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Lecture Notes for SII

Prof Margaret Archer Website - Lecture Notes Pages

1st Year Course: Sociological Investigation and Imagination

Each week I will adapt this page to include the most recent lecture. Below is a navigational table for you to navigate around this page to jump to the relevant lecture notes that you require. Click on the relevant blue box lecture number to reach the week in question. On this page you will only find the lecture notes for those delivered by me. Please go to the site of Peter Ratcliffe for his lecture notes.










Lecture 1

Week 2

Lecture Title: From Speculation to the Science of Society

From Speculation to the Science of Society

1. The Vexatious Fact of Society

From the beginning, thinkers recognised that the nature of social reality (i.e. social ontology) was distinctive.

They were used to thinking about two kinds of reality:-
· Natural reality (and the growing power to explain it - physics, chemistry, biology)
· Transcendental reality (divine ordering of the Cosmos - from Creation to
Covenental history)
Different as were the above, they had three properties in common:-

1. Self-subsistence (had their own form/being independent from us)
2. External to us and other than us (even if we could intervene in nature and intercede with divinity)
3. Gave rise to regularities in the world

Social Reality is and seems quite different (a distinctive social ontology), in that :-

1. It is not self-subsistent, for its very existence depends in some way on our (human) activities (most basically, 'No people: no society')

2. It is characteristically transformable - having no immutable or even durable form.
INSTEAD it changes dramatically ( brought home vividly in 18th & 19th centuries
by urbanisation, industrial and political revolutions)

3. We and society are intertwined - we make and re-shape society which reshapes us
in turn. Its regularities are dependent on our activities and vice versa.

Each of us experiences this 'oddity' - as an ambivalence -
sometimes we feel free to make what we will of ourselves/our futures, but
sometimes we feel we come up against impersonal social constraints.
We speculate about our futures & accept endless contingencies ('If I win the lottery...)

2. Speculation was the mode of early philosophical thinking about society

Hence the earliest social thought was like our lay-thinking:-

(a) Entirely speculative accounts of State of Nature & Human Nature (e.g. 'noble savage' or 'primordial brute')

(b) Optimistic or pessimistic accounts

(c) Ones which gave primacy to human nature in shaping society & ones giving primacy to society in shaping people.

Two Examples

Hobbes held people to be selfish, hedonistic, and aggressive - social life in the 'state of nature' was 'nasty, brutish and short' - to counteract this we needed strong, repressive Government to protect each against one another.
Society does not change us : it is there to restrain us.
So, social reality is read-off from human nature
'For the knowledge of the properties of a commonwealth, it is necessary first to know the dispositions, affections and manners of men'

Rousseau represents the converse
Human nature is read-off from society
Membership of civil society transforms the individual from 'a limited and stupid animal into an intelligent being and a Man' - for society gives people 'Moral freedom, which makes Man his own master. for to be subject to appetite is to be a slave, while to obey the laws laid down by society is to be free'.
Here, society does change us: to Rousseau, one cannot conceive of individuals prior to the institutions they live by.

Given this speculative (armchair) approach, then

· there are alternative speculative accounts and no way of deciding between them
· because no methodical study (evidence) was involved
· due to the fact that society was not thought of as ordered like nature (hence not investigable like nature for the discovery of its laws )
· consequently, there was no notion of the scientific study of society

Thus the social (later, sociological) imagination had nothing to do with social (later, sociological) investigation

Thus the three main features of the speculative approach (lacking methods of inquiry)

Didn't know (or examine) where Society came from - so INVENTED
Didn't understand (explain) how Society worked - so EVALUATED
Didn't know (predict/retrodiction) where it was going or where it came from - so
All these features were based on not thinking of Society as being ordered like Nature and thus not a subject for science - could not be investigated by scientific methods. This accounts for there being no expectation of /search for CAUSALITY (i.e. law-like regularities or generative mechanisms, as were being found in the natural world).

In other words, some presumption of determinacy (that social reality was not merely random or contingent) was absent and this is an essential pre-condition for undertaking systematic investigation.
WHAT was lacking was a conviction that societies' parts/processes/outcomes were determinately related (to some degree) and that these things could be discovered.

3. Assumption that social reality was ordered and this order understandable grew after:-

Enlightenment conviction that the power of human reason could understand/improve the human condition, AND
Concrete knowledge that social institutions could be changed rapidly/radically by collective action ( French Revolutionary transformations), but also intentionally/strategically (E.g. 13 plans before Revolutionary Assemblies for National Education - sweeping Napoleonic reforms of law, education and civil service)

With this new belief in the capacity to master society, in both theory and practice, the question about the nature (ontological) of the social reality in question, surfaced. i.e. what was it with which they were dealing/studying/seeking to transform ?

4. The ontological parting of the ways: the 'Science of Society' versus the 'study of Wo/man'

The 'Science of Society' entailed pushing existing methods of (natural) science enquiry beyond the physical world where it had developed and made impressive progress to the animate world (development of biology) and then the human world (anthropology and sociology), in quest of similar scientific laws (naturalism).

The 'Study of Wo/man' involved made the contrary assumption (anti-naturalism), that the study of society necessitated studying its components, people, and that this would entail different methods of investigation from those appropriate to inanimate matter. Here the quest was for understanding (of human motives/meanings) as essential.

This division, which has remained with us, is based on two different views of social reality (two social ontologies) which are accompanied by two different methods of investigation (two explanatory methodologies).

