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Belarus State Economic University


«Basic perspectives and schools of developing sociology in the XX century»

Minsk 2008

In the XX century sociological science has undergone considerable changes. Modern sociology presents an extremely complex system of theories, conceptions, hypotheses, methods and ways of investigating social phenomena. Of importance is the fact that the evolution of main perspectives and schools of modern Western sociology went along simultaneously on its three levels: theoretic, applied and empiric. Empiric researches had been carried out before but they didn’t bear a systematic character; neither had they some developed methodology and methods of research.

An empiric direction that appeared in the XX century can be considered an opposition to the theoretic constructions of classical sociology of the XIX century. It was given birth by the attempts to overcome theorizing of social philosophy, on the one hand, and by the necessity to solve practical issues of governing social processes, on the other hand.

Most actively sociology developed in the USA to meet some significant needs; first, to extend beyond the framework of the European tradition, second, due to the necessities required by a fast development of American industrial society and practical implementation of newly appeared social problems.

American sociology is represented by numerous schools and directions and the Chicago school is one of them. When the University of Chicago was founded in 1892, it established the nation’s first department of sociology. The study of sociology was still a relatively undeveloped field, but by the 1920s the department had become nationally famous as the department pioneered research on urban studies, poverty, the family, the workplace, immigrants, ethnic and race relations, and developed important research methods using mapping and survey techniques. From the 1920s to the 1930s, urban sociology was almost synonymous with the work of the Chicago school.

The major researchers in this school included William Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, Robert Park, Louis Wirth, Ernest Burgess, Everett Hughes, and Robert McKenzie. The books which opened the school were The City: Suggestion for the Investigation of Human Behaviour in the City Environment by R. Park and a big monograph Polish peasant in Europe and America 1918-1920 by F. Znaniecki and W. Thomas.

Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958) is a philosopher and sociologist who taught and wrote in Poland and the United States. He gained international fame as the co-author with William Thomas (1863-1947) of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America that is considered the foundation of modern empirical sociology and humanist sociology. In this work, analyzing private documents (letters, diaries, memoirs etc.) the sociologists investigated the problems of migrants’ adaptation to a new social and cultural milieu.

The Chicago School of Sociology grew to prominence under Robert E. Park (1864-1944). Along with E. Burgess and L. Wirth, Park created a theoretical basis for a systematic study of the society. Along with W. Thomas, he gave major impetus to the movement which shifted sociology from social philosophy to an inductive science of human behaviour. A partial list of the fields in which Park made significant contributions includes social psychology and the theory of personality; studies on the community; the city; human ecology (he coined the term); the social survey (as an institution); crowd and public – the field of collective behaviour (R. Park is often called the sociologist of collective behaviour); and most of all, race relations and conflicts of cultures. In the field of method he made valuable contributions as to the use of life histories, guided and unguided, for the investigation of personality.

But in the 1940-50s the leadership in developing empiric sociology was captured by Columbia and Harvard Universities. An important role was played by Robert Merton, a student of P.A. Sorokin who was actively engaged in applied sociological researches at Columbia University. His activities greatly encouraged the growth of prestige of empiric sociology in the USA as being unity of theory and method.

At Harvard University Elton Mayor (1880-1949) and his colleagues were also actively engaged in applied sociological researches. They conducted experiments at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant outside Chicago, starting in 1924 and running through 1936. The Hawthorne experiments or Hawthorne Studies were intended to bring about a greater understanding of the effects of working conditions, wages and other social factors on worker productivity. The results of the experiments were contrary to the management theory of the time and were a key in understanding motivation factors in employment. Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name. ... 1933 was a common year starting on Sunday (link will take you to calendar). ...They were:

  • revision of the role of the human factor in production and retreat from the previous conception of a worker as an “economic” man whose pragmatic aims were of primary importance;

  • discovery of the informal organization within the labour collective that became indicative of complex mechanisms of social life in the organization;

  • people’s work performance is dependent on both social issues and job content;

  • tension between workers’ “logic of sentiment” and managers’ “logic of cost and efficiency” could lead to conflict within organizations.

