Basic Terms (The Fundamental Concepts of Sociology)

Definitions of Sociology and Social action:

Sociology is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action to arrive at a casual explanation of its course and effects. Sociology seeks to formulate type concepts and generalized uniformities of empirical processes. (History, on the other hand, is interested in the causal analysis of particular events, actions or personalities.) Action is human behavior to which the acting individual attaches subjective meaning. It can be overt or inward and subjective. Action is social when, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual(s), it takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby guided. Social action may be oriented to past, present, or predicted future behavior of others. Others may be concrete people or indefinite pluralities. Not all action is social: if it ain't oriented to the behavior of others, it ain't social. Also, it is not merely action participated in by a bunch of people (crowd action) or action influenced by or imitative of others. Action can be causally determined by the behavior of others, while still not necessarily being meaningfully determined by the action of others. If I do what you do because it's fashionable, or traditional, or leads to social distinction, its meaningful. Obviously the lines are blurred (pp 113-114), but it's important to make a conceptional distinction.

Modes of Orientation of social action:

Uniformity of social action = action which is wide-spread, frequently repeated by the same individual or simultaneously performed by many individuals and which corresponds to a subjective meaning attributable to the same actors. Usage: probability of a uniformity in the orientation of social action, when the probability is determined by its actual practice ('it is done to conform with the pattern). Custom: usage when the actual performance of the action rests on long familiarity. Non- conformance is sanctioned externally. Action can also be uniform if the actor acts in his self-interests. The uniformity rests insofar as behavior is determined by purely rational actions of actors to similar ulterior expectations.

Types of Social Action, identified by mode of orientation:

1) rational orientation to a system of discrete individual ends. individuals can choose and adjudicate between both means and ends, though these considerations may be with reference to other absolute values. 2) rational orientation to an absolute value, involving conscious belief in the absolute value entirely for its own sake and independent of prospects for external success. Can choose b/t means, but only with relation to absolute, fixed end. Absolute values are always irrational. 3) affectional orientation. If this is uncontrolled reaction to some exceptional stimulus, it is not meaningful -- grey areas. 4) traditional orientation. If this is strict imitation, it is not meaningful -- grey areas.


There are 2 kinds of meaning: 1) actually existing meaning in a given concrete case of a particular actor, or average or approximate meaning attributed to a given number of actors; and 2) theoretically conceived pure types of subjective meaning attributed to hypothetical actor(s) in a given type of action (like an ideal type). The line between meaningful action and reactive behavior w/o subjective meaning is blurry. The basis for understanding meaning may be either rational (logical or mathematical -- clear intellectual grasp of things) or emotionally empathetic or artistically appreciative (though sympathetic participation we grasp the emotional context in which the action took place). For purposes of ideal type analysis, it's convenient to treat irrational (from the point of view of rational pursuit of a given end) action as deviation from a conceptually pure type of rational action. We compare this analytically clear type to empirical reality, and that increases our understanding of how actually action is influences by irrational factors. The more sharp and precise the ideal type (and thus the more abstract and unrealistic) the more useful it is in clarifying terminology and formulating classifications and hypotheses. Some phenomena are devoid of subjective meaning. What is intelligible about an object is its relation to human action in its role either of means or of end, a relation which actors can be said to be aware of and to which their action has been oriented. If you can't make this relation (for example a hindering or favorable circumstance) it's not meaningful in the sense we care about. There are 2 kinds of understanding: 1) direct observational understanding of subjective mean of a given act (eg, if i start to shout at you, you could directly observe my irrational emotional reaction by virtue of my shouting). 2) explanatory understanding: we understand motive, or, what makes an individual do a particular thing in a particular circumstance. Since we are interested in the subjective meaning of action, we must place an action in the complex of meaning in which it took place.

A motive is a complex of subjective meaning which seems to the actor and/OR the observer an adequate ground for the conduct in question. In most cases, actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actually unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The ideal type case of meaning is where meaning is fully conscious and explicit: this rarely happens in reality. Adequacy on the level of meaning: a subjective interpretation of a coherent course of conduct when its component parts in their mutual relation are recognized as a 'typical' complex of meaning. Eg, according to our current norms of calculation and thinking, the correct solution to an arithmatical problem. Casual adequacy: there's a probability it will always actually occur in the same way. Eg, statistical probability, according to verified generalization from experience, that there would be a correct or incorrect solution to the arithmatical problem. Depends on being able to determine that there's a probability a will follow b. Subjectively understandable action exists ONLY as the behavior of one or more individual human beings. States, for instance, are results of particular acts of individual persons. There is no such things as a collective personality that acts. These concepts of collective entities DO HAVE meanings in the minds of individual persons, and so actors orient their actions to them as if they existed or should exist.

Functional analysis is a good starting point for sociology. We need to know what kinds of action is functionally necessary for survival, and also for the maintenance of a cultural type and the corresponding modes of social action. We are interested, though, in the subjective meaning of actions to component individuals. The interesting question, then, is what motives determine and lead the individual members and participants in this situation to behave in such a way that the situation came into being in the first place.


