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Contributions To The Understanding Of Modern Society Sociology Essay

Modernity, as considered by Berman (1982, p. 15), is the unite of all mankind through the process of “modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology”. It is a process during which people come into consciousness of themselves and of the very social realities around them. Understanding modernity especially through the analysis of capitalism has been a historical task for social theorists. Karl Marx and Max Weber as two of the greatest social theorists in the world, according to Sayer (1991, p.1), develop one answer to modernity through two different approaches. In this essay, an examination of the contributions made by Marx and Weber to understanding modern society will be presented in order, with a brief contrast between their theories discussed in what follows.

First of all, Marx applied his dialectical philosophical principles to understanding of modern society in order to find out the nature of social change. The central idea of Marx’s dialectical method is the objectively existed contradictions to historical changes (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004, p. 130). Inherited from Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, Marx believed that there are contradictions as dynamical forces existed in the whole process of social development. He was able to link this idea to the analysis of modern society, which significantly helped him to perceive a certain contradiction between human nature and the capitalist labor -- Alienation. As Marx (1967, p.56) described it, “…the object …confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer… this realization of labour appears as loss of reality for the workers.” He believed that under capitalist market, the labour could be no longer creative but separated from human nature. Workers no longer work for their own needs but for the capitalists and they have to pay for the products produced by them in order to maintain daily life. As Ritzer and Goodman (2004, p.141) clarify that Marx considered the capitalist economic system was the cause of alienation, which flows to a dialectical view that the capitalist society as a whole is contradictory. Based on this premises about alienation, Marx went into a further analysis of contradiction under the modern society – the contradiction between classes. According to Caute (1976, p.63), class struggle was taken as the social form of alienation through Marx. And just as Marx and Engel (1997, p.129) put it in their famous work The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. He believes that society can only be changed through class conflicts. Furthermore, he also argued that the contradiction between the workers and the capitalists is the major contradiction under capitalism and this problem can only be tackled through a “life-and-death struggle” (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004, p. 131). Hence, contradictions under the modern society could be understood as the nature of social development from this dialectical perspective.

Secondly, Marx provided a critical analysis of the structure of the modern society with a reorganization of economic base as the deterministic cause to ideology. Taking his observations of the social, economic, and political environments into consideration, Marx saw the society as a certain system composing two distinctive components – the base and the superstructure. The base refers to material base taken form of the economic and class relations which always involves the mode of production, while the superstructure means other social organizations and prevalent ideas such as state policies (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 30). One of Marx’s best summary of the internal meaning of this structure is that, “The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, which is the real foundation on top of which arises a legal and political superstructure to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (1859, pp. 20-21 quoted in Ritzer and Goodman 2004, p. 150). From that we can see, Marx Believed that the superstructure is established upon the economic foundation and human culture and ideas are shifted according to the economic changes. However, although the political ideas seem a systematic reflection through Marx’s analysis of social structure, when comes into the context of capitalism, he also pointed out that the society is not just simply an economic system but also a political system as a “mode of exercising power” and a “process for exploiting the workers” (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004, P.141). This idea can be understood as that the economic base is the centrality determining the other forms of social existences, which, however, highly differs from the view of Max Weber that will be presented in this essay later.

Thirdly, Marx was able to predict the future of capitalism through his view of historical materialism. David Caute (1967, p12) argues that Marx’s philosophy provide a general analysis of the past, present, and future. Respectfully, Marx saw the present modern society through its historical past and tried to predict its future through the current social trends. As discussed before in this essay, Marx believed that human history is a process of class conflicts and social change takes form of class struggles. Facing the modern society, Marx pointed out that the society has been polarized into two classes – bourgeois and proletarians. He (Marx and Engels, 1848) argued that capitalism had played a revolutionary role in the social development from the feudal relations to the modern relations, improving production and consumption, and bringing civilization to the world, however, he considered the dominance by bourgeois towards the working class as a irrational and “inhuman” process, which would only be changed through the proletarian revolution to reach a new mode of production called communism. Optimistically, Marx believed that this communist society would establish a more advanced production and there would be no exploitation, no alienation any more (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p.31). Nevertheless, even through Marx at the very moment thought the right time was around the corner and the only lacking precondition was the consciousness of the working class, this image of a total harmonious society is still a fantasy which has never been achieved. Although in some Asian countries such as China today is under the governance of its proletarian party, whether or not will it walk into communist society is still not foreseeable. And just as Perry Anderson questions (1984, p. 100), suppose that the communist production has been achieved, how will the working class manage to maintain its solidarity?