The Hawthorne Effect originally referred to the increase in worker productivity observed when a worker is singled out and made to feel important. ... Western Electric (sometimes abbreviated WECo) was a US electrical engineering company, the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone Company from 1881 to 1984 . ... Scientific management or Taylorism is the name of the approach to management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology initiated by Frederick Winslow Taylor in his 1911 monograph The Principles of Scientific Management. ..The Hawthorne studies had a profound effect on the field of organizational development and with publishing Mayor’s book, The Human Problems of an Industrialized Civilization, The field of organizational development (OD) is concerned with the performance, development, and effectiveness of human organizations. ..initiated development of industrial sociology, in particular, sociology of management, the human relations movement in management and organizational thinking.

Structural functionalism. Another important direction in sociology of the XX century became structural functionalism headed by Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), a central figure at Harvard University who was the best-known sociologist in the United States, and one of the best-known celebrities in the world for many years. Structural functionalism occupies an intermediate position between classical and contemporary sociology. But T. Parsons and his functional approach became so influential and dominant that by the late 1950s sociology and functionalism became more or less identical. This meant that sociology studied the roles of institutions and social behaviour in the society, the way these are related to other social features, and developed explanations of the society in social terms. It was developed in T. Parsons’ major publications such as The Structure of Social Action (1937), The Social System (1951), Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960) etc.

Structural functionalism is built on two emphases: application of the scientific method to the objective social world and use of an analogy between the human’s organism and society. The emphasis on the scientific method leads to the assertion that one can study social world in the same way as one can study physical world. Thus, functionalists see social world as “objectively real”, observable with such techniques as social surveys and interviews. In this way functionalism was not new as many of these ideas go back to E. Durkheim who was one of the first sociologists to make use of scientific and statistical techniques in sociological research.

The second emphasis, a key to T. Parsons’ theory, is on the organic unity of the society, i.e. each society is a system of social structures (economic, legal, educational, gender ones) with certain needs which must be met by social institutions for a social system to exist. Goods and services must be produced and distributed in order for people to survive, there must be some administration of justice, a political system must exist, and some family structure must operate to provide a means to reproduce the population and maintain social life on a daily basis. In the structural functional model, individuals carry out these tasks in various institutions and roles that are consistent with the structures and norms of the society.

Four “functional imperatives” that every group or society tends to fulfill are often coded as AGIL:

  • adaptation to the physical and social milieu;

  • goal attainment, which is the need to define primary goals and enlist people to strive to attain these goals;

  • integration, the coordination of the society or group as a cohesive whole;

  • latency, maintaining the motivation of people to perform their roles according to social expectations.

In the society the function of adaptation is fulfilled by economy, that of goal-attainment – by politics, integration – by law and culture and latency – by family, school, church etc.

One of the central categories in T. Parsons’ theory is the category of social action the components of which are an actor, a situation and the actor’s orientation toward the situation. T. Parsons sees an actor – an individual or a collectivity as motivated to spend energy in reaching a desirable goal, as defined by the cultural system. So the actor operates in a situation with conditions he can’t control and means as things he can have control over, but within a certain normative framework. The norms have been internalized by the actor so that the actor is “motivated to act appropriately”. T. Parsons asserted that action is rooted in norms and bounded by values.

So, functionalist analysis often focuses on the individual, usually with the intent to show how individual behaviour is moulded by broader social forces. Though individual actors are spoken about as decision-makers, some critics suggested that functionalists treated individuals as puppets, whose decisions are a predictable result of their location in the social structure and of the norms and expectations they have internalized. In any case, functionalists tended to be less concerned with the ways in which individuals can control their own destiny than with the ways in which the limits imposed by the society make individual behaviour scientifically predictable.

As for T. Parsons, he also contributed to the field of social evolutionism. He divided evolution into four subprocesses:

1) division, which creates functional subsystems from the main system,

2) adaptation, where those systems evolve into more efficient versions,

3) inclusion of elements previously excluded from the given systems and

4) generalization of values, increasing the legitimization of the ever more complex system.

