The Elements of Social Theory

The Elements of Social Theory

by Barry Barnes


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691608150
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #338
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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The elements of social theory

By Barry Barnes


Copyright © 1995 Barry Barnes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-02723-4



1.1 Postulates of individualism

... during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre is of every man against every man.... It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but only that to be every mans that he can get; and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition, which man by meer Nature is actually placed in; though with a possibility to come out of it. (Hobbes 1651)

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 nature is designed not to inspire a search, but rather to make peace and order in society the focus of curiosity, and to introduce an individualistic account of how they are sustained. This has become the standard mode of use of Hobbes in the context of modern sociological theory.

Hobbes poses a problem of social order deriving from the conflicting wants of individual human beings and their mutual distrust, and he offers a solution based on the common fear of coercion by a single sovereign power. Hobbes' solution is no longer widely accepted, but his individualistic formulation of both problem and solution remains of great importance. Individualism continues to be a thriving theoretical tradition today, and is in many ways the least problematic of all the traditions of social theory. Our immediate awareness of social life is awareness of individuals. We watch individuals doing things, take account of them as we do things ourselves, try to guess what they are likely to do as we work out our own future plans. And when we gather data as social scientists it is usually data about individuals; indeed it is not obvious what else there is, in the last analysis, to observe, besides the activities of individuals and the products of that activity. Thus, it is perfectly plausible to conjecture that it is through observing individuals, and theorizing about the basis of what they individually do, that we shall come to an understanding of social life and social order, that a society is the aggregate of all the separately engendered actions of its individual members.

There are many kinds of individualism and the term means different things in different contexts, but for present purposes it will suffice to look at the predominant form of individualism in current theory. This is the form of individualism, particularly favoured in economics, that takes as its point of departure "the two well-known a prioris of self-interest and calculative rationality" (Reisman 1990: 10). In specifying calculative rationality and self-interest this approach seeks to identify the ways in which individuals remain independent of each other and stably internally constituted, as they engage in the fluctuating circumstances of social life. Individuals are to be treated as independent reasoning and information-processing systems with independent ends or objectives. To this extent individuals are unaffected by other people or indeed their environment in general, even though in other ways they may be profoundly affected by both, and obliged to take account of both. To this extent individuals stand as so many independent sources of action. This crucially simplifies the task of understanding entire systems of actions: if the actions are separately produced, then they are amenable to deductive modelling and aggregation by quantitative methods. These are very much the preferred techniques of most current individualistic theorists, and it can indeed be asked how far individualistic postulates are adopted not in response to evidence but in order to facilitate and simplify the application of these mathematical techniques.

Certainly, individualistic theorists tend to agree not only in their theoretical point of departure but in their methodology. They favour a deductive approach to social theory, and their work serves to exemplify the merits and problems of that approach. They start with simple postulates about the behaviour of individual human beings, and the overall outcome of that behaviour in any given context is then deduced from the postulates. In the form of individualism that concerns us here, four postulates are generally taken as fundamental. Human beings are presumed to be:

– independent

– rational/calculative

– goal-oriented

– egoistic or self-regarding

The assumption of independence is the most important of all. The entire individualistic approach is based upon the conviction that actions are produced by agents whose objectives and decision-making procedures are stable, intrinsic characteristics independent of the immediate context. Individualism expects individuals to take account of their environment and of the actions of other individuals in it, but not to change their nature or intrinsic properties in response to them. Individualism wants to use the rationality and the objectives of individuals as givens with which to explain other things, not as variables that are in need of explanation themselves.

Individuals are assumed to be rational and calculative (and hence knowledgeable, since knowledge is required for calculation), in order to account for their ability to imagine the consequences of possible actions prior to choosing which they will actually perform. There are, however, different accounts of what is involved in being rational and calculative.

The assumption that individuals have goals (often referred to as "wants" or "desires" by individualists) is made in order to explain why they should choose one course of action rather than another. It is commonly assumed that the wants of individuals can be ranked in an order of priority or preference and that individuals act optimally to realize their preferences. It is also generally assumed that preferences and their rank ordering are fixed and stable. "The assumption of stable preferences ... prevents the analyst from succumbing to the temptation of simply postulating the required shift in preferences to 'explain' all apparent contradictions to his predictions" (Becker 1976: 5).