5. Science of Society

'Society' itself was the object of study - it was a real entity and possessed its own properties and powers.
For this, Auguste Comte (1789-1857) coined the term 'la sociologie':-
'Society is no more decomposable into individuals than a geometrical surface
is into lines, or a line into points'
Similarly Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), developed this approach:-
'Wherever certain elements combine, and thereby produce, by the fact of
their combination, new phenomena, it is plain that these new phenomena
reside not in the original elements but in the totality formed by their union'

Here, Society is,
· more than the sum of its parts (it has its own properties and powers)
· therefore it cannot be investigated via its parts (by examining people)
· consequently, explanations of things social were a search for sociological laws (never psychological ones)

6. Study of wo/man

Based on the insistence that social reality consisted in nothing but individual people and their activities - the diametrically opposite social ontology.

Clearly stated by John Stuart Mill (and central to all neo-utilitarian theories):-

'Men in a state of society are still men. Their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance with different properties, as hydrogen and oxygen are different from water'

Similarly, Max Weber (1864-1920), maintained that collectivities or organisations (family, army, state or business corporation) are ,

'only a certain kind of development of actual or possible actions of individual persons'

· Having defined society individualistically, it is only an aggregate
· Therefore investigation must be of individuals and explanations in terms of them
· Consequently sociological methods would be different from ones in natural science because they had to come to grips with people (i.e. internal understanding and not external observation). This could be rigorous but it would not yield general laws.


This was a major parting of the ways (which continues up to today under other terms like Collectivism/Holism versus Individualism).

However, from the start, some theorists (like Karl Marx) wanted to link the two (to link structure and agency - the parts and the people). This remains the major problem of social theory.

What we will do at the start of the course is to examine these two major social ontologies and their associated methodologies (including the third school which tried to link them) -

· Durkheim as the founding protagonist of the 'Science of Society' with his associated Rules of Sociological Method
· Weber as the founder advancing the 'Study of Wo/man' and the method of 'interpretative understanding' linked with it.
· Marx as the founder advocating their linkage and how we could investigate this historically.


Lecture 2

Week 3

Lecture Title: Social Theory as the Science of Society

1. The importance of the Enlightenment

Generally this consisted in a belief in the of power of reason to account for and improve the human condition(s).

Specifically this meant making same progress in investigating 'people' as natural sciences had made with inert matter (position known as 'naturalism').

Crucially this was based on thinking of society as ordered like nature, therefore investigable and subject to laws (of same kind which natural science supplied for the natural world).

This notion of determinacy is essential to the possibility of science

2. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and the assertion of determinacy

The significance of his thought was in overturning speculative thinking, which could not conceive of social-scientific investigation since it denied the ordered nature of things social- i.e. those who held that social events:-

"were always exposed to disturbance by the accidental intervention of the legislator, human or divine, (this meant) no scientific previsions of them would be possible".

As long as it was held that social reality/life was arbitrary/fortuitous, there could be no science of society, no conclusive agreement on various 'speculations', no progress in understanding (for one opinion was as good as another : there was nothing, no 'evidence' to arbitrate between them)

Comte, instead, argued that natural science had established 'lawfulness' amongst the chaotic appearance of natural phenomena (which also once looked fortuitous and accidental and used to be explained e.g. by the anger/caprice of the gods), NOW the time was ripe to do the same for society.

(Then, 'freedom of opinion', which makes no sense in physics, would be equally inappropriate in the new science of society)

3. The model of Newtonian physics

This was Comte's ideal : a science not looking for 'first' or 'final' causes (as has the Scholastic theologians), but a quest for modest laws like those of thermodynamics.

Think of the second law (heat transfer between two objects). This is purely a law (empirical generalisation) about "invariable relations of succession and resemblance" whose establishment relied on "reasoning and observation, duly combined"

NOTE the key elements in the above :-

  • reliance on sense data (we observe and then reason about our observations)
  • the assumption that we can observe PEOPLE like OBJECTS
  • the search is for regular connections, not causal mechanisms

So Comte advocated the development of 'social physics' -saw it becoming the 'Queen of the Sciences' (chemistry studies small particles; biology, organic wholes; sociology would be the most holistic - in its study the whole of society)

Now it needed a method of investigation

To study it as a whole, the method consisted in 'viewing each element in the light of the whole system'. It could never be reduced to the study of individual people because individuals become/behave different(ly) in society. Our proper study was society itself and as a whole.
The objective, to be achieved through observation, comparison and the detection of objective regularities , was:-

'to discover through what fixed series of successive transformations the human race, starting from a state not superior to that of the great apes, gradually led to the point where civilised Europe finds itself today" (1822)

4. Durkheim (1858-1917) takes up the science of society

He was convinced that Comte was correct that :-

- Sociology could be a self-standing discipline, with its own subject matter, society as a whole (i.e. more than the sum of its parts) - hence separate from psychology.
- that there were laws to be discovered - these again were empirically established regularities ("constant conjunctions", in Hume's terminology: 'correlations' in ours)
-BUT he wanted a rigorous sociological method (elaborated in his Rules ...).

The three main points of these Rules

1. Definition and delineation of our subject matter
Basically society is something external to us yet which acts upon us.
It has properties of its own which are not reducible to those of individual people - these are properties of its own kind (sui generis); not of our kind.

This is our subject matter - SOCIAL FACTS (i.e. facts about Society) :-

  • group facts (E.g. a political party can't be explained by its component members, but only by their interactions - 'social facts' are their consequences).
  • social factors ( which can belong to society but not to individuals, such as social integration, suicide rates, division of labour, belief systems).

So, how can we grasp them ?

a) they are external (to any individual: to demonstrate this they endure when particular individuals (or groups of them) die.
b) they are constraining (have an effect on people willy nilly : demonstration - you didn't produce 18 years of Tory Gov., but live with its effects).
c) but he wanted to go further and also to regard them as objective (this is the most problematic)

2. The above is the source of his positivistic method for Sociology
Summed up in his methodological injunction :-

"Treat social facts as things"

Then they can be studied scientifically, like objects in natural science:
the injunction is to observe and measure an objective thing.
HENCE the first reliance in 'sociology' upon data collection, measurement, and STATISTICS.
Statistics were viewed as providing objective measures of 'social facts', E.g. the suicide rate recorded in different countries/times - NOTE these are taken at face value, without consideration that they are/were products of people, which raises the Q as to their objectivity versus their constructed nature.

