Modern Social Theory


Course lead: Prof Gurminder K Bhambra & Prof John Holmwood

In this module on Modern Social Theory, our focus on Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Du Bois addresses what they have bequeathed to sociology and the social sciences. We look at how that legacy is structured by a failure to treat colonialism and empire as central to the development of modern society. As such, our purpose is to ‘decolonise’ the concepts and categories they have given to us, rather than simply critique the canon itself. This requires a process of contextual understanding and reconstruction.


Lectures

1. Decolonising Modern Social Theory

Prof Gurminder K Bhambra

Modern social theory is a product of the very history it seeks to interpret and explain. In this module, we address the categories that form mainstream sociology in order to reconstruct modern social theory. We focus on five key sociological figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Du Bois. Our purpose is to expose the significance of colonialism and empire in the organisation of the thought of these writers and, thereby, in the legacies they bequeath to social theory. Addressing colonial histories is a necessary preliminary to the reconstruction of social theory.

Modern social theory is a product of the very history it seeks to interpret and explain. In this module, we address the categories that form mainstream sociology in order to reconstruct modern social theory. We focus on five key sociological figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Du Bois.

Our purpose is to expose the significance of colonialism and empire in the organisation of the thought of these writers and, thereby, in the legacies they bequeath to social theory. Addressing colonial histories is a necessary preliminary to the reconstruction of social theory.

2. Early Modern Social Theory: Europe and its ‘Others’

Prof John Holmwood

This session looks at the beginnings of modern European social theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The English political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), set out a distinction between the ‘state of nature’ and the ‘state of society’ in order to identify rights and obligations associated with private property. Their writings are widely seen in the context of the later development of capitalism, but are much more directly concerned with the justification of colonialism with which they were each directly engaged. In the eighteenth century, writers associated with the Scottish Enlightenment –for example, David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), William Robertson (1721-1793), John Millar (1735-1801), and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) – developed a typology of different types of society as stages of historical development. In this session, we consider how these ideas contributed to the view that ‘freedom’ was a product of European modernity and that modernity operated in terms of an internal logic from which colonialism was effaced.

This session looks at the beginnings of modern European social theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The English political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), set out a distinction between the ‘state of nature’ and the ‘state of society’ in order to identify rights and obligations associated with private property.

Their writings are widely seen in the context of the later development of capitalism, but are much more directly concerned with the justification of colonialism with which they were each directly engaged. In the eighteenth century, writers associated with the Scottish Enlightenment –for example, David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), William Robertson (1721-1793), John Millar (1735-1801), and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) – developed a typology of different types of society as stages of historical development.

In this session, we consider how these ideas contributed to the view that ‘freedom’ was a product of European modernity and that modernity operated in terms of an internal logic from which colonialism was effaced.

3. Tocqueville: America and Algeria

Prof Gurminder K Bhambra

Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville was born in 1805 into the French nobility and a family estate in Normandy. He died in 1859. His wider family was part of the conservative reaction to the changes brought about by the French Revolution in 1789, but Tocqueville, himself, looked forward. He participated in public office, initially as a magistrate and subsequently as a deputy of the Constituent Assembly, rising briefly to Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1849. He travelled to the United States between May 1831and February 1832 with his friend Gustave Beaumont, ostensibly to study penal institutions, but instead published a two-volume study of Democracy in America. Throughout his life, he commented on contemporary politics and public affairs, including France’s occupation of Algeria. The politics of the period were frequently in turmoil and this instability was a motivating concern of Tocqueville in his search for the conditions of a more stable order.

Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville was born in 1805 into the French nobility and a family estate in Normandy. He died in 1859. His wider family was part of the conservative reaction to the changes brought about by the French Revolution in 1789, but Tocqueville, himself, looked forward.

He participated in public office, initially as a magistrate and subsequently as a deputy of the Constituent Assembly, rising briefly to Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1849. He travelled to the United States between May 1831and February 1832 with his friend Gustave Beaumont, ostensibly to study penal institutions, but instead published a two-volume study of Democracy in America.

