Politics and the Social Sciences
Students in Revolt
The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970
“The year 1968 marks a watershed in the history of democratic mass politics: the quiet years of accommodation, integration and domestication were finally over, new waves of mobilization and countermobilization brought a number of Western democracies out of equilibrium, a new generation challenged the assumptions and the rhetoric of the old.
“The year 1968 also marks a watershed in the history of the international discipline of political sociology: the violent eruption of new forces did not only challenge the models and the theories of the fifties and the early sixties, but also forced a revaluation of data-gathering techniques and analysis strategies.”
This is not criticism, but self-criticism. The passage comes from the Preface by S.M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan to a collection of conference papers on political sociology, published in 1968.1 It provokes a number of interesting questions. What kind of science is it, one may ask, that can be so completely overthrown, in the space of a few months, by a student revolt? And if it has been overthrown, if the events of 1968 do really oblige us to revise fundamentally the theories, models, and methods of research in political sociology, what new ideas and approaches are to be discovered in the work of Lipset himself, who was, in the 1950s and the early 1960s, one of the chief exponents of those notorious doctrines, proclaiming the “end of ideology” and the achievement of “stable democracy” in the Western industrial countries,2 which are now to be abandoned? More widely, what alternative theories have emerged in the social sciences to take the place of the discredited views which Lipset once propounded?
The growing dissatisfaction with the state of sociological and political theory at the present time is unmistakable. Lipset alludes to it in one of his most recent papers—the Introduction to Politics and the Social Sciences (1969)—where he writes: “some now see in system theory only another variant of a conceptual scheme whose basic utility is as an intellectual organizing framework, but which in fact does not submit itself to the cardinal test of science—empirical verification.” But although system theory, especially in its sociological version—functionalism—may in this way provide a set of categories for classifying social phenomena rather than a body of explanatory propositions, it does nonetheless convey a particular interpretation of the nature of human society.
The essential idea upon which it rests is that every society should be conceived as a system in equilibrium; and that any disturbance of this equilibrium should be seen as provoking a responsive adaptation in the various subsystems of society so that equilibrium is restored and the society is maintained in its original, or a slightly modified, form. This idea found its strongest expression in that version of functionalism (expounded principally by Talcott Parsons) in which the force that brings about equilibrium, adaptation, and integration is defined as a “central value system”; that is, a set of fundamental values, presumed to be accepted by all or most members of…
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