Understanding Social Theory


Derek Layder

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    The reader of this second edition may wish to know in what respects it differs from the first edition. Since it was originally published (1994) there have been some developments in social theory that relate to the central themes of the book and I have incorporated some reference to them in this new edition. Also, in the intervening years I have changed some of my views as they appear in the earlier book so I have taken the opportunity to amend or reformulate some of the ideas expressed in it. The practical impact of these changes is as follows. What was originally the final chapter (12) has disappeared from this new edition, although substantial parts of it have been redistributed to other chapters in the second edition (specifically Chapters 7, 8, 10 and 11). I have repositioned Chapters 10 and 11. The ‘old’ Chapter 11 on Habermas now appears as Chapter 10, while Chapter 10 has become Chapter 11 in this new edition. This was necessitated because I have added new material to what is now Chapter 11 (and also re-titled it ‘Varieties of Dualism’). Now joining the original discussions of Goffman and Turner are additional commentaries on Mouzelis and Archer. These changes make for a much smoother transition to the issues discussed in the new final chapter (12).

    The new Chapter 12, entitled ‘New Directions: The Theory of Social Domains’, provides a more definite conclusion than did the original, which was somewhat tentative and speculative. My own work on social theory and social research strategies was only at the mid-point of its development when the first edition was published so I largely refrained from referring to it in that book. However, my work on the ‘theory of social domains’ and ‘adaptive theory’ has subsequently acquired a more fully developed form and so I have taken the opportunity to organise the concluding chapter largely around themes and issues deriving from this work. Of course, many of the authors and perspectives dealt with in the foregoing chapters arise as topics of discussion in this new chapter, and so it serves both as a conclusion to the book as a whole and an introduction to alternative ideas and new directions for social theory. Since my own ideas focus centrally on issues relating to the dualisms of individual–society agency-structure and macro-micro, the final section of Chapter 12 ties the discussion back to the central organising themes of the book as a whole.

    Apart from these ‘major’ alterations, throughout the whole text I have made minor amendments, revisions and refreshments to the discussion where I have thought appropriate and they reflect the way in which my views have changed since the first edition. There are two other significant changes to the original. Every chapter now has a ‘preview’ at the beginning and a ‘summary’ at the end which provide overviews of the topics and issues as they appear in the chapter concerned. I have also added a ‘glossary’ of the main social theory terms and concepts that recur throughout the text. Hopefully these two additions make the book (even) more reader-friendly than the first edition. Finally, I'd like to thank Chris Rojek at Sage (and the Sage staff generally) for suggesting a second edition. The more I have thought about and worked on this project, the more convinced I have become that the changes it has enabled me to make are both necessary and important.

    DerekLayder 2004

    Preface to the First Edition

    This book is an introduction to key issues in modern social theory. Although it does give a general overview of social theory it does not sacrifice depth of analysis in an attempt to cover absolutely every topic. Rather, it concentrates on the work of major authors, perspectives and key issues in social theory. I believe that although there can be no eventual great synthesis in social theory, there are, nonetheless, many different strands which can be usefully drawn together. Thus, while not underestimating the obstacles and incompatibilities, I stress the unities and points of connection in social theory. This moves away from the idea that social theory is necessarily diverse and irredeemably fragmented. I think that the only way forward is to stress the cumulative nature of sociological knowledge and the co-operative dialogue of those involved in its production.

    I have tried to emphasise the empirical and social research implications of the theoretical issues that I raise. My guiding assumption is that theory is never completely isolated from problems of empirical research, any more than empirical research is free from theoretical assumptions. The really interesting questions concern the nature of the relations between theory and empirical research and not whether either domain has some divinely given priority. Similarly, I do not think that sociology is beleaguered by ‘false’ problems and divisions (such as those expressed in the pairings of ‘individual and society’, ‘agency-structure’ and ‘macro-micro’). In my opinion these dualisms represent not so much false problems as contested issues about which are the most adequate ways of thinking about the interconnections between different features of social life. The most enlivening and important questions facing social theory today are concerned with how different aspects of social reality are related to each other. Both classical and contemporary theorists have produced an interesting diversity of answers to these questions. It is the sorting through of competing and complementary claims in the search for sound and adequate solutions that provides much of the creative impetus, excitement and controversy in modern social theory.

