The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology
Recent Sociology No. 1
Sociology in its Place and Other Essays
The “new sociology” was proclaimed some years ago. Growing mainly out of the work of C. Wright Mills, it was connected, through him, with the doctrines and movements of the New Left in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But just as the New Left grew old quite quickly and was supplanted by still newer movements, so also the new sociology, without ever having established itself properly as a distinct style of social thought, has been pushed aside by yet more recent attempts to give sociology a fresh orientation. In less than a decade we have had “critical sociology,” “radical sociology,” and such innovations, less closely tied to political commitments, as ethnomethodology and structuralism—not to speak of the Sociology Liberation Movement, which is perhaps more a mode of feeling than of thinking. Now Alvin Gouldner offers us yet another diversion in the shape of “reflexive sociology,” or the sociologist contemplating his own navel.
This proliferation and rapid circulation of doctrines can easily be taken as the sign of an intellectual crisis, accompanying a crisis in social life which manifests itself in diverse movements of protest and opposition and in sporadic rebellions. The nature of such a situation is well described by Norman Birnbaum in an essay on the crisis in Marxist sociology, contributed to Dreitzel’s volume:
A doctrinal or theoretic crisis in a system of thought occurs when either of two sets of abstract conditions obtains. In one case the possibilities of internal development of a system exhaust themselves; the system’s categories become incapable of transformation; the discussion generated by the system becomes scholastic, in the pejorative sense of the term. In the other case the realities apprehended by the system in its original form change, so much so that the categories are inapplicable to new conditions. It is clear that these two sets of conditions often obtain simultaneously; particularly for systems dealing with the historical movement of society, the two sets of conditions of crisis are often quite inseparable.
Sociology has quite frequently experienced crises of this kind. Considering only its recent history we can see how the “progressive” sociology of the 1930s (represented by the work of Robert Lynd, for example, and of many Marxist writers) lost much of its vigor and relevance with the end of the economic depression, the outbreak of war, and the postwar reconstruction in which political debate and public policy in most Western countries came to be dominated by ideas of economic growth in the domestic sphere, and of conflict between democracy and totalitarianism in world affairs. Similarly, the postwar “conservative” sociology (of such writers as Parsons, Lipset, Ells, Shils, and Aron), which grew largely out of these changed conditions, began to lose its ability to interpret social events in a convincing manner when new cultural and political movements appeared which challenged or forsook established ways of life in many industrial countries.
The turmoil through which we have lived, at least from 1956 to 1968, makes it seem rather odd that Gouldner should write about a coming crisis in sociology. One way of interpreting this idea that the crisis lies in the future is to suppose that Gouldner is referring to a time when the dominant schools of sociology will be confronted by a well-articulated alternative theory of society, based (as he suggests) upon a new “structure of sentiments” and new “domain assumptions.” 1 But the emergence of such a theory would be much more a resolution than a precipitation of an intellectual crisis. New ideas would then direct sociological inquiry, a new agreement about significant problems would be established, and some of the controversies which still rage—about social stability and change, about consensus and conflict—might cheerfully be forgotten or consigned to the history of the subject.
An essential element in Gouldner’s conception of an approaching crisis is his portrayal of the present state of affairs as one in which two established schools of thought—functionalism and Marxism—continue to dominate social theory and are only just beginning to be challenged. A large part of his book is devoted to a critical examination of Talcott Parsons’s theoretical system, on the grounds that American sociology can be equated with functionalism, and functionalism in turn with Parsons’s theory. The attention which he gives to this theory may well seem excessive; first, because he does not go beyond the criticisms which have been leveled against it for some time now; and secondly, because it is very doubtful (and Gouldner does not demonstrate in any way) that functionalism, and more particularly Parsons’s version of it, has enjoyed such a commanding intellectual position during the last decade even in American sociology, while in Europe it never achieved pre-eminence at all.
Marxism, as the rival sociological system, is discussed very briefly and inadequately, and its development is presented in a most misleading way. Gouldner acknowledges that Marxism was, from the beginning, a major oppositional current within Western sociology, but he does not examine any of the theoretical controversies which this opposition engendered, and still engenders; instead, he reaches the conclusion that Marxism and functionalism now confront each other, geographically demarcated, on a world scale—the one embodied in Soviet sociology, the other in American sociology—in a conflict which is only mitigated by mutual borrowing and adaptation.
This may have a limited political sense. Paraphrasing Marx we might say that the ruling ideas in the world are the ideas of the ruling powers; and that the two superpowers confront each other ideologically armed with supersociologies. But this fact is connected only in an indirect and complicated way with the state of sociological thought. In order to establish his neat contrast between Western and non-Western sociology Gouldner, having made Parsons the standard-bearer of Western sociology, has to identify Marxism with Soviet Marxism, to present it as a unified, coherent, and dominant theory, and to ignore the long-standing crisis in Marxist thought.
