Constituting society

Power and critique

The problem about social relations is that they don’t work just as any one person would like, not even when we are of one will with each other. Sociology has dwelt on many of the paradoxes of these unintended consequences of collective action. The most famous is probably Robert Michels’ account of how a political party dedicated to equality and justice like the German Social Democratic Party at the beginning of the century should have generated a powerful oligarchy at the centre.

A cynic might say that it is because people are deceitful and self-seeking. Michels illustrates how with the best will in the world large organisations involve the concentration of power in a few hands. We may want one thing and yet it is another which prevails. In fact we may have a better chance of fruitful change if we disagree with each other, or at the least allow one another to go our own way. Social relations persist and they are embedded in the world so that we tend to reproduce them. Marx’s social relations of production in industrial society depended on capital, which in turn reflected the level of development of technology at the time.

So the persistence of social relations depends on material conditions, and the extent to which ideas can penetrate these is limited. Invention can create new conditions, ideals can inspire resistance, but more often than not they seem to reflect the interests of those who gain the advantages from existing social relations, the problem of ideology.

These are famous dilemmas of the human condition, most of which come down to arguments about power. There is a case for saying that this is the most important of all social science concepts, except that it is so pervasive that it appears everywhere. Max Weber complained that it was too amorphous for scientific use, but this can only mean that it is lodged in reality as a major topic not as a technical term.

We need to reflect a little on this amorphousness. If we define power at its simplest as the ability to get something done, we immediately face a distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. ‘Power over’ people or things may be negative. It can mean denying people their desires or rights. It can mean burning trees or driving recklessly. ‘Power to’ looks forward, suggests projects and achievements in which people may be co-opted rather than coerced.

Either way we see immediately that power involves a complex network of links between people, things and projects. As such it is a dimension of humankind’s relations with the world and not just a matter of society. What we will find in the discussion which follows of how society is constituted is that power comes in at every juncture, in our use of the mass media, in our personal contacts, in machines, in markets and communities.

With each of these we can talk of ‘its power’ as well as ‘our power’ in respect of it. This must be so. They are features of the facticity of the world. Our realisation as human beings involves coming to terms with this at every juncture in our lives. Every science, then, is concerned with power. Even astronomy is concerned to find life in outer space. Sociology’s interest in power comes into play at a series of special points. It appears in accounts of technology, ideology or markets, in states and organisations, parties and armies, as coercion or authority, violence or control, domination or hegemony. All are phenomena of power and its exercise.

Power is involved in all social relations, though interestingly it is not necessarily transferable from one kind of relation to another. This is a great area for ironic observations: Citizen Kane, the media mogul, actually motivated by childhood insecurity. ‘Dating Agency Founder died a reclusive alcoholic’; so business success does not translate into personal success. Or, on the other hand, we have the cynical observation when power does translate from one field to another, as with the Hollywood casting couch. Power may or may not transfer across these types of social relations, but our interest in it, ironic or cynical, is equal, both when it does and when it doesn’t.

Famously, Karl Marx treated the power of social classes as the most important kind in human history. In the twentieth century as it has become apparent that classes are not the only or even the dominant agents in human history some have tried to treat human power itself as the subject of history. Michel Foucault was most influential in promoting this view. The problem with this is that it detaches power from any particular agency and removes the points of resistance. It means that only something as generalised as power itself can provide a counterweight. Critique is one main candidate for this position.

Aside from God, from whom science has preferred to keep its distance, critique has been the main hope of intellectuals seeking a source of relief from power. Critique is not the same as criticism or being critical. It is the application of reason to reality, including the use of reason itself. It reveals first principles, but also conflicts of first principles.

It is an idea which goes back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment with its faith in human reason, and then of course back to the Greeks. Marx scorned the idea that reality depended on ideas but he retained ‘critique’ as a term for any account which showed how reality could be otherwise than it was. In other words critique was to undermine the ideas of a ruling class, their ideological hold on society. Thus it would then open up the possibility of instituting the classless society.

The notion of critique has come to have the meaning of any account which suggests radical alternatives to the status quo. These should be possible futures too; critique does not produce utopias. In this form the idea of critical sociology has come to be popular. In fact we shall see that sociology is inherently critical in the sense that it reveals the limits and possibilities which society provides for humankind.