    I would like to thank Karen Phillips of Sage for her patience, help and constructive advice throughout the writing of this book. Also, two anonymous reviewers from Sage were instrumental in defining the form and content of the book prior to writing. I thank them for this and their subsequent perceptive and useful comments on a completed draft of the book. I owe a lot to Alison Drewett, who went through the manuscript in great detail. Although I have not incorporated absolutely everything she suggested, I found her observations to be invaluable.

    While not directly involved in the writing of this book, a number of people have generally influenced my thinking about social theory and I would like to acknowledge them here. Paul Secord of the University of Houston and John Wilson of Duke University have over the years provided collegial support and enthusiasm. Stewart Clegg's influence has been both practical and intellectual and, although he may be unaware of it, he bears some responsibility for broadening my theoretical horizons! I also learned much from Tony Giddens while writing a previous book.

    David Ashton has always provided important support and helpful advice. In particular our collaboration on an article that combined theory and empirical research stimulated my thinking about crucial aspects of the macro-micro problem. Conversations with William Watson and Simon Locke always proved to be productive and stimulating. Also, I would like to thank the students who attended my sociological theory lectures at the University of Leicester between 1986–91. They provided an extremely inquisitive and attentive audience and ‘sounding board’ for many of my views. Finally, I wish to thank Julia O'Connell Davidson, John Williams, Dominic Strinati, James Fulcher, Stephen Small, Steve Wagg, Terry Johnson and John Scott – all colleagues at Leicester – for their friendship, but above all for their sense of humour.

    Those who wish to obtain a full picture of the overall argument are encouraged to read the book straight through. However, those who wish to dip into it to gain an impression of a particular author's main ideas or to obtain a preliminary understanding of a particular perspective are encouraged to do so. I have tried to help in this respect by making each chapter fairly self-contained. However, before plundering various parts of the book it is probably best to read Chapter 1 first, since this defines key terms and themes and gives an outline of the chapter contents.

