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Themes and Perspectives YEAR 2

Michael Haralambos Martin Holborn Pauline Wilson Tim Davies

1 Theory and meThods

looks at more recent theories and their relevance to today’s society.

Chapter contents Part 1 Structural theories


Part 2 Social action theories


Part 3 Feminist theories


Part 4 Modernities and postmodernity


Part 5 Methodology


Part 6 Sociology and social policy


Exam practice questions


This chapter begins with an examination of some of the main sociological theories, from the early theories of Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber to the more recent theories of Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells, Zygmunt Bauman and Anthony Elliott. The chapter looks at their views of society and explanations of human behaviour. It shows why the early theories stood the test of time and how they developed. It

The chapter then looks at methodology – the study of research methods. Book 1 examined particular research methods, from participant observation to questionnaire surveys, and assessed their strengths and weaknesses. This chapter takes a broader view. It looks at the ideas and assumptions on which sociological methods are based. It asks to what extent research findings are influenced by the methods used. It raises the question of objectivity. Can the findings of sociological research be objective – free from the values, political views, ethnicity, social class, gender and culture of the researcher? The chapter closes with an examination of the relationship between sociology and social policy. It looks at the influence of sociology on government policy. It asks whether sociologists should be consulted by government. It also asks whether politicians should study sociology before setting out to change society.


1 Theory and meThods

ParT 1 sTruCTural Theories Contents Unit 1.1.1



Unit 1.1.2



A theory is a set of ideas that claim to explain something. Sociology has been defined as the study of people in groups. A sociological theory is therefore an explanation of how people behave in groups and why.

unit 1.1.1 Functionalism Functionalism, also known as structural functionalism, sees the structure of society as directing the behaviour of its members. This structure consists of institutions such as the family, religion and the judicial and political systems. Society is seen as a system, as a set of interconnected parts which form a whole. The parts have a function, that is the contribution they make to maintain the whole. Society is seen to have basic needs or functional prerequisites that must be met in order to maintain the system. For example, social order is often seen as a functional prerequisite. It can be met by shared norms and values. This means that members of society agree on how they should behave and what is right and wrong. As a result, they are not pulling in different directions, conflict is avoided, and order is maintained. When functionalists examine a part of society, they ask: What is its function? For example, the main function of the family is seen as socialisation – the passing on of society’s norms and values to the next generation. This contributes to the maintenance of order in the social system. Functionalists sometimes compare society to an organism in which the various parts, such as the heart and lungs, work together for the benefit of the organism as a whole. Similarly, many functionalists argue that in a well-balanced society, the various parts, for example families, schools and religion, work together for the benefit of society as a whole.

Émile durkheim The French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) is sometimes seen as the first functionalist. Durkheim


Sociological theories can be divided into two types – structural theories and social action theories. This is a rough and ready division but can help to identify some of the distinguishing features of different theories. Structural theories tend to see society as a system made up of various parts – the social structure – which shape the behaviour of members of society. Social action theory focuses on people constructing meanings that are seen to direct their actions. (1938) assumes that society has certain basic requirements which must be met in order to function effectively. The most important of these is social order. Durkheim starts with the question of how a collection of individuals can be brought together to form an ordered society. He sees the answer as establishing ‘the essential similarities which collective life demands’. These similarities include shared moral beliefs which provide the basis for a collective conscience – a shared morality. This binds members of society together and creates social solidarity or social unity which, in turn, provides social order. According to Durkheim, sociology is the study of social facts. Social facts are shared aspects of society such as religious beliefs and moral obligations. They are external to individuals in that they are ‘general throughout a given society’ and they shape and constrain the behaviour of members of society. In Durkheim’s words, social facts are ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to individuals and endowed with the power of coercion by reason of which they control him’. Social facts are also part of an individual’s consciousness – they form part of their personal beliefs. Durkheim argues that this is essential for society to operate effectively. In his words, ‘society has to be present in the individual’. Durkheim states that sociologists need to explain both the causes and continuance of social facts. He gives the example of Christianity. Its origin and causes lie in the specific circumstances of a group of Jews under Roman rule over 2000 years ago. Its continued existence can be explained by the contribution it makes to the maintenance of society. Social facts such as religion continue to exist because they serve ‘some social end’, in other words because of the social functions they perform. Durkheim’s theory may be illustrated by his analysis of the functions of religion. He sees religion as expressing and reinforcing the shared morality

