Engels’ sociology of the city

Friedrich Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was one of the earliest “sociological” descriptions of the emerging working class in industrial Europe. Engels is a good subject for this blog, because this book is a very interesting effort to “understand society” at a time when the changes that Britain was undergoing were perplexing and rapid. Like other nineteenth century thinkers — such as Thomas Carlyle, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Alexander Herzen — Engels was trying to find language, concepts, theories, and metaphors in terms of which to comprehend the rapid processes of urbanization and industrialization that he observed. This is a place where the “sociological imagination” is most critical — the ability of talented observers to begin to make sense of the complex social reality surrounding them, and to find language and theory adequate to expressing that reality.

Published in German in 1845, Conditions represents Engels’ attempt to offer a detailed and systematic description of the emerging industrial system in England, largely based on his experience as a young man in the textile firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. (Steven Marcus’s book, Engels, Manchester & the Working Class, provides a good description.) The book is one of the classics of radical thought in the nineteenth century, and substantiates Engels’ stature as a thinker whose perceptions and critiques developed independently from Marx’s, in his early years anyway.

My question here is, what are some of the characteristics of this book as a work of social science? To what extent does the book serve to provide one of the founding sources of modern sociology? And, of course, we need to avoid anachronism when we ask this question; the book was published only two years later than John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843) — one of the earliest efforts to frame an answer to the question of “social science”, and the question of how best to understand the emerging world of industrial capitalism was a profoundly challenging one.

The book has several key features. First, Engels gives a great deal of effort to the task of observing and describing the facts of urban industrial life in the 1840s in Manchester and Birmingham. He is interested in recording the conditions of life that workers experienced; the nature and cost of their daily subsistence; the conditions of health and safety that they experienced; and the nature and size of the population of the towns, neighborhoods, and cities that he describes. Engels relies upon his own observations, but he also makes extensive use of the growing body of official reports that were being produced by English governmental agencies as well as travelers’ reports, coroners’ reports, and newspapers. He refers especially to investigations by the health authorities following the cholera epidemic of 1831-32.

Second, Engels does not attempt to assume the posture of a disinterested observer. He is plainly on the side of the worker and a radical critic of the bourgeois owner; he is making a case about exploitation and indifference against the emerging class of owners whose factories he describes.

Third, he is interested in resistance and mobilization, and he devotes chapters to strikes and other forms of organized efforts by workers and their families to improve their conditions. This is especially true in Chapter IX (Working-Class Movements), but these topics recur in many places in the book.

Fourth, quite a bit of the book might be classified as “ethnography” today: detailed, first-person description of conditions of life of a particular group of people, based on direct interaction with them by the observer.

Fifth, the book certainly falls in the category of descriptive urban sociology. Engels is very interested in describing living conditions, including crowding, squalor, and deprivation. He offers detailed description of the state of the environment — rivers, waterways, roads, and buildings — in the cities he describes, including the famous River Irk in Manchester. And there are numerous drawings of the layout of streets and neighborhoods, so that Engels can document his points about crowding and squalor. Here is a quick description of a neighborhood in Manchester:

Some four thousand people, mostly Irish, inhabit this slum. The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted by the stench and is darkened by the thick smoke of a dozen factory chimneys. … The creatures who inhabit these dwellings and even their dark, wet cellars, and who live confined amidst all this filth and foul air — which cannot be dissipated because of the surrounding lofty buildings — must surely have sunk to the lowest leel of humanity. (71)

The organization of the book reveals an effort by Engels to engage in sociological classification. For example, he distinguishes among several groups of proletarians: industrial workers, miners, farm laborers, and the Irish workers (chapter II). Within industrial workers he further distinguishes workers by sector and division of labor. And he believes that the classification is explanatory: “the closer the wage earners are associated with industry the more advanced they are”.