  • Glossary

    • adaptive theory An approach to social research that emphasises the dual influence of general theory and theory grounded in research data. Adaptive theory (Layder 1998) is closely linked with the theory of social domains (Layder 1997).
    • alienation Karl Marx uses this term to refer to the psychological effects that result from workers’ loss of control over the things they produce and the nature of their work.
    • anomie Emile Durkheim uses the concept of anomie to refer to states of normlessness or lack of social regulation. These can occur either in society in general (in disruptive periods of transition such as the early stages of industrialisation), or in particular sectors of society (for example, because of a relative lack of communal bonds). In such situations people lack firm guidelines for their behaviour and may become confused or depressed.
    • behaviourism An attempt to found a science of human behaviour modelled on the natural sciences, which avoids all references to ‘inner’ mental faculties like ‘mind’ and ‘self, or to subjective phenomena like ‘meaning’. Associated with the work of Skinner and Watson in psychology and Homans in sociology.
    • communicative action Jürgen Habermas's ‘theory of communicative action’ traces the processes that have resulted in large areas of everyday life being overtaken by the influence of the social system elements of power and money.
    • contextual resources The most far-reaching of the four principal domains in ‘the theory of social domains’. It refers to distributional inequality as well as accumulated cultural resources.
    • current life situation A person's network of social and personal relationships and the surrounding social circumstances. The concept also refers to how the individual feels about, and responds to, these factors.
    • decentring the subject An attempt by some schools of social theory (notably structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism) to reject the idea that the individual should be a central focus of social analysis. Thus, these schools speak of ‘abandoning the subject’ or the ‘death of the subject’.
    • depth ontology A view which understands society as a series of ‘layers’ (or ‘domains’) that have rather different characteristics and properties but which are also tightly interwoven. It opposes the view that society is a ‘flat’ terrain composed of a single major element (such as ‘discursive practices’ or ‘figurations’). It is also associated with the idea of a ‘variegated ontology’, in which society is understood to be composed of several different kinds of domain of social reality.
    • dialectic Two forces in conflict or tension which eventually give way to a newly formed amalgam of the two.
    • dialectic of control Giddens's term to express the balance of power between individuals or groups. It stresses that subordinates always have some power resources at their disposal.
    • dialectic of separateness and relatedness The tension between being involved with others socially and also maintaining one's independence as an individual. It marks the intersection of social and psychological reality.
    • discourse Forms of talk or writing on a particular area or topic. Discourse involves the use of reason and argument based on a defined area of expertise, knowledge, or simply a body of opinion. It is intimately related to power and what becomes defined as the ‘truth’. Thus we have ‘medical discourse’, or the discourses of ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’.
    • discursive To proceed by argument or some form of reasoning with regard to a particular body of knowledge, opinion or prejudice.
    • discursive consciousness Giddens's term for the things that people are able to express verbally about the social circumstances in which they live and how these affect their behaviour.
    • discursive practices This phrase points to the fact that talk, writing and bodies of ideas in general are associated with specific social practices and forms of power. Michel Foucault stresses these connections in his writings. Thus, for example, the doctor-patient relationship involves the employment of medical discourse and a power relation in which the patient defers to the doctor's advice and expertise.
    • domain theory Or ‘the theory of social domains’ holds that social reality (society) is composed of four fundamental domains (psychobiography, situated activity, social settings and contextual recourses). Each domain has distinct properties and characteristics which are not reducible to each other but which are, nevertheless, closely interrelated and mutually influential.
    • duality of social relations Refers to the fact that any social relationship has both ‘reproduced’ and ‘free form’ (or socially defined and personally defined) aspects.
    • duality of structure Giddens uses this term to express his view that agency (action) and structure are simply different aspects of the same thing. Giddens believes that agency and structure must not be understood as separate and opposed to each other.
    • empiricism The view that our knowledge of the world is gained exclusively by perception and the use of our senses. Thus, observation, experience and empirical testing of various kinds are seen as the only valid ways of gaining true knowledge. It is an opposing view to that of ‘rationalism’.
    • epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. It poses the question ‘How do we know what we claim to know?’ In a practical sense it deals with the assumptions that underlie various claims to knowledge. Thus, it is generally concerned with questions of validity and verification – the reasons why knowledge is accepted or rejected.
    • ethnomethodology A sociological perspective based on the work of Harold Garfinkel. It focuses on how people create and maintain the orderliness of much of everyday interaction. It highlights the ‘ethnomethods’ that people use to make sense of what others say and do.
    • existentialism A school of philosophy this is concerned with the nature of being and human existence and is associated with the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a human-centred philosophy which post-structural and postmodern writers oppose. See ‘decentring the subject’.
    • figurations Elias's term for the ever-changing interdependencies formed by people in their social relationships. Thus ‘figurational sociology’ is a general approach to sociology based on Elias's ideas.
    • functionalism A theoretical framework which focuses on the functions that social institutions and patterns of behaviour perform for society as a whole. It is associated with the work of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, among others. It is sometimes referred to as ‘structural-functionalism’.
    • general theory Theory expressed in an abstract manner which relates to the empirical world (of evidence and facts) in a rather general way, instead of being linked to a particular area or topic of study. Examples are the theory of structuration, the theory of communicative action and the theory of social domains.
