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Political Sociology

Political Sociology

Social context of political power

Elite analysis

Macrosociology and political change

Political sociology and political theory


Two distinct but converging intellectual traditions are to be found in the theoretical and empirical writings of political sociology. Broadly conceived, political sociology is concerned with the social basis of power in all institutional sectors of society. In this tradition, political sociology deals with patterns of social stratification and their consequences in organized politics. It is one particular approach to the study of social organization and societal change. By contrast, in narrower terms, political sociology focuses on the organizational analysis of political groups and political leadership. In this perspective, the core of political sociology involves the study of both formal and informal party organization, with its linkages to the governmental bureaucracy, the legal system, interest groups, and the electorate at large. This approach is an expression of an institutional or organizational point of view.

As societies strive to become modernized and as the role of formally organized political parties becomes more and more dominant, it appears difficult to make a sharp distinction between the social stratification and the institutional approaches to political sociology. Nevertheless, these perspectives assume persistently different conceptions about the political process and are reflections of the basic writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber, respectively, both of whom have deeply influenced the emergence of a sociology of politics.

Conceptions of the political process. From the formulations of Karl Marx has come the pervasive view that class conflict and social stratification derive from economic factors or from the social relations generated by the mode of production. But Marx’s fundamental contribution is not limited to or even dependent upon the orientation that political behavior is an expression of economic interests. To the contrary, his essential contribution was that he made the study of political sociology equivalent to the study of societal structure, or macrosociology, as it has come to be called. Marx’s view that the political system derives from the pattern of social stratification, rather than his specific emphasis on the primacy of economic factors in fashioning social relations, has been a dominant theme in the development of an empirical analysis of politics.

Nevertheless, such an orientation has been criticized, both by political scientists and by sociologists, because it reduces political events to a social by-product and fails to consider the consequences of differing types of political institutions on societal change. The social stratification view of politics has been described as a form of sociological reductionism that has inherent limitations because of the institutional and cultural factors which are excluded. The economic determinist view of social stratification is also seen as a barrier to comparative analysis because, by implication, it assumes the universality of a historical pattern of industrialism which holds, at the most, for western Europe and does not apply to the United States. Moreover, it is inappropriate to an understanding of the developing nations, where new forms of political organization are crucial in conditioning economic growth.

It is from the writings of Weber that political sociologists received an intellectual impetus for a more autonomous and more institutional view of politics. As a sociologist, Weber adopted a mode of reasoning which converged with that of Marx, in that he held a comprehensive view of social structure as a basis for analyzing politics. However, he saw social stratification as encompassing both economic relations and social status—prestige and honor. Furthermore, in his essay “Class, Status, Party” (1921), Weber postulated that the emergence of modern society implied a historical process of separation of political institutions from economic and social structure. Political institutions thereby emerge as worthy of direct sociological inquiry because they are an independent source of societal change.

These classic formulations of a social stratification view and an institutional view of politics have persisted despite their reformulation in the light of historical events and intellectual criticism. As the division of labor has become more complex, social stratification theories have been reformulated as “interest group” theories. Politics is still seen as derived from the struggle and conflicts of social strata, but these are viewed as more differentiated and as expressing the demands of specific interest groups—economic, professional, organizational, and even ethnic–religious. Social stratification theories of politics have been broadened to include the view that the governmental bureaucracy and the political party itself have emerged as new strata and thereby as elements in the theory of interest groups.

The institutional approach has come to be reformulated as a theory of “societal strain.” Political parties are seen as mechanisms for accommodating the strains that exist in modern society. Thus, the identification of elements that condition the effectiveness of political organization in performing this mediating function becomes a central topic of sociological inquiry. Because the political party penetrates all sectors of society and because quasipolitical institutions develop to assist the party in this mediating function, the strain theory of political sociology must extend widely beyond the internal structure of party organization. The political sociologist addresses himself to a range of overlapping empirical problems, whether he begins with a concern for underlying social stratification or with a direct investigation of political party organization.

Often differences between these theoretical positions involve differences of social values and conceptions of political philosophy. It is much too crude to label social stratification theories as radical and institutional theories as moderate in their orientations to political change. The most that can be stated is that some theorists who emphasize social stratification in their view of political sociology are also committed to comprehensive and ideological positions of political change. By contrast, the exponents of institutional thinking often tend to be concerned with pragmatic and incrementalist strategies of political change.

Social context of political power

At the empirical level, the bulk of research in political sociology has been directed toward the investigation of the social basis of political cleavage and consensus. These studies are mainly derived from a social stratification theory of politics and have been characterized by a progressive refinement of categories of analysis, from broad concern with class and occupation to much more refined measures of social status. Through analysis of voting statistics and sample surveys, political party affiliation and voting behavior of the mass electorate have been charted in a voluminous literature. In almost every nation with multiple-party election systems, sample surveys have been introduced. As a result, it is possible to describe voting behavior in considerable detail, in terms of such variables as occupation, income, education, status, ethnicity, and religion. Some surveys have come to include such data as membership in voluntary associations, exposure to the mass media, and contact with political party organization. Experimental work has been done on the relevance of personality and social-psychological variables for understanding voting patterns. These empirical researches have focused mainly on the correlates of national election decisions; they have not probed ongoing mass contact and involvement with administrative agencies of government, even though these contacts are very powerful factors in molding popular perspectives toward the political process. [SeeVoting.]

