Contemporary Sociological Theory


Bert N. Adams & R. A. Sydie

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    About the Authors

    Bert N. Adams (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) has taught sociological theory extensively, both in East Africa and at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has published on consensus and coercion theories and on the importance of classical theory to a degree in sociology. He also teaches and writes on the sociology of the family. He and his co-author, R. A. Sydie, have written a paper on C. P. Gilman and Beatrice Webb, which was published in Sociological Origins in October 2000.

    R. A. Sydie has been professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the past 30 years and is the current chair of the department of sociology. Her research interests include sociological theory, art and culture, and gender studies. Professor Sydie is the author of Natural Women, Cultured Men. Her latest research project involves a historical examination of sociological work on love and eroticism.

    About the Publisher

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    To Diane and Campbell


    There are many sociological theory texts currently available. So why produce another? What makes this text unique? How will the student reader benefit from it?


    Robert K. Merton once referred to the importance of giving “credit where credit was due” (1967:26). Sociological theory has not done that. By 1950, male scholarship had either ignored or marginalized women theorists and many others, excluding them from the history of social thought. However, in recent decades, increasing numbers of theorists and theory instructors have recognized that the “dead white male” approach to the history of social thought is at least incomplete, if not insidious.

    We consider Harriet Martineau in the mid-1800s to be one of the founders of sociology.1 Throughout this book, which covers sociological theory since the 1930s, the views of women theorists and others are represented in far more than token fashion. Thus, rediscovery means hearing the voices of important women theorists such as Raya Dunayevskaya, Theda Skocpol, Arlie Hochschild, and Patricia Hill Collins. It also means becoming acquainted with Niklas Luhmann, contemporary Marxist Erik Olin Wright, evolutionist Elman Service, and Immanuel Wallerstein.

    This text, then, pays attention to the questions asked and the answers given by more than the “usual suspects.” Such rediscovery is intellectually exciting and challenging.


    With the wealth of information covered, our aim is for readers always to be aware, chronologically and intellectually, of where they have been, where they are headed, and how the different parts of their reading “journey” relate to one another. To accomplish this goal, we have organized the book as follows.

    Schools of Thought

    A key organizing principle of this text is to trace the following major schools of thought as they appear and reappear from chapter to chapter:

    • Functionalism, from Parsons and Merton to Luhmann.
    • Evolutionism, with Elman Service.

      Together these two sociological theories have generally been supportive of the capitalism and the status quo.

    • The anticapitalist revolutionary and conflict perspective began in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century. We trace it through the third- and fourth-generation radicals, including Antonio Gramsci, Raya Dunayevskaya, Nicos Poulantzas, and Erik Olin Wright.
    • A closely allied brand of theorizing is critical of capitalism but is less optimistic about curing its ills. This begins with the pre–World War II Frankfurt School, and continues with Immanuel Wallerstein and Michel Foucault.
    • The first two sections of the book (Chapters 1 through 6) are organized around functionalism, radicalism, and critical theory, with some variations, such as Anthony Giddens's structuration. The remainder of the volume covers a wide variety of challenges to the functionalism that dominated the mid-twentieth century.
    • An important theoretical perspective in this book concerns gender or feminism. In this book we introduce the works of Dorothy E. Smith and Patricia Hill Collins, among others.
    • The micro-perspectives on society theorize about the self and interaction. They include Herbert Blumer, Erving Goffman, and Arlie Hochschild.
    • Rational and exchange theories are found in the work of James Coleman and others.

    While these are among the major theoretical schools introduced, other branches of the sociological “tree” also appear from time to time.

