A theory is defined, minimally, as a statement (or more typically a set of interrelated statements) that explain or account for a phenomenon of interest. In formal terms, such statements generally have two elements. The explanandum refers to the phenomenon or event of interest— the outcome to be explained. The explanans is the statement that provides the postulated explanation (Hempel, 2001). Often, the term theory is used quite informally to refer to broad and general paradigms of explanation (e.g., the big bang theory, behaviorism ). Such paradigms are sometimes described in terms of paired opposition such as ‘‘nature/nurture’’ or ‘‘activity/ disengagement.’’
The object of the preposition in the phrase theory of x defines the explanandum, while an adjective modifying the word theory indicates the nature of the explanans—the general explanatory principle being proffered (Hempel, 2001). In the case of social theories of aging, both explanans and explanandum warrant further discussion.
Theories of aging is a deceptively expansive phrase, because the range of phenomena encompassed by the word aging is so broad, even if the scope is limited to human aging, as it is in this discussion. Although aging is generally assumed to be a property of individuals, some important age-related phenomena are essentially and irreducibly collective features of populations (such as mortality rates); and others are irreducibly social-structural (such as the usage of age as a legal criterion)—as in, ‘‘being old enough drive’’—or as a basis for social norms—‘‘she’s too old to be dating him.’’ Confusion can arise because, while age can thus be a feature of populations or of legal, normative, or other symbolic aspects of social systems, it is still ultimately anchored in the measurement and perception of individual age. The focus here will be on theories of age as a feature of individuals, populations, and structures.
Social theories of aging individuals
Whether at the level of microinteraction or macroinstitutions, a social theory’s claim, by definition, is that some socially organized aspect of experience or activity, or some set of cultural practices, plays a role in influencing or accounting for some significant aspect of aging. The general idea that how a person lives affects health, length of life, and how that person ages has long been familiar in both popular culture and science. However, not all theories of aging espoused by social scientists could properly be considered ‘‘social’’ theories.
Indeed, one of the most famous and centrally influential theories of aging—disengagement theory —is not a social theory of aging at all. It is more properly understood as an organically based theory of society. This is because it considers the disengagement of the aged to reflect an ‘‘inevitable’’ human process operating ‘‘in all societies’’ (Cumming and Henry, pp. 14–15), yet anchored in the fact of chronological age. Such a theory cannot permit much scope to the social realm because it defines aging as a universal, biologically based process inherent to the human species. Because it posits disengagement as a mutual process of withdrawal of others (and hence of social connectedness and social resources) from the aging individual, as well as the reverse, it is an organismic theory not only of individual aging, but of society. It envisions a social order in which the removal of aged individuals from the mainstream of social life is both normal and desirable. The extent to which this theory was initially accepted by social scientists is indicated by the fact that the pre-eminent U.S. sociologist, Talcott Parsons, wrote a foreword for Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement, which was the initial monograph setting forth disengagement theory (1961). The positive reception of this work by many sociologists may be taken as an example of how scientists—even social scientists— are limited in their perspectives by assumptions about the society and culture in which their own existence is located. This condition is endemic to the scientific enterprise, and it requires a strong measure of self-critical reflexivity on the part of those who practice science to avoid such pitfalls.
The evidence for the initial formulation of disengagement theory was drawn primarily from the fabled Kansas City studies of aging, spearheaded by Bernice Neugarten in the 1950s. Interestingly, the same data were simultaneously used by others to argue precisely the opposite— that continued activity was both possible and desirable among those with advancing age. This is the premise of activity theory. Each of these perspectives was energized by the claims of its competitor, and the result was a crystallization of the classic debate between the two. This debate has framed the parameters and terms of much subsequent theorizing, some of which has turned out to be useful in illuminating and resolving this debate.
The debate is partly resolvable by distinguishing the actual from the possible. Theorists located in the activity tradition cannot dispute the fact that disengagement has been an accurate description of the experiences of many older people in the ‘‘late modern’’ societies of the middle and late twentieth century. At the same time, within and beyond these societies, there are individuals, subcultures, and even entire societies that challenge this generalization. These challenges fuel the contention that disengagement is not a universal or inevitable pattern, but one that is encouraged, and even naturalized (made to seem natural and taken-for-granted), by the structure of modern societies.