While this body of research is an extremely valuable source of descriptive and historical documentation, the findings permit only a limited contribution to the theoretical aspects of political sociology. In part, the difficulties are technical. National surveys based on a limited number of cases produce valid results for the society as a whole, but this approach does not produce sufficient data to isolate the political behavior of specific social and economic subgroups on the basis of a trend analysis. Moreover, comparisons between nations are difficult, if not impossible, to make with precision and clarity, because of the difficulty of developing appropriate standardized indexes.

The basic difficulty in empirical studies of consensus and cleavage is the failure to articulate sample surveys with theoretical issues. Most of these findings have been interpreted as supporting the view that advanced industrialism produces a “middle-majority” politics. “Middle-majority politics” implies the decline of class conflict between the working and middle classes and the emergence of a wider area of consensus among less differentiated social groupings. The gap between elements in the working class and the middle class is described as declining, and the political process is seen as transformed into a process of pragmatic bargaining over specific issues (see Lipset 1960). Middle-majority theories are primarily concerned with changes in occupational structure and do not focus on new sources of social tension and political conflict, such as those based on race, ethnicity, and religion. These stratification theories also underemphasize the impact of foreign affairs on the political orientations of the electorate.

While research studies document these trends in the transformation of social cleavage for some industrialized countries, especially the AngloAmerican countries and Scandinavia, the middlemajority theories have been criticized for failing to address themselves to the persistence of workingclass political behavior, especially in the Catholic countries of western Europe. It is also the case that the proliferation of middle-income occupations undoubtedly is transforming political orientations in the one-party systems of industrialized communist societies, such as that of the Soviet Union and those of eastern Europe. However, even in the absence of adequate empirical studies, it is clear that these political changes cannot be understood in terms of changes in social stratification alone. The development of middle-class occupations has very different implications in the developing nations, in that it contributes to discontinuities in the social hierarchy and thereby increases the potentialities for political instability.

Public opinion and ideology

Aggregate analysis of the social correlates of political participation and voting has been augmented by extensive research on mass public opinion and political ideology. While these research efforts also rely heavily on the use of the sample survey, they represent a refinement in the intellectual concerns of the social stratification approach, since they seek to explore the extent to which political attitudes not only reflect social structure but are influenced by party organization and the mass media. With the growth of representative institutions and the spread of both literacy and mass media of communication, the processes of government, in varying degree, become responsive to mass opinion. In turn, political parties and the administrative agencies of industrialized societies find it necessary to mobilize public opinion in order to achieve mass participation in social and economic institutions.

Systematic research into political opinion has produced a body of data which has considerable theoretical sophistication and which gives deeper meaning to studies of voting behavior and political participation. The techniques of opinion measurement enable the description of attitude structures toward specific political issues, political candidates, and political institutions. These studies focus on the detailed identification of those parts of the social structure which are characterized either by an absence of political orientations or by political orientations which are extremely weak or, at best, limited to very specific interests and issues. Political apathy has been found to be concentrated in lower-income groups and is a persistent aspect of highly industrialized societies, even with increasing levels of educational attainment. In one sense, the major findings drive home, to those political sociologists who have held an overpoliticalized view of man, a more realistic image that has long been recognized as valid by most political leaders. [SeePolitical participation.]

The concept of alienation has come to figure prominently in empirical research into public opinion. While this concept is fundamentally diffuse, it focuses on understanding the social and psychological processes which produce a withdrawal or disengagement from political interest and political participation. Political apathy appears to be a broader category, which includes both alienation and socially inherited disinterest in politics. Available research does not permit any trend statement about an increase or decrease in political alienation but instead highlights the social groups particularly vulnerable to alienation, such as youth, minorities, and intellectuals. These researches are most relevant when they focus on the process by which a person becomes alienated. They imply that alienation is not a “steady state” but an orientation which can gradually or suddenly be reversed and produce direct intervention, outside the normal channels of political action.

The study of mass opinion converges with the analysis of popular ideologies. A sharp distinction must be made beween the developing and the industrialized societies. In the developing nations the concept of ideology is probably not applicable among traditional and peasant groups, if by “ideology” is meant a comprehensive, rigidly held, and explicit political belief system or “world view” (this is not to overlook the obvious and pervasive religious “world views” held by the mass of the population). But the intellectuals in these nations who have been trained in Europe or have had prolonged contact with Western political thought are deeply involved in ideological controversy. Moreover, with the rapid expansion of literacy, the mass media, and urbanization, middle-class groups in these nations develop explicit political preferences. In turn, ideological alternatives enter mass political debates.

By contrast, in Western industrialized nations this process of ideological diffusion has passed, and there has been a growth of consensus about many domestic, economic, and welfare issues which reflect the changing character of social stratification. At the level of elite or mass opinion, it would be exaggerated to speak of an “end of ideology” (Bell 1960), and more appropriate to refer to a constriction or transformation of ideology. An ideological outlook is still found among elements of the most politically active and involved. However, the bulk of the population, including better-educated groups, do not hold such ideological orientations but, rather, hold generalized party preferences which express, at best, partial ideologies or pragmatic responses to changing political and social circumstances. Specific ideological components also emerge and persist with respect to religious, ethnic, and racial issues and conceptions of foreign affairs, and these can be held with great intensity by small segments of the population. Paradoxically, people whose orientation to politics is limited to specific issues—often issues which seem peripheral to the central questions of political decision making—tend to display ideological orientations. As a result, middlemajority politics in industrialized societies is compatible with the emergence of minority ideological orientations.

