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.

It is still possible, however, that some new intellectual synthesis will prove more capable of interpreting these changes, and that the map of knowledge will once again be redrawn. Something of the kind is suggested by W. G. Runciman’s volume of essays, even though it appears at first glance to be remote from any concern with a crisis, either intellectual or social, and to be mainly the product of a perfectly disinterested intellectual curiosity.

Runciman’s desire, in his title essay, to put sociology in its place is affected, I think, by two external influences. One, which he discusses briefly, is the present confused state of sociology, in which he can find neither a distinctive method nor a distinctive content. The other, it seems to me, is the fact that sociology, in spite of this internal diversity and discord, has acquired in recent years a greatly enhanced intellectual importance, not least as one of the principal sources of social criticism. In some respects sociology appears now to occupy the place which was held earlier by political economy, as the social science to which the crucial issues of the age must be referred for analysis and interpretation.

Runciman’s argument against the autonomous existence of sociology as a science of society runs as follows: sociology, like history and anthropology, is not capable of producing general laws, and this incapacity arises from the fact that “there are not and cannot be laws of social systems as such.” The genuine science of man upon which sociology depends is psychology, and sociology can most appropriately be regarded (as Freud also argued) as applied psychology, though Runciman adds that it is psychology plus social history. The specialized social sciences such as economics, demography, and political science, on the other hand, although they too depend upon psychology, can produce laws in a “loose” sense (because they deal with a more restricted range of phenomena), and thus they occupy an intermediate position, between psychology and sociology, in the hierarchy of the social sciences.

In considering this argument we have first of all to put aside the very general question of whether any kind of causal explanation of human action is possible or adequate, for if it is not—if some other sort of knowledge and explanation is required—then the inability of sociology to produce general laws will not distinguish it from any other of the human sciences. But without entering upon this problem we may remember that psychology, which, according to Runciman, is to provide the foundation of the whole explanatory edifice, has itself (as he concedes) produced few, if any, significant general laws. In this situation we can scarcely be confident that a recourse to psychology is going to lead to more rigorous and satisfying explanations of social behavior; and we may decide, in the words of Alfred Marshall when he was considering the possible incorporation of economics in a more general social science, that for the time being “we must do what we can with our present resources.”

Runciman supports his contention that there can be no “laws of social systems” by two arguments. One is that explanations of the workings of social systems are reducible to psychological explanations.

To explain the origins and workings of social systems is to explain the thoughts and actions of men. Such explanations, to be sure, will depend to a large degree on the properties of those social systems of which the individual is a member…. But once again, whether the properties of social systems are taken as the dependent or the independent variable, when we are talking of the properties of social systems…we are talking of what individual human beings may be shown to think, say and do.

What Runciman does not show is how this reduction might be carried out or attempted in particular cases, and of course he is not able to relate specific sociological explanations to psychological laws because the latter are not available. The difficulties which such reductions present may be indicated by some examples. Simmel, in an essay on “the number of members as determining the sociological form of a group” discussed some properties of social systems which appear to depend strictly upon the size of these systems; and in another study, of social conflict, he formulated some general propositions about the effects of conflict upon the structure of social groups. It is hard to see how statements of this kind could be translated into psychological statements, at least without some loss of explanatory power, or in what way they are derivable from psychological “laws.”

The second argument which Runciman deploys to show that “laws of social systems” are unattainable is that the number of variables to be taken into account is too great. Here he follows the well-known discussion of J. S. Mill which concludes that “the mode of production of all social phenomena is one great case of inter-mixture of laws.” But this judgment is more widely applicable, for we might say that one of the principal reasons for the immense difficulty which all the human sciences, including psychology, experience in formulating any worthwhile general laws is that the number of variables with which they have to deal is so large. It is not clear that there is a fundmental difference in this respect between psychology as a science of mental systems and sociology as a science of social systems.

The inconclusiveness of Runciman’s arguments can be shown in other ways. In the first place, he is not entirely consistent in his treatment of sociological theory. While he claims in the title essay that there are and can be no distinctive sociological theories, he seems to assume elsewhere that there are such theories and that some are better than others. Thus he concludes an essay on structuralism by saying that it “should not be claimed to constitute a novel, coherent and comprehensive paradigm for sociological and anthropological theory”; and in an essay on “Class, Status and Power” he writes: “Whether there will ever be a general theory of stratification is of course a further question. But if there will, it follows from the validity of the three-dimensional distinction that any general theory will have to be expressible in terms of it.” Nowhere does he suggest that the quest for such a theory, or for a comprehensive paradigm, is an illegitimate or vain activity.