When we point to the way social relations shape our economy, our environment, the way we dress, how we vote and even our sexual behaviour then we point to the essential necessity for it to be possible that things could be otherwise than they are. Sociology does not have to do anything special to be a critique of society. It just has to show it how it is—dependent on effort, resistant to change, threatening to get out of control, always capable of improvement.

The illusion of modernity was that society could be created as the perfect homeland of humanity. It was Plato who dreamed that dream, it inspired Utopia, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. In all those cases we find genuine insights into how society works, and then the vain hope that we can make it as we wish. On the basis of those vain hopes interest in society may turn into despair, revolution or, in its tepid form, social criticism. But sociology is not social criticism even if social critics draw on its findings.

In the French Revolution abstract values inspired by pure reason, ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, became revolutionary slogans with the idea that society could be shaped to realise them. But they came to incite actions which shamed their advocates. Utopia echoed to the sound of the guillotine’s blade. Violence completed the degradation of these values which began when they became slogans.

It has taken a century of sociology to reinstate values like liberty, equality and fraternity—not as goals but as the guiding criteria for sociological research. They are both moral values and cognitive criteria for accounts of society. In other words they belong to science as much as to morality and politics. We turn to that science now.

Constituting society

Ideal types

Sociologists are not professional advocates. They treat values as key parameters of contemporary sociological analysis which establish what we want to measure. This does not mean sociology expects them to be realised, any more than we would expect a cucumber to be straight just because we measure its length. Almost the contrary.

There is nothing extraordinary about this linkage of science and value. What is surprising is that a positivist view of objectivity, that science and values were not associated, should have held sway for so long. It could only do so by insisting that the meaning of ‘equality’ in nature and society was different. This is nonsense: 1=1 in both cases and for all conditions whatsoever. What does differ is our interest in equality, whether we strive for it in some special area, or whether we measure how far conditions of some kind approximate to it. We can for instance measure income differentials, or we can strive to reduce them. We are concerned in each case with the same condition of inequality. It’s a measured fact and a value condition at one and the same time.

The result is that it is impossible to do sociology without engaging with social inequality, for all sciences undertake measurement of equalities and inequalities in their own sphere of interest. Interest in society unavoidably involves measuring social inequality. Sociology is therefore inherently critical as its opponents rightly perceive. If you want to leave society undisturbed by critical accounts then sociology has to be suspended.

It is inherent in our research that we show the conditions and causes of inequality, the varieties of unfreedom and how communities are formed. We might then have the chance to be more effective in our interventions. In this section we review the core ideas in contemporary sociological theory under three main headings: mediation, sociation, and structuration. These roughly parallel liberty, equality and fraternity. Indeed the affinities between the old terms and the jargon might well prompt us to question the need for the new.

However, though the old terminology has its place in political rhetoric sociology’s concern has been to find the conditions for their realisation and it is these realities to which our technical terms refer. Sociological theory is concerned both with the logic of social relations and also with their reality. This is important because the logic leads us into unending chains of reasoning and we need to know when to stop for practical purposes. For research and other practical purposes we stop when we feel we have gained sufficient understanding of a concrete configuration.

So if we take power we try to elaborate its sense in the abstract, which means for any time and place. It is then purified of contamination by local or ephemeral features. But if we want to understand the power of Rupert Murdoch or George Soros, then we need to know how power is lodged today in the ownership of global capital, control of mass media corporations, and how it operates through global financial institutions.

Relations between people operate through the shared experience of an outside world. All social relations work through this medium. The only relations which do not are mathematical or logical. In this sense there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ social relation. This doesn’t mean to say that we don’t look for purity, but it is always something which is negotiated in real social relationships. And the reality comes through feelings, ideas and objects. Strip away these features of the real world and you are left with abstractions.

If, for instance, we consider equality and inequality in a pure sense this is a mathematical notion. As social relations they always have to be expressed in terms of differences in opportunities, talent, wealth, or esteem. If we consider liberty, which can also be expressed mathematically as a constant, a factor which is unaltered by changes in other factors, then in human affairs this has to be seen in terms of independence in respect of others, and then it becomes always a matter of degree.