As David Caute (1967, P.21) describes it, “He was equally a fighter, a champion of working class. But he was also a great scholar, a historian of enormous erudition, a pioneer of modern sociological analysis”. Apart from the great contribution that he made to understanding the society in his era, his theoretical analysis of modernity are still linked to today’s society. Many current social phenomena such as the emerging global market, international division of labour, and the increasing social inequality can still be explained by his work (Antonio, 2003, p.78). Therefore, to understand Marx critically helps us to build a scientific and historical view of the modern society. However, attention should be paid to the point that each part of Marx’s work discussed above is interrelated to each other. It is inappropriate to understand his theories separately as they are well organized in a systematic way.

Max Weber is seen as the most influential sociological theorist in the late 19th century whose ideas are embedded in his historical and empirical research (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004, pp. 196-197). With the orientation of Marx’s dialectical approach to understanding society, Weber developed a distinctive concept of sociology and provided a significant analysis of modern society, especially around social action and capitalism.

Firstly, Weber conceptualized the social process of modernity as the rationalization of social actions. Weber emphasized that social structures and historical changes should be considered as complex patterns of the subjective meanings of individual acts, because he believed that the causal explanations to the social process are based on individuals’ interpretative understanding of their social actions (Scott, 2006, p.86). Social action is considered as the most important ideal type and it is divided into four distinctive types – instrumentally rational action, value-rational action, traditional action and affectual action. Among the four types of social action, instrumentally rational action is the most rationalized action which involves scientific-techno method to achieve the goal, rational choice and decision (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 41). Through Weber, there is a shift in the roles played by the four types of social action that the rational action will replace the traditional and affectual action and then become the dominant type of social action. And this shift is called rationalization by Weber. As Ritzer and Goodman (2004, pp. 221-222) point out, Weber applied this sense of rationalization meaningfully in his analysis of modern society, particularly in the capitalist productive activity and the structure of authority. Under this conception of modern capitalism, the production is oriented rationally involving “rational capital accounting”, “rational organization of labour and of the work discipline”, and “rational technology” (Poggi, 2006, p. 64). Therefore, it is clear to say that social action under the modern society tend to be more rationally constructed in all dimensions of social life. And this process of being rationalized is considered by Weber as the modally coherent expression of the modern social development.

Secondly, Weber was able to give an explanation of the genesis of capitalist development through the analysis of religious value and to see the historical change of capitalist spirit. With the question of why capitalism existed first in Western Europe instead of the other areas in the world, Weber took a look particularly in the relationship between religious value and economic action, and he found out that the answer lay behind its specific religious pattern (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 411). Weber believed that religion particularly Calvinsm, played a historical role in the genesis of capitalism. According to Poggi (2006, pp. 70-71), in Calvinsm, each human being is decreed by God, that their destinies in the afterlife are salvation or damnation, requiring a believer’s faithful commitment to managing his life and his rationally controlled manner – a person “fully identified with his occupation, and who views his success in it as an indication of his own good standing in the eyes of God, guaranteeing his destination of salvation in the afterlife.” With the honor towards God, people who hold this religious value are automatically being diligent, hard-working, and morally behaved. These outcomes of the religious value satisfied the needs of the accumulation of capitals in the productive activity, thus accelerating the development of modern capitalism. In his famous work The Spirit of Capitalism (1992), Weber saw these outstanding characteristics as the certain spirit under capitalism, which encourages people to work hard for accumulation of wealth through productive activity and to avoid wasting money and time. Thus, it is possible to say that, under the condition provided by religious value, this formation of capitalist spirit was favourable for the economic development at that time. However, as Weber clarified, with the expansion of capitalist production, religious value no longer drives people’s orientation in productive activities, but a more practical and realistic force – the economic necessity, become a “calling” towards individual economic actions (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 412). This religious value as an important source of capitalist spirit finally fades away, when people turn to be more rationally behaved for their values of rationalization. Moreover, as Weber argued at the end of The Spirit of Capitalism (1992, p. 123), this rationalization will turn out to be an “iron cage” in which individuals are born into the modern economic order.