There are several large sociological processes that Engels articulates. The book puts forward an account of the dynamics of class formation through the development of the industrial system — the process of centralization and increase of scale of production leading to the consolidation of a class of owners and a large class of proletarians. But the book also advances an analysis of urbanization and the growth of towns and cities, based on the dynamics of factory production and the need for larger volumes of labor. “Industry and commerce attain their highest stage of development in the big towns, so that it is here that the effects of industrialisation on the wage earners can be most clearly seen” (28). Consider his description of the slums of London:

It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)

And consider his commentary on the effects that slum life has:

In the circumstances it is to be expected that it is in this region that the inevitable consequences of industrialisation in so far as they affect the working classes are most strikingly evident. Nowhere else can the life and conditions of the industrial proletariat be studied in all their aspects as in South Lanacashire. Here can be seen most clearly the degradation into which the worker sinks owing to the introduction of steam power, machinery and the division of labour. Here, too, can be seen most the strenuous efforts of the proletariat to raise themselves from their degraded situation. (50)

And Engels makes some astute observations about the design of industrial towns:

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter r coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct. (54)

These descriptions offer two things: a hypothesis about urban growth and the creation of slums, and an ethnographic interpretation of the lived experience of people who find themselves trapped in modern cities. (Notice how similar this description of the slum dweller’s life is to the description that Marx offers in his elaboration of the theory of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)

Finally, there is plainly an effort to provide an explanation of the phenomena Engels describes, based on an analysis of an underlying causal process: the rapid development of a capitalist system of property ownership and factory production. Engels brings almost every aspect of the degrading social circumstances that he chronicles back to exploitation and the insatiable appetite of capital for profits at the expense of workers. This is a single-factor explanation of a process that was surely multi-dimensional. But it illustrates an important aspect of sociological explanation: the need to discover some of the underlying processes that give rise to the phenomena that have been discovered.

So — is it sociology or is it radical propaganda? It’s a mix of both. The sociology is of course only partially formed; the next century still had a lot of work to do in conceptualizing how a scientific perspective might be brought to the analysis of society. (And of course that work isn’t finished yet.) But Engels’ efforts here are noteworthy. And of course it is also a document of political advocacy, in line with writings of liberal and radical reformers elsewhere in Britain and Europe. It is also very interesting to me that the book is written by Engels largely prior to his substantial collaboration with Marx. And this goes some ways towards validating the idea that Engels himself was an important thinker and theorist of society.


(The documentary photography of the slums of New York by Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York) seems to have much of the same motivation as Engels’ in Condition of the Working Class in England when it comes to a morally inspired desire to reveal the social reality of slums. See Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom’s Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs for a book that is getting some justified attention.)

What is materialism?


Karl Marx was a materialist thinker. But what does this amount to? What is materialism as a way of thinking about historical and social reality? Is materialism an empirical theory, a philosophical theory, or perhaps part of a social-science paradigm?

Here is a statement of Marx’s materialism from the German Ideology, written in 1845-46:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.

To start, Marx’s words here are directed against “philosophy”, and the Young Hegelians in particular. So Marx is advocating for a different form of reasoning — not speculative philosophical reflection, but concrete analysis grounded in knowledge of the circumstances of human life. Marx is saying that we can understand certain important things — for example, the development of ideas or religion — by examining the “material” circumstances of life in which they emerge. And what are those circumstances? They are circumstances of material need and human labor: the fact that human beings satisfy their material needs on the basis of the transformation of nature through labor. So what is “material” in this setting is two characteristics: the material needs that human beings have (food, shelter, warmth) and the material-physical properties of the world in which human beings find themselves. Human beings as “producers” — intelligent transformers of nature through individual and social labor — this is the fundamental material fact in this passage.

History comes into this account through Marx’s reference to the “nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence”, because this is the social history of technology. Human beings create new tools and techniques over time. So materialism, when applied to human beings, has an inherently historical character; men and women transform the tools and knowledge they use in order to transform nature and satisfy needs. And, as the following paragraphs make clear, the social relations through which production takes place are themselves historical products, in a regular process of change and development. Social relationships are “material” insofar as they are the forms of cooperation through which labor and production take place; central among these material social relationships are the property relations of a given level of society.