Social relationship: the behavior of actors in so far as, in its meaningful content, the action of each takes account of the others and is oriented to the behavior of others. Mere group membership is not sufficient. The relation of the actors may be solidary, or the opposite. Eg, a 'state' ceases to exist when there is no longer a probability that certain kinds of meaningfully oriented social action will take place. The subjective meaning need not be the same for all parties to the relationship. The relationship may be temporary or long term. Its subjective meaning may change over time. The Concept of Legitimate Order The validity of an order is the probability that people will orient their action to it. Types of Legitimate Order Legitimacy of an order can be upheld in 2 ways: 1) purely disinterested motives a) purely affectual, b) rational belief in absolute validity of an order as an expression of ultimate values, c) religious attitudes, through belief in need to follow order for salvation 2) entirely through self-interest based on ulterior motives Convention: system of order where infraction meets with sanctions of disapproval and orders are considered binding. Law: system of order where the above is enforced by a functionally specialized agency (e.g., the police). A system of order with external sanctions may also be guaranteed by disinterested subjective attitudes. Eg, it can be both morally wrong and illegal to murder.

Types of Legitimate Order

Legitimacy of an order can be upheld in 2 ways: 1) purely disinterested motives a) purely affectual, b) rational belief in absolute validity of an order as an expression of ultimate values, c) religious attitudes, through belief in need to follow order for salvation 2) entirely through self-interest based on ulterior motives Convention: system of order where infraction meets with sanctions of disapproval and orders are considered binding. Law: system of order where the above is enforced by a functionally specialized agency (e.g., the police).

A system of order with external sanctions may also be guaranteed by disinterested subjective attitudes. Eg, it can be both morally wrong and illegal to murder. Legitimacy may be ascribed to an order by those subject to it in the following ways: 1) tradition, belief in legitimacy of what has always existed. 2) affectual attitudes, legitimizing the validity of what is newly revealed or is a model to imitate 3) rational belief in its absolute value 4) legality. Readiness to conform with rules which are formally correct and have been imposed by accepted procedure.

Submission to an order is almost always determined by a variety of motives.

Class, Status, Party

All communities are arranged in a manner that goods, tangible and intangible, symbolic and material are distributed. Such a distribution is always unequal and necessarily involves power. ''Classes, status groups and parties are phenomena of the distribution of power within a community'' (927). Status groups makes up the social order, classes the economic order, and parties the legal/political order. Each order affects and is affected by the other.


Power is the ''chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action'' (926). Power may rest of a variety of bases, and can be of differing types. ''Economically conditioned power is not identical with power... The emergence of economic power may be the consequence of power existing on other grounds. Man does not strive for power only to enrich himself economically. Power, including economic power, may be valued for its own sake. Very frequently the striving for power is conditioned by the social honor it entails. Not all power entails honor.'' Power is not the only basis of social honor, and social honor, or prestige, may be the basis of economic power. ''Power, as well as honor, may be guaranteed by the legal order, but... [the legal order] is not their primary source. The legal order is rather an additional factor that enhances the chance to hold power or honor; but it cannot always secure them'' (926-7).


Class is defined in terms of market situation. A class exists when a number of people have in common a specific casual component of their life chances in the following sense: this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income under conditions of the commodity or labor markets. When market conditions prevail (eg, capitalism), property and lack of property are the basic categories of all class situations. However, the concept of class-interest is ambiguous. Collective action based on class situations is determined by the transparency of the connections between the causes and the consequences of the class situation. If the contrast between the life chances of different class situations is merely seen as an acceptable absolute fact, no action will be taken to change the class situation. A class in and of itself does not constitute a group (Gemeinschaft). ''The degree in which social action and possibly associations emerge from the mass behavior of the members of a class is linked to general cultural conditions, especially those of an intellectual sort'' (929). ''If classes as such are not groups, class situations emerge only on the basis of social action.''

Status Groups and Honor

Unlike classes, status groups do have a quality of groups. They are determined by the distribution of social honor. A specific style of life is shared by a status group, and the group itself is defined by those with whom one has social intercourse. Economic elements can be a sort of honor; however, similar class position does not necessitate similar status groups (see old money's contempt for the nouveau riche). People from different economic classes may be members of the same status group, if they share the same specific style of life. The way in which social honor is distributed in the community is called the status order. Criteria for entry into a status group may take forms such as the sharing of kinship groups or certain levels of education. The most extreme of a status system with a high level of closure (that is, strong restriction of mobility between statuses) is a caste system. There, status distinctions are guaranteed no only by law and convention, but also by religious sanctions. Relationships between Class and Status group; between Class situation, Status Situation, and Stratification. Status groups can sometimes be equal to class, sometimes be broader, sometimes more restrictive, and sometimes bear no relation to class (duh). In most cases, status situation is the apparent dimension of stratification: ''stratification by status goes hand in hand with a monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities'' (935). Class situation can take precedence over status situation, however. ''When the bases of the acquisition and distribution of goods are relatively stable, stratification by status is favored'' (935). Technological and economic changes threaten stratification by status, and ''push class situation to the foreground.... Every slowing down of the change in economic stratification leads, in due course, to the growth or status structures and makes for a resuscitation of the important role of social honor'' (930).


''Parties reside in the sphere of power'' (938). ''Parties are... only possible within groups that have an asssociational character, that is, some rational order and a staff of persons'' (938). Parties aim for social power, the ability to influence the actions of others, and thus may exist in a social club, the state, or a cohort of graduate students at the University of Chicago. Parties may represent class or status interests, or neither. They usually represent a mix. ''The structure of parties differs in a basic way according to the kind of social action which they struggle to influence.... [T]hey differ according to whether or not the community is stratified by class or status. Above all else, they vary according to the structure of domination'' (938-9).

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