Thirdly, Weber held a multi-dimensional view to illustrate social inequality with concerns of the distribution of social power. With the consideration of the class constructed under the economic relations as Marx clarified, Weber pointed out that class is only one causal component of social power while the other causal components are posited in the non-economic dimensions. Through Weber, there are three distinctive forms of power constructed according to the nature resources (Poggi, 2006, p. 43). These three dimensions of power are class, estates and parties. In contrast with class, a person’s social status is determined by the evaluation of his style of life which may involves different social and cultural dimensions such as his career occupations, ethic groups, gender roles, etc (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 775). As Weber (1978, pp. 49) described it, “social status is normally expressed …in the imputation of a specifically regulated style of life to everyone who wishes to belong to the circle.” Hence, status groups as one causal dimension of power, which are called estates by Weber, are constructed by the social and cultural relations with distinctive characteristics of different lifestyles. The third dimension of power takes form of parties under the political relations. According to Weber, a party, explained by Poggi (2006, p.44), is a certain group characterized by its command situation in which it can or can not assert its political interests by orientating the public commands. Moreover, Weber believed that in modern society, classes, status groups and parties are not separately located but interrelated while individuals may find themselves in different powers at the same time and they may share their positions with other people. Therefore, with the consideration of all of the economic, social, cultural and political resources equally, this multi-dimensional view of power distribution helps us to perceive the social inequality in a more all-rounded sphere.

Apart from all discussed above, Weber also made a great contribution to understanding the social organizations particularly reflected in his analysis of bureaucracy and social rules (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, pp. 538-540). His theories vary broadly in spheres such as economy, policy, social structures, culture, religion, etc. This multi-dimensional view to perceive social life developed by Weber provides us a conception of a pluralistic society, which, is reflected coherently in today’s trend of social development.

It can be seen clearly that there are some distinctive differences between Karl Marx and Max Weber’s theories of modern society. First of all, most fundamentally, there is a distinction between Marx’s one-dimensional view and Weber’s multi-dimensional view towards social power and historical social change. For Marx, as discussed above, economic base is considered as the primary power which determines the ideology, and class conflict is the nature of historical change. However, Weber is entirely against the view that economic causes is deterministic and that all conflicts are class conflict (Runciman, 1978, p. 4). He believed that economic cause is only one causal factor in all the social powers and the other causal factors in dimensions from socio-cultural and political perspectives should all be treated equally with economic causes. Hence, under the social structure composing classes, estates and parties, conflicts would not only happen within classes but also in the other two components. Second, Marx was able to give a prediction of capitalism while Weber considered the future is unpredictable. Through Karl Marx’s analysis of modern capitalism, it is said that with the expansion of capitalist production, the productive relations would finally fail to meet the needs of productive force, pushing bourgeois to face its fate of being replaced by proletarians (Marx, 1997, p. 133). But for Weber, any deterministic explanation of social change is rejected as he considered that the causal explanations are based on “an interpretative understanding of the subjective meanings that individuals give to their reactions” (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p. 41). Because the interpretative understandings of individuals are changing historically, there is no valid explanation of any realities in the world. Therefore, in this case, the future can not be predicted. Moreover, he believed that the condition of the workers would not be changed even if the prediction of socialism from Marx came into reality as it would only bring another pattern of bureaucratic domination (Runciman,1978, p. 4). Third, Marx and Weber also differ in their attitudes towards the spirit of capitalism. According to Caute (1967, p. 18), Marx himself did not clarify that capitalism is totally a negative social form, but he preferred to see the society as inhuman and irrational as it “wraps the personality”. But for Weber, he considered the modern society has seen a shift in social action to become more rationally constructed. This contradiction between their theories is posited behind their different views of historical change. Nevertheless, to some extent, Marx and Weber also came into many agreements in the understanding of modernity. They both insist on social science and dialectical method. And to more detailed, for instance, Weber’s general view of rationalization as the process of the modern social development is highly the same with Marx’s consideration of alienation (Ibid, p. 5). Hence it is possible to say that, Marx offered a certain orientation for Weber to go into further development of modernity thesis.

Karl Marx and Max Weber are no doubt the most important figures in the theoretical modernity. The social theories of capitalism and modernity developed by them have been widely influential on people’s understanding of modern society. The main task of sociologists, as Weber himself considered, is to provide a service to the history (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004, p. 197). Clearly, both Marx and Weber had achieved this task proudly and powerfully.


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