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A brief review of major theorists in the field of sociology

A Brief Review of Major Theorists in the Field of Sociology

Discuss the theories of Marx, Weber, Spencer, Durkheim, and Cooley and show how they relate to the Sociological Perspective. Be sure to identify each as a functional, conflict, or interactionist thinker as it relates to the discipline of sociology.

In order to obtain a fundamentally structural understanding of Sociology, one

must first acquire a brief look into a number of notable theorists in the field. This essay

will attempt to help the reader identify, examine, and relate the theories and perspectives

of Marx, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, and Cooley. In addition, this essay will identify key

terms and concepts essential to the understanding of sociological perspectives and how

they are used.

Arguably one of the most profound and influential theorists of the 19th century,

Karl Marx began his work as a humanist and therefore concentrated his efforts towards

the struggles of humanity. Through a macro-sociological viewpoint, a perspective that

allows an individual to examine society as a whole by means of observing broad social

patterns, Marx was able to identify a common thread within all societies. This common

thread became the foundation for his most popular theories. Marx observed that through

out time societies have basically been a collection of class struggles between those who

own the means of producing goods and those who do not. This premise can be found in a

number of societies. Marx then applied an economical deterministic view to the construct

of societies and coined the term Social Superstructure. According to Marx’s theory, it is

the complex reciprocal relationship between a society’s institutions and ideologies and

the economic base of that society that make up the Social Superstructure. The economic

base is defined by its class structure and means of producing wealth. The relationship is

reciprocal because once the economic base has reached a maximum level of efficiency

while at the same time influencing instability within the Super Structure, a revolutionary

mobilization caused by class conflict begins to uproot the economic base. In time, a new

class order replaces the existing one and in the process acquires the various useful

features of the old order in an attempt to perfect itself. However perpetual the underlying

principle of Marx’s theory may seem, it was Marx’s belief that ultimately the struggle for

a more humanely economic world would end at what he believed to be the "highest

stage" of society, communism. Most of Marx’s theory follows the basic principle known

as the conflict perspective; the notion that society and the progress of society is a dynamic

matrix of class conflict and flux maintained through force and coercion. Unfortunately,

most of Marx’s work was considered politically dangerous and was refuted by many of

his contemporaries. Even though a handful of Marx’s predictions and specific theories

have been proven to be considerably outdated, his influence can still be felt. More

specifically, how they pertain to the conflict perspective and the ideas that continue to

filter through that viewpoint.

In contrast to Marx’s views through the conflict perspective, Herbert Spencer

applied a more structurally stable approach to observing social patterns known as

Functionalism. Although Functionalists and Conflict Theorists share an overall macro-

sociological insight on societies, the results of their individual findings through those

perspectives differ entirely. It is the Functionalist’s theoretical belief that society is not in

a state of constant flux. Rather, they view society as a stable integration of people

socialized to perform societal functions. Spencer made the analogy that society resembled

greatly to a biological entity. Furthermore, Spencer went on to compare the history of

social development with the views of a contemporary biologist by the name of Darwin,

but more specifically to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It was Spencer’s belief that

societies would naturally dispose of "unfit" social patterns. Consequently, this would

reinforce "fit" social patterns in a naturally progressive manner that would ultimately

benefit society. This method of understanding social patterns is termed Social Darwinism.

One can find a good portion of Spencer’s theories applied towards arguments concerning

the economic freedoms of capitalism and the role that governments may have in

regulating those freedoms. Spencer conceived the notion that the least amount of

government intervention and restrictions placed on society’s economy and its proponents

would ultimately create a higher amount of prosperity for that society. A compelling

example of Spencer’s theory can be found in a comparison between regions that enjoy a

more "free economy" and those who do not. According to a study provided by the Fraser

Institute in 1999, countries with consistently high levels of economic freedom perform far

better, both financially and non-financially, than those with low levels of economic

freedom. These "economically free" regions maintain higher numbers in total values of

goods and services produced annually, higher economic growth rates, and higher ages of

life expectancy. One could conclude then that governments which provide for a more

economically free state in turn provide the foundation necessary for a higher standard of

living and increased economic growth, just as Spencer did one hundred years ago. In

contrast to these findings, a possible interpretation of Spencer’s theories through the

conflict perspective might suggest that Spencer’s natural talent of observation, in an

attempt to understand society, has done nothing more than fuel the driving force behind

an oppressing postindustrial-capitalistic ideology, maintaining a more complex division

of classes. The same interpretation could then lead to the conclusion that this

functionalistic view of society that Spencer embraces is nothing more than a cloak,

disguising a massive amount of destructive conformism and conflict with in modern

societies on a global scale. These, of course, are matters of opinion and warrant the need

for further study and debate.

In comparison to Spencer’s basic theoretical understandings, Émile Durkheim also

viewed society through a functionalist perspective. However, Durkheim concentrated on

utilizing the more positive aspects of Functionalism to explore social integrations of

societies and how these societies endure over time. In his findings, Durkheim was able to

identify a common bond with all societies, which he termed Social Solidarity. It was

Durkheim’s belief that there were two types of Social Solidarity; Mechanical Solidarity

and Organic Solidarity. Durkheim applied Mechanical Solidarity to early forms of

society. For example, hunting and gathering societies, as well as agrarian societies were

believed to be mechanical in the sense that they were unified through a lack of diversity.