These comments focus primarily on the conditions of production as a foundation for materialism. A related line of thought in Marx’s writings is the idea of the social relations of production as the material foundation of society. Here is a famous passage from Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

Here the emphasis is on the social relations of production, not just the forces of production (tools, materials, technical knowledge). And on this approach, study of the class relations of a given society is a “materialist” study — even though class relations are abstract and intangible. And we provide a materialist analysis of a circumstance when we show how that circumstance corresponds to or emerges from certain features of the social relations of production.

So far, then, we seem to have two things going on: first, an approach to the history of ideas (“place systems of ideas into the roles they play in the social arrangements through which human populations satisfy material needs”), and an approach to the unfolding of history more generally (“attempt to understand historical developments in terms of the role they play in production and the satisfaction of needs”). So materialism is a theory about historical causation: what kinds of circumstances cause what other kinds of circumstances. And, perhaps, it is a theory about knowledge: that knowledge proceeds from analysis of material facts, not pure philosophical speculation or imagination.

There seem to be several hazards built into this approach. One is the temptation of reductionism that the approach seems to invite: the impulse to reduce thought, theory, and philosophy to some compound of the “needs of the social system of production”. But is it really compelling to imagine that the Young Hegelians were simply working out some of the contradictions of the system of property and factory manufacturing? No; Marx’s rhetoric seems to be getting away from him here — in ways in which later thinkers such as Mannheim perhaps allowed the sociology of knowledge to spin out of control as well. And the hazard of reductionism also raises the worry of a blindspot when it comes to the relative autonomy of politics or culture: human beings seem to be better at imagining and extending political or cultural inventions than a crude materialism would permit.

So a defensible contemporary materialism can’t be as simple as this: “Material conditions determine the content of culture, politics, and thought.” Rather, we might hold more modestly: “Material conditions constrain, influence, and stimulate the content of culture, politics, and thought.” We can understand Aristotle’s philosophy better when we understand something of its material and historical setting; but the fact remains that Aristotle was a creative and imaginative philosopher who transcended his time in a variety of ways.

So, once again, what sort of theory is materialism? Perhaps we could say this: it is a “meta” – framework, a philosophical premise about how the world works. In this respect it functions as a substantive metaphysical theory. And it is a premise about how a style of thinking, a recommendation about how we should reason about the world and what factors to subject to careful analysis. Here materialism serves as something like an applied epistemology — a theory about how and what to investigate in order to arrive at valuable, justified knowledge. It falls in the general category of ideas such as idealism, monism, atomism, physicalism, or dualism: organizing ideas about the nature of reality, within the context of which more specific theorizing and investigating can take place.

There are many questions that remain. Do these two aspects of materialism hang together? Could one accept the metaphysics but reject the epistemology, or vice versa? Once we have rejected the reductionism associated with vulgar materialism, how much remains of the theory? And is there a continuing role for materialist thinking in the twenty-first century world?

(Courbet’s Stonebreakers is a suitable companion to this topic. Painted in 1849-50, the painting illustrates several aspects of a materialist perspective on the world: an interest in conditions of life and work, an interest in the situation of ordinary working people, and, of course, the depiction of concrete labor — all of these aspects of the painting complement the mentality of Marx’s materialism. T. J. Clark’s brilliant book on Courbet and his social context is well worth reading (Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution).)

Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society — for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base — the economic structure — and an ensemble of superstructural elements — law, state, ideology, religion, culture –that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good — there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn’t seem misleading to call these “structures.” Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of “proletariat” and “capitalist” are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of “capitalism” and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don’t think Marx would object to this stricture — I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

What was E P Thompson up to?