    • grand theory Theory which attempts to explain a great many phenomena within its own terms of reference. Often it is of a highly abstract nature like Parsons's social system theory.
    • historical materialism A view of human history, found in the work of Marx and Engels, which stresses the role of human labour in meeting material needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
    • homines aperti Norbert Elias's term which expresses the idea that individuals are interdependent with others in human figurations.
    • homo clausus Elias's term for a view of the individual as closed-off from social influences.
    • humanism A term that refers to theoretical perspectives which reject the idea that social life can be studied in the same manner that scientists study physical or natural phenomena. Humanism stresses the importance of meaning in social life and the interpretative skills of sociologists.
    • id Freud's term for the elemental drives (of a sexual and aggressive nature) that seek expression in our everyday behaviour. These drives are generally barred or repressed from our conscious minds.
    • ideology Ideas and beliefs which serve to support and justify the power and interests of dominant groups. Ideologies attempt to legitimise forms of social inequality.
    • indexical nature of meaning This refers to the fact that often the ‘meaning’ of an episode of interaction, or a word, or even a whole conversation, cannot be understood without reference to the actual context in which it occurs. For example, words like ‘he’, and ‘she’, or ‘there’ and ‘here’, only make sense when we know to what, or to whom, they refer.
    • institutional analysis Giddens uses this term to indicate an analytic concentration on institutions while ‘holding apart’ the analysis of actual conduct.
    • interaction order Erving Goffman's term for the analysis of face to-face-behaviour as ‘an order of social reality’ in its own right, that is, it has characteristics somewhat different from other social orders like those of structure, culture and institutions.
    • interpretative analysis A phrase often used by Giddens to refer to a concentration on the strategic activities of people in their everyday lives while ‘bracketing out’ (or placing to one side) the analysis of social institutions.
    • intersubjective world A level of analysis that concentrates on people's relations with others and the way in which they actively construct and reconstruct the social world.
    • life situationSee ‘current life situation’.
    • lifeworld abermas's term for the day-to-day world of interaction in which people attempt to arrive at communicative agreements. In Habermas's theory, this is distinct from the social system world, which operates according to different principles.
    • loose coupling A term used by Erving Goffman to describe the relationship between the interaction order and other social orders (such as the structural or institutional order). The looseness of the connection indicates the variety of ways in which the different orders may be related.
    • mutual benign control The way in which people reciprocally control and influence each other in order to achieve mutual benefits by taking each other's rights, interests and feelings into account. This contrasts with competitive and exploitative control where one or both parties seek to gain advantage over the other either by manipulating or ignoring the other's rights, interests and feelings (see Layder, 2004a and b).
    • naturalism The application of the framework of the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, and so on) to the social sciences. Thus it is very close in meaning to ‘positivism’. Confusingly, however, the term ‘naturalism’ is also used to denote the necessity of studying social phenomena in their ‘natural’ settings (instead of in artificial conditions such as experiments). In this latter sense, naturalism has a close affinity with humanism.
    • neofunctionalism Refers to the work of a group of sociologists who have elaborated and refined the work of earlier functionalist writers, particularly Parsons.
    • objectivism The tendency to view social phenomena as if they had an objective, ‘external’ existence independent of members of society. This contrasts with ‘moderate objectivism’, which only requires the relative independence of objective social phenomena, such as institutions, culture and knowledge.
    • ontology A branch of philosophy traditionally concerned with the nature of reality as we experience it. However, there is a broader sense in which it refers to what exists more generally – including things that are not within the realm of personal experience. In sociology, ontological questions concern the basic nature of society and social life. They ask ‘What is society composed of?’ ‘What are its constituent elements?’
    • pastiche A mixture of styles old and new which produce a collage or patchwork effect. It is associated with postmodernism as a cultural style.
    • pattern variables Parsons suggests that ‘pattern variables’ express ‘dilemmas of action’ for people in their everyday lives which have to be resolved in order for them to proceed. Parsons also uses the term to indicate the general patterning of social roles in different kinds of society.
    • phenomenology A strand of theory that focuses on people's perceptions of others and how their sense of normality and security depend on the quality of their relationships.
    • position practices The socially reproduced positions and the practices associated with them that form the ‘social settings’ of situated activity. See ‘social settings’.
    • positivism A vision of the social sciences modelled along the lines of the natural sciences. It stresses an objective (rather than an interpretative) method and the search for generalisations (laws) about human behaviour.
    • postmodernism There are three dimensions of postmodernism. First, the idea that there has been a move away from modern (advanced capitalist) societies to a new ‘postmodern’ form based on radically different principles of organisation. Secondly, the term also refers to a definite cultural style relying on pastiche or a mixture of many different styles. Finally, the term may refer to a set of ideas which includes the rejection of the following: science, objective knowledge and truth claims, ‘the subject’ (see ‘decentring the subject’) and so on.
    • post-structuralism The writings of a group of authors dissatisfied with structuralist theories that relate everything in social life to a unified structure which also determines people's behaviour. Thus, post-structuralists attempt to breakdown (decompose or deconstruct) the analysis of social life into its smaller constituent elements. Foucault's objection to Marxism reflects this view.
    • power The ability of individuals or groups to achieve objectives and to serve their own interests despite the resistance of others. Power can be based on a wide variety of resources (money, property, knowledge) which can be used to control and manipulate others.