1.1 sTruCTural Theories


How might families, schools and religion work together for the benefit of society? which forms the collective conscience. For example, the Christian commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ reinforces the value placed on human life. Religion can strengthen social obligations by representing them in sacred terms, which transforms them into religious duties. For example, marriage becomes a religious duty when it receives a Christian blessing. Religion can bind a society together because those who share religious beliefs ‘feel themselves united to each other by the simple fact that they have a common faith’. The highly charged atmosphere of religious rituals serves to dramatise this unity and in doing so promotes social solidarity. In the above ways, religion functions to meet the essential requirements of social life.

Talcott Parsons During the 1940s and 1950s, Talcott Parsons (1902– 1979) was the dominant figure in American sociology. Like Durkheim, Parsons (1951) begins with the question of how social order is possible. His answer is value consensus – an agreement about values. If members of society are committed to the same values, they will tend to share a common identity which provides a basis for unity and cooperation. Also, from shared values develop common goals, which provide direction for behaviour. For Parsons, the main task of sociology is to analyse ‘patterns of value orientation in the social system’ and

how they become an integral part of society. Value consensus leads to a state of social equilibrium in which the various parts of society are in balance. There are two main ways in which social equilibrium is maintained. The first is by socialisation – the transmission of society’s values. This is the primary function of the family and to a lesser extent of the education system. The second is by the various mechanisms of social control from the police through to the approval and disapproval of family and friends. Socialisation and social control are essential for social equilibrium and therefore for the maintenance of order in society. Parsons sees society as a system. He argues that every social system has four basic functional prerequisites – adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance. Adaptation refers to the relationship between the system and its environment. In order to survive, social systems must have some degree of control over their environment. At a minimum, food and shelter must be provided to meet the physical needs of their members. The economy is the institution primarily concerned with this function. Goal attainment refers to the need for all societies to set goals towards which social activity is directed. Procedures for establishing goals and deciding on priorities between goals are institutionalised in the


1 Theory and meThods form of political systems. Governments not only set goals but allocate resources to achieve them. Integration refers to the ‘adjustment of conflict’. The law is the main institution which meets this need. Legal norms define and standardise relations between individuals and between institutions and so reduce the potential for conflict. When conflict does arise it is settled by the judicial system and does not therefore lead to the disintegration of the social system. Pattern maintenance refers to ‘the maintenance of the basic pattern of values, institutionalised in the society’. Institutions that perform this function include the family, the educational system and religion. In Parson’s view, ‘the values of society are rooted in religion’. Religious beliefs provide the ultimate justification for the values of the social system. Parsons maintains that any social system can be analysed in terms of the functional prerequisites he identifies. Thus, all parts of society can be understood with reference to functions they perform in meeting the functional prerequisites of adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance.

Social change Functionalism has often been criticised for failing to provide an adequate explanation for social change. If the system is in equilibrium, with its various parts contributing towards order and stability, it is difficult to see how it changes. Parsons approaches this problem in the following way. In practice no social system is in a perfect state of equilibrium, although a certain degree of equilibrium is essential for the survival of societies. The process of social change can therefore be seen as a ‘moving equilibrium’. Because the various parts of society are connected, a change in one part will result in changes in other parts. For example, a change in the adaptation system will result in a disturbance in the social system as a whole. The other parts of the system will operate to return society to a state of equilibrium. This will lead to some degree of change, however small, in the system as a whole. Though social systems never attain complete equilibrium, they tend towards this state. Social change can therefore be seen as a ‘moving equilibrium’.

robert K. merton A student of Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton (1949) questions some of the ideas of functionalism.


Universal functionalism Merton questions the idea that all parts of the social system are functional for the entire system – a view he calls universal functionalism. Merton argues that particularly in complex modern societies, this is doubtful. For example, in a society with various faiths, religion may divide rather than unite, as in the case of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. Merton argues that a part of society may be functional – beneficial to society, or dysfunctional – harmful to society, or non-functional – it may have no effect on the rest of society.