The formation of public opinion and ideological attitudes involves an interplay between a person’s social and psychological background and his participation in organizations and associations, as well as his exposure to the mass media. The term “political socialization” refers specifically to the whole process of internalization of political values, including the impact of the family and educational institutions. Under conditions of rapid social change, the relevance of initial socialization variables in explaining mass political perspectives must be amplified by an understanding of the impact of education and involvement in secondary associations. In fact, the continuing task of systematic empirical research, especially the sample survey, is to help clarify the complex processes involved in the dynamics of public and political opinion. [SeeSocialization.]

Empirical studies of election campaigns reveal the limited extent to which shifts in political attitudes and in actual voting behavior take place in a given campaign, although the amount of change is clearly crucial in determining the outcome. It is undoubtedly true and obvious, as the research literature implies, that long-term political socialization has greater impact than the consequences of exposure to mass media in a given political campaign. Nevertheless, the effects of the mass media —both long-term and short-term—and the impact of party organization are key variables in both maintaining and molding political opinions. This is particularly the case for persons who do not hold firm political beliefs or whose style of life is not rooted in memberships in voluntary associations. The influence of the mass media operates either through local activists and opinion leaders or by direct exposure. The notion of “the politics of mass society” (Kornhauser 1959) specifically refers to those processes which weaken community and associational affiliations and expose individuals to the pressures of party organization and the mass media. Paradoxically enough, there is every reason to believe that the impact of the mass media is greater in multiparty, democratic systems than in one-party systems, where distrust of the media is great and where it is recognized that the political regime relies more on organizational controls than on persuasion.

Elite analysis

Political sociologists who have come to consider politics as more than a reflection of social stratification and mass ideology have increased their concern with the analysis of those institutions and social systems through which the political process operates. The intellectual heritage of those political sociologists who seek to synthesize the stratification and the institutional approaches to political power is diverse. In particular, they have been strongly influenced by the “elite” theorists, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the variety of writers who can be called macrosociologists because they have taken total societies as the object of their analysis.

Gaetano Mosca (1896) and Robert Michels (1911) served as central figures in stimulating empirical studies of elites and the sociology of political organization. Their initial formulations were concerned with the bureaucratic features of party organization and had strong ideological evertones. Particularly in the case of Michels, the “iron law of oligarchy” was more a definition than it was an empirical generalization offered as a fundamental barrier to representative institutions.

As a result of the subsequent development of a more objective and detailed theory of organizations, political parties and their auxiliary institutions have been subject to various forms of empirical analysis. Typologies of party organization have been created, using such categories as “patronage,” “ideological,” “programmatic,” and the like, but these typologies were at best transitional to a more detailed study of the specific functions that political organizations and political elites perform. The writings of the University of Chicago empirical school of political research, which included Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, and Harold Gosnell and which in turn came to be called political behavior research, were crucial in transforming the study of party organizations (see, for example, Gosnell 1927; Lasswell 1936). The effect of this tradition has been to add to elite analysis an interest in the effectiveness of differing types of party organization on the performance of such activities as the recruitment of new leaders, the posing of political alternatives, the maintenance of linkages between the electorate and the government bureaucracy, the mobilization of mass political participation, and the formulation of consent. The literature consists mainly of detailed case studies of political parties and covers a wide range of political systems. Comparative analysis mainly takes the form of paired comparisons (as between, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union) or of more-generalized models for describing the dilemmas facing similar groups of nations, such as the developing nations.

The analysis of political party organization obviously involves not only its internal structure but also its relation to the sociopolitical balance of society. First, there is the focal issue concerning the capacity of the economic and industrial sector to influence and control political decisions. There seems to be widespread agreement between political sociologists with differing value assumptions that, with the growth of a complex division of labor, industrial and economic organizations are constricted in their capacity for direct management of the political process. The complexity of economic organization is such, it is argued, that economic leaders do not have the skills or programmatic approach to maintain complete dominance over the political party system, be it a single-party or a multiparty structure. The separation of ownership from property control contributes to this process. Furthermore, the development of trade union organizations often serves as a countervailing force to the political power of economic organization in those societies where labor unions are autonomous organizations. Institutional analysis also implies a modification of economic theories of political power by calling attention to the growth of professional associations, with their ability to exercise political power in the name of both science and public welfare, and to the political power that adheres to large governmental bureaucracies.

Paralleling the politics of economic institutions is the basic balance between the political party and the military. The military have considerable actual and potential power because of the vast resources they command and because of the fundamental importance of national security. Nevertheless, personal military dictatorships are generally absent, since they are incompatible with the political requirements of contemporary social structure. Political sociologists have sought to describe and account for the various forms of political balance which operate between modern political parties and the military. There is hardly a society in which the military do not have some political power. The influence of the military varies from that of a pressure group to that of an active coalition partner in the domestic political structure. In some of the developing states the military may serve as the nucleus of a modernizing oligarchy, although it may be a transitional oligarchy. It is striking to note that one-party states, such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China, have succeeded in reducing or eliminating the military as a major independent power base in domestic affairs.

