Traditions in Sociology Research Paper

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Traditions are broadly a form of received authority giving weight to the past in how social actors in the present orient themselves and act upon their situation. They are ways of acting upon the world transmitted from one generation or cohort to the succeeding one. All societies, all institutions except for some brief charismatic moments when ‘all things are born new’ are marked to some extent by tradition. Adherence to a tradition provides group awareness and identity; this includes sociology as a general discipline as well as its more differentiated units imparting sociological training to students at different levels.

In the late twentieth century there has been increased recognition of traditions as framing the development of sociology. Indeed, one can speak of an emergent sociological historiography which takes ‘tradition’ as the central focus for providing accounts of the genealogy of the discipline in terms of, following Anderson (1991), ‘imagined communities’ of scholars. Representing the development of sociology in terms of one or a few major traditions has become a more analytically challenging approach than earlier listings of names, single topics, or philosophical orientations. Yet, while the invoking of traditions may seem to be the present’s salute to the past, the past does not speak for itself ‘as it really happened.’ Traditions, like ceremonials, rituals, and even like nations are not handed down as inert ‘rocks of the ages’; they are activated and reactivated by contemporaries, even ‘invented’ on occasions for quite novel purposes (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1992). Essentially, then, the topic of sociological traditions interweaves objective referents of the past with subjective constructions or perceptions of these referents.

1. Traditions And Modernity

Without discussing sociological traditions specifically, Shils (1973, 1981) has provided an extensive analysis of tradition in the modern setting, including the tradition of intellectuals. This may be seen in the form of a paradox. On the one hand, social scientists are attached to the concepts and figures that are rooted in the past; on the other hand, they are negligent if not outright unsympathetic to traditionality; major traditions recognized as authentic by the great majority are ‘antitraditional intellectual traditions (Shils 1981). This paradox may be traced to the ‘enlightenment philosophy’ that made change and progress new basic values of modernity. Rational, scientific knowledge, promulgated above all by intellectuals, would replace irrational authority bound by the chains maintained by traditional institutions. This modernist orientation is a constitutive element of a bundle of traditions in sociology deriving from the ‘enlightenment’s’ project of human capability to reconstruct or ‘reinvent’ the individual, society, and social institutions. Shils also points out that ‘no tradition begins ab no o. Every tradition grows out of another’; moreover, intellectual traditions though continuous are also replete with innovations, though ‘at different rates in the different parts of the same traditions and in different traditions’ (Shils 1973).

These observations are well exemplified in the development or evolution of ‘Critical Theory’ over the course of several generations (Calhoun 1995). Emerging in late Weimar Germany as the Frankfurt School at the Institute for Social Research around such figures as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, its chrysalis was in Marxist social thought enriched with cultural and historical materials (partly influenced by Weber) and supplemented by perspectives from psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Further, a major work by a central figure, Adorno’s Negati e Dialectics, likens the Marxist origins to their philosophical grounding in Hegel’s dialectical method which Marx modified to dialectical materialism. But even this may be traced back to an older Western esoteric tradition of ‘negative theology’ and ‘negative mysticism’ transmitted from Denis the Areopagite through Meister Eckart and Jacob Bohme, a tradition that stretches over a dozen centuries. Although a German component has always been part of this ‘critical tradition,’ a certain Americanization was introduced, first during the period of exile in America of the Frankfurt School group (some staying permanently, some returning after the war), and second by the serious reading of Parsons in Habermas’s theory of communicative action.

As noted, the tradition of the Enlightenment has been a major pillar of the social sciences. Until the 1970s or so, the paradigm of progress formulated in an earlier era, though shaken by two world wars, still carried sufficient weight that the study of development tended to dichotomize between societies weighted down by ‘tradition’ and those fortunate few (Western) who had emancipated themselves in favor of a ‘modern’ social order. A more balanced perspective then emerged, viewing tradition and modernity as not so much zero-sum opposites as complementary forces and orientations in the structure and dynamics of societies (Eisenstadt 1973). In fact, to void a Western-centric bias, more recent conceptualization even favors the notion of multiple historical modernities (Daedalus 1998).

2. Traditions As Interpretations

For the most part it is sociologists offering a brushstroke of the development of the discipline as a whole, and particularly of its general theoretical framework, who have been most articulate in providing accounts of the sociological tradition. Despite overlap, there is no standardized account of traditions, including their principal figures and elements. The accounts, though varying in how traditions are categorized, themselves are constitutive of the traditions since they entail an active and critical interpretation by present authors of the legacy of previous generations of sociologists.