Secondly, his tenderness (in the title essay) toward the specialized social sciences, and his harshness toward sociology, in respect of their ability to produce laws, seems to arise partly from a misunderstanding. When he writes, for example, of “demographers generalizing about birth-rates,” he can only be referring to generalizations which are in fact sociological; and which relate birth-rates to other social phenomena (such as the social position of women, or the relative importance of the family as a productive unit), and explain them, however tentatively or inadequately, by reference to the properties of a whole social system (for example, by distinguishing between agrarian and industrial societies).

At the end of his title essay Runciman sums up his view of sociology in terms which, contrary to his own judgment of its position, can be regarded as justifying its existence as a distinctive science. After asserting again that it cannot be an autonomous subject, he continues “…however useful the particular discoveries, descriptive generalizations or ideographic explanations which may be achieved under its name.” In the absence of significant laws produced by any of the human sciences it is just these particular discoveries and generalizations, and in a broader way its models of social structure, which have made sociology an important science and have steadily increased its influence upon the specialized social sciences over the past hundred years.

If sociology now appears to be going through a crisis this is not because it has failed to produce high level laws but because its descriptive generalizations, models, and interpretations no longer seem adequate; either they have exhausted their capacity to provoke new discoveries, or the social reality to which they are applied has changed so profoundly that they no longer seem relevant. At various points in his book Runciman offers interesting reflections upon the relations between sociology, anthropology, and history. Clearly he favors a rapprochement between them, as well as a closer link with what he calls at one point a “more sophisticated psychological theory”; but he does not go so far as to suggest what form a new social theory built up along these lines might take, and he is not much concerned with the question of how such a theory would be related to the new social and cultural phenomena of the present time.

In this respect, however, his work is not very different from that of some other writers considered here. Gouldner devotes an exceedingly small part of his book to a discussion of the possible future development of sociology, and the “reflexive sociology” which he sketches is not very inspiring. On one side it seems to echo faintly Karl Mannheim’s sociology of the intellectuals in the 1920s without its philosophical concerns, while on the other side it offers some moral injunctions to guide the life and work of the sociologist as a political radical. What it deliberately does not do, thus neglecting the most important matter, is to propose new subjects of study and new directing ideas. In the end, it achieves the opposite of what Wright Mills advocated at the beginning of the radical revival: instead of turning personal troubles into public issues, it turns public issues into personal troubles, by exhorting the sociologist to give his attention narcissistically to the problem of the relationship “between being a sociologist and being a person,” and to worry about his relation to his work. I do not believe that such preoccupations have ever inspired a critical analysis of society, or ever will. They are a symptom of intellectual malaise, not a remedy.

Bendix, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with a defense of tradition—the Western tradition of reason and science—against what he sees as the waves of emotion which threaten to overwhelm it; in his view “the question is whether under these circumstances the impulse behind inquiry, the belief in progress through knowledge, can remain vigorous enough.” He does not seriously attempt to find a new path, to change the standpoint of social science itself, in order to take account of the new problems and sensibilities.

Only in Dreitzel’s volume is there some indication of new directions. The essays collected here differ greatly in subject matter and approach from what might have been brought together and presented as recent sociology a decade ago; they deal not with “stable democracy” but with the experiences and potentialities of “participatory democracy,” not with status and mobility but with the relations between classes and the rise of new classes as elements in political struggles, not with political institutions and voting behavior but with the emergence of movements of social protest. As Dreitzel points out in his Introduction the essays show a readiness to draw upon Marxist ideas and also a conception of sociology as a “science of social crisis,” as it undoubtedly was in its origins.

These new subjects are still very far from having been integrated in a general view of the present social transformation, and it remains an open question whether that will be accomplished. The most promising attempt so far to provide a general frame (and it is one to which Dreitzel alludes briefly) is perhaps the conception of “post-industrial society,” as it has been outlined, in one form, by Alain Touraine:2 that is to say, the idea of an emerging form of society in which the progress of science and technology can eliminate scarcity in the sphere of vital human needs, and transfer industrial work increasingly from men to machines, thereby transforming the class system and altering the balance between work and leisure in social life; but in which at the same time the problems which arise from centralized and bureaucratic regulation are exacerbated and provoke new kinds of social conflict, already foreshadowed by the rise of the student movement.

If this conception can be fruitfully elaborated, it may come to occupy the central place which the notion of industrial capitalism as a social system had in nineteenth-century sociology, and we may yet enter upon a revival of sociological thought: one, moreover, in which its practical consequences, in overcoming the social evils which it defines, will be more substantial than they have so far been.

This Issue

March 11, 1971