Such a resolution is only made credible, and perhaps only possible, thanks to the subsequent elaboration of several distinct approaches of social theories of aging, each of which has provided illuminating concepts and evidence. These approaches can be divided into two general subgroups that can, at the risk of some oversimplification, be called micro and macro approaches. For present purposes, micro approaches can be considered those that locate explanation at the level of individual, interpersonal, or small-group social dynamics; macro approaches locate explanation in the more encompassing dimensions of social organization that form the broader context of experience, including microinteraction. The discussion that follows focuses on how various theories treat the explanatory forces that each nominates as important in explaining aging.
The discussion does not systematically distinguish types of age-related outcomes, since many of these approaches consider their respective explanatory principles to be applicable to a wide range of age-related social, psychological, and physiological outcomes. There is widespread adherence to the view that, even though a given study may focus only on one or two factors—such as stress, psychological adjustment, or economic status—these factors are themselves interrelated, so that, for example, stress affects mood, mood can affect immune functioning, immune functioning affects health, and health affects functional status. This sequence is overly simplistic, as multiple complex interactions occur at each of these nodes at the same time that other processes are having simultaneous impacts. Rather than specifying the exact relations among such largely psychological and organismic processes, the discussion that follows focuses on the difference in how social theories conceptualize the dimensions of the social.
Microlevel approaches. Most microlevel approaches generally involve direct attention to the experiences and social-interaction processes that occur in everyday life. One established tradition to note here is the symbolic interaction (SI) approach, which has deep classical roots in both European and North American traditions of social theory. More than its name implies, the SI approach stakes a foundational claim for social interaction. The general model can be thought of in terms of a cyclical process involving: (1) interaction as essential to the development and experience of human beings and (2) human activity as constitutive of interaction. SI thus begins by recognizing that the transformation of raw organisms into human beings does not occur without sustained participation in a somewhat stable set of relationships with other people, and that these relationships, constituted through human interaction, form part of the social context within which individuals develop and age. SI researchers focus on interactive processes such as negotiating and making alliances. While the SI perspective is widely recognized as capturing an important general dynamic that can be applied to the domain of aging, critics charge that symbolic interactionists omit any clear concept of social structure, leaving the impression that social life consists of a somewhat creative and indeterminate process in which concepts like negotiation permit a high degree of uncertainty and an unrealistic amount of efficacy is credited to the actions of individuals.
Such charges have merit. However, some concepts that derive from SI, such as labeling, recognize how elements of structure, such as normative expectations, shape the direction and outcomes of interaction, even as the interaction that results reconstitutes those structural elements. Thus, labeling theory analyzes how the subjective processes of interpretation and appraisal that are integral to interaction lead to characterizations of others, which sometimes are unwarranted. Applied to old age, Vern Bengtson and associates have proposed a social breakdown model, which traces how, for example, stereotypic expectations are used to interpret small and perhaps random episodes of ‘‘functional lapse’’ or ‘‘misbehavior’’ as signaling serious problems, so that the ‘‘deviating’’ individual is declared unfit: when he or she responds with disputation or anger, it is taken as confirmation that a problem exists—thus generating a devianceamplifying ‘‘vicious cycle’’ interpretation that can be quite destructive for individuals. Social breakdown theory is thus predicated on a view of action as, in substantial part, a self-amplifying system, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, it can be considered a more sophisticated and systematic elaboration of the SI perspective. Properly understood, this model carries the important implication that the social effects on aging are not limited only to such matters as meaning or status, but also go to the core of self-identity, and that they can affect organismic aspects of aging, such as health and functional abilities. This point draws on a range of related interpretive traditions (illustrated by the classic work of Peter Berger and associates), as well as empirical social-psychological studies demonstrating how experience systematically affects values and intellectual functioning (as in the classic studies conducted by Melvin Kohn and associates) and health (as studied by Michael Marmot and associates).
Other insights in the study of microinteraction have come from ethnomethodology, a related tradition that focuses on the processes of how people make sense of their everyday lives. For example, Jaber Gubrium and colleagues have analyzed interaction sequences and probed the thinking of study participants to excavate the operating assumptions of a wide variety of actors— from elementary school teachers to nursing home staffers to clinicians diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease—engaged in ‘‘constructing age.’’ Their work also shows how the structure of pre-existing assumptions creates a ‘‘reality of aging’’ that is specific to the culture that carries those assumptions.