Indispensability This idea states that certain institutions or social arrangements are indispensable to society – that society cannot operate without them. Functionalists have often seen religion in this light. For example, Davis and Moore (1967) claim that religion ‘plays a unique and indispensable part in human society’. Merton questions this assumption, arguing that a functional prerequisite may be met by a range of alternative institutions. To replace the idea of indispensability, Merton suggests the concept of ‘functional alternatives’ or ‘functional equivalents’. From this point of view, a political ideology such as communism can provide a functional alternative to religion – it can meet the same functional prerequisites as religion. Merton argues that the assumptions of universal functionalism and indispensability should not be taken for granted. They are matters for investigation and should not be assumed. Merton states that the parts of society should be analysed in terms of their ‘effects’ on or ‘consequences’ for society as a whole and for individuals and groups within society. This will indicate whether the effects are functional, dysfunctional or non-functional.

Manifest and latent functions Merton (1949) introduced the idea of manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are the positive functions ‘intended and recognised by participants in the system’. Latent functions are neither ‘intended nor recognised’. For example, the manifest function of sending a person to prison is to punish them for their crime. The latent function is to affirm and reinforce norms of appropriate behaviour. This example indicates how a part of society can function in various ways and link parts of society – in this case, the judicial system and the system of behavioural norms.

1.1 sTruCTural Theories


A Hopi rain dance. The Hopi are a Native American tribe who live in Arizona. Traditionally they were farmers growing corn, beans and squash. They held a rain dance each year to bring rain to water their crops. Merton uses the rain dance to illustrate his idea of latent and manifest functions. Suggest a manifest and a latent function of the rain dance.

evaluation of functionalism Robert K. Merton has answered some of the criticisms of functionalism. However, a number of criticisms remain. Teleology It has been argued that the type of explanation used by some functionalists is teleological. A teleological explanation explains a cause in terms of its effects. For example, to argue that the cause of Christianity is the beneficial effect it has on society is to explain its cause in terms of its effect. This is a teleological argument. As Durkheim states, the cause of Christianity lies in its origins. The objection to teleological reasoning is that it treats an effect as a cause. However, an effect cannot explain a cause because causes must always come before effects. Continued existence Functionalism is on stronger logical ground when it argues that the continued existence of an institution may be explained in terms of its effects. Thus once an institution has originated, it continues to exist if it has, on balance, beneficial effects on the system. However, there are problems with this type of explanation. It is extremely difficult to establish whether or not the net effect of any institution is beneficial to society. A knowledge of all an institution’s effects would be required in order to identify and to weigh the balance of functions, dysfunctions and non-functions.

Questioning value consensus Functionalists such as Parsons who see the solution to the problem of social order in terms of value consensus have been strongly criticised. First, their critics argue that consensus is assumed rather than shown to definitely exist. Second, the stability of society may owe more to the absence rather than the presence of value consensus. For example, a lack of commitment to the value of achievement by those at the bottom of stratification systems may serve to stabilise society. If all members of society were strongly committed to the value of achievement, then the failure of those at the base of the stratification system to achieve well-paid, high status jobs could result in despair and a sense of unfairness which may well produce discord and disorder and destabilise society. Determinism Functionalism has been criticised for what many see as its deterministic view of human behaviour. Its critics have argued that functionalism pictures human behaviour as determined by the system. In particular, the social system has needs, and the behaviour of its members is shaped to meet those needs. Rather than creating the social world in which they live, people are seen as a creation of the system, as directed by forces which are external to them. By means of socialisation, they are programmed in terms of the norms and values of the social system. They are kept on the straight and narrow by mechanisms of social control which exist to fulfil the requirements of the system. Their actions are structured in terms of social roles that are designed to meet the functional prerequisites of society. Members of society are pictured as automatons – programmed, directed and controlled by the system. Conflict and coercion Critics of functionalism have argued that it tends to ignore conflict and coercion. For example, Alvin Gouldner (1971) states, ‘While stressing the importance of the ends and values that men pursue, Parsons never asks whose ends and values they are. Are they pursuing their own ends or those imposed upon them by others?’ Few functionalists give serious consideration to the possibility that some groups in society, acting in terms of their own particular interests, dominate and exploit others. From this point of view, social order is imposed by the powerful and value consensus is merely a justification and legitimation of the position of the dominant group. As the following unit on Marxism argues, conflict and coercion are not simply minor strains in the system contained by value consensus. Instead, they are a central and integral part of the system itself.