Let’s think about E P Thompson. His 1963 book, Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class.” But what, precisely, was it about?

Whereas other Marxist historians focused particularly on the large structures of capitalism, Thompson’s eye was turned to the specific and often surprising details of artisanal and working culture in pre-industrial England, the many ways in which the working people at the bottom of English society conceived of themselves and created their own organizations for education and politics in the last half of the eighteenth century. Neither peasant nor middle class, the many segments of working people in England were socially organized by trade and skill, and with remarkably distinct cultural traditions, songs, and political repertoires. They were not, in fact, a “class”. And yet, they became a class — this is the “making” that Thompson’s title refers to.

(Harvey Kaye’s British Marxist Historians offers an excellent survey of the major British Marxist historians — Hobsbawm, Hilton, Dobbs, Thompson, and others.)

Commentators often describe Thompson’s central contribution as being the provision of a detailed understanding of “class consciousness” in counterpart to Marx’s conception of a “class in itself” — a group of people defined in terms of their relation to the system of property relations. On this line of interpretation, Thompson provided one of the missing links within Marxist theory, by demonstrating how the transition from “class in itself” to “class for itself” was accomplished.

This is too simplistic a reading of Thompson, however. For one thing, Thompson’s book demonstrates the very great degree of contingency that attached to the historical construction of the English working class when we consider this process in cultural detail. But to find that the process is contingent, is also to negate the Marxist idea that there is a necessary and direct connection between a group’s structural position in the property system and its social consciousness. For another and related reason, Thompson’s story goes well beyond Marx’s in its emphasis on the independent agency of English working people. Their organizations, their ideas, and their political strategies were not simply derivative of the structural situation of “labor and capital”, but rather were the result of specific acts of leadership, creativity, and popular mobilization.

So let’s consider the main elements of Thompson’s historiography. What was his goal as a historian of this period of England’s social history? In writing the book, Thompson took a huge step forward in creating the field of social history, and he established a paradigm of historical writing that guided a generation of historians. His goal is almost ethnographic: he wants to discover the many threads of thought and culture that passed through the many segments of English working people. He takes ideas and ideology very seriously — and recognizes that the ideas of English Methodism and the rhetoric of liberty were profoundly important in these segments of English society. In particular, the ideas and the modes of organization that were associated with Methodism, were deeply formative for the laborers’ and artisans’ consciousness that was being forged.

Just as important as these elements of “high” culture, Thompson articulates his concept of the “moral economy” of the crowd — the idea that there is a shared set of norms in popular culture that underlie social behavior. He identifies popular disturbance — riots, strikes, and expressions of grievances of various kinds — as a crucial indicator of political behavior and popular consciousness. And he tries to demonstrate that the popular disturbances of the eightheenth and nineteenth centuries were governed by a set of norms that were popularly observed and enforced — about price, about social obligation, and about justice. The “bread riot” was not a chaotic or impulsive affair. And this becomes an important theme in the consciousness of the working class that Thompson describes: a consciousness that denounces political oppression as deeply as it decries exploitation.

In other words, Thompson’s version of working class consciousness invokes liberty and justice as much as it does deprivation and material factors. “In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence on the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class” (197). “The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression” (198).

The culmination of this retelling of the multi-threaded histories of English working people is indeed “a working class consciousness” — a more or less coherent social and political philosophy that supported a political program and a morality of equality and solidarity. “Thus working men formed a picture of the organization of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic education, which was above all a political picture. They learned to see their own lives as part of a general history of conflict between the loosely defined ‘industrial classes’ on the one hand, and the unreformed House of Commons on the other. From 1830 onwards a more clearly defined class concsiousness, in the customary Marxist sense, was maturing, in which working people were aware of continuing both old and new battles on their own” (712).

Thompson’s book remains an innovative and pathbreaking classic — and one that can continue to provide new ideas about how to understand society.

(See this post on ChangingSociety for more discussion of E. P. Thompson.)