Some efforts at microlevel theorizing derive from a tradition fundamentally different from interactionism. The general approach of exchange theory is to make predictions about behavior, taking the values and perceived self-interests of actors as a starting point, without attempting to probe the subtleties of meaning and interpretation that are part of appraisal processes; meaning is taken as a ‘‘given,’’ a starting point for analysis. James Dowd attempted to apply exchange theory to explain the behavior of individuals of different ages. He proposed that if old people have fewer resources than younger individuals, this could account for their withdrawal because younger individuals would find it ‘‘more costly’’ to interact with them. For the old, there could also be stress and other psychic costs attending the loss of status.
One of the best-known approaches to explaining and interpreting age-related outcomes, the life-course approach, can be seen as something of a bridge between the micro and macro levels. It is here classified as micro because its key explanatory strategy focuses on how earlier life events and circumstances shape individuals in ways that are decisive for later-life outcomes— thus meeting the above-referenced criterion that explanation is located at the individual level. At the same time, the life-course approach also has a macro-level explanatory component, since it focuses on the role of major historical events and watershed circumstances of social change in producing the effects. In a well-known classic study, for example, Glen Elder (1982) showed that the long-term effects of encountering the Great Depression as a child were important, but also that they were different for different people, depending on age, on social class, and on the degree of deprivation experienced. Subsequent work in this tradition has continued the theme that such effects have enduring consequences. For example, Elder and colleagues found that mothers in middle-class families who experienced the deprivation of breadwinner job loss were in better ‘‘emotional health’’ by the time they were seventy years old than were middle-class mothers who did not experience deprivation or working-class mothers, regardless of whether or not they experienced deprivation (Elder and Liker). Such an interaction effect, Elder and colleagues suggest, is predicted by theories that focus on the character-building effects of difficult experiences. Analyses such as these have generated great interest, although they have been criticized for omitting important information about the contingencies and events impacting such women. Until recently, few sources of data existed to use for such analyses (which require following the same individuals over many decades).
Macro approaches. Macro approaches look to more encompassing dimensions of social organization or to the features of entire populations for explanatory principles. One of the earliest and best-known of such theories is modernization theory. First advanced by Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes in the 1960s, this theory offered a direct challenge to disengagement theory by mobilizing the evidence contained in earlier anthropological work, some of which had already been analyzed by Leo Simmons and others. Modernization theory focused on the position of the elderly in societies with different types of value systems. A value system that encompasses ‘‘individualistic achievement places the older person at a disadvantage as compared with a value system which submerges the individual in the group’’ (Cowgill, p. 12). Subsequent work consistent with the general thesis of modernization theory has provided considerable specification of the dynamics involved. The value differences described in modernization theory have been linked to important technological, demographic, and economic dimensions of a social order. For example, historical scholars such as Andrew Achenbaum have specified aspects of the general thesis, using historical data from the United States and Europe to suggest that factors such as the lack of authoritative, scientific knowledge in matters of health and the rarity of surviving elders combined to give older adults high status; others focused on the control of wealth by elders (though not all were wealthy).
Theories in the modernization tradition have thus become more than efforts to account for the status or behavior of individual elderly people as they age. They have also offered an explanation of age as a cultural ideal. That is, they suggest that the symbolic meaning and nature of aging also changed when elders were no longer seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge, wealth, and opportunity. The more general model underlying modernization theory, seldom articulated explicitly, is simply that the basic principles on which a society is organized to perform its essential functions will dictate the meaning, significance, and location of different age groups.
At about the same time that Cowgill and Holmes were writing about modernization, Matilda Riley introduced the age stratification perspective. This perspective shared the general view that macrosocial forces must be understood in order for aging itself to be understood, and introduced a more systematic approach to understanding the relationship between aging and social change, but it differed in several important respects. It offered a broader view of the features of society that could potentially impact individual aging—rather than focusing mainly on questions of status and values. It also offered a broader view of the explananda, envisioning a broad range of individual age-related characteristics likely to be altered by features of social structure.
