional to modern societies according to Max Weber rests on a multifaceted explanation for the transition from feudalism to capitalism.  Weber’s understanding of the transition to modern society is based on his understanding of culture, bureaucracy, and rationality.  While there are connections between economy and society, they aren’t based on a one to one direct linear relationship.  Marx sees the transition to modern society as a consequence of the direct purpose and intent of bourgeoisie actions, Weber points to a more complicated relationship where other social factors contributed to its development but not necessarily on purpose.  In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber seeks to understand why and how capitalism came to be the dominant economic system when its values are the opposite of Catholic values that dominated pre-capitalist Europe.  Weber asks why all the Protestants were part of the capitalist class and why their regions more industrially advanced than Catholic regions.  Weber argues that the rational ethic of ascetic Protestantism was needed to encourage people to participate in capitalism and shift from the catholic notions of avoiding temptation and worldly distractions.

Weber argues that the Protestant ethic gives rise to the spirit of capitalism because it allows people to can deny the world by being involved in it.  The values of self-sacrifice through “calling” lend themselves to work for the sake of work and accumulate money for the sake of more money.  “Calling” is a call to worldly labor for the glory of God.  Labor becomes external to the satisfaction of needs, through becoming a form of prayer or demonstration of piety (Weber 1930).  In order to demonstrate that you are chosen and favored by God, you must work hard to materialize the proof to show the world your piety.  Calling directly undermined the Catholic Church because the Protestant ethic called for people to engage with the world to transform it versus withdrawing from the world.  The result is the modern spirit of capitalism where, “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs” (Weber 1930).  Labor became a sign of pre-destination and once you have hard labor, and no consumption, you have the accumulation of capital.  Thus, the Protestant work ethic changed how people made sense of the world and how they made sense of their own existence.

Weber understands capitalism as the highest form of rational operations, hence, the highest form of bureaucracy, “implemented by two irrationalities: the remains of an originally religiously anchored attitude: the irrational calling and drive for continuous work; and modern socialism, seen as the ‘utopia’ of those who cannot stand up under what seems to them the senseless injustice of an economic order which makes them dependent upon propertied entrepreneurs” (Gerth and Mills 1958).  The Protestant ethic provided a means through which pre-capitalist bodies later consent to routinized investment

The Protestant ascetic allowed people to make sense of their place in the world through working for the sake of work and money for the sake of money.  Modern capitalism creates a condition in which all action is instrumental action.  Instrumentally rational action is concerned with the end and not the means (Weber 1978).  “Weber thus identifies bureaucracy with rationality, and the process of rationalization with mechanism, depersonalization, and oppressive routine. Rationality, in this context, is seen as adverse to personal freedom” (Gerth and Mills 1958).  Bureaucracy depersonalizes because it acts outside of the person.  The source of authority in bureaucratic organization is not the person, but the office.  The office carries the authority and itself is depersonalized because the person cannot carry the authority outside of it.  The office is the point of authority rather than the person; the person becomes irrelevant.  People accept the exercise of authority over them because they want or expect to gain something from those relations of domination.

The rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism provided a way for material goods to have, “an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history” (Weber 1930).  Weber states that material goods could be easily set aside before but further rationalization turned reliance on materiality into an iron cage (Weber 1930).  Bureaucracy is an all-encompassing structure that becomes more and more pervasive.  When it becomes all pervasive and all-encompassing in modern societies, institutional rationality based social action becomes more and more accurate to such a degree that you cannot overthrow it.  “Increasing public ownership in the economic sphere today unavoidably means increasing bureaucratization” (Weber 1978).  Even in organized political action, the instrumental rationalized organization used to attain the attention of the state to absolve political issues through state offices digs the dominated into an even deeper inescapable pit.  What this means is to combat the injustices of bureaucracy, further rationalization is necessary, thus more bureaucracy is required.  Therefore, Weber painted a bleak future of modernity as increasing bureaucratic society and thus reducing individual freedoms and democracy (Weber 1978; Seidman 2004).


Emile Durkheim asked a different set of questions to arrive to his understanding of the transition from traditional to modern societies.  Durkheim was concerned with what held societies together.  This concern ultimately led him to his early work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995) where he looked at the significance and function of religion in what he referred to as primitive societies.  Durkheim wanted to understand how religion plays a role in how people live their lives in society.  What actions do you engage in to show that you believe in a particular form of morality?  Religion then has a regulatory power in that it regulates people’s lives and those regulations shape and condition people’s lives.  Religion gives people morals, values, a way in which to understand the world and their place in it.  Commitment to a religion creates a regulatory regime with reference to which people conduct their lives, generating different kinds of regulation to influence social life.

Durkheim (2014) presented his theory of the evolution of society in his concept of the division of labor.  According to Durkheim, society developed from primitive societies to advanced societies.  Within this understanding, Durkheim argued that primitive societies are structured by kinship relations and they lack too much social differentiation.  Durkheim argued that primitive societies produce mechanical solidarity (repressive) which punishes whoever is different in society.  In primitive societies there is a common religious culture that cannot tolerate difference (Durkheim 1995).  On the other hand, modern societies generate organic solidarity (result of civil laws) where differences are appreciated.  Durkheim argued that societies are moving away from mechanical solidarity to more organic solidarity due to the division of labor and hence a society has emerged that appreciates difference.  Division of labor generates a subjectivity where people understand that although they do different things in society they are interdependent.  Marx and Weber theorize that the division of labor generates alienation but Durkheim argues its generates organic solidarity.  Durkheim argued that the population growth in volume and density was why division of labor developed in Europe.  The sudden growth of population in Europe which added to density left no other option except division of labor.  Durkheim believed that primitive societies were incapable of responding effectively to natural and social change in their environments, thus halting social adaptation. Once social differentiation is introduced into these societies then social evolution towards a more advanced society with increasing organic solidarity is the endpoint (Seidman 2004).  Durkheim disagreed with Auguste Comte’s notion that modern societies lack a universal consciousness provided by religion.  For Durkheim, the moral consensus in modern societies cannot be achieved without tyranny and old religion would be replaced with modern religion: nationalism.  Nationalism has become a sacred commitment to a group identity that Durkheim conceived of as holding societies together.  In this sense, the future of modernity according to Durkheim is evolutionary social adaptation and increasing social cohesion through organic solidarity.  Thus social order will then arise out of the very organization of society: specialization and division of labor will generate interdependency, complexity, and a more cohesive society (Seidman 2004).

The consequences of the transition to modern advanced society is anomie (people cannot find their right place in society).  Durkheim thought individualism was the main cause of the collapse of social order in modern times.  Durkheim critiqued utilitarian arguments and states that individualism itself cannot generate solidarity and social cohesion.  Durkheim was arguing that we were in the period of transition and that is why society appears to be falling apart.  The lack of collective consciousness is a consequence of moving from mechanical to organic solidarity.  This is why Durkheim argued we need to work towards organic solidarity and if not, anomie is the consequence.  The pathology for modern society for Durkheim is anomie and that there are things within this transitioning society that doesn’t allow people to realize their true potential/function.



Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 2014. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Gerth H.H.; Mills, C. Wright. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. London: Oxford University Press.

Ollman, Bertell. 1993. Dialectical Investigations. New York: Routledge.

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism. London: Zed Press.

Seidman, Steven. 2004. Contested Knowledge: Social Theory Today. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Tucker, Robert C. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton and Company.

Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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