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4 Society

Theories of Society and Social Change

What is Society?

 A group of people who interact in a

defined geographical area and
share a similar culture
 Similarities can be found across
subcultures and ethnic groups
especially in multicultural societies
Theories of Society

 Gerhard and Jean Lenski

 Social change caused by technology
 Karl Marx
 Society changes through conflict
 Max Weber
 The power of ideas shapes and changes society
 Emile Durkheim
 How traditional and modern societies are held
together by the division of labour and type of
solidarity generated
Gerhard and Jean Lenski’s Theory

 Sociocultural evolution: The

changes that occur as a society
gains new technology
 Societies range from simple to the
technologically complex
The Lenski’s (cont.)

 Societies simple in technology

tend to remain small and change
 More technologically complex
societies support bigger
populations, more affluence, and
constant change
 Defined by the use of simple tools
to hunt animals and gather
 A few societies persist today in
Africa and Malaysia
 They depend on the family and on
moving around (nomadic)
 The sexes regarded as having the
same economic importance
 Few formal leaders, social equality

 Often ravaged by forces of nature

 For example, the Sami Laplanders in

northern Finland
 Reindeer herders who often experience
hardship and famine.
 Horticulture: use of hand tools to
raise crops; emerged 10-12 000
years ago
 Pastoralism: the domestication of
 Today found throughout South
America, Africa, and Asia
 Could support a much larger
 Leads to a division of labour and
 Rudimentary government and military

 See God as directly involved in well-

being of the world
 Agriculture: large-scale cultivation using
plows attached to animals or more
powerful energy sources
 Occurred in Middle East 5000 years ago
 Larger population and food surpluses
 Greater specialization and inequality

 Men become dominant

 Societies expanded into empires (the Roman

empire an example)
 Industrialism: production of goods using
advanced sources of energy to drive large
 Huge populations and increased
 Anonymity and cultural diversity
 Trend away from traditional families and
towards schooling and various rights
(reduced inequality)
 Post-industrialism: technology that
supports an information-based
 Great change in occupational structure
to service jobs
 Information replaces objects as the
centre of economy
 Worldwide flow of information affects
everyone on the globe
 Poverty remains the plight of millions of
 Individual opportunities come at the
cost of community
 Modern warfare could devastate the
planet: false “ballistic missile warning”
in Hawaii – could have led to war?
 The physical environment is threatened
by pursuit of material prosperity
Watch: Karl Marx (School of Life, 2014)

Marx’s key concept:

 Class conflict: the struggle between
segments of society over valued resources
 In industrial societies, two social classes:

 Capitalists own factories and productive

enterprises in pursuit of profits
 Proletarians provide labour for wages
 To maximize profits, capitalists
(bourgeoisie) exploit proletariat
 Social institutions: major spheres of
social life, or societal subsystems,
organized to meet basic human needs
 The economic subsystem of production
determines all other social institutions
 The economy (infrastructure)
dominates all major institutions and
defines society
 Family, politics, religion (superstructure)
control the proletariat creates “ideology”
 False consciousness: explanations of
social problems in individual’s
shortcomings, not society’s flaws
 Over history, new productive forces
undermined old orders and new social
classes gained ascendance
 Initial human societies lived in primitive
communism; shared chores & food
 In the “ancient world” warfare was frequent
and produced masters & slaves
 The feudal world saw lords and serfs
 The productive forces of industry created the
bourgeoisie and the workers
 Capitalists and proletarians are engaged in
class conflict today
 Class conflict: antagonism between entire
classes over the distribution of wealth and
power in society
 Class consciousness: the recognition by
workers of their unity in opposition to
capitalists and to capitalism itself
 Revolution would occur when proletariat
became a “class for itself”
 Alienation: The experience of isolation and
misery resulting from powerlessness
 Capitalists alienate workers from:
 The act of working
 The product of work

 Other workers

 Human potential

 As people develop technology to gain power

over the world, the capitalist economy gains
more control over people
 The only way out of capitalism is to remake society
 Socialism is a system of production that could
provide for the social needs of all
 Marx believed that the working majority would
realize they held the key to a better future
 The change would be revolutionary and perhaps
even violent
 Marx believed a socialist society would end class
 Ideal = communism
Historical Materialism: Marx and Engels’
Stages of History
 Primitive Communism: hunter/gatherer societies: no
extra wealth and no private property, social classes,
class struggles, or even the need for government;
 Slave societies with a rich ruling class opposed by an
oppressed underclass of slaves;
 Feudalism with a noble class of landowning lords
opposed by an oppressed class of serfs;
 Capitalism with a rich class of factory owners
(bourgeoisie) opposed by an oppressed class of factory
workers (the proletariat);
 Socialism run by the workers with no private property,
and thus no social classes, or class conflicts;
 Communism: the ideal society, stateless and classless
Marx’s Methodology

 Detailed and meticulous historical research

 Also based ideas on a survey of more than
20,000 workers, performed together with
Friedrich Engels
 Interviewed workers and compiled the data
 Became the basis for 3 volume work “Das Kapital”
written together with Engels and for his famous
“Communist Manifesto”
Key Contributions of M. Weber
1) Theory of Society: change through ideas
2) Most famous for: “The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism”
3) 3 Types of Political Authority: traditional,
charismatic and rational/legal (bureaucracy);
4) Social Stratification: class, status, party
5) 3-fold Methodology: comparative method,
verstehen, ideal types
 Rationalization: historical change from tradition
to rationality as the main type of human thought
 Societies differ not in terms of how people
produce things but in how people think about the
 He was an “idealist” (Marx was a “materialist”)
 Used Ideal type to analyze: an abstract
statement of the essential characteristics of any
social phenomenon
Weber’s Theory of Society

 Main argument: human action increasingly

formally rational over the course of human
 Human action = individual meaningful,
purposive behaviour
 Formal rationality = careful, planned and
calculated matching of means to ends
Theory of Society (cont.)

