You are on page 1of 5

Sociological Theory I: Karl Marx

Sociology 1001: Introduction

Marx in (American) Sociology

Marx has a somewhat odd position in sociology
In some parts of the world, sociology is synonymous with Marxist thinking In other parts, including the US, Marx has been largely ignored
The central theory and theorists of the 20th century, notably the functionalism of Talcott Parsons, paid no heed to Marx Sociology in the post-1960s has however increasingly incorporated Marxian ideas

Biography and History

Marx was born in 1818 and received his doctorate in 1841
His lifes work reflected his efforts to explain the rather extra-ordinary social transformations that were occurring at the time What were these?
Industrialization Capitalism Urbanization Democracy

The Dialectic
Marxian thinking adopts what is known as the dialectical mode of logic
Comes from the work of German philosopher Hegel

A dialectical method has two key features

It does not see a simple, one-way cause and effect among the various parts of the social world
Inherently relational, both within and across time
Leads to considerable emphasis on history

Social values are not separable from social facts

Not only impossible, but undesirable

Dialectical thinking also has involved considerable concern with conflict and contradiction
Emphasizes ideas of social change (rather than stability) and how social entities exist in far from harmonious ways
One key emphasis was the relationship that between the key economic actors of his (and perhaps) our era

Dialectical thinkers are generally interested in structures of society and actors within society and the relationship between them
Sound familiar?

Circumstances make men (sic) just as much as men make circumstances. - Marx and Engels (1845-1846) Men (sic) make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. - Marx (1852)

Sociologically Relevant Dialectics

Large Scale Structures of the past

Large Scale Structures of the present

Large Scale Structures of the Future

Actors in the past

Actors in the present

Actors in the future

Human Potential
Marx was very optimistic and concerned about the potential of human beings
Emphasized powers and needs
Powers are faculties, abilities and capabilities; needs are desires for things
Both are affected by the social settings in which people live

At the heart of human potential lies consciousness

Consciousness is a characteristic of people and shaped out of human action and interaction
It is a social product

Allows humans to control activity in ways that animals cannot

In this respect, activity can be viewed as the means by which people appropriate objects from nature.
Provides a direct conceptual tie to notions of work and creativity
Work is the process of material production Creativity is the ability of people to make unique products
The notion of human potential lies in fostering the creative capacity of human beings

Activity involves the process of objectification, the production of objects

Affirms his materialist orientation Identifies the arena where people express their human capacities

Marx uses the term labor to capture this process

Ultimately, Marx felt that human nature was distorted by economic relations, particularly capitalism
Called this distortion alienation

Components of alienation
Workers are alienated from their productive activity; it belongs to the capitalist Workers are alienated from their products; the product belongs to the capitalist Workers are alienated from their fellow workers; cooperation is replaced with isolation or competition Workers are alienated from their human potential; work is increasingly animalistic or mechanistic

The Structures of Capitalist Society

Social structures are composed of a large number of on-going social relationships
Under capitalism, such relationships are external to/coercive of actors
Achieved an objective reality

At the base of these relationships are commodities

These are objects produced for their exchange rather than use value This leads to a fetishism for commodities where actors forget that it is their labor that gives commodities their value
Part of a broader practice of reification in which human creations are seen as natural and absolute

The most general structural element in Marxs work is capital

Capital, through the actors who operate on its behalf, exploits workers who are responsible for its creation
People reify capital by believing in the capitalist system and it external character

Another structural element of capitalism is private property

Marx viewed this as the product of alienated labor

A fourth element is the division of labor

Involves the primary distinction between those who own the means of production and those who must sell their labor-time to the owners to survive
The latter are also forced to increasingly specialize in tasks

This leads to the key social dimension of Marxs theorizing: social class
Viewed these as reified social relations that are reflective of the different positions people occupy in capitalist social structures
Hence, two fundamental classes: bourgeoisie and proletariate

Cultural Aspects of Capitalism

Marx didnt spend a lot of time discussing culture, but felt that it was intimately connected to economic structures
Did however discuss related notion of consciousness
Class consciousness referred to abstract notions of how capitalism works and how it affects people False consciousness refers to the tendency for both capitalists and workers to have incorrect assessments of how the system works and their role and interest in it

Also discussed ideology which refers to an integrated system of ideas that is external to/coercive of actors
Saw ruling ideas as the ideas of the ruling class Alter the thoughts and actions of members of the oppressed class

This has been a very brief overview
Marx published dozens of works and scholars have spend over a hundred years interpreting and re-interpreting his work There is also a thriving neo-Marxian enterprise

Emphasis is placed on the sociological dimensions of Marxs work, with particular emphasis on:
The nature of social structures within capitalist society; The relationship between structures and action; The idea of human agency in Marxs formulation and its relationship to consciousness and ideology