If a 'social fact' was not directly observable/measurable, like 'social solidarity', then D. tells us to look for an objective indicator of it. (As in natural sci., 'temperature' is not directly observable - so thermometers were developed)
Thus, for 'mechanical social solidarity', based on 'likeness' in primitive societies, he took as an indirect but objective index of it - the extent of 'repressive law' (early criminal law - which punishes deviations from the norm).

3. For Sociology to be a self-standing (autonomous) scientific discipline D has to put (1) and (2) above together.
In doing so, he specifies what a sociological law or explanation is.
"only explain one social fact by another"
This means, never try to explain it by individual attributes (reduction).
Thus, (as we'll examine later) the social fact of a 'suicide rate' is never to be explained by individuals' dispositions to commit suicide, but by some other social fact: that is by something external, constraining and objective - which here turned out to be the degree of social integration of society and different groups in it.

5. This is the birth of the Science of Society as Positivist Sociology

Namely, that our subject matter, methods and explanations are about the:-
External (supposed hard facts), which are,
Observable (by sense data, either directly or through an index accessible to the senses),
Objective (being considered as a mirror of nature)
This is held to lead to scientific laws - which are both predictive and prescriptive.
It is only one view of science (strong naturalism).

Its problems arise from whether positivism works at all PLUS the additional problems of applying it to people rather than matter.
Problems surrounding OBSERVATION and OBJECTIVITY
Basically, are there 'hard facts', detectable by our senses ?
Can we assume that 'social reality speaks to us directly and all we have to do is to record it ?
QUESTION : do we have access to any data at all as direct sense data?
Take 'the cat sat on the mat' - need concepts of 'cat' and 'mat' - we don't see these, only shapes: it is our languages which pick out and name shapes.
AND different languages pick out (discriminate) different things, e.g. English could just pick out 'animals' or 'medium sized animals' or 'domestic pets'.
Other languages can be richer - the 12 Eskimo words for snow, which enables them to do in their language what we can't do in ours.
So, in our English sentence 'It's snowing', we do not observe that 'It's snowing impactable snow'.
(Of course we could say/'see' this if we learned Eskimo - it is not that we live in different worlds where things like snow are different because of language)
Rather, the point is that ALL our observations are conceptually formed (mediated by concepts, like those in natural language) which pick out certain features but not others.

These concepts actively shape our observations - BECAUSE observation is always in a language (even if we can and do learn and invent new ones - and revise old ones)
There is no one pure observational language - this only exists as God's-eye-view.
Just as some things can be said in one language (like the different types of snow), also some things cannot be said in a given language (e.g. Watership Down's 'lapine' had no number above 5, just a word for more than 5, so it was impossible to discriminate between there being 6 predators in the next field versus 60 or 600).

Thus, all observations are 'theory-laden', if only by the concepts available in natural languages (and the same goes for artificial ones)

The positivist assumption is, that as social scientists, we are concerned/confined to 'observables' (detectable by our 5 senses).
BUT no science is. Nor was it at the start of the nineteenth century (which used non-observable concepts such as 'gravity', 'magnetism', 'conduction' etc.)

SIMILARLY, many of the things in which we are interested are non-observables - take the following rag-bag - ' a criminal's motives', 'centralization', 'alienation', 'norms , values and beliefs', 'discrimination', and, v. importantly 'social organization'.

Now some of these are also internal to us as subjects and not external (internal ones are unlike 'interest rates' or 'life-chances' or 'health service provisions').

These would include - 'dispositions', 'identity' 'commitment', 'belief', 'opinion' etc., for even if these are formed in an observable social setting (school classroom, Church), for us to hold them, we have to adopt and internalize them. (N.B. we can't assume anything about someone's religious beliefs because we see them in Church).

THUS we need to ask if Sociology should try to be a positivistic science, whether it can endorse positivism and its methodology or whether, even if we want a Scientific Sociology, this must be different from a positivist Sociology.


Lecture 3

Week 4

Lecture Title: Three Classical Roles of the Sociologist

(Before going on to discuss Durkheim's (positivist) social science)

1. All three founders aimed to be 'scientific', but they meant different things by 'science':-

DURKHEIM - His scientific sociology was in direct line of succession from Comte's notion of 'Sociology as Queen of the Sciences' (because more inclusive than other natural sciences, but like them). Therefore, naturalistic.
MARX - Looked to a 'unity of science'
'Natural science will one day incroporate the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science' Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts , 1844.
Not Sociology modelled on natural science; therefore semi-naturalistic.
WEBER - Wrote famous essay on 'Science as a Vocation', which included Sociology. But its task was understanding the personal meanings that motivated action. Therefore, Non-naturalistic.

2. Their different concepts of society (social ontologies) deeply affected how they defined the role of Sociologist (for themselves, others and us).

Saw last week that all social concepts are theory-laden.