Moreover, unlike the Weberian ideal-type image of ‘traditionalist authority (Weber 1958), there is nothing sacrosanct about how sociologists treat their traditions (save Marxists hallowing the writings of Marx but not of themselves). An author who writes about socio- logical traditions can make substantive changes in depiction. Thus, in one edition of his popular text of readings, Farganis credits Comte with the origins of the ‘classic tradition’ in sociology but in the following edition he credits Marx with beginning the tradition, and there is no reference to Comte at all (Farganis 2000). Similarly, in 1985 another equally widely adopted text posited three main ongoing core traditions: the conflict tradition (in which is grouped Marx, Engels, and Weber), the Durkheimian tradition (that includes as primary figures Comte, Spencer, Merton, and Parsons), and the microinteractionist tradition embracing the pragmatist orientation of Peirce, Mead, and Dewey, the symbolic interactionist line of Cooley, W. I. Thomas, and Blumer, and the phenomenological derivative of Schutz, Garfinkel, and the later Goffman; in his conclusion, Collins (1985) noted that not all the history of the field can be fitted in one of these three principal traditions, such as the utilitarian tradition, sociobiology or structuralist network theory. However, the follow-up edition elevates the utilitarian tradition as a tradition in its own right, acknowledging that in the previous edition, the utilitarians ‘figured largely as a foil for the other traditions (Collins 1994).

What is to be retained from these two instances is that sociological traditions are always (re)interpreted by present authors ( just as all societal traditions are always interpreted by contemporaries).

Related to this, figures from the past may be left out in present accounts or conversely, some figures from the past who were not viewed as belonging to a sociological tradition may come by later sociologists to be so regarded. Thus, Marx in the United States has only in the past 40 years or so become taken as a sociological progenitor of ‘conflict theory.’ On the other hand, mention rarely is made of the sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909) as a figure worthy of inclusion in conflict theory, although this fin-desiecle Austrian sociologist gave centrality to ethnic and race conflict, which have been much more salient in recent decades in the West and elsewhere than the class conflict paradigm of Marx. By the same token, most anglophone accounts of the development of sociology in discussing ‘classical’ formulators of conflict theory leave out Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809– 65), whose influence was very extensive well into the twentieth century.

A contrary instance of a figure ‘moving into’ the sociological tradition after his lifetime is Tocqueville, widely accepted in the late twentieth century as a major contributor to the comparative study of institutions and revolutions in the context of modernity. Yet, as Bondon et al. (1997) have indicated, it was not until after World War II and because of the intellectual effort of Raymond Aron that Tocqueville became recognized as a core figure in the sociological tradition.

3. Sociological Traditions: One Or Many?

It is particularly in the teaching of theory courses that students are made explicitly aware of sociological traditions, usually in terms of models of social reality that provide normative and cognitive orientations having heuristic significance in the devising of research and the interpretation of established data. This is often in the context of presentations of the ‘sociological classics,’ including debates as to whether there is merit in discussing the framers and societal context of major classics. Much of the debate hinges around whether sociology at its core (or its major subfields) is (a) a series of discrete paradigms around which are organized multiple and discrete communities (as understood by Kuhn 1970), or (b) a scientific research program in the positivist tradition, displaying an ‘intermittently progressive empirical shift,’ which though maintaining a hard core of irrefutable assumptions permits verification of theories, predictions of new facts, and a general increase in empirical content (Lakatos 1970). A ‘humanist’ perspective of sociology would favor multiple paradigms or a pluralist view of traditions; a ‘positivist’ perspective would favor a cumulative tradition.

Most professional sociologists would accept Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Mead as having provided one or more key ingress to critical sociological aspects of modernity, and traditions of theorizing and research have developed from these early foundations. But whether these are discrete or interactive, and whether they are sufficient today as main frames of inquiry or need recasting with other, perhaps newer, traditions, are matters of controversy.

3.1 Great Traditions

Despite significant variation as to what figures are included (or omitted) from certain traditions, there is a widely-shared sentiment among sociologists of different orientations that there is a common core which provides continuity and identity, a unity in diversity. Derived from the comparative study of civilizations advanced by the anthropologist Robert Redfield and the sociologist vs. N. Eisenstadt, sociology in its historical development may be said to be structured by a ‘Great Tradition’ that endures along with ‘Little Traditions.’ The former frames the basic identity of the discipline, its core problem areas and assumptions, its major endeavors, and in general what might be taken as a ‘mission statement’ for the discipline as a whole; the Great Tradition would include exemplars in succeeding generations who have been instrumental in giving viability to the discipline. The notion of Little Traditions pertains either to subfields (e.g., social stratification, demography, sociology of religion, comparative development) or to radical traditions (in effect, sociological heterodoxies) which reject the basic normative and/or methodological structures of sociology: phenomenological sociology, some derivatives of Marxist sociology, ‘Christian sociology,’ and ‘humanistic sociology,’ as instances.

An early and influential instance of conjuring a ‘Great Tradition’ perspective on the development of sociology was provided by Nisbet (1966) writing in a decade of change and acrimony in the discipline itself. He distanced himself from mere historical accounts of the discipline by arguing for a nucleus of five key unit ideas—community, authority, status, the sacred, and alienation—which crystallized in the formative period of sociology, 1830–1900. This set of ‘unit-ideas’ generated poles of antithetical values: on the one hand, community, moral authority, hierarchy, and the sacred; on the other, Individualism, equality, moral release, and rationalist techniques of organization and power. As underlying the fundamental structural processes of modernization (industrialization and democratization), these antitheses of modernity have given continuity to the sociological tradition. Yet Nisbet (1966) in his epilogue acknowledged that the core ideas may have exhausted their vitality, rendering problematic the ‘continuing viability of a tradition, or rather, the concepts which form it.’