    Consistent Organization within Chapters

    Readers new to sociological theory often face the “forest and trees” problem—that is, they become immersed in the details of one theory after another and are unable to compare or relate them. This problem becomes particularly difficult in texts that do not provide consistent means for making connections. We address this problem by following a consistent organizational scheme within the chapters. After covering the setting and background of a particular theorist or school of thought, each chapter follows a pattern of presentation that includes:

    • Central Theories and Methods
    • Nature of Society, Humans, and Change
    • Class, Gender, and Race
    • Other Theories and Theorists
    • Critique and Conclusions
    • Final Thoughts

    The section titled “Nature of Society, Humans, and Change” examines a theorist's fundamental assumptions underpinning his or her theoretical views, often leading to a consideration of the theorist's ideology—what that individual thought was good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse about society and human nature. Each chapter includes a “Class, Gender, and Race” section, with one or more of these topics sometimes being the primary focus of a particular thinker. For example, Wright focuses on class, Smith on gender, and Collins on race and gender. We devote a section of each chapter to these topics—despite the fact that not every theorist treats them thoroughly—because the broad theme of inequality is an important one in this textbook.

    An important section of each chapter is “Other Theories and Theorists.” This section presents theoretical issues less central to the writer, but nevertheless noteworthy. For example, in the “Other Theories” section of Chapter 2, we introduce Merton's “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In this section we also connect the theorist under consideration to others who are directly referred to in the theorist's work but who have not yet been discussed in that chapter. The “Critique and Conclusions” section summarizes the ideas of the theorist or theorists considered in that chapter and presents criticisms of each theorist from critics of their own day as well as critics of today. Each chapter closes with “Final Thoughts,” sometimes poignant, sometimes ironic, and sometimes offering a broader view.

    Important Themes in Sociological Theory That Cut Across Chapters

    We also seek to help students recognize connections across social theories by noting additional key themes beyond those included in the chapter headings, themes that recur as theoretical topics. These consistent themes include the following:

    • The characteristics of modern societies
    • Attitudes toward capitalism
    • Power and inequality in society
    • Relationship of the individual to society

    As these themes appear and reappear throughout the chapters, the terms are italicized so students can more easily make connections across chapters.

    Additional Learning and Teaching Features

    In addition to the content, organization, and thematic innovations of this book, several other learning and teaching features are worth noting. First, a timeline in a three-panel foldout in the back of the book places all the theorists clearly into their historical periods. This timeline includes theorists who preceded 1930 but who were important in the history of social thought. The theorist's life span, and the chapter in which she or he appears in this book, are superimposed on important world events occurring during that time. The birth and death dates of each theorist help readers relate the theorists to one another. Students can also see and remember which theorists are alive in the year 2001.

    Each of the three sections of the book begins with a section introduction that ties the individual chapters to each other in groupings, usually focusing on a school of thought and helping the student look both backward and forward.

    Key terms are boldfaced in the text when they are first defined and discussed, and they are also boldfaced in the index.

    The References at the end of each chapter include both the original publication date and the republication date, if any, of the edition referred to or quoted in this volume.

    An Index at the end of the volume makes it possible to look up topics as well as important individuals.


    A central goal of this text is to be as concise as possible while also doing justice to a wide variety of theorists. Instead of covering four to twelve theorists, we give substantial treatment to more than twenty thinkers. Our intention has been to cast the net widely enough to capture diversity both within and between theoretical viewpoints or schools of thought. Thus, given the range of ideas, historical contexts, and theorists covered, we believe this book is both brief and thorough.

    Limitations of This Book

    As we have just said, this text covers a large number of theories and theorists as cogently as possible. There are, however, two limitations. First, we have not introduced the important non-Western views of society. Confucius produced a philosophical and theoretical basis for understanding Chinese society. Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century, explained society from a North African perspective. More recently, Kwame Gyekye (1987, 1997), a Ghanaian thinker, has written about the nature of society as viewed from within his culture. A compendium of world sociological ideas needs to be attempted, but this volume is not it. We believe it is enough to rediscover, among others, the women theorists, and to bring them into the corpus of Western sociological theory.