Was Alexis de Tocqueville a social scientist?

Alexis de Tocqueville is sometimes counted among the founding influences in modern sociology — one of the intellectual progenitors of the discipline in the 1830s-50s.  An aristocrat in post-revolutionary France, de Tocqueville played several roles  in his life: historian, politician, traveler, and social observer.   My question here is a specific one: in what ways did Tocqueville’s writings and thinking make an important contribution to sociology?  And is there anything in his writings that can serve as an important angle of view today as we consider new approaches to sociology?

Tocqueville’s relevance to sociology derives from at least three features of his thinking: his enormous interest in social observation — in France, in Britain, in Algeria, and in America; his historical approach to understanding society — the importance of placing contemporary changes into a historical context; and his causal and comparative imagination — his desire to discover the causes of some of the patterns and differences he discerned in comparable societies.  

I suppose that the books that brought him the greatest recognition reflect these three features of his intellectual persona.  Democracy in America combines his appetite for discovering and describing the small but telling details of a society — the features that mark it as an individual distinct from other contemporary societies, along with an interest in discovering the causes and effects of large features of the societies he observed.  This is an intriguing combination of the particular and the general, the small and the large in a modern society.  (This feature of his sociological imagination makes me think most of Simon Schama’s historical writing — for example, in Landscape And Memory.)  On the side of explanation, Tocqueville was interested in finding the ways in which environment, morality, and civic arrangements combined to produce distinctive patterns of behavior and modes of thought; these become large causal factors in his writings, to which he attributes some of the distinctive features of American values and behavior. And he singled out large features of American society for special study — democracy, town and village life, the relations among the classes of society, the workings of education, and the workings of American market institutions. 

The Ancien Regime and the Revolution illustrates Tocqueville’s historical imagination and his effort to place the largest event of the century — the French Revolution — into a context of moral and civic factors that combined to make the revolution inevitable.   And other lesser books, such as his Recollections of 1848, reflect a combination of these interests in the particular details of a social event with an effort to provide a causal analysis of the way in which it unfolds — the revolutionary upheavals in Paris in 1848.  (These are, of course, the same upheavals to which Marx referred in the Communist Manifesto as the “spectre that is haunting Europe.”)  It is very interesting to contrast Tocqueville’s first-hand observations of the June days of the revolution of 1848, including especially the bloodshed against the workers of Paris, with Marx’s more theoretical writings about the same short period of time in The Civil War in France.  And it is interesting as well to note that Tocqueville was by no means a neutral observer of these events — any more than Marx was.  Tocqueville was a partisan, supportive of the repression inflicted by the state in the name of order.  This too is of some interest when we consider Tocqueville’s relation to the founding of sociology.

But in the end, I think it is not a mistake to conclude that Tocqueville brought an important set of ideas to contemporary sociology — the effort to create a scientific understanding of the modern world.  All of the features identified here — a passion for close observation and description, an interest in the discovery of social causes, an imagination that proceeds through comparison and contrast, and a framework of thought that emphasizes the importance of history — are in fact useful intellectual components for contemporary sociology.  Tocqueville’s conservative view of the world certainly interacted with his observations and recommendations.  His was certainly not “dispassionate” or value-free social science. But at the same time, we might consider whether a Tocqueville in Shanghai today might not discover some pretty interesting details, processes, and mechanisms that could contribute a deeper sociology of China.  And the fact that Tocqueville’s thinking did not proceed from the naturalism that motivated others of the founders — Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim, for example — is on the positive side of the balance sheet as well.  Tocqueville did not operate on the assumption that there must be a single underlying law that explains the processes that he observed in Manchester, Boston, or Algiers; instead, he was content to observe the diversity of the social phenomena he discovered and to tease out some possible, historically limited causal hypotheses about how these historically specific phenomena might work.  

So as we reconsider the intellectual composition of the discipline of sociology, it is worthwhile reconsidering Tocqueville.