Fraternity is more difficult to express mathematically because it is paradoxical, but we do so in the statement ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. We are dealing with effects which only operate when units of an aggregate operate together. Eight people combining to lift an object will achieve much more than each one of them taking it in turns. The combination of capitals works in the same way as the most important collective force of modernity.

Mathematics and logic are tremendously powerful tools for scientific work, but they are aids to understanding society, not to be confused with its reality. Weber pointed out that if we have pure, clear concepts we can advance our understanding. He called them ‘ideal types’ because they were pure ideas (like the ‘straight line’) never to be found in their purity in the real world.

From the scientific viewpoint ideal types are not ideals to be pursued, though they might well be for some people. For Weber the most important ideal type was the purely rational economic agent, and economics has become the most successful social science in applying models of pure rationality. But no person or firm, however much they might seek to be so, is purely rational. No room is ever truly square as anyone who has tried to fit a carpet has found.

Weber was right to emphasise the essential uses of pure concepts but he neglected the fact that it is not only scientists and intellectuals who work with pure notions. People do so in everyday life. This criticism was made by the sociologist, philosopher and banker Alfred Schutz in one of the most important books in sociology. He emphasised that we all interact on the basis of stereotypes, or typifications, images of our society, idealised versions of ourselves and others, hate objects as well as heroic figures.

Weber would have replied that these everyday concepts are less than purely rational. But Weber was over-impressed by the pure logic of economics and the clarity of legal formulations. Economists and lawyers are not necessarily the most successful business people. As a practising banker, Schutz was aware that ordinary people also work on the basis of their own ideals and pure concepts and try to make them work out in practice. His work only became widely known in sociology in the 1960s, and with its stress on everyday rationality provided a major justification for finding out how people actually behave, which had an affinity with the democratic demands of that time. As so often happens political movements and intellectual insights found points of common concern.

As soon as we talk about ‘everyday rationality’ it becomes clear that we are dealing with a vast variety of ways in which people conceptualise familiar ideas. We can talk of ‘the family’ in the abstract but even within a particular society no one family is identical to another.

If we are going to talk sensibly about families and to theorise about them then we have to recognise this diversity.

We will acknowledge different types of marriage, types of relationship which are similar in many respects, like partnership or cohabitation, and the fact that some people are not in any of these. We will recognise the cultural relativity of the family and not expect there to be one right way. We will keep clear in our minds the difference between the ideal we might have of the family and a pure concept as employed by sociologists.


The reality of social relations is a human achievement maintained through our senses and the ways in which we express ourselves in and through the material world. We can perceive this embeddedness of relations in reality through the notion of ‘media’, which is the plural of ‘medium’. But it is these material and social limits on human expression which mean that an idea of pure freedom hovers over any discussion of media.

A medium permits in some way information about two or more subjects to be conveyed between them. In a seance the spiritual medium acts as the go-between for us and a spirit world. A mediator is the medium for reaching agreement between the parties to disputes. Oil paint was the medium Rembrandt used for conveying to posterity his gaze on his own day. Print is the medium for the mass circulation of writing, hence mass media like newspapers, radio, television. A currency is the medium for exchange.

From these varied but cognate senses of medium we recognise that communication is common to them all. Just as power is a feature of the relations between humankind and the world in general, so communication is a feature of all social relations. It exists in tension with power, and it represents a different kind of relation. Power as a relation involves causation, mechanical effects. A relation involving communication permits a degree of free and reciprocal expression. In short we feel that communication is more human than power.

Communication is involved in all our bonds. For a message to be delivered, both have to speak the language and get to the telephone.

For lovemaking each has to learn where the other person likes to be touched and be able to recognise the right moment to touch. To agree a loan, the lender checks your account and the borrower needs to know the going interest rate.

So vital is communication to human society that again, as with power, some have tried to make this the essence of society. But communication and power do not necessarily flow in the same direction. Power may depend on communication, but often enough distorts it. Sometimes power is exercised precisely by excluding people from information, and the control of media is power. Foucault stressed always that it is power which establishes the very terms of discourse.