There has been a growth of professional and voluntary associations that tend to accumulate political power, and these organizations have been studied, on a selective case study basis, as examples of pressure groups. The social structure of an industrial society or one in the process of modernization produces a variety of groups, such as old-age, youth, and ethnic, cultural, and religious associations, which generate political demands through their associational representatives. In a multiparty system these pressure groups seek direct access to the parliamentarians and administrative leaders and tend to weaken the party. Even in one-party systems, where the base for independent action by voluntary associations is limited or carefully controlled, the official mass party seeks to make use of such organizations as devices for communication and political support.

The analysis of elites supplies a conceptual device for understanding the patterns of integration of institutional power. One important convergence in the field of political sociology is in the progressive increase of research emphasis on elite structures. A paradigm has come to pervade the perspectives of political sociologists: the study of social stratification is augmented by concepts of public opinion and ideology; institutional analysis is elaborated by the study of elite structures.

Elite analysis has shifted from an exclusive concern with social background as a determinant of elite behavior to a broader concern with the processes of recruitment, career development, and patterns of interaction. Modern elites tend increasingly to be selected by criteria of achievement rather than on the basis of inherited social background, and as a result they tend to be recruited from broader and broader social strata. Furthermore, as Karl Mannheim has pointed out (1935), the sheer increase in the size and complexity of elite structures brings about a growth of heterogeneity, a crisis in defining standards of behavior, and the necessity of developing new devices for achieving agreement and consensus among competing elites.

The literature of national power structures tends to focus on the analysis of specific elite groups. In particular, there are available a series of national studies in depth which deal with the recruitment and socialization of the parliamentary elites. In addition, attention has been paid on a comparative basis to the differing patterns of pressure groups, especially economic pressure groups, in influencing the political process. However, systematic research on the differentiation and integration of different elite groups, even for countries such as the United States and the Soviet Union, is far from comprehensive and adequate.

The persistence of substantive differences between interest group and social strain theories of political sociology is reflected in differing models of elite behavior. In the analysis of the United States, the residues of economic determinism are to be found in C. Wright Mills’s “power elite” concept (1956), in which the societal leadership is seen as an integrated ruling group of a capitalist economic system transformed, in part, by the pressures of international relations and exercising power on an arbitrary basis. The leadership elements are based in the industrial and military sectors operating in conjunction with the professional political elite. The economic elites are dominant and fuse with the military, while the political elites have secondary and circumscribed roles.

By contrast, a variety of writers, including Robert Dahl, Talcott Parsons, Daniel Bell, and Morris Janowitz, identify a bargaining model in the United States, characterized by a more pluralistic pattern of political power. The elites are seen as much more differentiated and subject to a system of countervailing checks and balances. In this approach the political elites are crucial to the extent that they perform the mediating and adjusting role between the various institutional sectors of society. On the basis of this model, the basic political issue is not so much the arbitrary exercise of power by a small, integrated elite as it is the necessity of creating conditions under which a differentiated elite can make effective decisions. In the United States, according to the analysis of Shils (1956) and others, elite integration presents special problems because the creative role of the politician is not adequately understood and the respect accorded him by the other elite sectors and by the electorate at large is relatively low and unstable.

Empirical research into elite structures has distinguished between local—community, metropolitan, and regional—elites and national elite systems. Interestingly enough, for the United States both the power elite concept and the bargaining model highlight the separation of economic power and political elites at the local level. A rich body of historical and analytical material describes the process of “bifurcation” of local elites in the United States. According to the power elite model, this is the result of a shift of political interest to the national arena; for the bargaining model, it is the outgrowth of the process of “democratization,” which brings representatives of ethnic, religious, and lower-status groups into political power.

Macrosociology and political change

The elite perspective in political sociology has been paralleled and broadened by those few but influential sociologists who specialize in the study of total societies and political change at the societal level. These men were stimulated by the holistic approach of social anthropologists and, in return, have had a profound impact on political scientists who deal with comparative politics. In the slow and almost discontinuous development of macrosociology the central issue has been the analysis of the impact of modernization on representative institutions. In turn, studies of the spread of industrial institutions have served to highlight the significance of differing political institutions in accounting for various patterns of national development and the persistence of national cultures.

Tocqueville’s analysis of prerevolutionary and posRevolutionary France, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, published in 1856, and Thorstein Veblen’s Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, which appeared in 1914, stand as landmarks of early contributions to the study of the interplay of political institutions and social and economic development. Both men forecast intellectual trends, in that they did not produce national case studies. Instead they were seeking to explain, by implicit comparative analysis, particular sequences of societal change which were reflected, in the first case, in the outbreak of the French Revolution in contrast to the absence of such violence in England and, in the second case, in the late and authoritarian character of industrialization in Germany.

Explicit concern with the theoretical aspects of macrosociology is rooted in the diverse approaches to the common problems of societal integration offered by Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tonnies, whose works, among others, supplied the basis for the subsequent reformulations of Talcott Parsons, in The Structure of Social Action, published in 1937. At the theoretical-empirical level, the intellectual pioneer was W. I. Thomas, in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, published in 1918–1920. This monumental work set forth the empirical requirements for comparative analysis. His standpoint was both intensive, in that he sought to describe and understand the cultural values of Polish society, and comprehensive, in that he sought to analyze the full range of social institutions, from family and kinship groups to political organization. By juxtaposing the development of a relatively integrated Polish society in Europe with the social disorganization of the Polish immigrants in the United States, he highlighted the differential role of values and of political institutions in the process of modernization and urbanization.