The age stratification perspective (recently renamed by Riley as the ‘‘aging and society perspective’’) made explicit the potential effects, not only of social change, but also of enduring and stable aspects of social structures upon aging. Thus, it also contributed a more explicit conceptualization of the importance of social structure as having a causal force upon aging. By making explicit the systems-analysis distinction between people as actors and roles as components of a social system, this framework sharpened questions of the ‘‘fit between persons and roles,’’ and even proposed that ‘‘fit’’ could itself be a factor in explaining age-related outcomes. For example, the phenomenon of disengagement was, from this vantage point, interpreted as a result of a dearth of meaningful roles for older people and consequent social exclusion, leading to possible adverse psychological and health consequences. The question of the fit between persons and roles also invited analysis of age-related features of the population at any given point in time. For example, Joan Waring (1976) and Richard Easterlin (1980) argued that the size of a birth cohort would have fateful consequences for the patterns of aging of its members: their movement through the age-graded structures of society would be influenced by the availability of agegraded roles. Specifically, both argued that being in a large cohort (such as the baby-boom cohorts born from 1946 to 1965 in many Western societies) would increase the competition for resources typically allocated on an age-graded basis, and that members of such large cohorts would not fare as well as those of smaller ones.
In such theorizing, age is recognized not merely as a feature of individuals, but as a component of culture. The socially constructed aspects of aging are claimed to affect physical aspects of aging, as well as its psychosocial and status dimensions. Because of these socially specific aspects, such theorizing implies that what seems to be natural aging is only loosely related to the presumed biological imperatives of aging. For example, in contemporary Western societies, age is associated with physical changes such as increases in blood pressure. Evidence from some traditional societies suggests that such physiological changes do not occur in their populations, and detailed analysis demonstrates that they do not occur for everyone in late modern societies. While the exact cause of such variations are not well understood, such findings invite social hypotheses, social factors such as diet, activity patterns, and experience-based stress have been proposed as playing a role in accounting for such outcomes.
The general notion of roles as components of social systems has been given new specificity and timeliness through the explicit analysis of the life course as a social institution. Martin Kohli was a leader in articulating the ‘‘institutionalization of the life course.’’ This notion referred to the expansion of a set of social institutions based on age-specific characteristics (from daycare centers to nursing homes) designed to process individuals from birth to death. Such a notion makes explicit that the life course (with its putative agegraded needs and characteristics) is itself a social institution that defines the character of ‘‘normal aging,’’ but, again, in a historically specific and rather arbitrary way. There is nothing ‘‘natural’’ about having teenagers’ activities structured by school curricula any more than it was ‘‘natural’’ for Native American teenagers of three centuries ago to hunt buffalo on the northern plains of North America. Despite this historical and social myopia, which Matilda Riley has called ‘‘cohortcentrism,’’ the force of such institutions define what is normal and natural with regard to age; thus, they also can operate as self-fulfilling prophecies in shaping the patterns of aging of the individuals who are processed through them.
Social theories of population patterns
Some outcomes studied by demographers, political economists, and others cannot be conceptualized at the individual level. By focusing on the intersection of social change and agerelated population patterns, and on ‘‘cohort flow’’ (Riley and Foner)—the movement of entire cohorts through the age-graded institutions of a social system over time—it is possible to discover features of population aging that may be reflected in, yet are not reducible to, the level of individual experience. Such analyses take the entire cohort as the unit of analysis. One well-known example of such work focuses on aspects of cohort transition behavior, and more specifically on the phenomenon of compression (see Hagestad and Neugarten, 1976), leading to more strongly and clearly defined life-course transitions within and between individuals. For example, during the twentieth century, the span of time in which the discrete life events that mark the transition to adulthood (e.g, leaving school, entering the workforce, marrying) occurred was reduced dramatically, and succeeding cohorts underwent these transitions at an increasingly similar chronological age (see Hogan). Thus, cohorts seemed to be moving through major transitions in increasingly lockstep fashion.