1 Theory and meThods

Key terms Structural theories Theories that see the structure of society as directing behaviour. Social action theories Theories that see the meanings people construct as directing their action. Function The contribution made by the parts of society to the maintenance of society as a whole. Functional prerequisites The requirements that must be met if society is to operate effectively. Socialisation The passing on of society’s norms and values. Social order A society that runs smoothly without disruption and conflict. Collective conscience The shared morality of members of society. Social solidarity Social unity. Social facts The institutions, norms and values of society that are external to individuals and that shape their behaviour. Value consensus An agreement about the values of society. Social equilibrium The parts of society in balance. Adaptation The need for society to set goals for its members. Goal attainment Shared goals in society that direct behaviour. Integration The need for order and stability in society. Pattern maintenance The need for value consensus. Universal functionalism The view that all parts of the social system make positive contributions to society as a whole. Dysfunctional Parts of society that are harmful to society as a whole. Non-functional Parts of society that have no effect on the rest of society. Indispensability Institutions or social arrangements that are seen as essential for the operation of society. Manifest functions Functions that are intended and recognised as such by members of society. Latent functions Functions that are not intended and recognised by members of society.

summary 1. Functionalism sees society as a system in which the parts – the structure – direct the behaviour of its members. 2. The function of the parts is the contribution that they make to the maintenance of the social system. 3. Society has functional prerequisites which must be met in order for the system to operate effectively. 4. For Durkheim, the most important prerequisite is social order. This is met by establishing ‘essential similarities’ that provide the basis for a ‘collective conscience’ and ‘social solidarity’. 5. Talcott Parsons argues that social equilibrium is necessary for society. It is provided by value consensus, which is established by socialisation and social control. 6. Parsons identifies four functional prerequisites – adaption, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance. 7. Parsons sees social change as a response to disturbances in the system in order to restore it to equilibrium. 8. Robert Merton questions the view that all parts of the social system perform positive functions. He argues that some parts may be either dysfunctional or non-functional. 9. Merton distinguishes between manifest and latent functions. 10. Criticisms of functionalism include:

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Its explanations are teleological.

The stability of society may owe more to the absence rather than the presence of value consensus.

Teleology Explaining the cause of something by its effects.

Determinism The idea that all actions, decisions and events are determined by previously existing causes. In particular, the idea that behaviour is shaped by causes that are external to human beings, who are like puppets with society pulling the strings.


It is extremely difficult to establish whether the net effect of any institution is beneficial to society.

It gives a deterministic view of human behaviour. It tends to ignore conflict and coercion in society.

1.1 sTruCTural Theories

unit 1.1.2 marxism Functionalism is sometimes called a consensus theory because of its view that value consensus is essential for the wellbeing of society. Value consensus is seen to benefit all members of society. As a result, they share a common interest in maintaining this consensus. Like functionalism, Marxism is a structural theory. It sees society as divided into two main parts – a ruling class and a subject class. Unlike functionalism, Marxism sees a basic conflict of interest in society. From a Marxist view, the ruling class exploit and oppress the subject class. For this reason, Marxism is sometimes called a conflict theory. Marxism takes its name from its founder, the German-born philosopher, economist and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx saw human society as beginning when people joined together to produce their food and shelter; in his words, ‘The first historical act is the production of material life.’ The production of material life is a social enterprise – people work together to produce goods and services. The way they produce them shapes the society they live in. In Marx’s words, their society ‘coincides with their production, with what they produce and how they produce it’. Marx believed that at the dawn of human history people lived in a state of ‘primitive communism’. Food and shelter were communally owned – owned by all members of society. Each member of society produced both for themselves and for society as a whole. As a result, there were no conflicts of interest. Everybody worked for everybody else. Things changed with the emergence of private property, in particular with the private ownership of the forces of production – the materials and technology used in the production of goods and services. For example, in feudal society, the main force of production was land – for growing crops and feeding domesticated animals. In industrial society, the main forces of production are factories and raw materials for producing goods. When the forces of production are owned by a minority, for example the lords in feudal society and the factory owners in industrial society – conflicts of interest arise. Through its ownership of the forces of production, a minority are able to control, exploit and enjoy the fruits of the labour of the majority.