Finally, it is commonly assumed that the wants and desires of individuals relate to their own benefit rather than the benefit of others, that individuals are egoistic and self-regarding. This, however, is the least important of the four postulates, and is often set aside. The crucial features of the individualistic perspective in social theory can be sustained without an assumption of egoism. The mathematical apparatus of individualism needs independent stable objectives or preferences, but the apparatus still operates whether or not they are egoistic ones.

In a nutshell, individualism assumes that an agent in a social situation will operate as follows: she will independently take stock of the situation; rationally calculate in the light of what she knows how each available action is liable to affect that situation; note which action is likely to be the most effective in farthering her goals; and enact that action accordingly. Where the individual is egoistic, goals will be self-serving and actions will be self-interested. Such a hypothetical individual, because it is commonly postulated in economic theories of human behaviour, is sometimes referred to as manifesting "economic rationality". Where the need arises, she will be referred to here accordingly as an ER individual.

In a society of ER individuals, all actions are individually calculated, rational, goal-oriented and (usually) self-regarding. Individualism implies therefore that all the actions actually found in social situations are of this kind, and seeks to predict the overall patterns of action we are likely to find in social situations given that every individual action is indeed of this kind. Unfortunately, however, there is no way of predicting from the basic postulates how individuals will act if they are brought together, as it were, as so many separate bodies in an unspecified environment. Plausible predictions are possible only if individuals operate in a context wherein their choices are heavily constrained by externalities of some kind. In the context of much current individualistic social theory, external constraint is provided artificially; ER individuals appear as players in games invented by theorists. The rules of the games are assumed to constrain the players, and rational playing strategies are inferred. Real human beings are believed to be involved in situations analogous to the games, so that a game in the theory will serve as a model of real human behaviour. For example, a game in which rational individuals exchange goods may be taken as a model of the economic life of real human beings. The rules of the game may be taken as analogous to the legal rules surrounding economic life, and the nature of the theorized ER individuals as analogous to the nature of the real human beings exchanging goods. Predictions about real activities of exchange then become possible by considering the theoretical game of exchange.

This approach to social theory is a familiar and oft-encountered one. It is commonplace in economics, as we have already noted. And it is also an important component of modern political theory and sociological theory, wherein it exists as game theory and rational choice theory. For all that, however, there is no doubt that, of the social science disciplines, sociology is the least sympathetic to this individualist approach. Indeed, most of the seminal figures in the tradition of sociological theory have uncompromisingly opposed it. For Emile Durkheim, opposition to individualism was part and parcel of the business of establishing the discipline of sociology. Much of Talcott Parsons' theoretical work was devoted to establishing the insufficiency of individualism. The Marxian tradition, until the advent of "rational-choice Marxism", has been predominantly anti-individualistic. Max Weber, although a "methodological individualist", initiated a tradition of sociological theory that emphasized the insufficiency of theories based upon "economic rationality".

It is because of this that the crucial importance of individualistic assumptions in sociological theory is often overlooked. The seminal theorists actually rely upon individualistic kinds of explanation. What these theorists say is that the individual is not just an independent calculative egoist, which is to acknowledge that the individual is this some of the time, or to some degree. Thus, in the work of Talcott Parsons (1937, 1951), the individual human being is depicted as in a state of tension between the egoistic urges inherent in her nature and countervailing pressures originating in society and its moral order. Parsons holds that social order is possible only when egoism is sufficiently overridden by countervailing pressures, but equally he acknowledges that egoism is always incompletely overridden, that "rational" egoistic actions are always encountered in any society, and indeed that such actions are necessary parts of social life and essential to any understanding of the course of social change. The same actions play crucial roles in the theories of all the founders of sociology, constituting much of the realm of the profane for the early Durkheim, lurking in the domain of the economy in both Marx and Weber. Nor are they any less significant in current work. In the theories of Jürgen Habermas, for example, they are present among the "non-social" instrumental actions, oriented wholly to technical success, that play a leading role in his vision of modern capitalist societies (Habermas 1984: 285).