Both personological and social explanations have been advanced for such trends. Personological explanation locates the effective casual force at the individual level, in the characteristics or agency of individual actors. (Dannefer and Uhlenberg). One noted personological explanation assumes that, as prosperity increased in the United States during the twentieth century, members of each succeeding cohort were increasingly able to implement a life plan of their own choosing, and the increasingly standardized behavior thus reflects the existence of similar underlying preferences. For example, greater economic resources permit more years of education and earlier age of marriage for more people. The sociological explanation focuses on social-policybased incentives and normative pressures leading to the same outcome. As age-graded institutions designed to standardize the life course expanded their scope to broader and broader segments of the population through policies (e.g., compulsory education and retirement) and a through a growing normative sense of ‘‘age-appropriateness,’’ the transition behavior of individuals became more and more regimented to respond to the resulting structures of opportunity and status. Given the dynamic quality of human decision-making, it is difficult to disprove definitively either of these proposed explanations—even though the idea of choice leading to greater conformity seems, at best, paradoxical. A current apparent reversal in these demographic trends has been interpreted as a ‘‘deinstitutionalization’’ of the life course—resulting from or reflecting late modern economic, technological, and policy changes.
As its name implies, the political economy approach has focused on the distribution of resources among age strata or cohorts. In the United States and in Europe, many such analyses examine the role of policy in altering or reinforcing the distribution of resources. Another cohort characteristic that has received growing attention over the past decade is the distribution of resources within birth cohorts. This question has been of particular interest since it has been shown that inequality among age peers appears greater among older adults than among other age groups, and it appears to increase systematically as members of a cohort age. Again, both personological and social explanations have been advanced, but in both cases the nature of the explanation is different than in the transition case. The personological explanation is based on an assumption of fixed individual differences in, for example, personality or health that become accentuated over time and that may have an impact on work preferences or earning power, so that differences that were present early become even more pronounced. The social explanation, by contrast, is based on institutional and other social-interactional processes that tend to encourage cumulation of advantage, and also cumulation of disadvantage. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew (and misstating the intent of Jesus’ words), Robert Merton called this general process the Matthew effect : ‘‘To him that hath, more shall be given, but to him that hath not, that shall be taken away, even that he hath.’’ Within the political economy or other Marxist traditions, such a process might be better termed capital accumulation. Adjudication of the competing explanations is difficult in this case as well. However, the close tracking of changes in resource distributions with policy changes provide at least some support for a structural explanation for changes in income inequality. The general structural argument here also links such a macroanalysis back to micro-level approaches, which also describe a cyclical, cumulative process, such as labelling theory.
Age as a cultural construct and the study of age as a cultural practice
At several points, the above discussion has alluded to value differences in the meaning of age, or in the degree of age awareness. Social scientists who study culture recognize such differences as problems to be explained. But, in this case, age is a characteristic of neither a person nor a collectivity, but of culture, of the symbolic apparatus of a social order. Thus, modernization theory provides an example of a tradition of work in which societies are distinguished based on the relative status of various age groups within them; age is thus seen as a property of a status system that can be explained by broader aspects of the prevailing value system. Subsequent work debated the relative contributions of values, technology, economics, and demography in producing the observed differences—and the debate continues.
In his important book on age norms, How Old Are You?: Age Consciousness in American Culture (1989), Howard Chudacoff proposed that societies not only differ in how they value age, but in how much awareness they have of age. He traces the rise of what he calls age consciousness in the United States over the past century, explaining it on the basis of a combination of changes in education, work policies, and institutions, and a growing emphasis on both age and age-appropriateness in public depictions of age— depictions that were disseminated by an increasingly centralized and influential set of media institutions.
Taking seriously the implications of either the historical relativization of Chudacoff and Achenbaum or the cultural relativization of Cowgill and Holmes requires theorists of age to confront the circumstance that no aspect of age can be understood and studied apart from concepts that have been constructed, however rigorously, by scholars who are themselves actors located in social and historical space—with their own sets of taken-for-granted assumptions. This recognition requires that an adequate theorizing of age cannot avoid a mobilization of the sociology and anthropology of knowledge. From this vantage point, one can readily understand the youth-glorifying and socially uncritical acceptance of the ‘‘mutual withdrawal’’ of society and its older members that was presented in disengagement theory: such a view has an ‘‘elective affinity’’ with the pervasiveness of those same characteristics throughout North American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. But many of its effects are more subtle. One example is the longstanding neglect of questions concerning systematic changes in inequality, which were suppressed by the underlying assumptions of organismic theories rooted in an evolutionary model, and which themselves were argued to resonate with an age-graded bureaucratic order. Such theories tend to assume that aging can be best characterized by describing the modal or normative aspects of a population and treating variation as random, rather than as an opportunity to study the constitutive interaction between aging and other factors. Since such analyses suggest that participation in a wider society and culture frames the theorizing of virtually every scholar, it particularly behooves scholars of aging to engage regularly in the practice of self-critical reflexivity as an effort to understand how their operating assumptions reflect their own biographical experience.