ruling and subject classes When members of society produce goods and services, they enter into social relationships that Marx called the relations of production. In primitive communism, everybody had the same relations of production – they all worked together to produce goods and services that they all shared. However, with the private ownership of the forces of production, this equality in the relations of production ended. The relations of production now consisted of two main classes – a ruling class and a subject class. The ruling class owned the forces of production. This ownership gave them the power to oppress and exploit the subject class, to use them for their own gain. According to Marx, in industrial society the forces of production – the factories and raw materials – are owned by a rich and powerful capitalist ruling class – the bourgeoisie. The workers – the subject class or proletariat – produce the goods but their wages are only a small part of the value of those goods. Most of the value is taken away in the form of profits by the capitalists. Marx saw this as exploitation. (Capitalism is an economic system in which businesses are privately owned – by capitalists – and run, using wage labour, for the purpose of profit.)

infrastructure and superstructure Taken together, the relations of production and the forces of production form the economic base, the infrastructure, of society. Marx believed that the infrastructure largely shapes the rest of society, the superstructure. This means that the economic relationships between the ruling and subject class will be reflected in the superstructure. For example, the state will support the ruling class, passing laws to legalise the private ownership of industry and the right of owners to take any profits which might be made. Other parts of the superstructure will also reinforce the position of the ruling class. The education system will produce the kind of workers that capitalism requires. Religion, which Marx called the opium of the people, will produce false happiness and delusions of pleasure. In doing so, it will ease the pain of exploitation and this will keep the subject class in their place.


1 Theory and meThods


A view of capitalist society. In what ways does this picture illustrate Marx’s view of class in capitalist society?

activity The following verse is taken from the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. ‘Estate’ means position in society. The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate. How can this verse be seen as a justification of the class system? According to Marx, members of both social classes are largely unaware of the true nature of their situation, of the reality of the relationship between ruling and subject classes. Members of the ruling class assume that their particular interests are those of society as a whole. Members of the subject class tend to accept this view of reality and regard their situation as part of the natural order of things. Marx referred to this false and distorted set of beliefs as ruling class ideology. It reinforces, legitimises and justifies the social order. It disguises the true nature of class society and conceals the exploitation on which it is based. In Marx’s words, it produces a false class consciousness.


alienation Marx saw work as the most important human activity. He argued that in class societies people are alienated or cut off from their work. As a result, they are alienated from the things they produce, from themselves and from others. Alienation will only end when the forces of production are communally owned. Alienation reaches its height in capitalist society where labour is dominated by the requirements of capital, the most important of which is the demand for profit. These requirements determine levels of employment and wages, the nature and quantity of goods produced and their method of manufacture. Workers see themselves as prisoners of market forces over which they have no control. They are subject to the laws of supply and demand. They are at the mercy of the periodic booms and slumps which characterise capitalist economies. As a result, workers lose control over the goods and services they produce and become alienated from both their products and the act of production. Their work becomes a means to an end, a means of obtaining money to buy the goods and services necessary for their existence. In the process, workers become alienated from themselves. The more they produce, the more they lose themselves. In Marx’s words, ‘the greater this product, the less he is himself’.

1.1 sTruCTural Theories


by fewer and fewer individuals as greater competition drives all but the largest companies out of business. Such processes magnify and illuminate the conflicts of interest between the ruling and subject classes. It is only a matter of time, he believed, before members of the proletariat recognise the reality of their situation. This awareness will lead to ‘a revolt to which it is forced by the contradiction between humanity and its situation, which is an open, clear and absolute negation of its humanity’.

evaluation of marxism Judging from the constant reinterpretations, impassioned defences and vehement criticisms of Marx’s work, his ideas are as alive and relevant today as they ever were. This section looks at some positive and negative assessments of his ideas. Alienation. In what ways does this picture illustrate Marx’s view of alienation?