Durkheim pointed out that their engagement in common tasks, such as hunting for food

and cultivating, was the basis for their social bonds. Organic Solidarity was then stapled

to more contemporary societies based on their large populations and intricate divisions of

labor. Contrary to its counterpart, Organic Solidarity is achieved through a diverse set of

social integrations. No single person is self-sufficient. In fact, each relies on the stable

social integration of specialized tasks with others in order to survive. One of Durkheim’s

more formilliar examples of Social Solidarity is illustrated in his book Suicide. It was

through an exacting analysis of population data and suicide rates that Durkheim

determined that those who were deeply woven within the social bonds of a society were

less likely to commit suicide. This resulted in the observation of an abundance of suicides

by those who were detached from society’s web of bonds and interactions. The idea that

social factors are the prevalent reasons behind suicide refuted earlier notions of

psychological, biological, and climactic determining factors. It is the opinion of some that

Durkheim managed to succeed where Spencer failed in applying the Functionalist

Perspective in a beneficial manner towards social change. This informal attitude stems

from the possible direct implications of Durkheim’s work towards a more humane future,

regarding life expectancy; in contrast to the indirect results of the possible implications of

Spencer’s theories, in regards to life expectancy.

In comparison to the aforementioned functionalists, Max Weber applied a slightly

different approach to the understanding of social behaviors through the Functional

Perspective. Although mostly forming a opinion through macro-sociological means,

Weber also stressed the importance of understanding social interactions through the eyes

of the individual. For this, Weber applied the term Verstehen. Verstehen is the German

word meaning "insight" or "understanding". Weber was also a strong believer in

complete objectivity in terms of social scientific research through neutrality and moral

indifference. He referred to this as a Value-Free Sociology. Using a combination of

Verstehen and Value-Free Sociology, Weber began to shed light on a number of

hypotheses ranging from the origins of capitalism to the basic principles of bureaucracy.

These are the theories that best express Weber as a Functional Thinker. Weber believed

that the spirit of capitalism was an indirect result of the rise of Calvinism within the

Protestant Religion and the regions they occupied. In Weber’s observations he pointed

out that not only did the two entities appear on the European scene roughly around the

same time, but that highly developed networks of capitalism were found only in

Protestant regions. Furthermore, he went on to identify the majority of early capitalists as

Protestants. However, Weber failed to examine other factors that may have contributed to

the rise of capitalism. For example, the flow of raw materials and goods from New World

settlements, slavery, and technical advances and innovations of that time period are just a

few of the arguments against his theory. Even so, his implications of indirect results,

formed by the actions of social institutions, remain theoretically important. Aside from

his refuted theories behind the spirit of capitalism, no one can deny Weber’s

extraordinary work in observing the structures of bureaucracy. In his model of an ideal

bureaucracy, Weber found 7 defining characteristics that outline a superior organizational

structure of relevant applications. Although, as unpopular as bureaucracies appear to most

social individuals, Weber pointed out how seemingly impossible life with out

bureaucracies would be. Of course, it is an opposing belief that bureaucracy is nothing

more than organizational inefficiency resulting in a collection of lost information and red-

tape maintained through capitalistic inequality. This is a view that some Conflict

Theorists share in an attempt to disprove the validity behind bureaucracies. Yet,

Proponents of the Weberian bureaucratic philosophy insist that Weber’s model of an ideal

bureaucracy is the most efficient form of structural organization. This is a debate that

could quite possibly prove endless.

Contrary to the viewpoints of both Functionalists and Conflict Theorists, Charles

Horton Cooley utilized the Interactionist Perspective. By observing behavior through

micro-sociological means, a viewpoint that focuses on intricate individual relationships

and behaviors, Cooley argued against the conventional notion that human nature was

biologically predetermined. It was Cooley’s belief that human nature was actually a self-

metamorphosis of the social interactions of individuals. Cooley titled his principle of

transformation The Looking Glass Self which can be categorized by three basic steps. The

first step is where the individual imagines how they may appear to others. The second

step to the process can be classified as a false judgmental view of how society may

perceive that initial assumption. The final step is the resulting feeling derived from those

assumptions. More simply stated, "we believe we are what we think people think we are".

Of course, Cooley was not suggesting we changed our overall self-conception with every

individual encounter. Cooley believed that the Looking Glass Self premise affects self-

image, which is a current view of one’s self. He said it is a layering of these varying self-

images that make up an individual’s self conception. Cooley’s theory almost takes on a

social-psychological approach to describing self-awareness. However, it remains

theoretically relevant to sociology as it relates to micro-sociology and its applications as


By examining the perspectives and theories of each of these sociologists, one can

begin to develop a high level of understanding in the foundations that underlie Sociology.

This understanding starts to take shape in a hand-full of relevant questions such as,

"Which is the best Sociological Perspective? Is there a best Sociological Perspective?

Why wouldn’t an integration of all three perspectives be more correct? Is that not the

most objective stance?" From this point an ideology begins to propel itself into a

perpetual evolutionary state of thought. A great number of opinions begin to transcend

into forms of more specific questions such as, "If it has been shown that the least amount

of government intervention in a capitalistic economy benefits society as a whole, then

why don’t all governments conform to a similar style of regulating economy? Could the

existence of unbridled capitalism promote a monopolization of economic power by a

private corporation and develop the beginnings of a revolution in political power? What

would the outcome be? Would it result in an extreme separation of class and power? Or,

would the abundance of wealth be so great that an equal, economically sound, global

integration would begin to form by means of an equally ethical and economically

beneficial distribution of labor, wealth, and knowledge? Would an increase in socially

global prosperity have a direct impact on natural resources through overpopulation?

Would we survive?" These questions are just a scratch on the surface, and once one

question is presented, a greater amount of new questions are formed to help answer it.

This chain of insightful curiosity is seemingly endless and could quite possibly continue

on and on with out any one answer. However, most of humanity evidently tends to

overlook the importance of these questions by way of conforming to popular perceptions

of success and societal norms. One could even go as far as to say, "most people just don’t

give a damn." Well, who is to say that even they are wrong? One might take into

consideration the cliché "Life is too short" when attempting to answer that.

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