This means we must assess these theoretical concepts (criticise, refine etc)
We cannot just 'pick and mix' from different and contradictory perspectives.
Nor can we 'take the bit that works best' for a given purpose (example given)

{We cannot eliminate theoretical variety by taking from each 'what works best' and splicing them together (known as 'perspectivism' and empirically resolved by 'instrumentalism')
Here want to show that conceptual differences are not open to empirical resolution (by asking, instrumentally, 'which is the most useful?').
Empirical resolution is only possible if the same assumptions go into concept formation.
(THUS it is poss. to ask whether the Registrars' General 5 class model is more or less useful than the Hall-Jones scale of 8 categories for, say, predicting school achievement or home ownership, because they contain no serious differences in assumptions).
BUT, instrumentalism is itself a value - it will buy the assumptions of whatever 'works best' for problems X and Y and Z. (It is intrinsically amoral & this has consequences)
Suppose what does 'work best' for problem X (house buying) is a 'subjective' concept of class, but what 'works best' for problem Y (striking) is an 'objective' concept - THEN the instrumentalist is condemned to accepting two contradictory assumptions about 'class' AND ones which assigns the same people to different classes!
SO, there are fundamental conceptual issues which have to be debated - the criterion of 'workability' cannot do this task for us.}

It is all the more necessary when it is the very concept of society which is at stake (and underlies each founder's entire theoretical approach)

These concepts differed hugely for the thee founders, in terms of
What is society like (what is an analogy for it?)
Is it an aggregate or a whole?
Is it going somewhere ( an historical trajectory) or not?
Is it 'out there' (external to us) or 'in here' (in our heads)

They answered these differently because they held three different 'images of society' (which meant they held different social ontologies)

DURKHEIM - Society modelled on an Organism (like a body)
MARX - Society modelled as Base and Superstructure (hub and spokes model)
WEBER - Society modelled as an 'endless flux' of meaningful actions (like weaving and re-weaving)

To these models corresponded their different definitions of a 'science of society'
And, consequently, different roles for the social scientist :-

DURKHEIM - applied scienceROLE Social Engineer
MARX committed scienceROLE Advocate of the Exploited
WEBER - Science as a 'calling'ROLE Interpreter of Others

We will now look briefly at the three in turn.

3. Durkheim - the Organic Analogy - the Sociologist as Social Engineer

  • D. begins from the analogy of society as an organism - like the body, each part is interrelated and thus must be studied holistically; it has an objective preferred state (health) and deviations from it (pathologies).
  • D. is also the Worried Man of the Third Republic, wondering specifically how France can regain socio-political 'health', i.e. stability/order.
  1. Every study is rooted in the organic analogy/image - meaning Society must be studied as a whole, in its own right, not, as it were, at the level of its cells:-
    "for a whole is not identical with the sum of its parts, and its properties differ from those of its component parts[....] society is not the mere sum of individuals. Rather, the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics" Rules , p. 103.
    The state of the body social is crucial because "individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social moulds and transforms" Rules, p. 106
  2. SO, each study is about how the relations of the parts (not the people) produces either 'health' or 'pathology'.
    Division of labour - held that capitalist societies could show 'organic solidarity' because occupational specialisation allows different groups to attain diff. ends without conflict being inevitable.
    "The soldier seeks military glory, the priest moral authority, the statesman power, the businessman riches, the scholar scientific renown. Each of them can attain his end without preventing others from attaining theirs[...] since they perform different services, they can perform them parallely" Division of Labour, p.267.

Ideally, the div. of lab. promotes co-operation® differentiation® interdependence® re-integration. BUT 'pathologies' develop - the 'forced' & 'anomic' forms.
D. responds with remedies, e.g. common education, meritocracy, abolition of inherited wealth, occupational associations.
SUICIDE Its rise in Europe indicates the same pathology -a decline in social integration. REMEDY -(among others) after finding suicide rate is lower among the married - make divorce more difficult.
FINDING: traditional religion no longer performed its old integrative function REMEDY: create a new form of moral cement - 'civic morals'
Can see how his 'image' of society being like an organism licensed him to solve his moral anxiety about France's instability by Social Engineering.

4. MARX: Base, Superstructure and Midwifery

Marx's image was one where all societies shared a cornmon structure - their core feature was their BASE (forces and relations of production), which are the foundation of all other social institutions (SUPERSTRUCTURE).
Although wanting to produce a scientific analysis, this should also be a committed one: The point of studying the world is to change it > open advocacy of working class interests.
His 'image' or 'model' was also allied to a 'process' of change -in all social formations this was due to the forces and relations of production coming into 'contradiction '.
When they did, then class action could introduce radical social transformation.
"In the social production which men carryon they enter into definite relations which are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society -the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond […] At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production come into conflict with the existing relations of production […] Then occurs a period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed" (1859) 'Preface to a Critique of Political Economy'
But any 'contradiction' and ensuing transformation is dependent upon (class) action:
it is 'activity-dependent' > therefore, it may not happen at all or it may happen slowly. The task of the sociologist is not merely to detect which historical stage has been reached, BUT to speed up the process.
HENCE Marx talked about our role as 'midwives of the revolution'.
His role as ADVOCATE of the working class is evident in his two types of publications: academic for the academics, but also the 'Communist Manifesto', intended to be read by workers and acted upon.

5. Weber: the endless flux of social action -and sociological investigation

Weber did not have an image of society as always being ordered in the same basic patter (unlike Durkheim's 'organism' or Marx's 'base and superstructure' model).

However, to see history as an 'endless flux' without any particular and recurrent structured form, is still to have an image - of it being woven and re-woven.
It sets us a different task: namely to discover why 'things were so and not otherwise' at any given time/place, rather than supplying us with a model of what to look for.

