Gouldner, Alvin W.

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Gouldner, Alvin W. (1920–81) An American sociologist who eventually became as much a critical intellectual as a sociologist. His early work was recognized as important within the then orthodox sociological framework, especially Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy (1954), but even at that stage he adopted a critical attitude towards the dominant functionalist perspective. His essay ‘Anti-Minataur: The Myth of a Value-Free Sociology’, published in 1964, was a controversial interpretation of Max Weber's work, arguing that Weber did not believe sociology was capable of simple objectivity, although his name was often erroneously used to support such a proposition.

From the beginning Gouldner was influenced by European traditions of thought (see Enter Plato, 1967
) and he himself eventually settled in Europe. His most influential work was The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970). This offers a substantial and exhaustive argument for a so-called reflexive sociology. Against the view that science in general and sociology in particular is concerned with producing objective truths, Gouldner argued that knowledge is not independent of the knower, and that sociology is intimately bound up with the political and socio-economic context in which it exists. It is therefore important to be aware of this connection and of sociology's role as part of the way we look at ourselves and our future. The book was critical of all the mainstream approaches of modern sociology, but the major part was devoted to a systematic critique of Parsonsian structural-functionalism.

His later work did not have the same impact but pursues similar themes. He insisted on a need for at least an attempt at a totalizing theoretical critique of modern culture and was concerned with the nature of intellectuals as a new class. His criticism of Marxism and of intellectuals made a distinction between those who see themselves as producing objective knowledge about society and history, on the one hand, and on the other critical thinkers who are less concerned with objective truth than with understanding history in order to change it. His sympathies clearly lie with the latter. In this context, he argued that ideology should not be taken simply as falsehood used in the interests of a dominant group, although this is often the case: it is developed by intellectuals but has a wider reach and depth and can also become a means of social transformation. These ideas are expounded in The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology (1976), The Two Marxisms (1980), and Against Fragmentation (1985).