In sum, then, age is a characteristic of individuals, but it can also be treated as a characteristic of both populations and of social and cultural systems. While these are analytically distinct phenomena, they are related. Consequently, the explanations of age-related outcomes have some commonality across these different types of outcomes. While few dispute that social forces play a significant role in producing age-related outcomes, the precise magnitude of that role and the mechanisms through which social effects occur are difficult to specify with precision. Thus, whatever the specific phenomenon being studied, debates involving the potency of these social theories of aging are likely to continue for some time to come.
See also Age; Age Norms; Disengagement; Life Course; Status Of Older People: Modernization.
Bauman, Z. Liquid Modernity. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.
Chudacoff, H. How Old Are You?: Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Cowgill, D. O., and Holmes, L. D. Aging and Modernization. New York: Meredith Corporation. 1972.
Cumming, E., and Henry, W. E. Growing Old. New York: Basic Books, 1961.
Dannefer, D. ‘‘Aging As Intracohort Differentiation: Accentuation, the Matthew Effect, and the Life Course.’’ Sociological Forum 2 (1987): 211–235.
Dannefer, D. ‘‘Differential Gerontology and the Stratified Life Course: Conceptual and Methodological Issues.’’ In Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Vol. 8. Edited by G. L. Maddox and M. P. Lawton. New York: Springer. 1988. Pages 3–36.
Dannefer, D., and Uhlenberg, P. ‘‘Paths of the Life Course: A Typology.’’ In Handbook of Theories of Aging. Edited by V. L. Bengston and K. W. Schale. New York: Springer, 1999.
Easterlin, R. Birth and Fortune. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
Elder, G. H., Jr. Children of the Great Depression. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.
Elder, G. H., Jr., and Liker, J. ‘‘Hard Times in Women’s Lives: Historical Differences across 40 Years.’’ American Journal of Sociology 58 (1982): 241–269.
Hogan, D. Transitions and Social Change: The Early Lives of American Men. New York: Academic Press, 1981.
Katz, S. Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
Kuypers, J., and Bengtson, V. L. ‘‘Perspectives On The Older Family.’’ In Independent Aging: Family and Social Systems Perspectives. Edited by W. H. Quinn and C. A. Houghston. Rockville, Md.: Aspen Systems, 1984.
Morss, J. R. The Biologising of Childhood: Developmental Psychology and the Darwinian Myth. East Sussex, U.K.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.
Neugarten, B. L., and Hagestad, G. O. ‘‘Age and the Life Course.’’ In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. Edited by R. H. Binstock and E. Shanas. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976. Pages 35–55.
Riley, M. W.; Johnson, M. E.; and Foner, A. Aging and Society, Vol. III: A Sociology of Age Stratification. New York: Russell Sage, 1972.
Riley, M. W.; Kahn, R. L.; and Foner, A. Age and Structural Lag: Society’s Failure to Provide Meaningful Opportunities for Work, Family and Leisure. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1972.
Waring, J. ‘‘Social Replenishment and Social Change.’’ American Behavioral Scientist 19 (1975): 237–256.
"Theories, Social." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/theories-social
"Theories, Social." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/theories-social
Social theory begins with ordinary questions, like why do some passively accept authority while others respond with political violence? Religions provided answers in a distant past. Social theory emerged as a secular alternative, often joining ethical and positive elements. Three traditions of social theory are important for the social sciences.