Against this view it needs to be observed that Marxist thought has flourished principally outside the USSR, in France, Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, and perhaps in China; that it has assumed diverse, much revised, and tentative forms; and that the intellectual debate about the nature of Marxism as a theory of society has already affected Marxism as a political creed, even in the USSR and quite evidently in other countries of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, Marxist ideas (though not Soviet Marxism) now have a greater influence in Western sociology than they have had for many decades. As Dreitzel notes in his Introduction there has emerged “a new readiness to utilize the Marxist point of view”; not in the sense of accepting the Marxist theory of society, but in the sense of using various ideas, diversely interpreted, which stem from Marxism, in order to raise new problems or to criticize other approaches.
There is another sense, however, in which a crisis may be approaching that brings into question not a particular version of sociology but sociology itself. As Robert Nisbet observed in The Sociological Tradition, sociology was formed in the crisis of the transition to an industrial capitalist society in the European countries. Its distinctive array of problems and ideas was formed in the period from the 1830s to the end of the nineteenth century, when the urban, democratic, industrial, bureaucratic, secular societies in which we now live were being created; and as Nisbet argues, we continue to see the social world through the medium of these ideas.
From this point of view the changes in sociological thought between the 1930s and the end of the 1950s appear as variations upon a theme. The radical sociology of the 1930s, especially in its Marxist form, was largely derivative; it made use of traditional ideas, often very crudely under Stalinist influence, and it produced no original thought such as had appeared earlier in the century, at the peak of the European revolutionary movement, in the writings of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Gramsci.
The conservative sociology which succeeded it was equally derivative; in one of its manifestations, the theoretical system of Talcott Parsons, it was to a large extent a summation, in a particularly arid and scholastic form, of the most conservative elements in the thought of the classical sociologists, emphasizing, for example, Max Weber’s “types of social action” and his characterization of capitalism rather than his theory of historical change, and giving prominence to Pareto’s concept of social equilibrium while virtually ignoring Marx.
The rapid and profound transformation of economic and social structure which has been going on in the industrial countries since the war, and the cultural and political movements of opposition to which it has given rise, pose the question of whether we are now involved in a major change from one form of human society to another, comparable in its extent and significance with the first transition from agrarian to industrial society. The possibility of such a fundamental change seems to underlie much of the recent self-questioning among sociologists. Gouldner refers to it when he writes of the changing structure of sentiments, especially in the younger generation; and the same phenomenon is observed from a different aspect by Reinhard Bendix in several of the essays in Embattled Reason.
Bendix accepts that the general orientation of sociology is strongly affected by currents of thought and feeling in society at large, and he quotes approvingly Max Weber’s observation that
At some time the colour changes: men become uncertain about the significance of the viewpoints which they have used unreflectively. The path becomes lost in the dusk. The light of the great problems of culture has passed on. Then science also prepares to change its standpoint and its conceptual apparatus in order to look down from the heights of thought upon the current of events.
Unlike Weber, however, Bendix fears that it is science itself, the embodiment of reason in modern societies, which is now being rejected. That the fear has some justification is indicated by the marked hostility to technology which has developed in some social groups in the industrial countries, and by some of the new attitudes within sociology itself which instead of finding virtue in its “scientific” character, as was usual not very long ago, now condemn its aim to become an empirical and positive science.
But the fear is also exaggerated. Romanticism itself—a new wave of imagination and feeling—ends in thought and theories, and the present-day cultural movements seem more likely to give a new direction to sociology than to overthrow it altogether. To some extent, indeed, these movements can already be comprehended with the aid of sociological concepts. Max Weber foresaw a growing “disenchantment of the world” in the Western societies as a consequence of the increasing rationalization and bureaucratic regulation of social life; and the movements of revolt or withdrawal with which we are now familiar can be seen as attempts to restore the “poetry of life” by reviving, in highly organized industrial societies, social relationships in which spontaneity, involvement, and personal affection are predominant.
"Domain assumptions" seem to correspond closely with what Kuhn and others have called a "paradigm"; namely, the constellation of values and beliefs shared by the members of a scientific community that determines the choice of problems which are regarded as significant and the approaches to be adopted in attempting to solve them. It is evident that "domain assumptions" or "paradigms," in this sense, are necessarily linked with, or include, a "structure of sentiments."↩
“Domain assumptions” seem to correspond closely with what Kuhn and others have called a “paradigm”; namely, the constellation of values and beliefs shared by the members of a scientific community that determines the choice of problems which are regarded as significant and the approaches to be adopted in attempting to solve them. It is evident that “domain assumptions” or “paradigms,” in this sense, are necessarily linked with, or include, a “structure of sentiments.”↩