'Images' of society direct our investigations of it. How can Weber's do so?
Weber's own answer hinges on discovering the 'meanings' held by people that together produce a pattern at any given time:-

"(The) sociologist begins with the question: what motives determine and lead individual members and participants in this [… ] community to behave in such a way that the community came into being in the first place and that it continues to exist" 'Theory of Social and Economic Organisation '
This leads to a task that is alien to an 'objectivist' sociology, which examines external relations. Here, instead, we are to understand motives, which means we have to grasp meanings of people in society.
FOR all social action is action in which individuals orientate themselves to others (as either means or goals) and this entails grasping their meanings in doing so. We are aided in being of the same kind (people) as our subject matter. This is an advantage we have over natural scientists of matter.
BUT it involves getting at non-observables (motives, attitudes, opinions, beliefs), some of which may not be clear to the subjects themselves.
So he puts forward his method of 'interpretative understanding' (verstehen which is not the same as empathy) -of people in their context, from which he seeks to build up a typology - a motivational classification of those with the same orientations (these are his Ideal Types, e.g. of the early capitalist who reinvests because of his Calvinistic insecurity about his salvation).
IF this works (meaning it is an assertion warranted by the evidence), then he can claim to have contributed to explaining 'why things were so and not otherwise'.


What is central to the role of the sociologist is always his/her concept of society.
Theory and practice/ theory and methods always inter-linked.
The social ontology grounding the theory also shapes the practical and moral role of the sociologist.


Lecture 4

Week 5

Lecture Title: The Sociologist as Scientist : Durkheim and Positivism

Durkheim's whole charter for Sociology depended on the idea of it being scientific.

1. He wanted a positivist science - dealing with external, observable, objective entities - and there could be no such science were it concerned with individuals & their subjectivity (which were inaccessible/unobservable/non-objective),or their individuality (this being unpredictable).

He challenges himself to give a positivist explanation, in strictly sociological terms of suicide - of that seemingly the most personal of human acts. SO,

(i) Durkheim differentiates the sociological task.
He separates our subject matter from individual people (we try to explain group regularities not individual unpredictabilities), (eg.the rush hour vs. when one person leaves the office).
EXPLANANDUM (the thing to be explained) is the social not the individual HENCE his injunction to'treat social facts as things'.

(ii) Explanations are social not psychological - ( never reductionist)
EXPLANANS (the factor which explains) is ALWAYS another external, observable, objective factor
HENCE his next injunction to 'explain one social fact by another'
'The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts preceding it' Rules, p.110.

THEREFORE: there are TWO SOCIAL FACTS, the EXPLANANDUM - the suicide rate (not our job to explain John's suicide) and the EXPLANANS -( here, the degree of social integration)

"When the individual has been eliminated, society alone remains. We must, then, seek the explanation of social life in the nature of society itself But it will be said that, since the only elements making up society are individuals , the first origins of sociological phenomena cannot but be psychological".

'A whole is not identical with the sum of its parts. It is something different, and its properties differ from those of its component parts society is not the mere sum of individuals. Rather the system is formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics. Of course, nothing collective can be produced if individual consciousness are not assumed; but this necessary condition is by itself insufficient. These consciousness must be combined in a certain way; social life results from this combination and is, consequently, explained by it. Rules, P.103 (my ital.)

What is the 'Social Fact' of suicide which is to be explained sociologically, NOT the fact of individual X's suicide (which is a psychological problem), BUT the suicide rate of a country/region. He observed from official statistics that national SUICIDE RATES remained constant - giving rise to constant differences between countries and their rates.

This indicated to him that each society had a collective inclination towards suicide:-
l External to the individual and inexplicable individual terms because the constant rate went on over generations (if causes were individual, then rates would be variable).

l Constraining upon individuals because there wouldn't be these regularities unless the way in which the individual was enmeshed in society's institutions either protected them from suicide or precipitated them towards suicide.

2. So he proceeds to TREAT SOCIAL FACTS AS THINGS.

The suicide rate is an objective thing ( NOTE many criticisms that official statistics are social constructs with a lot of individual psychology built into them).

His aim is to explain this THING and see whether it has a Sociological explanation.
l tests previous hypotheses (statistically), (eg mental illness exp: No, women have more mental illness, but only represent 20% of suicide in France # genetic factors, race,: no, finds more variation within a race than between them # climatic factors: No, no clear North/South differences.

Then considered he had eliminated potential non-sociological causes, so the cause must be sociological. BUT argument by elimination can never be complete. It establishes that something doesn't explain a phenomenon, but cannot establish that some particular other kind of thing does.

3 He takes this as the green light to explain suicide sociologically, to follow up his injunction "explain one social FACT only by another SOCIAL FACT".

So sought other social factors closely associated with Suicide Rates and discovered 3 main connections.

(a) More Protestant that Catholic Suicides: not just due to national differences because in Germany /Switzerland it was characteristic of Catholic/Protestant provinces too. Since both Churches condemn suicide suicide - then it must be something to do with the social organisation of them which enmeshes people differently. He suggests Protestants are more free than Catholics: more volatile tradition (Reformation); more alone before God.

Concludes Protestants are less enmeshed in a 'collective conscience', transcending all members than are Catholics. BUT,

(1) How can one tell? Can't ask psychological questions of individuals .e.g. 'Do you feel alone/insecure in your church'
Because to him individual responses tell nothing about SOCIAL FACTS

(2) So the investigator posits this enfolding from membership (What a church does to its members) BUT doesn't membership have to mean something to members before it can have any effect (eg. all the baptised are considered Catholics. The non-practising may never go near a church - so how can they be 'enmeshed'. Has the psychology really been eliminated - and if not, wouldn't those to whom their religion meant most take the dogma most seriously?).

As a positivist Durkheim would reply - there is a social fact to be explained (the Catholic/Protestant difference): non-positivists would respond that attention to subjective meanings would explain this, plus why some Catholics do commit suicide and most Protestants don't.

(b) Thinks his sociological case much strengthened by discoveries about the family and suicide.

Talks here of a 'co-efficient of preservation' (ratio between suicide rates of different groups). Married have higher 'co-efficient of preservation' than unmarried. Widowed have higher 'co-efficient of preservation' than unmarried.

Co-efficient of preservation of the married is largely a function of having children (for widowers with children commit less suicides than married childless men). Co-efficient of preservation rises with family size.