The intellectual vitality of macrosociological perspectives, however, derives less from formal theoretical considerations and more from the dramatic impact of contemporary history—particularly, first, the rise and transformation of totalitarianism and, second, the rapid process of decolonization after World War ii. Joseph Schumpeter, in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), developed a comprehensive and generic analysis of the social and political institutions on which capitalism was based. His ideas about the transformation of entrepreneurial activities into a large-scale organization format, the negative role of intellectuals in the politics of capitalism, and the decline of representative institutions have been seminal formulations. Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1942), an analysis of the social organization of the Nazi party and its transformation of German economic and social structure, and Barrington Moore’s Terror and Progress (1954), a similarly comprehensive volume for Russia, are most noteworthy studies in depth. Comparison of the different elements of totalitarianism and their consequences is dealt with by C. J. Friedrich and Z. K. Brzezinski in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956).

While it is not easy to categorize the so-called new nations, they display patterns of similarity which contribute to the comparative analysis. There are those nations, such as Japan and Turkey, which were never under Western colonial rule and which embarked early on the process of modernization. However, an overriding distinction, based mainly on the impact of colonial experience, has become operative. It is possible to differentiate the colonial experience of South America, with its wars of liberation in the nineteenth century, from that of the so-called new nations of Africa and Asia, which, with notable specific exceptions, achieved independence quickly and without extensive violence, after World War ii. In turn, these new nations can be categorized by the type of metropolitan rule they experienced—British, French, Dutch, etc. —which could be direct or indirect and which was imposed on differing indigenous cultural–religious systems.

The central issue in the study of new nations after independence hinges on the limitations and actual breakdown of multiparty systems in supplying the political leadership necessary for economic and social development. Scholarly writing in this area has passed from a focus on individual case studies to a variety of types of comparative analysis. One approach is that found in Edward Shils’s Political Development in the New States (1959–1960), where he presents a series of generalized governmental types, such as traditional oligarchies and modernizing oligarchies, and analyzes their political dilemmas. Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman, in The Politics of the Developing Areas (1960), follow a similar approach, but they make use of statistical indicators to explain these types of political regimes. Alternatively, comparative analysis has been pursued by exploring specific hypotheses related to a particular institution, such as the governmental bureaucracy or economic enterprise. An example of this approach is Morris Janowitz’ The Military in the Political Development of New Nations (1964), in which the limitations on the capacity of the military to supply political leadership are in part accounted for in terms of internal organizational and professional factors.

A fully comprehensive approach to comparative political sociology must encompass the distinction between industrialized and nonindustrialized nations. Such work has been stimulated partly by the desire to make use of the data that are available and to produce quantitative comparisons and findings even though the problems of the validity of international statistical sources and the comparability of survey findings have not been solved. Karl Deutsch and his associates are representative of the efforts to uncover patterns of political behavior through refined statistical analysis of the standard census-type data for all the political divisions of the world. By contrast, more selectively and intensively, Almond and Verba (1963) have employed survey research techniques in countries of Europe and in Mexico to probe both political participation and socialization of fundamental political values.

Regardless of subject matter, political sociology has developed a common perspective in its focus on political conflict and political consensus. It is not possible to contend that sociologists have neglected the study of political conflict for an undue emphasis on the study of political consensus. The case is that in crisis situations which result in conflict or produce compromise, it is difficult to gain access to relevant data; thus, the development of the “behavioral persuasion” in the study of politics does in fact encourage a focus on routine and ongoing processes, rather than on crises and decision-making points. Nevertheless, there is a body of monographic literature which describes in “natural history” terms the outbreak of political conflict—when the pursuit of group interest leads to action outside the institutionalized forms of political change. This type of phenomenological research has come to encompass the full range of politics, from community conflict to relations between nations. Social-psychological approaches derived from the study of collective behavior or collective problem solving have been employed to handle these empirical materials. The sources of political conflict and the means by which consensus is created are therefore the central issues for political sociologists, even though the practical difficulties of studying these phenomena are considerable.

Political sociology and political theory

In the nineteenth century the development of representative institutions meant the extension of suffrage and an increase in the importance of parliament as a device for sharing political power and resolving political conflict. In the twentieth century the complexities of social structure and of the governmental process have produced a rise in the influence of executive leadership and a decline in the impact of the parliamentary process. Theorists of the democratic process have therefore had to face the task of making an intellectual contribution to “institution building,” both to strengthen parliament and to make possible representation at new points in the political process.

At this juncture, political sociology faces political theory. Political sociologists have been men of strong opinions, and they have been concerned with the value implications of their work. But it is only since the end of World War ii, particularly under the influence of the newer types of economic analysis, that some political sociologists have become interested in theoretical formulations which explore explicitly the conditions under which political democracy would be maximized. If economic analysis is designed to maximize the use of economic resources, then political sociology has the goal of formulating social, psychological, and economic conditions under which political democracy would be maximized. Some theorists, as represented by Schumpeter, hold that elections are the hallmark of democratic society and that, therefore, the clarification of the election process is a key task of social research. Others, such as Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, are concerned with the formulation of criteria which encompass the practices of administrative and community agencies. Definitions of political democracy have been drawn by some theorists so as to encompass one-party systems as well. Regardless of the particular definitions, political sociology has come to be linked to the analysis of the economic, social, and psychological preconditions for political democracy.