It is crucial to recognize the role of individualism and of the theoretical construction of the ER individual in the mainstream of sociological theory. If there is anything lacking in this construction it will have implications not just for economics or for fields such as game theory but for the core of sociology as well. As some applications of the individualistic approach and its characteristic methods are explored in what follows, and a sense of its limitations and deficiencies is thereby eventually evoked, this point needs to be kept firmly in mind.

1.2 Co-ordination

The powers and possibilities of ER individuals are of great sociological interest. What are they capable of doing? What games are they able to play, and how will they play them? Will they do the kinds of things that real people do in real social situations? Many kinds of action are generally agreed to be performable by ER individuals. Even Durkheim and Parsons allow them to act directly upon the physical environment to further their goals, and to play, within given systems of enforceable rules, the games of exchange studied by economists. But these are far from being the only capacities that ER individuals possess. Another extremely important one is that of co-ordination.

Imagine a number of individuals acting simultaneously, with each able to choose between alternative actions. Many combinations of actions will be possible. Imagine now that all individuals agree which are the best and worst combinations, and that they all want one of the best possible combinations to be produced. In this sense, all the individuals may be said to have the same interests. They all share an interest in co-ordinating their actions so that a best overall combination is the outcome. ER individuals should be good at co-ordinating their actions. As each individual seeks the same outcome, there should be no serious obstacle to its achievement even in a society of egoists.

Difficulties may none the less arise in achieving co-ordination. Consider two individuals seeking to lift a piano onto a platform. To lift the piano, a concerted, synchronized, all-out heave is essential. So the pair set a radio by the piano and agree to lift at the instant of two o'clock. They each grasp the piano, draw breath, tense muscles, and await the signal. Alas, one of them then cannot remember whether it is the first or last of the six forthcoming pips that signifies two o'clock. And as she seeks to recall the crucial missing information, it occurs to her to ask whether after all the other party may not also be in difficulty on the same matter. About to explode into action, united in a common goal, alike in their interests, a problem of co-ordination none the less arises for the two participants. Should they manage to heave in concert, whether at the first pip or the last, success will be theirs. But should they act just ever so slightly out of phase, one at the first pip, the other at the last, the result will be likely hospitalization and an unmoved piano.

Individualistic social theories, and in particular game theory and decision theory, make use of formal representations of the general problems they study. The problem of co-ordination just described can be represented as in Figure 1.1. Note how, for the purposes of formal representation, the two individuals must be treated as playing a game wherein only two alternative actions are allowed; they cannot be modelled as they would exist in a real world situation where any number of actions would be open to them. Each individual must take either action A (lifting at the first pip) or action B (lifting at the last pip). Four combinations of actions are possible: in two they lift together and in the other two out of phase. Both individuals give the possible outcomes the same order of preference. They both want to achieve a concerted lift and avoid an out-of-phase one. Lifting together, either on the first or the last pip indifferently, is the first preference; lifting out of phase is likewise, for both, the second preference. It is because there are two equally good routes to coordination, via the first pip and via the last, that a problem exists. Precisely because both possibilities are equally good there is no knowing what the other individual is going to do, even if that other is an ER individual. A guess will be necessary, with only a 50:50 chance of success.

The kind of co-ordination problem of which this is an example is the product of inadequate knowledge. Shared goals and interests in themselves do not narrow the possibilities of action sufficiently. Further narrowing must be achieved by agreement, but for that shared knowledge and shared understanding are necessary. To recognize that this is the nature of the problem is to see how to solve it. The creation of further shared knowledge and shared understandings suffices. Were the two individuals in the above example to become professional lifters of heavy objects they would readily develop reliable routines of co-ordination, based on shared knowledge. Sufficient shared knowledge to make the required co-ordination possible is all that is necessary here, because the individuals want to co-ordinate. Because they have common goals and interests, ER individuals can trust each other here. Indeed, they can trust each other to seek the possibility of co-ordination as well as to enact it when it is recognized. And the former may actually be invaluable in securing the latter.


Excerpted from The elements of social theory by Barry Barnes. Copyright © 1995 Barry Barnes. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1 Individualism 10

2 Functionalism 37

3 Interactionism 61

4 Knowledge 94

5 Status groups 130

6 Social movements 151

7 Social classes 172

8 Administrative hierarchies 193

Conclusion 223

Notes 229

Bibliography 245

Index 257

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