From capitalism to communism Given the priority Marx gives to economic factors, an end to alienation, oppression and exploitation involves a total change in the economic infrastructure. In particular, it requires the abolition of private property and its replacement by communal ownership of the forces of production, that is, the replacement of capitalism by communism. Marx saw communism as ‘the positive abolition of private property and thus of human self-alienation… as the complete and conscious return of man himself as a social, that is human being’. As a member of communist society, each person contributes to the wellbeing of all and so expresses both their individual and social being. The goods and services produced are owned and controlled both by the individual and by all members of society. For Marx, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the class struggle.’ He saw the intensity of class conflict steadily increasing as capitalism developed, with a growing polarisation – an increasing gap – between the two main classes as intermediate groups sink down into the proletariat – the subject class. Capital is concentrated more and more into fewer hands, a process accompanied by the growing poverty of the proletariat. Production is increasingly social and cooperative as larger and larger groups of workers are concentrated in factories. At the same time, the wealth produced by their labour is taken from them

Class in capitalist society Critics argue that the growing intensity of class conflict which Marx predicted in capitalist society has not occurred. Instead, class conflict has been institutionalised. It has become a standard part of society with political parties representing various classes in a democratic system. Rather than polarisation of classes, a steadily growing middle class has emerged between the so-called bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Class divisions are becoming less clear-cut and, as a result, less apparent. Communist society Turning to communist society, critics have argued that history has not borne out the promise of communism contained in Marx’s writings. Significant social inequalities were present in communist regimes, and there were few, if any, signs of a movement towards equality. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s suggests that the promise of communism has been replaced by the desire for Western-style democracies. Social change Particular criticism has been directed to the priority that Marx gave to economic factors, to changes in the forces and relations of production, in his explanation of social change. Max Weber’s (1958) study of ascetic Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries argued that religious beliefs provided the rationale, attitudes, ethics and direction for the development of capitalism. (Ascetic means severe self-discipline and abstaining from pleasure and fun.) Weber believed that ascetic Protestantism developed before capitalism. He argued that at certain times and places, aspects of the superstructure, in this case religious beliefs, can play a primary role in directing change (see pp. 14–16).


1 Theory and meThods Economic determinism Critics have accused Marx of economic determinism – of arguing that economic factors determine and shape human behaviour and the structure of society. It is possible to select passages from Marx’s 40 years of writing that appear to support this criticism. At certain times, Marx has claimed that:

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The superstructure is ‘determined’ by the infrastructure. Economic forces beyond human control shape human consciousness. History is directed by economic forces which follow ‘iron laws’. Conflicts of interest between the ruling and subject classes will inevitably lead to revolution, to the downfall of capitalism and the establishment of communism.

However, as the next section indicates, the above criticisms may well go too far.

in defence of marx Although Marx gave priority to economic factors, he did not see them as the only cause of social change. He did describe the economic infrastructure as the ‘ultimately determinant element in history’. Yet he added: If somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure… also exert their influence upon the course of the historical struggle and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. Marx and Engels, 1950 Marx consistently argued that ‘man makes his own history’. Human behaviour is not simply determined by forces beyond human control. In Marx’s words, ‘History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends.’ Because people make society, only people can change society.


Globalisation and multinational corporations The US economist John Cassidy (1997) claimed that Marx would reappear as ‘The next big thinker’. Writing with Engels in 1848, Marx predicted that capitalism would spread throughout the world as capitalists sought to find new markets to maintain profitability. Cassidy believes that Marx correctly identified the dynamic behind the present process of globalisation. He also praises Marx for recognising that even in the highly productive world of advanced capitalism, some workers would still be extremely poor. This is certainly true, particularly in less developed countries where capitalists often employ workers on extremely low wages. Cassidy also agrees with Marx’s view that as capitalism developed, more and more wealth and power would be concentrated in the hands of capitalists. The growth of giant multinational corporations with a bigger turnover than the gross domestic product of many nation-states provides support for Marx’s view. Capitalism, crises and growing inequality Marx saw capitalism as an unstable system moving from crisis to crisis in its drive to accumulate more and more capital and ever greater profits. The British Marxist geographer/sociologist David Harvey (2010) sees the recurring financial crises, for example the crises of the early 1970s and 2007/08, as providing support for Marx’s view. Marx predicted that in capitalist society income and wealth would be increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Again, Harvey finds support for Marx’s view. He notes that, ‘In the United States, for example, household incomes since the 1970s have generally stagnated in the midst of an immense accumulation of wealth by capitalist class interests’ (Harvey, 2010). For Harvey, Marx remains relevant and offers possible solutions to today’s inequalities of capitalist society. Like Marx, David Harvey believes ‘We need revolutionary politics to replace capitalism with a fair and just society.’