Because power distorts communication Jürgen Habermas, the most influential German social theorist of the late twentieth century, has argued that the just society will only arise when there is an equalisation of power so that there can be full and free communication. But if this is interpreted to mean that everyone communicates with everyone all the time, in the resulting babel no one would hear anybody else. The inference might then be that we need unequal power in order to communicate.

I think that is a dangerous conclusion to draw. It may well be that the freedom implicit in full communication is in permanent tension with its own essential requirements. It depends always on a medium which is accessible to the parties and belongs to their reality. But if we see social relations defined exclusively by power and communication then the only choice of society we appear to have is between a communication utopia or fascism. There are other things in social relations. In co-operation, for instance, power and communication are involved, and also a common will which is not reducible to either. But participation in common projects is selective, dependent on knowing who is in and who is out, even if membership is freely available.

A huge apparatus of law and institutions builds up around the tension between power and communication. It is the basis of the legal principle of informed consent. When President Clinton denied that he ‘caused contact with Ms Lewinsky’s genitalia or breasts’ he explained that he understood that ‘cause’ implied ‘forcible behaviour’. The problem then becomes that it raises the question of what kind of relations did exist since he also denied having ‘sexual relations’. A British journalist calls these statements ‘baffling wordplay’. They certainly are the outcome of a kind of play—the interplay of law and society.

Sociological theory accepts the principle that human beings find their own solution to these dilemmas in their own way. The author communicates with the reader through the book. Frustratingly you can’t be sure about my intentions and I can’t be sure I have made myself clear to you. This always appears as a constraint on freedom even as it permits communication. The book itself sets the limits of our understanding each other. Of course if we could begin a dialogue over the Internet then the possibilities of understanding change. But we never escape a medium of some kind. So important is the channel of communication that in the words of Marshall McLuhan (1911-81) ‘the medium is the message’.

You might think that perfect understanding might be possible if we could only talk together. But it is an illusion to think that there is communication without a medium. Language itself is a medium, the sound, the grammar, the vocabulary without which we cannot reach understandings, but yet frustrates us in not having the right word for our thoughts and feelings.

When we go beyond spoken language with signs and gestures we still use physical media and rely on the senses which are common, the deep meaning of common sense. In what for many is the most intense communication with another, lovemaking, the surface of the skin is the main medium. Yet we can never be sure…

There is a long history of thinking about society which says that the deepest, most authentic and rewarding relationships are ones which rely on communication with someone in their presence, at its most rewarding when there is physical contact. These are what, following Pitirim Sorokin, 26 we can call sensate relations.

We can contrast these with ideational relations. So a parent-child relation and that between lovers are sensate relations, while student-teacher and senator-citizen are ideational relations. There are other ways to express such a contrast. Some have described the one as primary, the other as secondary, which suggests a time order; infancy as opposed to adulthood, or preliterate societies compared with our own today.

So this is a distinction which brings along both a theory of individual development and also historical narrative. At one time this might have been called the story of human progress, but sociologists in general have taken the pessimistic side of modernity’s outlook on the future. They have been inclined to think that when relations are ideational the more society becomes removed from fulfilling important emotional needs. This is particularly the case when they consider the ideas embodied in technology. The worker in the textile factory is engaged in bodily labour but with physical objects; relations with fellow workers depend on the product of that labour, not on their ideas about each other and still less on their feelings.

Of course ideas are there: the looms are the product of ideas, but not the ideas of the workers working on them. They stand next to each other, overseen by a foreman, under the manager’s surveillance, employed by a capitalist. These are the ‘social relations of production’ made famous by Karl Marx. They are hardly social at all for the workers themselves who, in Marx’s terms, are alienated from them. But they are still in definite relations with each other, positioned in a production system. The machinery becomes a medium for their relations.

This idea of alienation became central to the critique of modern industrial society because it drew attention to the disappearance of old types of social relations where people produced for their own family’s consumption or served others directly, or made objects which they sold. The factory system replaced these with work for wages on products the workers did not own, for people they would never see.

It was a critique of industrial society shared by radicals and conservatives alike which depended on nostalgia. Radicals looked back to a primitive communism such as Lewis Morgan described, conservatives to a feudal past, a society in which everyone knew their place. In each case they felt it was possible to recover what was lost.