The family integrates one - BUT can one talk about people being objectively integrated without making the psychological assumption that having a family/responsibilities makes people feel integrated? We can walk out...we can imagine a scenario of postponement - but it entails subjectivity AND if feelings are let in then shouldn't we examine human subjectivity properly (i.e including those driven to suicide by family - after all we know most homicides are domestic, so shouldn't extrapolate preservation too readily from the fact of the FAMILY).

(c) Durkheim feels he is strengthening his case further when finds suicide rate also rises with economic fluctuations. Suicide rate falls with political crises (war).

Points him to social integration via 'collective conscience' as the explanation.

Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in domestic society
Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in religious society
Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration in political society

OVERALL, ( i.e explaining one social fact by another),

THAT 'Suicide is inversely related to the degree of social integration'


He produces a sociological classification of suicide TYPES based on the notion of an optimal degree of social integration (not just the more integrated, the better)
'Only in so far as the effective causes differ can there be different types of suicide. For each to have its own nature it must also have special conditions of existence. The same antecedent cannot sometimes produce one result and sometimes another, for, if so, the differences of the second from the first would itself be without cause, which would contradict the principle of causality'.Suicide, 146

EGOTISTICAL a consequence of social disintegration : the individual asserts his/her goals as more important that those of society (as in Protestantism).

ALTRUISTIC a consequence of over integration : - impelled by group solidarity the individual under-values self relative to society (eg Army, Captain Oates)

ANOMIC consequence of social mal-integration where sudden shifts destroy connections between essential means and ends, (Wall Street crash). Divorce.

This is how society does something to people, but doesn't the very coining of these types imply something about the psychology of those who make the suicidal response (and not all do!).

5. Finally, feeling has vindicated his sociology, he passes on to reflect on Modernity

In the last 50 years, statistics show suicide rates are 3/4/5 times higher. Ssince suicide rates reflect the collective conscience, which in turn mirrors the social structure, this indicates a pathology to Durkheim.

It is pathological because health is defined as the perfect adaptation of an organism to its environment: pathologies are things which interfere with the normal functioning of society BUT in an organism we know what ill-health is (whereas in society normality is defined as the average: deviations from the norm represent pathologies)

This slides from the statistically normal to what is socially normal (desirable). We now have Durkheim's own human subjectivity entering in! (Morally condoning the statistical as normal ). After all on this argument a drop in the suicide rate would be 'pathological' too.


The political body too big//family has been robbed of too many functions//religion is too unmodern to restore the balance and restore integration.

Suggests 'occupational corporations' to reduce egotistical and some anomic suicide, plus making marriage more indissoluble (altruistic suicide not a problem of modernity!)

So, we come full circle back to Comte's positivism where sociology does not just explain - but prescribes for society - the sociologist as High Priest who know better than society's members what is good for them.


Lecture 5

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Lecture 6

Week 7


 Weber: The Sociologist who interprets and understands

1. Weber’s starting point. 

Insisted that the study of society must be unlike natural science (more like history) because it has to take account of the SUBJECTIVITY of its subject matter
(i.e. the MEANINGS of human beings)

BUT he did not want sociology just to become another kind of hermeneutics (that is, confined to understanding) NOR did he think that interpersonal understanding = empathy.
INSTEAD he sought to bridge meaning and causality.

So, the task he set himself was
- the marriage of interpretative understanding of the subjective states of knowing subjects + causal explanations which were not positivistic Þ this would not give rise to ‘laws’ (which could be generalised from one case to another) but to explanations of why things were ‘so and not otherwise’

THUS “Sociology... is a science which attempts the interpretative understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at causal explanation of its course and effects’ Economy and Society , New York, 1968, p 88. (all quotes from here)
NOTE the two elements in this - which are to be combined in his methodology.
(His aim is to bridge ‘insider’ & and ‘outsider’ accounts)

2. Sociological investigation begins from the interpretation of action

What is ‘action’?
Action (as opposed to behaviour) is defined by virtue of the subjective meaning associated to it by the acting individual/s. It is ‘social action’ if it takes into account other people.

This can take plcae in two ways: EITHER it is ‘social’ in taking other people into account as means (e.g. plan a holiday on the assumption that your parents will pay), OR as ends (e.g. cancel your holiday to look after a sick parent).

Much action is ‘social’ - it includes orientations to others (past, present or expected - known or anonymous) - e.g. when we use money (means), we assume unknown others are willing to accept it in exchange; when we boycott a country’s goods (anti-apartheid) we hope there will be unknown beneficiaries (ends).
This meaningful orientation to others distinguishes ‘social action’; from ‘behaviour’ - (an example. of behaviour is colliding cyclists : it can be explained by velocity & direction, like a natural event, which it is)
Behaviour concerns our relations with the non-social - i.e. inanimate objects or solitary prayer (2 of the examples Weber himself gives – there are many more).

THUS sociological investigations begin with the (subjective) question about what motivates the actors. This leads to :-


3. Investigative procedures alien to positivist sociology

FIRSTLY, How can we understand others’ meanings and validate our interpretations of them?

(a) Often ‘interpretative understanding’ (Verstehen ) has wrongly been confused with EMPATHY.
Instead to Weber, ‘It is a great help to be able to put oneself imaginatively in the place of the actor and thus sympathetically to participate in his experiences, but this is not an essential condition of meaningful interpretation’, p. 90.

This is because sometimes empathy is quite impossible - we each have a limited ‘empathetic register’ - Weber mentions his own; that he can’t empathise with mystical experiences, great charitable zeal, rationalistic fanaticism. Think of your own list.