Alienation and anomie

It is interesting to compare Durkheim and Marx on their ideas about modern consciousness. Durkheim focused on social solidarity as one of the important functions of a social order: individuals had a defined place in the world that was created and reinforced by the social values of morality, religion, and patriotism. He observed that these strands of solidarity are stronger or weaker in different societies, and he also observed that some modern social forces tend to break down these moral strands of social cohesion — the creation of large cities, for example. In his theory of suicide, he highlights the situation of “anomie” to refer to the circumstance of individuals whose relationship to the social whole is weak, and he explains differences in suicide rates across societies as the result of different levels of solidarity and its opposite, anomie.

Marx’s concept of alienation involves a somewhat different kind of separation and breakdown — separation of the person from his/her nature as a free producer and creator, and separation of the person from his/her natural sociality. Marx thinks of affirming social relations as founded on equality and freedom. So modern capitalist society is destructive of true sociality.

What is interesting in this comparison is that both Durkheim and Marx appear to be diagnosing a similar feature of modernity. In Durkheim’s case there is an implicit contrast between a pre-modern world in which individuals have a well-defined social and moral place and the contemporary world in which these strands of solidarity are breaking down. In Marx’s case the contrast is forward-looking. Marx compares the present — the factory — with the future — a society of free, equal, social producers. But in each case the theorist is grappling with an absence in modernity — an absence of a social and moral setting that gives the individual a basis for self-respect and sociable collaboration with others. The social itself is breaking down. (This is a theme with other social theorists as well; for example, in Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Peter Laslett’s title The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age captures some of the same idea.)

Coming forward to the social theories of the late twentieth century, these issues continue to fascinate some social observers. Robert Putnam’s work on trying to measure the changing density of civic involvement (social capital) is a different perspective on Durkheim’s concept of solidarity. (Another great title — Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Sociologists who focus on disaffected young people are raising similar issues. And the New Left sociology and theory of workers’ alienation from society picks up where Marx left off on this issue.

Is the time right for a new round of thinking about the nature of social consciousness and social solidarity? Do we need some new concepts of how ideas and identities contribute to a social whole? Is the study and theorizing of social subjectivity an important aspect of the challenge of sociology?

Alienation and subjectivity

Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation — interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers’ subjectivity — their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.

What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one’s social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from “species-being” (the worker’s essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.

There are several other concepts in Marx’s work that get some grip on subjectivity — the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity — the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one’s experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are “determined” or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx’s was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.

There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task — that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People’s thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that “the hand mill gives you the feudal lord”. The theory of ideology is one such effort — a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.

Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances — the social relations of production and the factory system — produce a subjective effect — the worker’s alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).

The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to — understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx’s early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.

Is there such a thing as capitalism?

Marx’s central theoretical concept is “capitalism.” He wanted to provide a theory of the capitalist mode of production; he wanted to discover the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production; and he believed that there was a compact structural identity that is shared by capitalist economies. Later Marxist economists refined the concept somewhat by distinguishing among various stages of capitalist development, with thinkers such as Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy focusing on “late capitalism”.

My question here is a simple one. From the point of view of social ontology and concept formation in sociology — does it make sense to think of capitalism as a single thing with multiple instances across time and space? Is there a reason to think that “England, 1880,” “Germany, 1910,” “Japan, 1960,” “United States, 1980,” and “France, 2000” are all instances of a single economic system?