Nostalgic critique devalues the present and, since the present is the only time we have on earth, this is depressing or inflammatory. However, it carries an important message, which is that if society as such is too low on our priorities and is pushed out by another life-sphere, such as the economy, technology, religion or the state, then we will lose out on profound satisfactions in human existence.

It is possible to have optimistic critique however. Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells how a father establishes relations with his son by way of mechanics. It suggests that shared mastery of the daily conditions of our lives is not out of reach. In this case Pirsig looks for inspiration not to some primitive state, nor to medieval times, but to ancient Greece and a range of virtues which can kick in whenever we take charge of our lives and explore the media of our relations. But it is a search: ‘We’re related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all’, declares the narrator at the end.

Yet the advance of technology is so rapid we are continually facing the loss of control. We are forced into a permanent state of ambivalence towards change. New kinds of information technology advance systems of impersonal control and surveillance in connection with finance and the state. Our experience of cash cards, ticketing, entry codes, ID numbers, credit ratings is one of an external system penetrating our lives. Habermas describes the way systems penetrate not just our work situation but also the fabric of everyday life as ‘colonization of the life-world’. It is the extension of what some have called ‘system integration’ rather than ‘social integration’, when societies are organised around felt relations or shared ideas.

Technological development does not only facilitate control and co-ordination of systems of relations, it also facilitates the mobilisation of people as individuals. The importance of the mass media is that they provide symbols and enactments of a generalised image of the wider society for local and private consumption. They thus provide the means to realise the opposing tendencies in a mass society of apathetic individualisation or mass mobilisation for causes.

None of these technical advances in communication is as impersonal as social relations mediated by money in a market when any two people can calculate the benefit they get from a deal compared with what they might get in an alternative deal from a hypothetical third person. Both new technology and currency are sometimes taken as examples of the growing dependence of social relations on abstract systems. This recalls an older critique of modern society generally as abstract and removed from human need and sensate relations, associated especially with the philosopher of science Karl Popper.

We have to recall the tendency to pessimistic nostalgia in critiques of old modernity at this point. There is an upside too. In the wake of creating the mass media the new technological means of communication produce countervailing possibilities to old modern forms of central control. The colonisation of the life-world actually enhances personal skills in computer use and information gathering. The Internet and e-mail have opened up new possibilities for information dissemination by radical movements and for maintaining personal relations over indefinite distances.

We have distinguished four broad types of media of social relations: sensate, ideational, technological and abstract systems. It is tempting to see them as successive stages in a history determined by technology. But we should recall our reflections on human collectivities in Chapter 1 at this point: factories, universities, hospitals, offices. Technology always involves configurations of social relations and in collectivities all four kinds of media are combined in different ways. In other words our four types are ‘ideal types’ in Weber’s sense and are always mixed and fused with material things in the real world. Thus all social relations are sensate to some degree. A telephone conversation about the stock market between New York and London involves just as much aural contact as one between next-door neighbours.

Liberty means recognising conditions, opportunities and limits on choice, including other human beings and the choices they make. We have hinted at this already, but only indirectly. In fact our four types of mediation recognise these limits rather unevenly. Sensate relations are often thought of as consensual, both parties consenting, until one remembers violence is also sensate. Ideational relations again also are often thought of as behaviour in terms of shared values or views of the world until one remembers state propaganda.

Technical relations appear to exclude choice altogether as a factor to consider, and with abstract systems we think of surveillance. But we can think of the freedom of e-mail and the choice in ‘free’ market relations. The quote marks around ‘free’, however, alert us to the ideological significance of treating the market or indeed any form of mediation as a matter of liberty alone. We then forget what media do. They provide the means for communication in social relations where people interact. Free choice then is conditioned not just by media but by other people, and this is where we confront the problem of inequality.



1.David Popenoe. Sociology, 1977

2.Richard T.Shaefer, 1988

3.Jean Stockard. Sociology. Discovering society, 1991

4.Contemporary Society. An introduction to Social science. 6 edition. John A.Perry, Erna K.Perry, 1993

5.Sociology: An introduction. Book by Neil J.Smelser, 1967

6.Sociology: The Basics. Book by Martin Albrow, 1999


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