3 A Brief History of Social Theory from the Viewpoint of Conviviality

Wednesday 11 July 2007
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The following is brief history of social theory, focusing on how social constructs have been seen as implements.

Plato’s Philosopher-King

It is generally held that the emergence of rational argumentation in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers is linked with the emergence of democratic forms of government. As stated in the Wikipedia article on "Greek philosophy":

    The early Greek thinkers add at least one element which differentiates their thought from all those who came before them. For the first time in history, we discover in their writings something more than dogmatic assertions about the ordering of the world — we find reasoned arguments for various beliefs about the world. It is now believed that decision making through oral debate in the polis would have developed rational thought to carefully construct arguments for and against an action, and these debates would have required calling on abstract principles such as justice, without invoking the notion of a god.

That Plato offers arguments about what constitutes good government may thus result from the fact that ancient Athens was a democracy, even if Plato himself seems to argue against democracy.

In his arguments concerning government, Plato makes the distinction between the healthy city, in which farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and wage-earners live simply, without delicacies such as "perfumed oils, incense, prostitutes, and pastries" (book II of the Republic), and the luxurious city, in which corruption and injustice develop (Republic 372e). Plato’s preference for the ascetic discipline of Sparta over the mercantile democracy of Athens reflects his authoritarian tendencies, as expressed in his idea of the "philosopher-king":

    Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils. (Republic 473c-d)

For our present investigation of how social systems can be viewed as implements, the above passage is significant for two reasons:

  • Plato suggests that the exercise of political power should be based on philosophical knowledge, in other words that social systems can be rationally designed as instruments
  • Plato recommends that power be exercised by those who have specialised knowledge (philosophers), in other words that social systems should be designed by an intellectual elite

These two postulates remain the theoretical foundation of our present-day societies, in which social decision-making is largely concentrated in the hands of technocratic elites.

Aristotle and Politics as Virtue

Where Plato speculated about what is good or just, Aristotle observed and classified physical phenomena. He considered the state to be a natural community, more like an organism than a machine, and classified types of governments in much the same way that he classified animal species.

Aristotle addressed government in his work entitled "Politics." He established a classification of six types of rule, divided into three that are "good" and three that are "corrupt", each group further subdivided according to whether the rulers are one, few, or many. The good types are monarchy, aristocracy and "polity" (good democracy), while the corrupt types are tyranny, oligarchy and "mob rule" (bad democracy).

In book VII of the "Politics" Aristotle examines the question of what would make an ideal state. He observes that a good government rules in the common interest while corrupt government rules in the interest of those who rule: "Now it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily." But for Aristotle, to live happily requires living virtuously, and politics is thus above all a question of virtue. It is a matter of "praxis" in the narrow sense of the Greeks, meaning the general practice of living, rather than "techne", meaning the use of techniques for specific ends (see Habermas, "Theory and Practice"). Thus the final book VIII of the "Politics" examines the key role of education in producing virtuous citizens.

It is customary to contrast Aristotle’s concerns about virtue with the modern idea that scientific knowledge can guide political decision-making. The inventor of modern political science would thus be Hobbes, who first proposed to apply Bacon’s experimental philosophy to the study of society and government. But Aristotle was already concerned about defining a methodical approach to improving government, even if his method involved educating virtuous citizens, rather than scientifically understanding how government functions. (Note that it is at least conceivable that an approach based on moral education might more effectively improve society than an approach based on scientific investigation.)

The main point for our purpose however is that the Western philosophical tradition has always considered that theoretical investigation can help indicate how to improve government, whether that investigation leads to the promotion of virtue, or to the development of scientific understanding.

Pre-Modern Social Theory: Machiavelli and More

(To be developed.)

The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rousseau

(To be developed.)

Social "Science" from Condorcet to Marx

(To be developed.)

Functionalism and its Critics

Functionalism is a sociological paradigm that attempted to explain social institutions as a collective means to fill individual biological needs. It later came to focus on the specific ways in which the social institutions fill the social needs.

Functionalism is associated with the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and more recently with Talcott Parsons. Functionalists see society as made up of inter-dependent sections which work together to collectively fulfil the functions necessary for the survival of society as a whole. People are socialized into roles and behaviours which fulfil the needs of society, and values, rules and regulations help organize relationships between members of society. Social phenomena are thus seen to exist because they serve a function.

A society where everyone knows what is expected of them, and constantly meeting these expectations, would be in a perfect state of equilibrium. Parsons suggests that such equilibrium can be met through socialisation, which transfers the accepted values of the society to the individuals, and which is enforced by the positive and negative sanctioning of role behaviours. Critics were quick to point out that such a perfect, static society is unlikely..

Another criticism is that functionalism is teleological, that is it attempts to describe social institutions solely through their effects and thereby does not explain the cause. However, one functionalist (Merton) explicitly replies that functional analysis does not seek to explain why the action happened in the first instance, but why it continues to be reproduced. Functionalism is also criticised on the grounds that society can not have "needs" as a human being does, and even if society does have needs they need not be met (Anthony Giddens), or because the theory contains no sense of agency, that individuals are seen as puppets, acting as their role requires. Conflict theorists criticised functionalism’s concept of systems as giving far too much weight to integration and consensus, and neglecting independence and conflict.

However, the main point here is that functionalism describes social organisations, and the individuals in them, as meeting the needs of the society as a whole, whereas what we are seeking is just the opposite, a description of how social organisations can better meet the needs of the individuals making use of them. A recent school of thought which seems to come closer to this point of view is social constructionism.

The Frankfort School and Critical Theory

(To be developed.)


(To be developed.)

Social Constructionism

The idea of "social construction" was first introduced by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1966 book “The Social Construction of Reality”. Note that social construction recalls the general "constructionist" approach, described in the article on "How ideas can be seen as tools."

Wikipedia describes the idea of social construction as follows:

    A social construction or social construct is any institutionalized entity or artifact in a social system "invented" or "constructed" by participants in a particular culture or society that exists because people agree to behave as if it exists or follow certain conventional rules. One example of a social construct is social status.

This theory postulates that actors interacting together form, over time, mental representations (typifications) of each other’s actions, and that these typifications eventually become institutionalised into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. In this process of institutionalisation, people’s beliefs regarding what reality is become embedded into the institutional fabric, and social reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.

The Benevolent Liberalism of John Rawls

(To be developed.)

Post-Modern Social Theory

(To be developed.)

From Social Theory to Organisational Practice

General social theory tends to limit its coverage to understanding how social reality molds individual action, rather than proceeding to an examination of how the individual may mold social reality.

Even a theory such as social constructionism, which sees institutions as jointly “constructed” by participants, stop short of directly considering institutions as instruments that can be used by individuals to satisfy their own needs.

For more extensive examples of how social organisations can be seen as implements for the realisation of personal ends, the following articles will turn away from the domain of general social theory, to look at the domain of pragmatic organisational practice within economic organisations (businesses, cooperatives) and political organisations (parties, trade unions, associations).



in the same section...