A first tradition comes from Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). After years of bloody warfare between Catholics and Protestants, Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) offered a worldly theory of social order. What was really at issue was power. As an early example of what would be termed ideology critique, Hobbes asks “cui bono?”—whose interest does this idea serve? People obey, he argued, because of fear of violent death. Social order thus turns on who has ultimate power over violence. If there is not one final authority, there would be war of all against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Better, he argued, is a society founded on fear of a great leviathan, whose power guarantees stability.
Leviathan relied on no Absolute Good, whether God or Nature. In tracing all “higher” ideas to “lower” things—power, fear, death, the body, violence—Hobbes set the tone for one main strand of social theorizing. This approach continued in writers from Karl Marx (1818–1883) to Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). While each differs, they are Hobbesian in asking “cui bono?”—and answering with a complex power struggle, even if it is denied, for example, in art, religion, and morality. This first type of social theory ferrets out hidden power structures behind everyday interactions and institutions.
Hobbes’s stress on fear led others to ask: Does not social order depend on more? What of obligation or love? How could the passions of a millennium and a half of Christianity be redirected onto earth, without producing the disastrous consequences Hobbes feared?
Such questions led to a second strand of social theory, stemming from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). He emphasized not fear but devotion as the foundation of social order. In our long-forgotten natural condition, Rousseau argued, we were independent, loving ourselves for ourselves; but society creates new needs, amour propre : We love ourselves based upon how much others love us. Not power, but the struggle for recognition and status regulates social order.
For Rousseau, justice can transcend nature and inequality. Justice depends in turn on the social contract, wherein each person must totally submit to the general will. Private freedom, he argued, depended on public equality, which required a “lawgiver.” Moreover, the social bond, to last, should be held sacred.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) and V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) transformed the lawgiver into the revolutionary vanguard; the redefined social contract was the abolition of private property, as the condition of freedom and justice. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) later pursued Rousseau’s connections between social solidarity and religious sentiment.
Critical theorists—Theodore Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), Axel Honneth—explored how modern societies create vast inequalities, not only in wealth, but respect and self-worth. They expanded Rousseau’s ideas that culture can create unnecessary dependencies, focusing on the “culture industry”—the popular press, music, movies, advertising, and fashions. These sought to promote “needs” like Marx’s false consciousness, where people became blinded to their own interests and dependent upon corporate and political masters. Some, like David Riesman (1909–2002), extended Rousseau’s amour propre to the 1950s conformism of American “other-directedness,” while others, like Daniel Bell, analyzed how politicians and corporations could shift the erotic into a political ideology. Thus social theory identified key foundations of power, even if exercised in subtle arenas.
These first two traditions invoke a strong state to right social wrongs, as theoretically defined. The third tradition is more cautious. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was equally concerned with the roots of order and governance, but took a different course. Writing after the French Revolution (1789–1799), Tocqueville the aristocrat pondered the implications of equality. Societies emphasizing equality—like postrevolutionary America and France—were hostile toward exceptional talent and excellence; they could level out uniqueness and difference, generating a middling mediocrity. Moreover, equality threatened social identity and meaning: In a hierarchical society, one knew one’s place and did not have to anxiously make one’s place. In equalized societies, all is in doubt: Foreign observers regularly noted that Americans suffered a permanent “identity crisis,” which was spreading globally at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Traveling across America, Tocqueville commented on the deleterious effects of equality, and potential remedies. Loosed from primordial hierarchies, Americans, he argued, developed a passion for voluntary associations. The town hall and the local church were key examples, sustained by their members’ voluntary efforts more than the weight of tradition or the power of elites (or a leviathan or lawgiver). What mattered was commitment by each participant, and Americans were joiners. The strongest social structures, Tocqueville argued, emerged not just through struggles for power or regard of others, but by citizens voluntarily developing shared commitments in local associations, which trained future leaders.
