The establishment of sociology as a discipline is still relatively novel; Ashley and Orenstein (2005) contend that it achieved maturity only in the last hundred years. The history of sociology, which arose in correlation with the rise of the modern era, is thus inseparable with the rise of social justice issues. With the upsurge of industrialized technology, flourishing bureaucracy, and increasing governmental regulation also came a growing realization and concern for social and political inequalities, including: women’s rights, labor unions, and the growing distinction between blue-collar and white-collar workers (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005). In the presence of social injustice – the manifestation of inequality within society – blossomed the opportunity for social justice, a project which many classical theorists chose to undertake.
A common motif among many classical sociological thinkers is that of the individuals’ estrangement from society as a consequence of societal transition. These include Karl Marx’s loneliness and alienation, Max Weber’s secularization and the search for meaning, and Fromm’s elaboration on alienation and the “irrationality of rationality.”
II. Article 23(3): Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
According to this passage, which can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written in 1948, the ability to earn a living is not a privilege guaranteed for the middle to upper classes, but is a basic human right. However, this right has not been realized for many around the world who are subject to global standards of low minimum wages. To further illustrate the reality that minimum wage does not equate to a living wage, Dr. Amy Glasmeier (2013) constructed a “living wage calculator,” which places state minimum wages next to actual living wages for several different family constructions. Using this calculator, Glasmeier (2013) contends that for a single adult living in Alamance County, North Carolina, the minimum wage is $7.25, while the living wage is $9.75. With the addition of a dependent, the living wage more than doubles, further widening the gap between state mandated minimum wage and living wage.
The human rights issue that minimum wage presents is not only concerned with the economic crisis it creates for those living below the poverty line, but also denies these individuals “an existence worthy of human dignity” that the Declaration of Human Rights promises. In classical sociology, Karl Marx posited that a capitalist economy would cause tensions through inequality due to societal division of labor. According to Marx, human labor in a capitalist society facilitates the increasing alienation and exploitation of those without control of the means of production. Therefore, not only is lack of financial security a cause for concern among the working class, but also burgeoning false consciousness and estrangement caused by strict societal structures.
Contemporary forms of conflict theory have been applied to many realms relevant to social justice and civil rights movements. These conflicts occur in the presence of economic, political, or material inequality of a social group, which can unjustly affect those based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The four main tenets of conflict theory are: social stratification surfaces from inequality, individuals will try to either hold onto power or avoid being overpowered, control of scarce resources determines performance in power struggles, and conflict drives social change (Collins, 1990). Generally, conflict theory strives to make realistic analyses concerning burgeoning class struggle and develop potential explanations for transformation as a result of conflict.
Although he did not identify himself as a sociologist, Karl Marx is recognized as a pioneer of conflict theory. As emphasized in many contemporary forms of conflict theory, Marx recognized that the struggle for control of scarce resources by differentially advantaged groups is the heart of inequality throughout human history. These economic disadvantages would inevitably lead to segmentation of society into classes, which Marx subdivided into two well-known levels: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He sought to cast off the philosophical idealism and “metaphysical speculation” that pervaded society in the mid-nineteenth century and uncover the raw realism of class conflict. According to Ashley and Orenstein (2005), this led Marx to believe that “philosophy without practical consequences was empty” (p. 192). Indeed, Marx encouraged the application of his philosophy to overcome class conflict and class exploitation.
Marx emphasized the importance of social stratification as it relates to the division of labor. The intense focus on human labor in his work is associated to Marx’s declaration that labor is the manifestation of a person’s power and is “a living conscious thing” (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005; p. 197). Furthermore, he asserted that developing productive forces would facilitate social progress. As society transitioned from a feudal to a capitalist economic system, the organization of human labor has similarly undergone changes which resulted in two major classes, defined by their relation to production: the bourgeoisie, who make up the property owning class and the proletariat, comprised of those who sold their labor for wages (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005).