Morris Janowitz

[Directly related are the entriesPolitical behaviorandPolitical science. Other relevant material may be found inElites; Ideology; Interest groups; Mass society; Military; Parties, political; Political group analysis; Power; Social movements; Voluntary associations; and in the biographies ofMannheim; Marx; Merriam; Michels; Mills; Mosca; Schumpeter; Thomas; Weber, Max.]


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Sociology, Political

Sociology, Political


In a seminal article from 1969, Giovanni Sartori drew a sharp distinction between the sociology of politics and political sociology. The sociology of politics, Sartori argued, involved a reduction of politics to its social conditions and thus formed a subfield of sociology much like the sociology of religion or of the family. While a comprehensive analysis of political institutions and processes certainly would involve an analysis of social conditions, the sociology of politics was insufficient, Sartori argued, because it lacked political sciences understanding of politics in its own terms and as a fundamental activity. Sartoris solution was thus that political sociology should be a genuine hybrid, though his main concern was to defend against sociologists eager to expand to the detriment of political scientists (1969). More interesting, however, was Sartoris argument that the reason this synthesis was so important was that the objective role of politics was increasing and hence the necessity of political analysis for larger social theory was as well: The power of power is growing at a tremendous pace, he wrote. As a result, the greater the range of politics, the smaller the role of objective [read sociological] factors (1969).

It is perhaps ironic, then, that virtually the only scholars who regularly use the term sociology of politics today are political scientists, when they want to highlight social variables, such as class or family structure. Political sociology is indeed usually used to refer to a subfield of sociology, but one that has long since adopted the kind of hybrid approach Sartori thought sociology lacked. Political sociologists thus study an array of political processes in their own terms, in terms of their social conditions, distributions, and effects, and in terms of their combination of these two sides. Moreover, in light of the robust theories of power that have developed since the late 1960s in virtually all varieties of social theory, political sociology has long since abandoned any clear separation of the social from the political.

The intellectual roots of political sociology reflect its cross-disciplinary reach from a time even before disciplines. The philosophers of classical antiquity, for instance, wrote extensively about the varieties of political possibility, including kingship, aristocracy, and, most important for modern discourse, democracy. But the ancients did not yet have a clear concept of society, such that politics and society could be seen to interpenetrate and covary in interesting ways. This conceptualization awaited the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, who theorized society as distinct from, but shaping and shaped by, political institutions. Thus Montesquieu (16891755) proposed a theory emphasizing the role of climate in shaping the basic forms of governancerepublican, monarchic, and despotic; behind each of these forms was a particular spirit, comprising the distinct manners and morals of people living in these particular conditions. A. R. J. Turgot (17211781), Condorcet (17431794), and othersperhaps most importantly the great Scottish economist Adam Smith (17231790)advanced historical accounts emphasizing different aspects of social and economic development that corresponded to transformations in basic forms of governance. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) in particular introduced the contemporary notion of civil society, and outlined the ways in which the General Will of the collectivity might be propagated through political religion.

Like their predecessors, social thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesthe forerunners of contemporary political sociologyvariously developed broad explanations by reconstructing the historical process, theorizing its motors, and delineating the features of key contemporary social structures and institutions. While a wide variety of thinkersincluding philosophers, economists, politicians, natural scientists, and sociologistscontributed to the development of political and social thought in this period, Karl Marx (18181883) and Max Weber (18641920) have been the most important for the subsequent development of political sociology.

Beyond the political effects of his work, Marxs legacy for political sociology consists mainly in his approach to political economy, which nevertheless in many respects most clearly embodies the reductionistic sociology of politics approach Sartori bemoaned. Because Marx saw the materialincluding the means and relations of productionas the key foundation for social forms, including the state, Marxist political sociology has always emphasized the basis of all politics in economic interests (though the economic has sometimes been understood more narrowly, and sometimes more broadly). In the Marxist tradition, the modern state is thus conceived as an expression of the interests of the ruling classthe bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, the Marxist traditionalways more complex than either its denigrators or doctrinaires portrayed ithas evolved important accounts of the complex relations between state and civil society in the capitalist and postindustrial eras, of the state as a powerful player in class conflict, as well as an emphasis on the role of power, both economic and political, in the process of social reproduction.

Usually taken as a contrasting figure, Max Weber also developed a powerful account of social stratification in capitalism. But for Weber, disparities in wealth were not the only driving force behind this stratification; rather, differences in status and political power also came into play, potentially forming complicated groupings not reducible to class. In contrast to orthodox readings of Marx, Weber held that in modern times political institutions have become separated from economic and social structure, and thus developed a powerful analysis of the state as an agent and product of bureaucratic rationalization. Perhaps most famously, Weber developed a typology of political power, distinguishing traditional, bureaucratic, and charismatic legitimation as ideal types. In his pessimistic account of modernization, Weber traced a general trend toward bureaucratic rationality tending toward complete dominationthe so-called iron cagethough the move from traditional to bureaucratic legitimation was punctuated, and would likely continue to be, by moments of charismatic consolidation. Over time, however, this charismatic authority also succumbed to the rationalization process, what Weber termed the routinization of charisma.