Tocqueville’s voluntaristic, bottom-up approach informs a third strand of social theorizing. Max Weber (1864–1920) stressed voluntarism in probing the religious roots of capitalism. Capitalists did not just strive to make money. Rather, Weber argued, Puritan sects encouraged their members to seek salvation in voluntary, committed “good works”—against the old nobility that valued leisure over work. Capitalism was the unintended consequence. Though Weber felt we inherited an “iron cage” of capitalist society that we did not choose, his response was voluntaristic: If you are a scholar, do it as a “vocation,” not as a heartless specialist; if you are a politician, lead, do not act as a technocratic bureaucrat. Voluntary commitment was key. In egalitarian America, every social interaction among equal citizens became a source of identity, obligation, and meaning, following G. H. Mead (1863–1931), C. H. Cooley (1864–1929), and Herbert Blumer (1900–1987). Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) extended voluntarism to critique past social theories, but like Weber joined basic values with individual choices. Edward Shils (1911–1995) and Daniel Elazar (1934–1999) continued Tocqueville’s concern for hierarchy, honor, and glory, noting that even within an egalitarian society, they remain social powers. Still others, such as Robert Putnam, suggest that the individualistic strain in voluntarism has gone so far in contemporary American life that the commonwealth Tocqueville saw had weakened, as more Americans “bowl alone.” Some postmodernists are so individualistic and egalitarian that they deny the possibility of meaning beyond the minds of separate individuals.
These three traditions have been revised and combined in efforts to interpret deep social changes. Consider the rise of industry, the division of labor, and bureaucratic organization in the theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.
Marx, working in London, wrote of the English countryside transformed by industrial manufacturing; he saw people from all races and religions living near factories. These proletarians were a nascent class, opposed to capitalist/owners of the forces of production. In his theory, conflicts between such classes drove history.
Durkheim saw similar changes, but focused on the division of labor. Traditional societies, he argued, held together from pressures toward homogeneity. Modern societies are more like organisms. Social cohesion arises from interdependence; individuals perform specialized functions and develop a heightened sense of uniqueness. But without some firm social regulation, normlessness or “anomie” can undermine differentiated societies. Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998) extended Durkheim’s social differentiation into multiple, interconnected subsystems that fill different social functions, while others, such as Robert Merton (1910–2003), developed the idea of anomie and deviance as central to modern life.
Max Weber, writing in Germany, stressed the hierarchical rationality of government bureaucratic officials. Bureaucracies are ancient, but Weber stressed how modern organizations grew ever larger, more rational, and more hierarchical. Not only was the bureaucrat’s personality stunted by his duties, everyone risked bureaucratization—since it was balanced increasingly less by the charisma of religion or respect for tradition. Seeking a “value-neutral” perspective, Weber posited that modern society is increasingly subject to “rational authority,” as opposed to “traditional” or “charismatic authority.” But the theory also had a quasi-moral intent, namely, to provide modern models for styles of action—rooted in the bonds of tradition or the electricity of charisma—which Weber saw threatened by the cold, abstract rationalism of bureaucracy.
Rationality was a political weapon that Enlightenment philosophers used to attack the “irrationality” of the ancient regime before the French Revolution of 1789. The secular theories of Hobbes and Rousseau helped refocus thinking on specific secular arrangements, rather than divinities or kings. But the legacy of this rational approach proved so powerful that Weber feared its excess. Analysis and criticism of rationalism in modern society have been among the most doggedly pursued strands of twentieth-century social thought, especially by Jürgen Habermas and other critical theorists and postmodernists.
Since Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, social theories have continued to stretch the imagination, seeking to capture the times and perhaps guide them. New topics emerge with new social forces: the massive rise of cities and new urban lifestyles; mass media, electronic media, and mass education; increased global interconnection; general increase in leisure time across societies; and a resurgence in the global power of religions are but a few of the subjects whose causes and meanings social theorists continue to pursue.
SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Blumer, Herbert; Bourdieu, Pierre; Bureaucracy; Class; Critical Theory; Durkheim, Émile; Egalitarianism; False Consciousness; Foucault, Michel; Hobbes, Thomas; Identity Crisis; Individualism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Lonely Crowd, The; Marcuse, Herbert; Marx, Karl; Mead, George Herbert; Nationalism and Nationality; Parsons, Talcott; Protestant Ethic; Revolution; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Psychology; Social Science; Sociology; Tocqueville, Alexis de; Weber, Max; World-System
Lemert, Charles, ed. and commentator. 2004. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Parsons, Talcott, Edward Shils, Kaspar D. Naegele, and Jesse R. Pitts. 1965. Theories of Society. 2 vols. London: Collier-Macmillan.
Terry Nichols Clark
"Social Theory." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-theory
"Social Theory." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-theory
"social theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-theory
"social theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-theory