Consider briefly Marx’s account of the core features of capitalism. It is an economic system based on a particular and distinctive property system: private property in the means of production (capital) and private ownership of labor by the worker (labor). The worker is free to sell his/her labor power to multiple owners of capital; but, having been separated from all other forms of access to means of production, the worker is not free to withhold his/her labor altogether. So the worker is dependent on the capitalist for access to the means of subsistence; and the capitalist is dependent upon the worker as the creator of surplus value. It is a system that is premised on surplus extraction by owners of capital from the producers of value (workers). It is a system based on accumulation: constant growth and expansion of the appropriation of surplus value (profits). And it is a system based on accumulation rather than consumption. And, finally, Marx believes that these social institutions create an institutional logic for capitalist economies that is different from other modes of production — a tendency towards technological innovation, a tendency towards a falling rate of profit, the creation of an “industrial reserve army,” and the creation of a tendency towards economic crisis. It is this claim that permits Marx to assert that he has produced a theory that encompasses a whole class of social formations, rather than being simply a description based on a single case, British capitalism of mid-nineteenth century.

In order to carry this concept through, we would need to postulate that there is a core set of economic features and institutions that constitute the “essence” of capitalism; that these core features recur across multiple historical social formations; and that the differences that exist across historical cases are non-essential, accidental, epiphenomenal, or super-structural.

And differences there are, of course. One important dimension of difference is the degree and nature of state involvement in the economy. But other differences are equally important: the subtle but distinctive differences in property systems that exist in England, Germany, Japan, or the United States; the differences that exist in regulatory regimes (such as those documented by Frank Dobbin); the cultural differences that exist across “capitalist” societies with respect to attitudes towards wealth, the environment, or inequalities; and so on for a continuing and broad range of differences across societies.

Given this fact of sociologically important differences across historical instances of capitalism, we appear to have two theoretical choices. The first is to postulate that the common, core institutions of capitalist societies impose a logic of development on capitalist societies that is more fundamental than any of the evident differences across instances. The other is to judge that the concept of capitalism is simply a nominal social category, grouping together a number of societies which have some similarities and also important differences. Or, following Weber, we might say that capitalism is an ideal type, an organizing and idealized concept that singles out a set of features that often hang together, but recognizing that no particular society perfectly exemplifies all these features.

It seems to me that Marx fell into a fetishim of his own in reifying the capitalist mode of production as a general historical category. We are better off following the lead of the new institutionalists, recognizing that every society has a somewhat different configuration of basic institutions; and acknowledging that these differences make a difference in the development and historical trajectory of these societies. There are important commonalities across many or most of the societies that Marx would call “capitalist” — a deep conflict of interest between capital and labor, a likelihood that economic property ownership will support political power and influence, and other common features. But to judge that “every capitalist society develops in the same way” goes well beyond what history or theory would support. Instead, we need to have specific, factual analysis of each of the societies we are interested in, and should highlight the differences that exist as well as the commonalities that recur. This finding takes us further down the road of emphasizing particularity and difference as much as generalization and regularity in social science theorizing.

Does historical materialism have a place in today’s social sciences?

Marx’s theory of historical materialism came with a few central concepts, a large hypothesis, and a heuristic for social research. The concepts include class, the forces and relations of production, the economic structure, the superstructure, and the idea of determination (“in the last instance”, as Althusser and Poulantzas put it) between the economic structure and elements of the superstructure. The heuristic is, “Look to the circumstances of property and class — the material circumstances of society — in order to discover the causal relationships that exist in large social change across history.” The large hypothesis is that the historical dynamic created by tension between the forces of production (the level of technology and labor skills) and the relations of production (the property relations) creates a set of imperatives and constraints for social change that leads to the formation and transformation of other social elements, such as the state, morality, or culture. Class and class conflict play a central role in mediating the effects of the economic structure on other aspects of society.

Are these elements of historical materialism still of value to sociology and historical explanation?

The concepts associated with the theory of historical materialism are legitimate macro-sociological tools for organizing and analyzing social institutions and structures within particular societies. Their utility depends on the degree to which they permit the historian to identify and explain in detail the real social processes that are underway in the society under examination. There is no a priori basis for judging that this conceptual scheme is superior to other alternatives (as Marx sometimes seems to suggest). Rather, we need to evaluate the materialist conceptual scheme through its fecundity in identifying causal mechanisms and processes within the empirical phenomena under study.