    A second limitation is that, despite covering more than twenty major thinkers, we may have included a theorist considered by one instructor to be superfluous and left out another's favorite classical or contemporary thinker. One might question why we have included Service on evolutionary thought, Wright on contemporary Marxism, or Hochschild on symbolic interactionism. The justification for each of them is that each does an outstanding job of bringing together and contributing to the issues in his or her theoretical specialty. After expending considerable effort sorting through contemporary theorists, we decided that the ones included are the best for both creative and summary purposes. No one knows, of course, whether Luhmann, Poulantzas, or Coleman will be considered an important theorist twenty-five years from now.

    If we have omitted one of your favorite theorists, you can introduce that particular thinker through supplementary materials. We optimistically think this will be necessary in only a very limited number of cases.

    We hope you and your students will find the pages that follow to be as worthwhile and exciting to read as we have found them to write during these past five years. We welcome your criticisms and suggestions as well as those of your students. Please write to us in care of Pine Forge Press, or e-mail us at

    Bert N.Adams
    R. A.Sydie
    Gyekye, Kwame. 1987. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Gyekye, Kwame. 1997. Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. New York: Oxford University Press.
    Merton, Robert K.1967/1996. On Social Structure and Science (PeterSztompka, Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    This book has required the efforts and dedication of many people. First and foremost was Steve Rutter, former publisher of Pine Forge Press. His enthusiasm, encouragement, and insights kept us going throughout the project. Rebecca Smith's knowledge of students and of editorial style helped make the entire manuscript more “reader friendly.” Anne Draus at Scratchgravel Publishing Services competently oversaw the process of copy editing and typesetting.

    At the Pine Forge office, Sherith Pankratz encouraged us at the early stages, and Ann Makarias kept track of details and deadlines in the later stages. Jillaine Tyson designed and rendered the original timeline. University of Wisconsin–Madison colleague Mary Campbell reviewed the literature and references included in some chapters. Janet Donlin and Sandy Ramer of U.W.–Madison computerized portions of the work and worked on permissions.

    We are grateful to the publishers who gave us permission to use lengthy quotes from their materials. We also thank the reviewers who read and criticized portions of the book at the early stages:

    • Joan Alway, University of Miami
    • Kevin Anderson, Northern Illinois University
    • James J. Chriss, Kansas Newman College
    • Harry Dahms, Florida State University
    • Anne F. Eisenberg, State University of New York, Geneseo
    • Kate Hausbeck, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    • Peter Kivisto, Augustana College
    • Steven Lybrand, College of St. Thomas
    • Neil McLaughlin, McMaster University
    • Chris Prendergast, Illinois Wesleyan University
    • Robert E. L. Roberts, California State University, San Marcos
    • Kathleen Slobin, North Dakota State University
    • Dana Vannoy, formerly of the University of Cincinnati

    These reviewers were absolutely essential to the final product, although, of course, they are not responsible for any lingering errors or misinterpretations.

    Finally, the authors' spouses, Diane Adams and Campbell Sydie, have both encouraged and tolerated this multiyear endeavor. Without their good humor, patience, and suggestions, this project might never have seen the light of day.

    1 It is worth noting that we have also published a text, Classical Sociological Theory (Pine Forge Press, 2002), that focuses on the period from 1850 to 1930. For a single-volume version that covers the entire history of sociological theory, see our book Sociological Theory (Pine Forge Press, 2001).

    A Note to Students

    You as Theorist

    Are you already a social theorist? Think about the following questions: Do some people have the cards stacked in their favor, while others have them stacked against, or do we all get pretty much what we deserve? Do you act the same way at a basketball game, in a bar, in a grocery store, and at a religious service, or do you behave differently as you move from place to place? Why are people in one country always fighting, while in another they seem so peaceful? Are they peaceful because they like one another or because some keep others under control?

    Are men and women actually pretty much the same, except for their roles in childbearing? As Steve says, “Well, you know how women are.” As Maureen jokes, “Why is it men won't ever ask for directions?” Just what is it that women, or men, really want? And why? Why do politicians change their message “at the drop of a hat” to suit their audience? Do they really believe in anything? “The more things change, the more they stay the same”—how could that be, and what does it mean?