Reminiscent of the original French meaning, “inhabitant of a walled town,” the Marxist bourgeoisie refers to the property-owning middle class. Historically, the bourgeoisie played a laudable role through its contributions to modernizing society; however, it also sought to monopolize the rewards of modernization, leading to exploitation of the proletariat (“Bourgeoisie,” 2013; Ashley & Orenstein, 2005). In contrast, the term “proletariat” evolved from the poor, landless freeman described in ancient Rome as “producers of offspring” and often seen as a parasite on the Roman economy (“Proletariat,” 2013). In Marxian terms, the proletariat class consists of industrial production workers whose purpose is seen as fueling the labor for bourgeoisie enterprises. Marx saw this division of labor as unfortunately inevitable and undoubtedly exploitative since it entailed making the labor powers of certain individuals the property of others. In selling their labor for wages, the proletariat lose power and with it, their humanity (“Proletariat,” 2013; Ashley & Orenstein, 2005).
For Marx, history’s progression from ancient preclass systems to modern capitalist societies has entailed the increasing alienation of humans. Corlett (1988) describes Marx’s explanation of alienation as “an ‘unnatural separation’ between oneself and what one produces such that what one produces dominates its master.” According to Ashley and Orenstein (2005), Marx believed that the private ownership of the means of production – the kind employed by capitalist societies – will always guarantee alienation since the workers lose control over the labor, and therefore, their humanity. Coser (1977) contends that alienation from the means of production and the object of labor will similarly cause the workers to be alienated from themselves. Not able to truly know themselves, workers then become alienated from their human community; as we discussed in class, “If I don’t know myself, how can I give myself to you?” (Coser, 1977; Arcaro, class notes on Marx, 3 September 2013).
Ashley and Orenstein (2005) proceed to identify Marx’s theory that false consciousness – the inability to determine where one’s class interests lie – will permeate the proletariat, rendering them unable to attain true “class consciousness.” The concept of false consciousness has recently been adopted in certain fields of psychology which has worked to apply and expand the definition of this idea in a number of ways. More specifically, psychologists have begun to recognize the costs of false consciousness in society and have applied the term to situations as diverse as gun control laws (Herz, 1995), stereotyping (Jost & Bananji, 2011), and color-blind racial ideology (Neville, Coleman, Falconer, & Holmes, 2005). In all of these three studies, researchers found a statistically significant correlation between each of the mentioned issues (gun control, stereotypes, and color-blind racial ideology) and levels of false consciousness, most notably in victim-blaming tendencies, internalized oppression, and justification of social roles.
III. Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for this dignity and the free development of his personality.
According to this excerpt from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has the right to pursue certain goals which allow them to realize human dignity and individual personality. As the world witnesses the rapid expansion of corporations and bureaucracy, the incredible force of globalization has begun to rear its head. Many contemporary theorists, such as Benjamin Barber and George Ritzer, have attempted to document the possible effect that globalization might have and weigh the potential benefits versus potential detriments. One of the more well-known theorists of this nature, Max Weber, warned of the inevitability of modern bureaucratization and proposed what the individual’s quest for meaning in an increasingly hollow world could signify.
Although the term “symbolic interactionism” was not coined until the mid-twentieth century, Max Weber is given ample credit for his role in pioneering this sociological perspective. In the tradition of contemporary theorists, he shared Marx’s belief that theory without real-life application was worthless. According to Ashley and Orenstein (2005), Weber never showed interest in theory that was not pragmatic to the critical issues facing society. In accordance with this philosophy, Weber dedicated the majority of his efforts towards multiple subjects concerning the individual’s role in society, including the economy, religious institutions, the politics of power, and bureaucratization. Underlying his studies of society and the individual was his belief that the purpose of culture is to divine meaning from the stream of infinite meaningless in the world (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005). His pursuit of meaning and purpose converges with other classical theorists as they attempted to come to terms with the novel issues that the emerging era of modernization encompasses.
Whereas Marx presents an account of religion as an opiate which only serves as a means of social control, Weber delves further into to topic and presents a more comprehensive study of religious institutions. According to Ashley and Orenstein (2005), he divided religion into two key categories based on what they institutionalize: asceticism and mysticism. As instruments of God, ascetic religions encourage followers to be a source of social change by eradicating corruption. Weber himself identified with this institution, and showcased the significant impact on social action through the Protestant faith in his book, The Protestant Ethic (Udis-Kessler, 2001). Religions which emphasize mysticism draw on magic and identify individuals as vessels for supernatural forces to flow through. Meaning cannot be found in the everyday world for an individual who chooses mysticism, and only derives from states of mind which remove them from regular existence. In either of its two forms, Weber suggested that religion exists to reduce the tension that is inevitably produced between society and the individual (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005).