While many-facetted, three legacies in particular define Webers influence on political sociology: first, his broad comparative-historical method; second, his multidimensional theory of class, status, and party, which is usually taken as a refutation of Marxist reductionism; and third, his analysis of the bureaucratic operation of the state as part of his overall account of the rationalization process. One subsequent development adapting elements of Webers theory was the theory of the circulation of elites by Gaetano Mosca (18581941), which emphasized the power exercised by competing small groups with superior knowledge and technical expertise, as well as the trenchant analysis of political parties as organizing forces of these elites by Robert Michels (18761936). But these are only two prominent immediate examples, and nearly all political sociology since Weber has manifested various residues of and engagements with his thought.

In the United States during the twentieth century, scholars in political sociology continued the traditions established by Marx and Weber, among other nineteenth-century thinkers, of conceptualizing their subject matter in broad, macrohistorical terms. For the two decades following World War II (19391945), political sociology thus reflected the broader division in sociology between functionalism and conflict theory.

Amalgamating insights developed by Émile Durkheim (18581917) into the forms of social solidarity with Webers account of rationalization, as well as more traditional Anglo-Saxon liberal political thought, functionalism created a model of reality in which various social institutions exist in and sustain an orderly interrelated whole. A facet of this whole was a perceived clear analytical distinction between state and society, a perspective expressing the liberal outlook of this school. Political parties, according to this view, were the main institutions connecting state and society. A central aspect of this agenda, particularly as applied by political scientists, was the comparison between liberal-democratic regimes and communist regimes, in terms of multiple interrelated spheres of polity, economy, society, and culture. The functionalist approach to national socialism and communism, for instance, was associated with the theory of totalitarianism, which was drawn in distinction to Marxist accounts that portrayed fascism as an extreme outgrowth of capitalism; totalitarianism theory saw the Nazis and the Soviets as one type, while fascism saw them as distinct. Where fascism theory gave overwhelming precedence to the economic sphere, functionalism saw totalitarian states as polycratic, and ascribed their power to homologies among analytically distinct societal subsystems. In less dramatic and politically charged efforts, functionalist research investigated political culture first the norms and values that supported particular political institutions, then later a more interpretive analysis of political symbols and meaningsas well as topics relating to American institutions, such as the bureaucracy, media and information, the military, and political parties.

In contrast to functionalism, conflict theory borrowed basic tenets from Marx and many of its variants are characterized as Marxist, particularly those that take a critical stand on the connection between social science and political action. Not all conflict theory is Marxist, however, since one can accept on purely analytical grounds that conflict is pervasive in social and political life. Nevertheless, holding conflict to be paramount, conflict theory questioned functionalisms emphasis on order and individual autonomy from politics. Social order, for conflict theorists, was not the result of functional interdependence but, where present, the outcome of competing social forces. Conflict theorists thus charge that the liberal separation between state and society was unfounded, and pursued an analysis of many different bases of conflict, including race and gender along with class and other factors.

In contrast to the Manichean distinction between conflict and functionalist perspectives in the 1960s and 1970s, the theoretical landscape since then has been more inclusive of diverse theoretical perspectives. Beginning in the 1970s, then, and continuing in the 1980s and 1990s, political sociology developed a variety of thematic orientations, as opposed to building and defending a few grand theoretical positions. Thus new research agendas emerged. One such agenda argued that the state should be the central subject of comparative sociological and political inquiry. Studies in this vein examined the historical formation of the state with renewed comparative focus on states as autonomous actors with their own interests, while other studies put the states organizational profile under comparative scrutiny.

A somewhat different research agenda was one that had primarily concerned historians earlier: the study of nationalism. While the methods and ideological orientations of studies of nationalism varied, they tended to have a broad historical scope that sought the genesis of what was usually taken to be a modern phenomenon.

A third research agenda regarded questions of economic-political development around the world, including differential patterns of development. Dominated by so-called dependency theory and world-systems theory, this approach produced a wide array of findings that, though typically having a historical outlook, found a place in more standard debates in sociology and comparative politics.

Yet a fourth research agenda gaining momentum during this period was one that focused on social movements and collective actionto many, the quintessential topic for political sociology. Though a key impetus for the spread of this research agenda was the interest in investigating the civil rights movement of the 1960s, research on social movements grew to cover diverse geographical, political, and historical contexts. Finally, a fifth research agenda pertained to the conceptualization and historical evolution of civil society and its related concept of social capital. Again, with considerable divergence in terms of theoretical and political vantage points, this line of inquiry has attracted attention from sociologists, political scientists, and historians, as well as philosophers and political practitioners, particularly since 1989, when political sociologists saw the development of a vibrant public sphere between the individual and the state as the linchpin of democratization after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps the most important topic toward which social scientists in general and political sociologists in particular have turned their attention since the 1980s is globalization. Referring in general to increasing economic, political, and social interconnectedness across the world, globalization puts many of the traditional concerns of political sociology in a new context. In the face of the expansion of global trade and investment capital, political sociologists have become interested in examining the repercussions of unequal global development, global inequality, and, more generally, the social adjustment to economic change. Political sociologists have extended this critical view to developments in the West as well, such as the spread of neoliberal ideology and the resistance to it through various antiglobalization social movements and other forms of protest. Further, political sociology has adjusted its traditional concerns in the face of emerging political global actors. Thus political sociologists are investigating the role of transnational corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and political and economic intergovernmental organizations. One theme that ties such various facets of investigation together is the question of the challenge these emerging actors pose to the maintenance of the states modern form. In the face of globalization of culture, finally, political sociology revisits traditional concerns regarding identity, values, political loyalty, citizenship, and migration patterns. Under the influence of poststructural and postmodern theory, political sociology has inquired into the complex processes through which the basic units of its analysis are constructed as political actors and entities, including through the disciplinary practices of sciences like political sociology itself.