 Formally rational action: to identify and use

means that will likely bring a desired end
 a dominant feature of modern societies.
 Theory of Society: the study of individuals’
meaningful, purposive actions
 individuals and their ideas, values and beliefs are
the driving force of social change
Key Contributions of Max Weber

 Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of

Capitalism examines how and why
capitalism developed in Northern Europe
and North America
 Argues that Protestant religion (Calvinism)
is conducive to capitalist development
 Protestantism provides preconditions for
rational economic behaviour
Key Contributions (cont.)
 Protestant faith based on puritan asceticism
(self-denial, self-control for salvation)
encourages hard work, frugality and individual
 Money-making as part of religious calling;
 History of religion has unintentional and
paradoxical effects: Protestant ethic promotes
rational conduct but undermines religious
viewpoint in modern society based on science
and technology.
 Watch: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism (BBC, 2015)
Key Contributions (cont.)
Weber’s Theory of Political Economy:
 Agreed with Marx that economic activity is
central in modern industrialized society but
emphasizes politics as most important factor;
 Distinguished between power and authority:
 Power = ability to impose one’s will including the
use of coercion to achieve desired ends
 Authority = legitimate use of power to achieve
desired ends with others’ consent
 Identified 3 types of authority in human societies:
traditional, charismatic, rational/legal
Charismatic Authority
 Based on a great figure or personality e.g.
prophet, warrior or political leader with
extraordinary qualities and leadership skills;
 Must be proven through successful victories
and prosperity to the community;
 Elitist rule based on direct authority of an
individual vs. representation or participation
of the masses.
Traditional Authority

 Based on a dominant personality e.g.

monarch or patriarch;
 Legitimacy based on established rights
and obligations within a social order e.g.
monarchy, feudal system, household, etc.
 Leadership based on custom, tradition and
personal loyalty.
Rational/legal Authority

 Based on impersonal rules according to a

means/ends calculation, and not on rulers;
 Dominant in modern industrialized society
with formal rationality as guide to actions;
 Bureaucracy as main force, creating
universal rules and standard procedures;
 Leaders as functional superiors or
bureaucratic officials, office holders and
Rational/legal Authority (cont.)

 Characteristic of mass democracy but real

power is concentrated in few politician-
 Bureaucracy as a form of domination, regulating
different parts of society, and making masses
 Pessimistic view: “iron cage” = bureaucratization
provides social cohesion but undermines
individual freedom;
 Charismatic individuals as key to social change
Weber and Social Stratification in
3 Dimensions of Social stratification: class,
status, party:
 Class = economic position

 Status = community identification according

to social honour and prestige;
 Party = group organization to either change
or maintain social order
Weber’ Methodology

Comparative historical method, verstehen, ideal

Comparative historical method:
a) Contextualize specific institutions or social
actions and compare with same features in
other societies;
b) Identify patterns without generalizing as
laws of human behaviour
Methodology (cont.)

Verstehen = understanding
 To understand how people give meaning to their
actions e.g. qualitative research techniques:
participant/observation, interviewing, focus groups,
 To combine face to face interactions with reading
scholarly texts;
Ideal types:
 Refer to theoretical models/templates to guide
understanding of key features of a phenomenon e.g.
theoretical concepts: anomie, alienation, etc.
Seven characteristics of today’s social life:
1. Distinctive social institutions

2. Large-scale organization

3. Specialized tasks

4. Personal discipline

5. Awareness of time

6. Technical competence

7. Impersonality

Bureaucracy would stifle the human spirit

“To love society is to love something beyond us and
something in ourselves”
Durkheim, 1924
 Structure: There are social facts that have objective
reality beyond individuals
 Functions: Help society operate
 Personality: We internalize social facts
 Anomie: When society provides little moral guidance to
Durkheim and Social Change

 Durkheim built on the ideas of F. Toennies

 Ferdinand Toennies interpreted
modernization of society as a loss of
community, or the decline of Gemeinschaft
and the rise of Gesellschaft.
 Durkheim stressed that modernization
involved an increased division of labour
(specialized economic activity, and a shift
from mechanical to organic solidarity).
 Mechanical solidarity: social bonds, based on
common sentiments and shared moral values,
strong among members of preindustrial societies
 Organic solidarity: social bonds, based on
specialization and interdependence, that are strong
among members of industrial societies
 Division of Labour: specialized economic activity
 Low in mechanical and high in organic
 Modern society rests less on moral consensus and
more on functional interdependence
Durkheim’s Methodology

 Scientific sociology through the systematic

study of “social facts”
 Empiricism (through the senses)
 Was a positivist
 Lenski: A shared culture and patterns
that vary by technology
 Karl Marx: Elites force an uneasy
peace; true unity comes from
cooperative production
 Max Weber: Rational, large-scale
organizations connect lives
 Emile Durkheim: Specialized division
of labour creates organic solidarity
 Lenski: Changing technology; modern
society has enormous productive power
 Karl Marx: Social conflict is now in the
 Max Weber: From traditional to rational
 Emile Durkheim: From mechanical
solidarity to organic solidarity
 Lenski: technological innovation
transforms society
 Karl Marx: struggle between social
classes is the engine of change
 Max Weber: ideas contribute to change

 Emile Durkheim: expanding division of

labour causes change