Sociology as a discipline of study took off only in the twentieth century. The growth in communications technology, coupled with unprecedented levels of human migration, both facilitated and made necessary the study of human interaction from the perspective of ethnicity, race, class, gender, etc. Intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens have proposed important theories toward understanding the dynamics of societies. Karl Marx was identified as a sociologist posthumously for during his life-time the field of sociology was not yet formed. But despite the lack of nomenclature Marx’s ideas have profoundly affected later generations of sociologists. Marx’s achievement is in attempting to explain social situations and problems from the point of view of economic class of constituent groups in society. Max Weber, on the other hand, saw religion to be pivotal to society and hence included religious considerations alongside economic ones. Although Weber helped enrich the understanding of the then emerging capitalist world order, he did not completely condemn it as Marx did. Despite the differences in their emphasis, both Marx and Weber greatly influenced scholars, politicians and commentators for generations to come. More importantly, their theories and insights have a direct appeal to lay people, for the state of economic and political organization of society has a direct and immediate bearing on its members. Marx and Weber can also be credited for making sociological discourse accessible to the general population. And by doing so, they expanded the reach of the discipline to a wider audience and enabled it to interpret commonplace events in uncommon ways. In other words, their works interpreted and presented social, political and economic events in an alternative perspective, that contrasted or enhanced the ‘common sense’ view. The rest of this essay will extend this contention by way of referring to practical examples of such cases.
Max Weber’s works emphasize the influence of religious beliefs in the affairs of state and society. During his lifetime Christianity was the dominant religious ideology in Germany and most of Europe. So Weber asserts that the rise and flourishing of capitalist economic systems in this region is attributable to certain concepts in the Christian ethic. In other words, the seeds for the eventual flowering of industrial capitalism in Europe from the eighteenth century onward were already evident in the moral fabric of society as conditioned by principles laid out by Christianity. By extension, Weber argues that the resistance or reluctance to accept capitalism in the East is similarly conditioned by the precepts of Buddhism and Hinduism. After Weber expounded his theories, it is easy to see in retrospect how different regions of the world evolved different kinds of political and economic systems that were grounded on historic, religious and cultural factors (Bakker, 1999). But in order to arrive at this theory, Weber had to study rigorously and meticulously centuries upon centuries of facts and patterns. In other words, to arrive at this sociological understanding of what factors determine political and economic structures of modern societies, the scholar (in this case Weber) had to look way beyond ‘common sense’ explanations of status quo as is expressed in mainstream sources of information. To illustrate this point, let us consider the Russian Revolution of 1917, which terminated the dynastic rule of the Tsar and established in its place Communist leadership in the form of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the brewing communist propaganda hardly demonstrated a sophisticated and historically informed analysis of the impending political change, which is in sharp contrast to the Weberian synthesis of the movement. The subversive propagandist literature of the time rather tried to appeal to the vast masses of Russian peasantry using simple language and simplistic presentation of problems and solutions. It would be apt to say that the sociological understanding of the Russian Revolution as explicated by the Weberian method of studying society is much more rich and profound that the simplistic, ‘common sense’ versions of the socio-political event available to mainstream channels of information.
A similar observation could be made with respect to the works of Karl Marx. The first few years of the twenty first century are marked by rapid migrations from rural to urban spaces all across the world. And it is no coincidence that neo-liberal economic reforms set in motion since the 1970s continue to play a major role in furthering this phenomenon. But even as early as the late nineteenth century, Marx was able to predict the propagation of such trends in any society dominated by capitalist ideology (Bakker, 1999). The ‘common sense’ view of the countryside holds it to be idyllic, pristine, relaxed and peaceful. But in the ‘sociological sense’ the countryside is a stage in the process of economic growth. Similarly, while the ‘common sense’ view of towns and cities hold them to be cluttered, polluted and competitive, Marx sees them in a unique ‘sociological sense’. According to Marx,
“Rural life leads to idiocy because the nascent productive vitality inherent to all social organization is overwhelmed by the ideology of a deference to tradition which is antithetical to the material and productive possibilities in social organization. Therefore, according to this formulation, rural life is idiotic because it endlessly and unimaginatively repeats the social patterns of previous generations under the guise of a feudal ideology which legitimates patriarchy, hierarchy, and the domination of people in general. From this perspective, the ideology of family, community, and tradition associated with rurality is a mere “sentimental veil” that bound the majority of people, particularly women and children, to a subordinate, impoverished life, and encouraged a “slothful indolence.”” (Bakker, 1999)