Like Marx, Weber was a critical analyst of capitalism in the context of the rapid modernization that his home nation of Germany was undergoing. Though he spent most of his energies concentrating on the present, Weber did suggest that burgeoning bureaucratization and instrumentalism were inescapable in the future. Weber discussed the importance of economic systems, especially capitalism, as it relates to the standardization of human experience. Modern individuals are caught in a paradigm: the freedom they seek simply leads to increased bureaucratization. As a result, the individual’s relationship with society becomes progressively more impersonal. They are trapped in a system which treats them as a cog in the bureaucratic machine. Furthermore, it perpetuates this structure through the educational system, which teaches individuals only what they need to know in order to function effectively as a replacement cog. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is termed the “iron cage of rationality” for this reason (Arcaro, class notes, 24 September 2013).
This iron cage of rationality has persevered into the modern era. According to Winthrop (1964), “modern political, industrial and economic life is increasingly becoming bureaucratized largely as a result of the growing complexity we ourselves impose upon human transactions.” Winthrop goes on to contend that this bureaucratization is resulting in growing alienation of the individual from society, which estranges them from the social process. This in turn encourages increased bureaucratization. As a result, the individual becomes engaged in a vicious cycle, fostered by bureaucratization (Winthrop, 1964).
At the heart of Weber’s sociology is his view that modern individuals are destined to lose all freedom and self-worth unless they seek out non-rational ways to escape the “steel hard cage” of modern bureaucratic institutionalism (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005). As discussed earlier, Weber suggests that religious institutions may provide transcendental respite from this increasing alienation by imposing a cultural order showing how life can be meaningful. For those engrossed in ascetic institutions, meaning is found through selflessly devoting themselves to some mission. For those who choose mysticism, meaningful experience is found through alternate states of mind, sometimes induced through drugs, meditation, or through distractions such as sex, traveling, or sports (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005).
As modern society moves increasingly towards bureaucratization, Weber contends that the individual’s search for a meaningful existence is unending (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005). However, this quest for meaning may be growing more difficult as increasing bureaucratization and globalization fosters isolation and impersonal relations between the individual and society, and even between the individual and themselves.
Whereas Weber used the bureaucratic model to represent the changing direction society had begun to take, George Ritzer chose to represent this transition using the fast-food restaurant model to represent the growing homogenization of global cultures. In his book, “The McDonaldization of Society,” Ritzer (1994) identifies the four principles used by fast-food restaurants –efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control – and suggests that these generally rational strategies, if applied to other aspects of culture, may potentially lead to negative and irrational outcomes. More specifically, Ritzer describes the concept of irrationality as meaning that “rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them” (1994, p. 154). Ritzer expounds on Weber’s theories concerning the “iron cage of rationality” constructed by bureaucratization, and adds that bureaucracy is dehumanizing and alienating for both the employees and those whom they serve.
An additional contemporary, political scientist Benjamin Barber argues that transnational organizations and cultural homogenization pose a serious threat to the power of nation-states and local government. In his renowned essay, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” Barber (1992) illustrates his vision of two different political forces which threaten the future of democracy: Jihad, the return to tribalism for nation-states, in that they pit one culture against another, and McWorld, the homogenous global network which is ruled by universalized markets. The overwhelming, yet subtle force of McWorld expands in correlation with the increase in outsourcing and international investments, not to mention the huge advances in the speed with which information now travels. In this essay, Barber (1992) wrote, “culture has become more potent than armaments” to acknowledge the power that transnational markets and multinational corporations wield and the heft of their influence.
IV. Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
As asserted in this excerpt from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual is endowed with reason, which Immanuel Kant affirmed is essential in synthesizing unity from intellectual concepts (“Reason,” 2013). According to Erich Fromm (1955), this is a significant concept since reason is the individual’s “instrument for arriving at the truth, intelligence is man's instrument for manipulating the world more successfully; the former is essentially human, the latter belongs to the animal part of man” (p. 64). Although reason is inherently gained through objectivity, a distorted perception of reality, potentially caused by the surrounding society, may cause disruption in its development. The harmful realities of a toxic society is further discussed in “The Sane Society” as it relates to the well-being of the individual to society as well as the individual to himself.