THEN ‘we must be content with a purely intellectual understanding of such values’ p.91. What is this?
There are two denotations of ‘sinn’ (= ‘meaning’ in German):-
Meaning 1 = actual subjective states of mind (my meaning in my head)
Meaning 2 = cultural ‘items’ which have meaning to people (2+2 = 4// X is incompatible with Y, a bachelor cannot be a married man// systems of religious beliefs).
HERE we draw on our (rational) cultural understandings, especially of those items or elements into which we ourselves cannot enter. E.g. Your can rationally understand ‘Mein Kampf’, without being a Fascist.

(b) Empathy is also limited, because most of the time the sociologist is dealing with actors who (i) are not discursively aware of their meanings and (ii) they themselves are synthesising common cultural meanings through manipulating symbol systems.

FOR ‘In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to ‘be aware’ of it in a vague sense than ‘to know’ what he is doing or be explicitly self-conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit’ p.111-2.
THUS by ref. to common/commonly known CULTURE, the investigator provisionally attributes a subjective meaning to the actor/s.

Moreover, the investigator also has to introduce STRUCTURE to make a sensible interpretation.
This involves placing the action in question in its context in order to understand it.
E.g. we know what someone is doing in writing 2 + 2 = 4, but understanding their motivation in doing it consists in “placing the act in an intelligible and more inclusive context of meaning” -teaching a child// balancing a ledger// explaining Weber to you - all of which imply structures, namely schools, businesses and universities.

BUT, this is not just the current structural context - for the understanding of motives
“requires for its success an historical investigation of the conditions under which they came into being” p.5.

THUS, these (dead) actors (e.g. the first capitalists, ancient prophets etc.) are examined in their historical context (structural and cultural) to make sense of their interpretations - for their context constrains them as well as being changed by them. (E.g. early capitalists faced religion (part of culture) and a resource distribution (part of structure) - which were not of their making).

4. What does (the stage of) interpretative understanding yield?

For individuals, basically a ‘plausible account’ (adequacy at the level of meaning).
For anonymous actors (like early entrepreneurs) - it generates Ideal Types of motives (an accentuation of those elements considered most important to them)

What is the status of these interpretations of others’ motives ?
Weber is cautious:-
“Every interpretation attempts to attain clarity and certainty, but no matter how clear an interpretation as such appears to be from the point of view of meaning, it cannot on this account alone claim to be the causally valid interpretation. On this level it must remain only a peculiarly plausible hypothesis” p.96-7.

As a hypothesis it has to be checked out, in a different way : the investigator’s own certainty about getting a correct understanding is always fallible :-
“It is unfortunately by no means the case that the actual likelihood of the occurrence of a given course of overt action is always directly proportionate to the clarity of subjective interpretation” p.100.

5. Supplementing ‘interpretative understanding’ with causal analysis

This is supplemented in two ways (to give causal adequacy - in addition).
(a) The non-subjective parts of the context have to be reintroduced, i.e.,
“In all the sciences of human action, account must be taken of processes and phenomena which are devoid of subjective meaning, in the role of stimuli, results, favouring or hindering circumstances”
e.g. capitalist development has material preconditions (monetary economy etc.): so without ‘primitive capital accumulation’, an intention to develop factory production will lead nowhere.

(b) But even if these are introduced, the ‘interpretation’ of motives remains a hypothesis - how can it be substantiated?

He gives the example of coming across a man chopping wood - think up the many plausible motives he can have for doing so. These are our hypotheses.
How can we decide between them : think of the various methods......ask him ? watch him? follow him? ask about him?
These may need to be used in combination.
NOTE even if we are satisfied at this causal level, we have only explained his action on this one occasion - it is not a general law, for him on other occasions or for wood choppers in general. These explanations are therefore unlike natural science ones.

What of the Ideal Types of collective/anonymous/dead groups of actors, where the combination of methods is much more difficult?

Weber advocates the ‘comparative method’.
So, having his ‘plausible hypothesis’ about Calvinism and Capitalism, he extends this to a study of 3 other world religions and their ‘economic ethos’.
He finds ‘supportive evidence’ from the other-worldly nature of Hinduism and Confucianism (no capitalism, even though material conditions were there, the ideas were not propitious).
Also from Judaism, where the lack of structural or cultural traditionalism allowed for innovative ideas - the origins of rationality, indispensable later to capitalism when the material conditions were present.
HOWEVER, ‘the comparative method’ is not like a science lab: we cannot hold constant everything other than the factors we want to investigate.


Note the differences from natural science :-

- Weber does not say he has proved the connection - only given support to it.

- The explanation remains a ‘one off’. If true, it is the case for these societies (but not, say, for late Japanese industrialisation).

- Sociology’s contribution remains modest, tentative, open to revision: it does not supply the building blocks for grand science or social engineering.


Lecture 7

Week 9

Lecture Title: Marx and a Sociology of Commitment

Marx considered Social Theory to be scientific, but he meant something different from Durkheim’s Positivism (the quest for naturalistic laws) and from Weber’s anti-naturalistic quest for Interpretative Understanding.

Marx wrote of wanting to give a ‘scientific basis’ to socialism, but he did not conflate ‘science’ with ‘commitment’. (That was Engels doing - he wrote triumphalistically, ‘[With Marx] socialism became a science. The main thing now was to work out all its details and relations’. Preface to his Anti-Dühring)

Marx himself does not confuse the two:-

  • He saw socialism as a political movement, with which his theory should be engaged. He wrote of Communists as ‘the theorists of the working class’, Poverty of Philosophy
    But, it was through empirical, historical and comparative study that he proposed to develop statements about the lengthy conditions leading towards it - and its future development
  • Although committed (in their objective and substance), these theoretical propositions were to be of scientific status. That is, distinct from utopianism or the doctrinaire - which would have precluded such a status.
  • Instead, he sought a ‘unity of science’ - which would not mimic natural science (like positivism) nor endorse anti-naturalism (that collapsed into hermeneutics).