He shows those processes on three stages of evolution: 1) primitive, 2) archaic and 3) modern. Archaic societies have the knowledge of writing, while modern have the knowledge of law. T. Parsons viewed the Western civilisation as the pinnacle of modern societies, and out of all Western cultures he declared the United States as the most dynamically developed. This caused him to be attacked as an ethnocentrist.

T. Parsons’ late work focused on a new theoretical synthesis around four functions common to all systems of action, from behavioural to cultural, and a set of symbolic media that enable communication across them. This attempt to span the world with four concepts was too much for many American sociologists, who were then undergoing a retreat from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical approach.

Another prominent functionalist Robert Merton (1910-2003) proposed a number of important distinctions to avoid potential weaknesses in the basic perspective. First, he distinguishes between manifest and latent functions: respectively, those which are recognized and intended by actors in the social system and hence may represent motives for their actions, and those which are unrecognized and, thus, unintended by the actors. Second, he distinguishes between consequences which are positively functional for a society, those which are dysfunctional for the society, and those which are neither. Third, he distinguishes between levels of the society, that is, the specific social units for which regularized patterns of behaviour are functional or dysfunctional. Finally, he concedes that the particular social structures which satisfy functional needs of the society are not indispensable, but that structural alternatives may exist which can also satisfy the same functional needs.

Sociological positivism of P.A. Sorokin. Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889-1968), a migrant from Russia, was one of the most colorful, erudite and controversial figures in American sociology. His merit consisted in formulation of scientific principles of the system of sociology. After coming to the USA P.A. Sorokin started working at the University of Minnesota. Fame came to him there after he had written six books in six years; four of them defined their fields at the time: Social Mobility (1927), Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928), Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology (1929) and A Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology (1929).

Then P.A. Sorokin worked at Harvard University where he explored a lot of different directions. He came to Harvard as a positivistic, comparative and scientific sociologist that’s why his doctrine is called sociological positivism. Later he moved towards philosophy of history. His monumental work, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941) spanned over 2,500 years and attempted to isolate the principles of social change. The problems described in Dynamics took P.A. Sorokin to the analysis of civilization’s crisis and social, political and economic calamities inherent in modern culture. Diagnosing the times as those of a decaying sensate civilization, the sociologist speculated that world was moving towards a difficult and bloody period of transition. With these concerns in mind his research turned to the analysis of conflict, war and revolution, to the search for a comprehensive philosophical foundation for knowledge and to a direct means for dealing with social problems and improving the human condition. For the next twenty years he wrote mainly on war, integralism and altruism. As a humanistic scholar, he wanted to understand the conditions which led to war and the methods by which they could be treated and reduced. Similar values informed his later works on revolution and institutional violence.

Another merit by P.A. Sorokin is his theory of social stratification and social mobility. It states that the society is divided into strata (layers) that differentiate from each other by their wealth, activities, political views, cultural orientations etc. Thus, they serve as the basis for identifying the main forms of social stratification such as economic, political and occupational ones.

Social mobility is understood as any transition of an individual or social object from one social position to another. There are two principal types of social mobility, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal mobility, or shifting, is a transition of a person or social object from one social group to another situated on the same level. Transitions of individuals from one family (as a husband or wife) to another by divorce and remarriage, from one factory to another in the same occupational status, are all instances of horizontal mobility. So, too, are transitions of social objects, such as fashion, scientific or political ideas from the country of origin to other ones. In all these cases, “shifting” may take place without any noticeable change of the social position of a person or social object in the horizontal direction. Vertical mobility is a transition of a person or a social object from one social stratum to another which is accompanied with noticeable changes in his or its characteristics.

One more problem P.A. Sorokin tried to solve is that of social equality. He considered necessary to provide an individual with as much material and spiritual wealth as much socially useful labour he invested (or by his merit). The egalitarian system of any society (social equality) suggests everybody’s equality to be subject to law, equal rights to occupy public posts, equal political rights (as those of freedom of speech, conscious, union etc.) and equal rights to education.

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