In “The Sane Society,” Fromm describes human existence as from nature but not of nature. This single event – the dawn of cognitive self-awareness – so fundamentally altered animal existence that it allowed our species to transcend nature. According to Fromm (1955), “When the animal transcends nature, when it transcends the purely passive role of the creature, when it becomes, biologically speaking, the most helpless animal, man is born” (p. 23). All inner turmoil, all struggles between self and society, and all pursuits to regain harmony emit from this one event (and may have lasted hundreds of years), which Fromm identifies as a double-edged sword. Although self-awareness has positively sparked humans’ capacity to imagine and take on the perspectives of others, it is also responsible for the lost sense of harmony between self and nature.
Humans’ divorce from nature and subsequent self-awareness has fostered the development of a set of novel needs which are unique from instinctual or animalistic needs (hunger, thirst, sex). These human needs– relatedness, creativeness, “rootedness,” individuality, and reason – stem from the condition of our existence (p. 27).The paradox that the genesis of awareness creates prompts the crux of Fromm’s view on the “human situation:” since we can’t devolve to seek harmony, we must continue onward, and make “the world a human one, and…become truly human” (p. 25). These conditions which humans require to avoid insanity must now be met by the conditions of capitalism. After examining certain markers of mental illness, including instances of alcoholism, suicide and homicides, Fromm concludes that society as it currently exists does not meet the human needs of its inhabitants. The high rates of illness he describes points to failure of the society to provide basic human necessities which are required to avoid insanity (Fromm, 1955).
Similar to Marx, Fromm expressed his fears concerning the modern capitalist era’s throw-away culture which actively encourages overconsumption without regard to the consumer’s relationship with the product. A capitalist economy inherently facilitates products to be produced at low prices, intentionally made to be disposable (i.e. “planned obsolescence”), and blurs the separation between “needs” and “wants” (Arcaro, class notes, 3 September 2013). As a result, individuals become disconnected and lose the concrete relatedness with material objects; ownership becomes possession, and individuals wither and become existentially thin. Fromm (1955) portrays this phenomenon in terms of alienation, in which the individual has become, “estranged from himself…The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside positively” (p. 120). Fromm relates the inhumanity of cruelty in the nineteenth century to the inhumanity of self-alienation felt during the twentieth century; although unique, alienation is just as lethal.
Although every individual may be “endowed with reason and consciousness” as the Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, life under a purely capitalist regime does not encourage these traits to flourish, much less to foster the “spirit of brotherhood” that the United Nations had hoped for. According to Fromm (1955), the process of alienation is incremental, and exists most often as an unconscious feeling that life is meaningless. He reserves the brunt of the blame for an essentially insane society, which in turn produces supposedly “rational” beings who must act irrationally to thrive. In spite of the material comfort and wealth that capitalism has thus provided, it also requires individuals to forfeit their sense of self and belonging in society. As Fromm (1955) wrote, “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead” (p. 360).
The modern era has witnessed rapid change in social and political ideals, bringing with it a host of novel social inequality issues. As Bill Gates (2008) said in a speech addressing the World Economic Forum, “The world is getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough and it’s not getting better for everyone.” Having perceived society’s transition through rapid modernization, classical theorists such as Marx and Weber were able to witness this new direction and conceptualize possibilities behind the growing social fracture between the individual and society and also fragmentation within the individual. Contemporary thinkers such as Fromm continue in this tradition.
The gulf between the experiences of an individual who lived two hundred years ago and an individual living today is incredibly vast. For example, the typical eighteenth century European lifestyle consisted of conservative farming communities, whose inhabitants lacked education and were largely ignored by the state. But by the twentieth century, Europe had become a more modern, bureaucratic nation-state in which Europeans were comparatively more liberal and better educated, and were more likely to be involved and supervised by governmental bureaucracies. According to Ashley and Orenstein (2005), “The most dramatic change that occurred in the nineteenth century involved a transformation in the way subjects viewed the social world and their place in it” (p. 2). Borne of the transition from commoner and aristocrat to democracy and equality of rights, the history of sociology is both a product of and a response to the shifts that began to occur. As society continues to evolve and transition - possibly more rapidly now than at any prior point in history - the answers that these classical theorists sought in order to come to terms with the societal change that surrounded them only becomes more relevant.
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