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Week 15 lecture

Lecture (Week 15) (Margaret Archer)

Theory and Methods in Social Stratification

We have stressed throughout that `theory' and `methods' cannot be kept separate:

BECAUSE every way of conceptualising social reality is allied to ways of investigating it AND every form of investigation necessarily makes theoretical assumptions, though these may be implicit)

During Term 2 we have taken social stratification as the issue around which to discuss this.

Today we examine the debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas, as two thinkers/analysts who are fully aware that their different conceptions of social reality (their ontologies of social stratification), profoundly influence how they investigate it.

The starting point of their debate is the (seemingly) concrete problem - "Who are the Ruling Class" ?

Immediately this raises one of the central problems of Sociology, i.e. can society (or any part of it) be conceptualised in purely individual terms and investigated as an aggregate, via the dispositions and interactions of individuals (Methodological Individualism)?

OR are entities like the `ruling class' not just made up of powerful individuals, but entail social factors (institutional relationships) which are irreducible to properties of people, but indispensable to how something like the `ruling class' works (Metholological Collectivism and Realism) ?

Miliband is close to the traditional Methodological Individualist position

Poulantzas to the classical Methodological Collectivist position

Methodological Individualism

References are to J.W.N.Watkins `Historical explanation in social sciences' (M.I.) versus Maurice Mandelbaum `Societal Facts' (M.C) in John O'Neill (ed), Modes of Individualism and Collectivism, London,1973.

The basic social ontology of the Methodological Individualist is that " the ultimate constituents of the social world are individual people who act more or less appropriately in the light of their dispositions and understanding of their situation. Every complex social situation, institution or event is the result of a prior configuration of individuals, their dispositions, situations, beliefs and physical resources and environment" (Watkins).

THEN, methodologically,

"we shall not have arrived at rock-bottom explanations of [..] large-scale phenomena until we have deduced an account of them from statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources and interactions of individuals" (Watkins, p. 270-1)

Methodological Individualism, as an approach is:

· positivist: people are directly observable - examine who they are and what they do

· reductionist: some things may look like non-people (e.g. the State, Army or a business corporation), but they must be reduced to a series of statements about people (e.g. the Army is just the plural of soldier).

· dispositional: there is no social trend which exists which could not be reversed by those there present provided they had the information and the will - so examine what they think and want.

M.I. in Miliband's approach to `who is the ruling class'

1. Positivist - he moves directly to study `Who are its members'.

(NOTE theoretical assumption that it is an aggregate; therefore study which people constitute it).

Takes up American studies of `plural elites' (which denied there was one over-arching ruling class) and shows they do not preclude its existence.

He demonstrates this by showing their personal connections - same class origins, attending same type of schools, inter-marriage, chains of interlocking directorships of firms and connections with those in high positions in government bureaucracy, Army, Judiciary etc.)

2. Reductionist - thus, social classes are observable groups of people whose effect (class domination) is reducible to inter-personal relations.

Those things that look like non-people (the State or Govovernment bureaucracy) are similarly reducible to inter-personal relations between groups of individuals who make up such institutions.

3. Dispositional - Many had argued that the idea of an enduring ruling class ended with the separation of ownership and control and the rise of a group of managers (the so-called Managerial Revolution), who were not owners, but salaried professionals, and who no longer had the profit motive as their aim.

Since traditionally, the capitalist Ruling Class was (dispositionally) defined by their profit motive, yet this no longer characterised Company Directors (who as non-owners did not stand to gain), it was argued that the Ruling Class no longer existed.

Miliband reverses the argument: to him, managers do seek profit because this is how capitalism works and their own interests depend upon it working. THEREFORE they share the same dispositions and interests as the owners and THUS constitute one of the economic elites making up the Ruling Class.

Methodological Collectivism/Realism - Objections

The basic social ontology of the Collectivist is the `societal facts are as ultimate as psychological facts' (Mandelbaum) and that those concepts which refer to society's form of organisation cannot be reduced to concepts which only refer to the thoughts and actions of individuals (e.g. `mass production', `the factory',' the corporation' or `the market')

Thus, methodologically, the aim is to:

    `show that one cannot understand the actions of human beings as members of society unless one assumes there is a group of facts which I shall term "societal facts"' (Mandelbaum, p. 223f. above)

He gives the example of cashing a cheque which cannot even be described without reference to societal facts like `deposit accounts', `role of cashier' or `banking system'.

THUS, the approach is :

· anti-positivist: `concrete' facts about people are insufficient: we also need to introduce non-observable features of their social context ( e.g. `market competition', `exchange rates', `inflation' etc.) to understand what they do.

· anti-reductionist : for the above examples cannot be reduced to statements about `people'. (e.g. inflation means that those on fixed incomes, like pensioners, can objectively buy less. But without reference to inflation itself, we cannot understand why they are driven to actions like trading-off heating against eating)

· non-dispositional: a system of production like capitalism does not depend upon greedy capitalists driven by a lust for gain (Personal greed is not the motor of capitalism). Instead, what is important is the different position of different groups towards production and the ownership of the means of production - where profit is the necessary condition for remaining in business.

Remaining `competitive', to avoid going under, does not reduce to subjective greediness.

Methodological Collectivism in Poulantzas's approach to the Ruling Class

· Anti-positivist : Instead of investigating the Ruling Class via its personal membership, Poulantzas wants to understand Social Classes as objective structures. Their relations are not inter-personal ones, but are part of an objective system of regular connections (between positions, interests and resources, i.e. things which are not `people')

THEREFORE to do what Miliband does and to describe them as individuals united by personal ties, is to miss half of the issue by `personalising it' - the structural half.

Their common class origins (and personal ties stemming from it) recede into the background, FOR what really unifies them is their class position whose objective function is to realise the role of the State in supporting capitalism.

· Anti-reductionist : these relationships between positions (making up State institutions) means that capitalism cannot be reduced to the relations between individual people.

Sometimes the State (its institutional apparatuses) supports capitalism repressively (through the police, army etc.) and also ideologically (through the family, Church, education, media etc.).

Sometimes one form of support is more important than another.

NOW, Miliband would have to say that this was due to the predominance of some particular elite (e.g. domination of the State by tightly knit military families).

INSTEAD, Poulantzas argues that matters may be better understood the other way around - that who (which people) from the Ruling Class participate most forcefully in the State (apparatuses) is not the cause but the effect of institutional relationships (e.g. as 20th century education becomes more important than the Church for legitimation, this is NOT because teachers are more powerful than the clergy - but because the importance of these two institutions has been reversed)

· Non-dispositional - Poulantzas goes to the opposite extreme to Miliband. If to Miliband personal motivation was crucial, then Poulantzas's emphasis on `objective relations' turns those who are most important to the State's role, at any given time, into marionettes.

They execute their `role requirements' which service the system and their personal motives (like greed) are unimportant compared with carrying out the obligations attached to their positions.


THUS to Miliband the Ruling Class is a matter of investigating particular people with particular aims.

TO Poulantzas the Ruling Class is a matter of investigating a set of positions and the requirements associated with holding them - NOT with their holders.

This would lead to very different investigations of `social stratification' - one concerned with (powerful) individual members and the other with the impersonal array of (powerful) positions.