1.1 sTruCTural Theories

activity – occupy Wall street

In 2011, over 20 000 people occupied Wall Street, the financial district of New York, protesting against what they saw as corporate greed and corruption, and social inequality. The Occupy Movement stated that ‘The one thing we have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.’ (Gautney, 2011). Estimates indicate that the top 1 per cent own around 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth and receive about 25 per cent of the income. The protest was partly about the financial crisis of 2007/08, the effects of which were still being felt by millions of people. The posters carried by the protesters on Wall Street give some idea of their concerns. Typical statements read:

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Question How might a Marxist explain the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

neo-marxism Neo-Marxism or ‘new Marxism’ refers to followers of Karl Marx who have taken his theories in new directions. This section looks at two neo-Marxists, the Italian, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and the Frenchman, Louis Althusser (1918–1990).

Antonio Gramsci Gramsci’s (1971) main development of Marxist theory is his concept of hegemony – the means by which the

ruling class maintains its dominance and control over the subject class. Hegemony has certain similarities to Marx’s view of ruling class ideology and false class consciousness. It consists of political and moral beliefs and values which justify and maintain ruling class power. Hegemony broadcasts the idea that the interests of the ruling class are those of society as a whole. It provides ways of seeing and thinking which tend to be taken for granted, which appear normal and reasonable, but which distort reality and present a false consciousness.


1 Theory and meThods However, where Marx sees ruling class ideology as ultimately shaped by economic infrastructure, Gramsci claims that hegemony is not simply a by-product of the economy, nor is it just a reflection of the forces and relations of production. As such, hegemony has a degree of autonomy – to some extent it is independent of other aspects of society. According to Gramsci, the beliefs that form hegemony can prevent a proletarian revolution. But it follows that a different set of beliefs can reveal a true picture of society and promote a true consciousness – and this can lead to a proletarian revolution. Gramsci argues that ruling class hegemony never completely blinds the proletariat to the reality of their situation; it never completely indoctrinates them. As a result, members of the subject class have a dual consciousness, seeing two views of the world side by side. On the one side they see the world in terms of ruling class hegemony; on the other side they have glimpses of the true picture of society. To some extent their daily experience of poor working conditions, low wages, poverty and powerlessness leads them to see through ruling class hegemony and opens their eyes to the truth of their situation. Where Marx sees economic crises as leading to revolution and the downfall of capitalism, Gramsci argues that this can result from a rejection of ruling class hegemony and its replacement by a set of beliefs which provide a true picture of society. This can happen, in Gramsci’s words, by ‘intellectuals of a new type which arise directly from the masses, but remain in contact with them’ and who present a set of beliefs in direct opposition to ruling class hegemony. These views must become fashionable, they must dominate the media and spread throughout popular culture in order to lead to a proletarian revolution. Traditional Marxists have criticised Gramsci’s separation of hegemony from the economy arguing, like Marx, that changes in society are ultimately based on economic changes. However, Gramsci’s ideas have had an important influence on the development of Marxist theory.