SEE ALSO Civil Society; Class; Dependency Theory; Durkheim, Émile; Elite Theory; Fascism; Functionalism; Hierarchy; Inequality, Political; Marx, Karl; Merton, Robert K.; Michels, Robert; Parsons, Talcott; Political Science; Postmodernism; Poststructuralism; Poulantzas, Nicos; Sociology; State, The; Stratification; Structuralism; Weber, Max; World-System


Easton, David. 1965. A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: Wiley.

Michels, Robert. [1915] 1959. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Dover.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1969. From Sociology of Politics to Political Sociology. Government and Opposition 4: 195214.

Weber, Max. [1922] 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jeffrey Olick

Chares Demetriou

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political sociology

political sociology The branch of sociology which is concerned with the social causes and consequences of given power distributions within or between societies, and with the social and political conflicts that lead to changes in the allocation of power. A major focus of political sociology is the description, analysis, and explanation of the state, the institution which claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory, and constitutes possibly the largest single concentration of power and authority in any society. Whereas political science deals mainly with the machinery of government, the mechanisms of public administration, and the formal political realm of elections, public opinion, pressure groups, and political behaviour, sociological analysis of political phenomena is concerned rather more with the interrelationships between politics, social structures, ideologies, and culture. Even if the state is the most common object of study, political sociology deals more broadly with the study of the sources and utilization of power, authority, and influence in all social contexts including, for example, the family, friendship groups, clubs, and local communities. Power relationships in the labour-market and the workplace could also be included, but are now usually studied under the label of industrial relations instead. A political system is any persistent pattern of human relationship that involves (to a significant extent) power, rule, or authority. Hence it is possible to study the politics of stateless societies, which have not yet developed any formal central institutions to monopolize power, but still have decision-making and rule-making processes which may be dominated by some members more than others.

Political sociology has been concerned with political parties as social institutions and relations between members and party leaders–for example in the widespread apathy of the majority of members that can leave greater power to the leadership, and in the iron law of oligarchy (See MICHELS, ROBERT), which argues that leaders of an organization tend to substitute their own self-interests for those of the organization and seek to retain their positions of power to serve these interests. It addresses the phenomena of despotic and totalitarian regimes as well as parliamentary democracies, seeking to explain the origins and stability of specific political regimes and institutional structures. Studies of political participation, especially through the electoral system, address the interest theory of political behaviour which argues that people choose options that maximize their narrow self-interests and wider class interests rather than the public good. Political sociology has concentrated attention on élites, their membership, and the wide gap separating them from the ruled classes. In one view ‘the study of politics is the study of influence and the influential … The influential are those who get most of what there is to get … Those who get the most are the élite; the rest are mass’ ( H. Laswell , Politics: Who Gets What, When, How, 1958
). Political sociology studies the manifestation and regulation of conflict, including social protest behaviour and the causes of revolutions; the formation and activities of interest groups (which are often not self-aware) and formal pressure groups; political ideologies, political cultures, and the formulation of political opinion and public opinion; political socialization in childhood, adolescence, and adult life, through educational institutions and experiences in the workplace. Analyses of the tensions and cleavages which arise from the social and economic order are often carried out on a comparative basis in order to show how political choices are made from among the full range of possible or available alternatives.

Political sociology employs all the methods of sociological analysis and attitude research, including case-studies of individual organizations, or particular local, state, or national governments; opinion polls; interview surveys of electors, political participants, and political representatives; documentary evidence and content analysis to study political ideologies and government policy-making; and mathematical modelling of decision-making processes and outcomes. Comparative cross-national studies are more common than in other fields of sociology. Robert E. Dowse and and John A. Hughes , Political Sociology (2nd edn., 1986)
is a good introductory text. See also COMMUNITY POWER; POWER ÉLITE; PSEPHOLOGY.

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political socialization

political socialization The process of induction into a political system—by acquiring information on political symbols, institutions, and procedures, learning the role of a passive or active member of the polity, and internalizing the value-system and ideology supporting the whole enterprise. The process can be understood and analysed both as individual learning and as cultural transmission by the community as a whole. Nations perpetuate their political traditions by inducting new generations into established patterns of thought and action-through the educational system, the mass media, the workplace, the neighbourhood committee, as well as through political institutions themselves. In Third World countries, where new political institutions may be created or existing structures reformed within short periods of time, the educational system, mass media, and community structures may all be used explicitly as means of political education and re-education. In older and more stable polities, the political socialization functions of social agencies are latent rather than manifest, often subtle enough to be invisible and publicly denied.

Studies of political socialization look at the degree of ideological stability over the life-cycle; the relationship between political attitudes and active participation; the selection and socialization of political élites (for example through the educational system); social class patterns of behaviour and anomalies (such as working-class conservatism and so-called false consciousness); the relationship between personality traits and political orientations; induction into political roles; and the relative influence of family, school, and workplace on political ideas and behaviour.

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socialization, political

socialization, political See POLITICAL SOCIALIZATION.

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