Throughout his life, he commented on contemporary politics and public affairs, including France’s occupation of Algeria. The politics of the period were frequently in turmoil and this instability was a motivating concern of Tocqueville in his search for the conditions of a more stable order.

4. Marx: Colonialism, Class and Capitalism

Prof John Holmwood

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, which was then part of the Prussian Rhineland (it became part of the unified German Empire in 1871), and died in London in 1883. He was forced to move in response to political persecution, first to Paris in 1843, and then to Brussels and Cologne, before finally settling in London in 1849 following the 1848 revolutions in mainland Europe. The latter revolutions reflected the social dislocations brought about by the transformation of agriculture and the early development of industrial production. They also reflected the political upheavals of the breakdown of old, absolutist regimes and the rise of new political institutions embodying elements of popular sovereignty, especially after the French Revolution of 1789.

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, which was then part of the Prussian Rhineland (it became part of the unified German Empire in 1871), and died in London in 1883. He was forced to move in response to political persecution, first to Paris in 1843, and then to Brussels and Cologne, before finally settling in London in 1849 following the 1848 revolutions in mainland Europe.

The latter revolutions reflected the social dislocations brought about by the transformation of agriculture and the early development of industrial production. They also reflected the political upheavals of the breakdown of old, absolutist regimes and the rise of new political institutions embodying elements of popular sovereignty, especially after the French Revolution of 1789.

5. Weber: Religion, Nation, and Empire

Prof Gurminder K Bhambra

Karl Emil Maximilian Weber was born in 1864 in Thuringia into an upper middle-class family. He was born seven years before the unification of Germany, lived through the German Empire (1871-1918), and died in 1920 just as the Weimar Republic was being established. Empire was the context of his intellectual and scholarly career and yet rarely figures explicitly in discussions of his work. Two of his most important essays on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism were preceded by writings on the history of economic organisations and treatments of contemporary problems of agriculture and industry in Germany. This period also included his first major essay in methodology, ‘“Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy’ (1949 [1904]), setting out the theory of ideal types.

Karl Emil Maximilian Weber was born in 1864 in Thuringia into an upper middle-class family. He was born seven years before the unification of Germany, lived through the German Empire (1871-1918), and died in 1920 just as the Weimar Republic was being established.

Empire was the context of his intellectual and scholarly career and yet rarely figures explicitly in discussions of his work. Two of his most important essays on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism were preceded by writings on the history of economic organisations and treatments of contemporary problems of agriculture and industry in Germany.

This period also included his first major essay in methodology, ‘“Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy’ (1949 [1904]), setting out the theory of ideal types.

6. Durkheim: Modernity and Community

Prof John Holmwood

David Émile Durkheim was born at Épinal in the Vosges Department of the Alsace region of France in 1858. He came from a Jewish family in which eight generations had been Rabbis, including his father, Moïse. The Vosges Department was not part of the territory annexed by Germany following Frances’ defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, but it was occupied by German troops between 1870 and 1873, after which they withdrew. Durkheim was immersed in Jewish traditions and, despite describing himself as agnostic, continued to recognise the Jewish calendar of holy days and to travel back to Épinal to celebrate them with other family members. Despite their German origins, the Durkheim family identified strongly as both French and as Jewish. His only son, André, died in the First World War in the autumn of 1915. Durkheim died in 1917.

David Émile Durkheim was born at Épinal in the Vosges Department of the Alsace region of France in 1858. He came from a Jewish family in which eight generations had been Rabbis, including his father, Moïse.

The Vosges Department was not part of the territory annexed by Germany following Frances’ defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, but it was occupied by German troops between 1870 and 1873, after which they withdrew.

Durkheim was immersed in Jewish traditions and, despite describing himself as agnostic, continued to recognise the Jewish calendar of holy days and to travel back to Épinal to celebrate them with other family members.

Despite their German origins, the Durkheim family identified strongly as both French and as Jewish. His only son, André, died in the First World War in the autumn of 1915. Durkheim died in 1917.