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Ritzer: Contemporary Sociological Theory Book Cover
Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics
George Ritzer, University of Maryland

Classical Grand Theories

Chapter Overview

Emile Durkheim on Mechanical and Organic Solidarity

All of the theories discussed in this chapter are grand theories — highly ambitious theoretical efforts to narrate and analyze social phenomena over the long run of history. Emile Durkheim argued in his version of a grand theory that an increasing division of labor led to a transformation from mechanical solidarity in primitive societies to organic solidarity in modern societies. In Durkheim’s view, a change in dynamic density — the number of people and their frequency of interaction — was the key mechanism in driving the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Durkheim argued that this long-term transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity led to a decline in the power of the collective conscience to link the members of a collectivity. The shift from repressive law to restitutive law generally signals this decline in the power of the collective conscience. In Durkheim’s grand theory, societies characterized by organic solidarity, with its weakened collective conscience, tend to suffer from anomie — a sense of not knowing what one is expected to do. Anomie, in Durkheim’s view, is the major pathology of societies characterized by organic solidarity, and therefore the most pressing underlying social problem with which modern societies must cope.

Karl Marx on Capitalism and Communism

Karl Marx created a grand theory that attempts to explain the historical development of capitalism, its workings, and the course of its transformation to communism. He based his critique of capitalism on a set of assumptions about human potential, which he called species being. All societies that had existed historically — and especially capitalist societies — had retarded or constrained the exercise of full human potential. Under capitalism, this leads to alienation, or the breakdown of the natural interconnections between people and their productive activities, the products they produce, the fellow workers with whom they produce things, and with what they are potentially capable of becoming. This is especially the case, according to Marx, among the members of the working class. In Marx’s grand theory, capitalism leads to the emergence of two classes: the bourgeoisie (or capitalists), who own the means of production; and the proletariat (or workers), who must sell their labor in order to gain access to the means of production and make a living. Marx’s labor theory of value — according to which the value of a product is determined by the labor put into producing it — dictates that the relationship between the capitalists and the proletariat is one of exploitation. In other words, since proletarians add all of the value to a product by transforming raw material with their labor, and the capitalists reap the profits, then the capitalists exploit the proletarians. False consciousness, however, obscures this exploitation from both the capitalists and the workers. In Marx’s theory, the workers must attain class consciousness in order to grasp the reality of this exploitation. The capitalists, however, are too wrapped up in making profits, and are thus incapable of grasping the reality of exploitation. In order to transform their unbearable conditions, the workers must first attain class consciousness and then engage in praxis, or concrete action. In other words, for Marx, social change is a matter of taking action rather than simply addressing exploitation intellectually. Marx believed that such concrete action on the part of the workers would lead to a revolution that would establish a communist society. While Marx never drafted a detailed blueprint for communism, he did believe that it would create, for the first time in history, a social system capable of nurturing full human potential.

Max Weber on the Rationalization of Society

Max Weber’s grand theory begins with his formulation of four types of rationality: practical, theoretical, substantive, and formal. It is often argued that Weber’s focus was on formal rationality and the ways in which it contributed to a historical process — rationalization — that transformed the Western world. Weber’s intellectual interest in rationalization led him to study the historical forces that both enabled rationalization in the West and constrained it elsewhere. Foremost among these forces was religion. Weber argued that the Protestant ethic contributed profoundly to the rationalization of the Western world — to such an extent, in fact, that it spurred the development of modern capitalism. Weber also studied other religions — such as Confucianism and Hinduism — and concluded that the ethics of these religions constrained rationalization and the development of capitalism. Weber was also interested in different types of authority, or forms of legitimate domination. He developed a typology of authority structures, which consisted of traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal types of authority. These types of authority are ideal types, or models that scholars can use to compare various specific examples of a phenomenon either across cases or over time. Weber was most interested in the rational-legal type of authority and how empirical approximations to it contributed to rationalization.

Georg Simmel on the Tragedy of Culture

Georg Simmel’s grand theory focuses mainly on what he called the tragedy of culture. In order to understand Simmel’s tragedy of culture, one must first grasp his distinction between objective and subjective culture. Objective culture consists of the objects that people produce in the realms of science, philosophy, art, etc. Subjective culture is the capacity of individuals to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture. In short, the tragedy of culture occurs when the growth of objective culture outpaces the growth of subjective culture. An increasing division of labor both drives the growth of objective culture and forces individuals to specialize. The consequence of this growth of objective culture and specialization is that individuals are unable to grasp the totality of objective culture and are unable to control it.

Thorstein Veblen on Business and Industry

Thorstein Veblen’s grand theory centers on the increasing control of business over industry and the negative consequences of this development. According to Veblen, business is concerned mostly with money. In other words, business organizations are concerned primarily with profit, rather than the interest of a larger community, production, or craftsmanship. Industry, on the other hand, is the understanding and productive use of mechanized processes on a large scale. Those people who are most involved in workmanship and production — such as the working classes — tend to take an industrial orientation to the world. The conflict between the two comes when business restricts production in order to keep prices and profits high. The consequence is that the dominance of business tends to retard the development of industry. Veblen was also concerned with consumption, and this distinguishes him from the other theorists discussed in this chapter. Veblen formulated two concepts, conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, which are central to his theory of consumption. Conspicuous consumption refers to the consumption of goods that increase peoples’ states and thereby create invidious distinctions. Conspicuous leisure refers to the non-productive use of time as a means of elevating status and creating invidious distinctions between people.