The heuristic too remains insightful — as long as we keep in mind the fact that historical change has many causes. It is fair to say that material factors have historical influence — levels of technology influence other social institutions such as the educational system, the property system creates a set of interests that have important political effects on mobilization, and struggle over the control of social wealth is plainly an important historical factor. And it is a productive strategy for historians to examine in details the ways in which material circumstances produce other kinds of social change through the actions of historically situated actors. Further, careful study of the material circumstances of a society shed important light on the circumstances of life for the almost invisible ordinary people.

The master hypothesis of historical materialism is the least enduring. Marx’s reading of history within the lenses of historical materialism was simply too deterministic, too unidirectional, and too single-factored, to provide a credible basis for explaining historical change. The difficulty with the hypothesis is its comprehensiveness and its suggestion that there is only one major historical dynamic. But take any particular historical outcome of interest — the dynamics leading to a rebellion in North China, for example. Material conflicts of interest are likely enough to be part of the motivations of the participants, and the powers associated with various groups derivative from their control of wealth and property are plausibly related to the ability of various groups to play an influential role in the developing events. However, there are plainly other social and causal factors that are unrelated to the property system — for example, a history of drought or flooding in the region, the structure and tenacity of kinship systems, the nature of local morality and justice sensibilities, the degree of transportation interconnectedness of the region, and indefinitely many other factors.

It is implausible, then, to suppose that a single factor — whether material class circumstances, ideology, or other social characteristics — is the sole important causal factor in large historical processes. Historical processes are contingent and conjunctural, so the effort to discover a single key to explain all large historical processes and outcomes is futile. At the same time, it is plausible enough that the circumstances and institutions associated with technology and property have historical effects; and in fact, it is straightforward to describe the microfoundations through which these institutions interact with ordinary human behavior and choice to lead to social outcomes. This assessment suggests that historians and sociologists are well justified in including the concepts and heuristics of historical materialism in their tool kit, but that they would be well advised to reject the almost metaphysical certainty of the grand hypothesis.

(See Gerald Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, for an analytic philosopher’s pathbreaking treatment of historical materialism.)

Why "false consciousness"?

The most frequently visited page on my research web site (out of more than 90 articles) is an encyclopedia article on false consciousness. Moreover, many of these visitors come from the developing world, including especially the Philippines. I am curious about these facts.

False consciousness is a Marxist concept. It refers to the hypothesis that oppressed people have a worldview that systematically conceals the reality and causes of their oppression. The concept is associated with Lukacs, Althusser, and Gramsci.

But once again, why so much current interest in the concept? It is common to observe that “Marxism is dead”–no longer a useful tool of analysis in the 21st century. But here we find a lively interest in a particular Marxist concept. Why is this concept so frequently searched on Google?

I cannot confidently answer the question. But here are a few possibilities.

First, oppression and economic exploitation are certainly not gone from the scene. And yet there is little organized economic struggle going on in the world today. Perhaps critical thinkers in developing countries are turning to false consciousness as a possible diagnosis.

Second, the rhetoric of globalization suggests that everyone gains from these processes of international trade and the global movement of capital. And yet the locally visible realities appear quite different in Chiapas or Manila. So perhaps the mis-match that appears to exist between representation and reality about the effects of globalization brings thoughtful observers back to the theory of false consciousness.

Third, it is a fact that media (including the Internet) have massive and growing ability to shape public consciousness and ideas. Perhaps this is the most visible mark of the twenty-first century. It is natural to ask, in whose interests does this shaping take place? And what kinds of systematic and deliberate bias are embedded in this media stream? What is the connection between “interest” and “representation”? Perhaps it is logical that third-world thinkers are turning to Lukacs and Gramsci in order to find tools for analyzing this system of consciousness-formation.

So perhaps the interest we found on the topic of false consciousness is understandable, a response to some current and powerful features of the current economic and social system.