The Elements of Social Theory

The Elements of Social Theory

Barry Barnes
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Elements of Social Theory
    Book Description:

    Over the past quarter century, social theory has moved in diverse and often seemingly incompatible directions, exaggerating differences of approach that existed even in earlier periods. In a strikingly original book, Barry Barnes uses this intellectual diversity not only to identify but also to unify the central ways of looking at the field. Barnes frames his task by addressing the most important problem confronting all students of society today: the apparent conflict between cultural and functional methods of describing the social order, on one hand, and choice-theoretic accounts, on the other. But rather than reviewing in detail the origins and development of these contending views of reality, Barnes conducts a dialogue between the two perspectives, thereby revealing their respective strengths and shortcomings. In the process, he develops a case for a theoretical "third way," an interactionist understanding of the workings of the social order and the emergence of behavioral norms.

    Barnes successfully applies interactionist analysis, formerly used mostly for micro-social settings, to macro-phenomena like the formation of status groups, the origin of social movements, the politics of class formation, and the dynamics of bureaucratic action. He shows how these phenomena are inexplicable in terms of exclusively cultural- functional or choice-theoretic methods: they can be understood only by showing how norms emerge through interaction. Barnes has constructed a coherent and learned vision of the fundamentals of social theory that will excite not only sociologists but all social scientists and their students.

    Originally published in 1995.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6435-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Sociological theories come in many forms and are directed to many different ends. Much the most widely read theories, however, at least in Europe, are those that serve as the basis for commentary on the nature of present-day industrial societies and on how they are likely to develop and change. At the same time, these “macro” theories are the ones that give rise to the greatest amount of dissatisfaction and elicit the strongest criticisms. Macro theorists are notorious for confusing the future they would like to see with the future that can plausibly be expected, to the extent that many...

  5. Part I Traditions of social theory
    • 1 Individualism
      (pp. 10-36)

      The most challenging way of responding to Hobbes is to take him literally and attempt to envisage his state of war. Does it preclude all social relationships? What of linguistic relationships: are linguistic communication and the sharing of knowledge and ideas precluded as well? And where might people be found living in this “natural” condition, if indeed it is a condition in which people conceivably could live? These, however, are large questions, too large for our immediate purposes. It will be better to start with a narrower, more conventional approach, one that recognizes that Hobbes’ account of the state of...

    • 2 Functionalism
      (pp. 37-60)

      Functionalist social theory was for a long period the dominant form of sociological and anthropological theory, and its possibilities have been explored in great detail in those fields. Many sociologists are inclined to believe that everything worth saying about functionalism has already been said, and to express that view in a way which implies that functionalism is as dead as a dodo. But whatever is worth saying about functionalism bears repeating, for it is the most misunderstood and misused of social theories. And it remains in any case clearly alive; in the work, for example, of Luhmann and of Habermas....

    • 3 Interactionism
      (pp. 61-93)

      Social theory needs at all times to keep in touch with the states of affairs it purports to describe or explain. This is not just a matter of checking predictions; it remains essential even if prediction is of no interest to the theorist. It is essential as the means of giving theory meaning: if instances and examples of the use of theoretical concepts are never supplied then it remains unclear, indeed wholly indeterminate, what significance theoretical concepts - and hence theory – might have. Theory without some kind of exemplification is not theory at all. Conceivable, if not necessarily actual,...

    • 4 Knowledge
      (pp. 94-128)

      Individualism and functionalism are both unable to offer a satisfactory account of social order, and the reason is much the same in both cases. Neither individual desires nor the promptings of norms fixed into individual consciences will remain in continuing alignment with changing collective requirements – requirements that are met notwithstanding, in all societies, by co-ordinated social action. With an interactionist theory, however, presuming not independently moved individuals but mutually susceptible individuals, this problem is soluble. And, as we have just seen, with an appropriately extended system of shared knowledge such individuals may sustain a correspondingly extended social order.


  6. Part II Social formations and social processes
    • 5 Status groups
      (pp. 130-150)

      A social group can be defined as a set of individuals within a larger collective who are generally categorized as different from others but the same as each other in some respect. Such a categorization may be based on a recognized physical characteristic or on evident features of behaviour or ability, or it may be applied to a disparate set of persons who have been selected for treatment in some special way and are distinctive only in that respect. Among such collectively recognized groups or categories of individuals there will be some whose members emphasize their own distinctiveness and claim...

    • 6 Social movements
      (pp. 151-171)

      There is no generally agreed account of what constitutes a social movement. To say that it is a collective actively involved in promoting or resisting social change is a widely accepted way of beginning, but it is insufficient. Social movements are conventionally distinguished from political parties and from pressure groups; unlike the latter they operate, not primarily through the channels of insider politics, but by the direct mobilization of opposition to what goes on within those channels. And yet the distinction between movements, parties and lobbying organizations is often hard to draw, as is the distinction between social and religious...

    • 7 Social classes
      (pp. 172-192)

      There is no way in which all the many and various uses of “class” in social theory can be adequately considered here. It is widely used to refer to categories of individuals defined by their “economic” situations or interests, in which role it is not always clearly distinguished from “status”. In particular, it is used in Britain to refer to occupational groupings, and indeed the “classes” defined by Her Majesty’s Registrar General, devoid of any theoretical rationale though they be, probably represent the conceptualization most widely employed by British sociologists. But “class” is also recognized as an actors’ category and...

    • 8 Administrative hierarchies
      (pp. 193-222)

      At the opposite extreme from the status group lies the administrative hierarchy. Although both make claims against outsiders, a position in the former signifies equality with peers, whereas a position in the latter signifies difference expressed as rank. In formally democratic societies of equal citizens, status groups are most readily accepted as repositories of expertise, whereas hierarchies are widely perceived as essential devices for the organization and co-ordination of action.

      In the familiar conception of a hierarchy as a chain or a pyramid, decisions by persons or offices “high” in the system take priority over those “lower down” in determining...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 223-228)

    The survey of theoretical resources with which this book began has now been supplemented with a review of some of the available materials on social formations and some of the specific theoretical interpretations of their activities. But the completion of this review is also the conclusion of an argument. The discussion in the second part of this book is offered as grounds for recognizing the plausibility of the theory advocated in the first part. The operation of social formations is held to be best understood in terms of an interactionist social theory. The expedient collective action essential to the persistence,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 229-244)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-256)
  10. Index
    (pp. 257-263)