This ‘unity’ would be broad enough to recognise that our subject matter was conscious human beings, rather than inert matter, but would also be able to advance propositions about social formations, their structuring and their succession. Thus he can be see as ‘mid-way’ between Durkheim and Weber

‘Natural science will one day incorporate the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science’. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844)

The Nature of his propositions

1. These are neither ‘historicist’ nor ‘holist’ - as his critics have often claimed.
He distinguishes himself from both, especially in the German form of a necessary historical trajectory, which is independent of people’s action.

‘History does nothing; it does not posses immense riches’, it ‘does not fight battles ... It is men, real living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles.... History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends’. Holy Family, 1845)

2. However, in studying history, he advocates always starting from the ‘material base’, that is how people obtain their means of material subsistence.

‘The first fact to be established, therefore, is the physical constitution of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of Nature. ... All historiography must begin from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history by men’s activity’. German Ideology 1845-6)

3. But ‘society is not just an aggregate of individuals’ (which was part of Weber’s methodological charter - hence understand the meanings of individual people, or, historically, those of ‘typical individuals’, such as early capitalists - as he does in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

To Marx, society is never an aggregate and its properties are not confined to those which people posses. Society ‘is the sum of the relations in which these individuals stand to one another’. Grundrisse 1857).

Today we would say that Society had ‘emergent properties’ - properties of its own kind, which are not reducible to those of individuals and yet emerge from the interactions of people.

What we must study, at any given time/place is the process of this emergence.

‘Empirical observation must, in each separate instance, bring our empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political structure with production. The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life processes of definite individuals’. German Ideology.

Thus, contra some of his vulgarisers, there was no template that automatically ‘told’ the investigator about the patterning of the social structure in relation to the economic base (production) in advance - it had to be studied, in its own right.

4. What are these emergent properties?

Could illustrate this from the ‘division of labour’, but will take his own central example of ‘capital’.

In themselves, money and commodities are not capital - they have to be transformed into it and this is a relational matter between two groups of people, with differential access to society’s scarce resources:-

‘On the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, and means of subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of the values they possess, by buying other people’s labour power; on the other hand, free labourers, the sellers of their own labour power ... With this polarisation ... the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are given’. Capital (Vol. 1) 1867.

Capital, then, is a social product of the collectivity, but its own properties and powers then constrain all those whose actions contributed to its emergence (capitalists included).

Constraints include things like the falling law of profits and wages - the centralisation of capital into ‘monopoly capitalism, the progressive immiseration of the workers, ideological mystification, and alienation in its three forms.

5. Thus history is moving - there is nothing static about social structures, although some prove relatively enduring.(i.e. no preferred state of ‘health’)

Therefore, each generation finds already in existence, and thus has to take as given (that is, cope with/contend with) two main emergent properties - the forces of production and the relations of production (together with the institutions loosely related to them)
This is because these confront them as constraints (and, for some, enablements).
We, as actors, can help to change them:-
(a) by the transformation of ‘classes in themselves’ to ‘classes for themselves’ followed by collective action.
(b) as intellectuals, like himself, who can act as ‘midwives’ to social transformation, through their writings.

THUS Social Theory must never be atemporal - there is no question of searching for ‘Newtonian laws’ which work for all time, because society itself changes.

In seeking to explain a given epoch, we should avoid two things.
(i) The ‘illusion of that epoch’ - the accounts given by contemporary agents that they are moved by ‘political’ or ‘religious’ concerns. This would be to erroneously accept their conceptions as the sole determining force at work.

(ii) The trap of eternity - that what we produce are timeless natural laws
E.g. Marx is ironic about the classical economists:-
‘There has been history, but there is no longer any history. There has been history, because there were feudal institutions, and entirely different from those in bourgeois society, which latter, nonetheless, the economists wish to present as natural and therefore eternal’.
Poverty of Philosophy

6. The place of Contradictions in producing Social Transformation

Marx locates a key process of structural change at the macro-level, namely contradiction between the forces and the relations of production.

This is an emergent, objective incompatibility, which is distinct from class antagonism and social conflict.

Contradictions condition conflict, but without effective collective action, contradictions can go on and those who benefit from the status quo may find means of containing them - there is no necessity of revolution.

‘At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production come into conflict with the existing relations of production ... From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then occurs a period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed’
‘Preface’ to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy


- Marx stated that his theory was temporal - that means a nineteenth century theory about the nineteenth century.
Debates raged over whether or not he was right for then - and why his predictions had not worked where they were supposed to work (Britain)

- One powerful neo-Marxist strand has questioned (e.g. Gramsci) whether there are no other processes of change. Do all radically transformative conflicts have to start between the forces and the relations of production, or can some be located first in the ‘superstructure’ itself? (political and cultural Marxists)

- As Sociologists, many of us have found his notions of ‘emergent properties’ (which he did not call this) to be indispensable. They provide a source of ‘social influences’ which derive from people and only have any effect through people, which are more satisfactory than Durkheim’s ‘external social facts’

Similarly the key notion of ‘contradictions’ between different ‘parts’ of society
(as distinct from social conflict) has been detached from the economy alone and used to explain points of tension, or fault lines along which society (or part of it can split).
However, for the fault line to be split open, this requires that this lack of ‘systems integration’ is exploited by collective action - that is, a lack of ‘social integration’ must accompany it. (See David Lockwood, ‘Social Integration and System Integration’ in Zollschan and Hirsh, Eds., Explorations in Social Change, 1964.



Lecture 8

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Lecture 9

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Lecture 10

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Lecture 11

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Lecture 12

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Please consult the course outline for reading lists, week by week course structure and assessment requirements.