    • practical consciousness Giddens's term for the practical, everyday knowledgeability of human beings – their basic knowledge of how to operate skilfully in social situations. This usually operates below the level of conscious awareness – that is, we normally just do the things that are required of us in social situations, we do not express them verbally.
    • practices The actual forms of conduct that exist in society, or some sector of it. Practices can be formal or informal, legitimate or illegitimate.
    • presence availability Giddens's term to characterise societies where social relations are conducted on a face-to-face basis. Thus, they exhibit a high degree of presence availability. In more complex (capitalist) societies, many social relationships are indirect and mediated by telephones, fax machines and so on, because of the dispersion of the population, sometimes over vast distances.
    • psychobiography The psychological profile of the individual that traces shifts and transformations in self-identity as they emerge from social involvements and experience over a person's lifespan. In the theory of social domains, psychobiography is one of the four principal domains of social reality.
    • psychodynamic The flux of emotionally-charged mental elements that influence and motivate us. Both childhood memories of interaction with parents as well as later adult experiences influence our attitudes and reactions (or responses) to others in social life.
    • rationalism A view of knowledge that stresses its a priori nature, that is, its independence from our personal experience, observations and the evidence of our senses in general. Thus, it is the opposite of empiricism. Rationalism highlights the role of reason, argument and logical deduction from ‘self-evident’, or at least agreed upon, assumptions.
    • realism Recently, this term has been used to express an alternative view of social analysis to those of positivism and humanism. It attempts to combine a scientific view of society with a concern with interpretation and the analysis of meaning in social life.
    • reductionism This term characterises forms of explanation which are inappropriate to the things they attempt to explain. For example, explaining institutions as individual rather than social creations.
    • reification At one extreme, reification is associated with the idea that society and social arrangements in general are produced by non-human entities such as Gods, or mystical or mysterious forces, rather than human beings. In turn, this is associated with the view that social arrangements are eternal and cannot be altered by human endeavour. A more moderate version of reification simply insists that societies or social forms are capable of acting and operating independently of human intervention.
    • role The socially expected behaviour associated with a particular position in society or a sub-group. For example, the roles of ‘parent’, ‘police officer’, ‘friend’, ‘leader’, and so on.
    • situated activity Situated activity occurs between participants in face-to-face encounters and centres on the intersubjective (meaningful) exchanges that take place between them. It has a dynamic and emergent nature resulting from the collective inputs of those involved. Situated activity constitutes one of the four principal domains of social reality in the theory of social domains.
    • situational or peripheral selves These refer to the images and behaviour that we exhibit in the presence of particular people, audiences or groups in order to create and sustain a certain impression of ourselves. These aspects of our identities are rather different from what we take to be our ‘core’ or main self-identities.
    • social integration The extent to which social relationships (between individuals or groups) are either smooth and harmonious, or exhibit conflict and tension.
    • social production This refers to the (unresolved) problem of how society and its institutions are produced and created by people. This is the other side of the problem of social reproduction.
    • social reproduction The way in which social practices and institutions are reproduced (and, as a result, continue to persist) over time through human activities. Reproduction represents the other side of the problem of social production.
    • social settings One of the four principal domains of social reality in the theory of social domains. Social settings constitute the immediate environment of situated activity and are formed through local aggregations of reproduced social relations, positions and practices.
    • strategic action Habermas uses this term to refer to action that is geared to the achievement of some material or instrumental goal, such as to sell a service or goods. This is distinguishable from ‘communicative action’, which is primarily aimed at arriving at shared understanding without any underlying material motive.
    • stratification model of society A view of society as composed of different layers. See also ‘depth ontology’.
    • structural marxism The work of Marxists like Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas who stressed the importance of the analysis of social relationships as objective structures which largely determine the behaviour of people. This kind of objective approach went hand in hand with a vehement rejection of humanism.
    • structuration theory Giddens's theory which provides a general account of the way in which society is constituted through the activities and practices of human beings.
    • subjectivism Understanding and explaining social phenomena in terms of the psychological dispositions of individuals. Often sociologists claim that subjectivism is ‘reductionist’. See ‘reductionism’.
    • superego Freud's term for the area of mental life responsible for the inhibition of anti-social behaviour. The superego is a storehouse of moral values and models of ‘appropriate’ behaviour which are first learned in childhood through parental control.
    • symbolic interactionism A theoretical perspective which derives primarily from the work of George Herbert Mead. It emphasises the role of the self, symbolic communication, language and meaning in everyday life.
    • system integration The extent to which parts of society (the main institutions and the power relations that support them) either fit together into a coherent whole or exist in conflict and tension with each other.
    • the theory of social domainsSee ‘domain theory’.
    • totalising theory Similar to ‘grand’ theory in that it attempts to explain an extremely wide range of phenomena within its own terms of reference. However, a characteristic feature of totalising theory is its rejection of other points of view. Post-structuralists and postmodernists often regard Marxism as a totalising theory.
    • unconscious The unconscious refers to wishes and impulses that are hidden from everyday conscious awareness. Freud suggested that many such motives are developed during early childhood but are subsequently repressed from normal awareness even though they continue to play a key role in adult behaviour.


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