Louis Althusser According to Louis Althusser (1972), capitalist society is divided into three levels – the economic, the political and the ideological. Although each level affects the other levels, the economy is ‘determinant in the last instance’. However, the political and ideological levels are not simply reflections of the economy, as they have ‘relative autonomy’ – a degree of independence. The


importance of each level varies in different historical periods. For example, in the feudal era the landlords had to make sure that the serfs, who farmed the lords’ land, handed over the surplus they produced. To do this, they relied on the church (God states that disobedience is a sin) and the state (the threat of military intervention). Under feudalism, the ideological and political levels were particularly important. Althusser identifies two main systems of control in class societies – the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). The RSA consists of the government, the army, the police, the courts and the prisons. Control is ultimately based on violence. The ISA includes the educational system, religion, the family, political parties, trade unions and the mass media. How does the ISA operate? In Althusser’s phrase, it says ‘Hey, you there’ to individuals, hails them, seizes their attention and shapes their identities. People’s day-to-day involvement with ISAs, such as their family, religion, school and the media, tells them who they are, where they belong and gives them an identity. In the process, this puts them in their place, makes them subservient and enforces their ‘submission to the ruling ideology’. Althusser sees religion as the main ISA in pre-capitalist societies. In capitalist society, it has been largely replaced by education, which teaches workers to accept and submit to their oppression and disguises their exploitation. Althusser argues that no class can hold power for any length of time simply by the use of force. Ideological control provides a far more effective means of maintaining class rule. If members of the subject class accept their position as normal, natural and inevitable, and fail to realise the true nature of their situation, they will be unlikely to challenge ruling class dominance. Physical force is an inefficient means of control compared to winning over hearts and minds. Althusser’s views on the influence of the ISA on identities raises interesting questions. However, as Anthony Elliott (2009) states, ‘what is lost by Althusser is an understanding of the complex, contradictory ways in which people inculcate [learn to accept, are ingrained with] dominant forms of ideology… as well as how people come to dis-identify with, and in turn contest, existing societal arrangements’. Althusser pictures society as a structure with people behaving in terms of their position in the structure. According to Elliott, people are presented as ‘cultural dopes’, who are ‘serenely subjugated through

1.1 sTruCTural Theories ideology and just passively adapt to processes of socialisation’. There is no indication of any opposition to the ruling class and ‘no sense of the politics of ideological struggle’.

Key terms Consensus theory A theory that sees consensus – agreement – about values as essential for the welfare of society. Conflict theory Sociological theory, suggested by Marx, which views society as consisting of groups with conflicting interests vying for dominance. This can be contrasted with consensus theories such as functionalism, which see societies as essentially harmonious. Forces of production The materials and technology used in the production of goods and services.

Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) Social institutions, such as the government, police and army, that control the population by the use or threat of force. Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) Mechanisms that transmit ruling class ideology, which enforces the submission of the subject class. They include the educational system, religion and the family.

summary 1. According to Marx all societies, with the possible exception of the societies of pre-history, have a ruling class and a subject class.

Relations of production The relationships people enter into in order to produce goods and services.

2. The ruling class exploits and oppresses the subject class.

Ruling class The class who own the forces of production.

3. Their power comes from the ownership of the forces of production.

Subject class The class who are subject to the rule of the ruling class and who are oppressed and exploited by them.

4. The subject class are largely unaware of their exploitation as this is disguised by ruling class ideology.

Infrastructure The economic base of society made up of the forces and relations of production. Superstructure The rest of society that is largely shaped by the infrastructure. Ruling class ideology A set of beliefs that present a false picture of society and justify the position of the ruling class. False class consciousness A false picture of the class system that conceals the exploitation on which it is based. Alienation The cutting off of people from their work, the things they produce, from others and from their true selves. Polarisation The growing gap between the two classes in terms of income and wealth as intermediate groups sink down into the subject class. Economic determinism The idea that economic factors determine and shape human behaviour and the structure of society. Hegemony The means by which the ruling class maintain their dominance and control over the subject class. Dual consciousness The idea that the subject class have two views of society, one based on ruling class hegemony, the other a true picture.

5. The class system and the exploitation it brings will only end when the forces of production are communally owned. 6. Marx predicted that as capitalism developed, class conflict would intensify, class polarisation would occur and a revolution would result in the end of class division and an equal society. Critics argue that there is no sign of this happening. 7. Marx has also been criticised for what some see as economic determinism. Marx rejected this criticism. 8. Marx’s supporters argue that there is some evidence, for example, the growth of multinationals, to support his view of the development of capitalism. 9. Gramsci argues that to some extent hegemony is independent from the economy and its rejection by the subject class could lead to revolution. 10. Althusser argues that there are two main systems of control in class societies – the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatus.


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