    “What is good for General Motors (or Toyota) is good for the country”—is that true? Why does the head of General Motors make a seven-figure salary, a doctor six figures, a schoolteacher five, and a day care provider four? Does the salary correspond to how hard they work, or how long they went to school, or how smart they are? Is the world actually run by money? If so, what does it mean to “run the world”?

    Whenever you make any of these comments, or ask or answer any of these questions, you are a social theorist. You theorize whenever you try to make sense of, understand, or explain your social world. This book introduces you to insightful and interesting answers that have been proposed over the years to these and other such questions. It does not tell you what to think, but helps you clarify your own thoughts, relating your various views of society to one another and to the views of others.

    How can the study of sociological theory help you understand your world? An example, addressed in this text, may help answer that question. In our society many believe that success or failure is basically an individual matter, that no one should be allowed to stand in the way of your success, and that wealth is the best measure of success. However, not all societies have these as central values. In fact, in some societies the individual is expected to subordinate herself or himself to the good of the family or community. Such societies de-emphasize the unique personality and may also limit worldly gain. Theorists have explained how such societies got that way and why such societies make sense to those who live in them. The study of different sorts of societies is not intended to make an individual less committed to his or her own society and its values, but such a study may at least broaden the individual's perspective on, and comprehension of, the varieties of workable human societies.

    How This Book Is Organized

    Answers to the kinds of questions raised at the beginning of this Note to Students tend to be joined together into schools of thought. For example, those who believe people get what they deserve are apt also to believe that society exists because people like one another and like their society's rules. Such clusters or schools of thought are presented in most of the groupings of chapters in sections of this text. For example, you will find in Chapters 2 and 3 the thoughts of consensual theorists who believe that the various parts of society work together for the good of the whole and satisfy those living within it. Likewise, Chapters 4 and 5 examine the critical and coercive theories of those who believe capitalist society has many negative characteristics, is oppressive, and is run by a small number of individuals who keep the others under control. Most chapters focus on one or more individuals who represent these or other schools of thought.

    Internally, chapters are organized consistently according to the following topics:

    • Central Theories and Methods
    • Nature of Humans, Society, and Change
    • Class, Gender, and Race
    • Other Theories and Theorists
    • Critique and Conclusions
    • Final Thoughts

    The consistency of chapter organization makes it easier to compare, contrast, and relate the issues raised by one theorist with those raised by another. Another way we have tried to ease your way through this book is the introduction of themes that run through the volume. Some of the headings listed above, such as change, class, gender, and race, are also themes. Other important themes include how individual theorists have thought about the characteristics of modern society, what their attitudes are concerning capitalism, their views on power and inequality in society, and how they see individuals and society affecting each other.

    You have glimpsed the great variety of issues—some of which you already have an opinion about and some of which you may never have thought about before. Putting your views of society into this larger context is an adventure in learning and understanding. So let us begin the journey together.

  • Credits

    Luhmann, Niklas, The Differentiation of Society, translated by Stephen Holmes and Charles Larmore. New York: Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1982.

    Habermas, Jurgen, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 volumes, translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press. Copyright © 1984.

    Horkheimer, Max, The Eclipse of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press. Copyright © 1947 by Oxford University Press. New material copyright © 1974 by The Seabury Press. Reprinted by permission of The Continuum Publishing Group.

    Jay, Martin, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923–1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 1973. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

    Goffman, Erving, “The Arrangement Between the Sexes,” in Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman (Eds.), The Goffman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Copyright © 1997.

    Coleman, James S., Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

    Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought. Cambridge: Unwin Hyman Publishers. Copyright © 1990.

    Smith, Dorothy E., The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press. Copyright © 1987 by Dorothy E. Smith. Reprinted by permission of Northeastern University Press.

    Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published in French as La Volonté de Savoir. Copyright © 1976 by Editions Gallimard. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., for the author.

    Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge, edited by Colin Gordon, translated by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press. Copyright © 1980.

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