A newer version of the Great Tradition of sociology is provided in the account of Levine, who seeks to establish a continuity in sociological thought that can repudiate prevalent intellectual nihilism which ‘relativizes truth to matters of gender, race, ethnicity, class or narrow ideology’ (Levine 1995). The continuity amidst diversity is located in the ‘moral dilemmas of industrial civilization voiced early in the nineteenth century,’ whence ‘the quest for a rational ethic was the booster that launched the social scientific disciplines into orbit’(Levine 1995). The inspiration for this Great Tradition is a vision of a secular ethic that undergirds both different narratives of the history of sociology seeking to lay-out the tradition of sociology and national traditions in search of ‘the good society dialogue.’

A third approach invoking a Great Tradition theme also seeks to combine analytical thematic materials with a broad geographical differentiation between the ‘American’ tradition and the ‘European’ tradition (Alexander et al. 1997, Boudon et al. 1997). Each complementary set of volumes is a congeries of readings integrated by an editor’s introduction. In his, Alexander proposes that the American tradition, with a preoccupation on the individual self, has as a paramount orientation as the ‘secularization’ into scientific language of two utopian movements of reform seeking social salvation: Protestantism and anti-authoritarian democracy (Alexander et al. 1997). Unlike European sociology, American sociology is preoccupied with the motives (‘action’ in sociological terms) and mutual relations (‘interaction’) of individuals. Polar orientations of optimism and pessimism are traced to foundational documents in Jefferson and Madison, respectively.

While this volume is an imaginative construction or invention of a Great American Tradition, many of the authors in the selected readings are not sociologists (Madison, Gay, Emerson, Dewey); the ‘native’ antebellum first generation American Comtean sociologists (Henry Hughes, George Fitzhugh, and George Holmes) are ignored; and there is no reflection on the many sociologists (McIver, Sorokin, Coser, Bendix, Etzioni, etc.) who have come as immigrants, exiles, or refugees imbued or exposed to other traditions and who have thereby modified significantly what was identified as the indigenous microtradition. Moreover, sociology as the secularization of utopian movements of salvation based in the Enlightenment is arguably as much an ultimate goal of continental sociology.

Rejecting that there has occurred an ‘epistemological break’ between our era and the Enlightenment, Cherkaoui in presenting the European classical tradition proposes two paradigms that provide continuity: holism and methodological Individualism. The core identity of the European tradition, he argues, was produced between 1890 and 1914 with the tutelary figures of that generation providing the themes and theories for subsequent generations (Bondon et al. 1997). Within this Great Tradition umbrella, Cherkaoui gives particular attention to the postwar internal development of sociology in England, Italy, Germany, and especially France. If the last named was imprinted heavily by the dominant paradigm of structuralism (drawing from both Marxism and Durkheimian sociology as well as other sources), an important opposition deserves to be noted in figures like Boudon, Crozier, and Touraine who in different respects have an actor-oriented sociology, viewing the actor (either as an individual or as a collective subject) with ‘greater or lesser autonomy, rationality, and ability to construct strategies,’ (Bondon et al. 1997). Cherkaoui leaves out of his account an important cluster of postwar French sociologists who drew from the Durkheim–Mauss tradition a dynamic, nonstructuralist orientation to problems of modernity: Gurvitch, Balandier, Dumazdier, and Duvignaud, among others.

Considering that postwar American sociology has had important structuralist orientations (e.g., from Goffman and arguably from ethnomethodology at the microlevel, and from world-system analysis at the macrolevel) and that recent European sociology has had important action or subject-oriented components (e.g., Boudon and Touraine in France, Joas in Germany), it would appear as if the sharp differentiation of ‘American’ and ‘European’ tradition is becoming less tenable.

3.2 An Overlooked Great Tradition

Since the historiography of sociology tends to be written by those most familiar and most likely to be specialists in sociological theory, most of the accounts of sociological traditions dispense with what is, in fact, an integral aspect of the discipline’s identity: the tradition of empirical research. It is this tradition which is the backbone of graduate training. How it developed (or failed to develop) in different settings has to date been documented only fragmentarily.

Yet empirical and quantitative research has had from the beginning of the nineteenth century a parallel but neglected development with sociological theory (Lecuyer and Oberschall, 1968, Oberschall 1972). As part of the forgotten history of this Great Tradition, Lazarsfeld (who at Columbia stimulated research on the research tradition) pointed out that Weber contributed with his research associates, ‘at least 1000 pages of research findings which, in style and format, would not be easily distinguished from the pages of our contemporary sociological journals,’ (Lazarsfeld in Oberschall, 1965). Oberschall presents in detail why Weber’s persistent efforts at establishing a tradition of collaborative empirical research failed to become institutionalized in Wilhelmine Germany (Oberschall 1965).

In contrast to Germany’s failure, a research tradition flourished almost from the start in the United States. The evolution of that tradition is documented in the important account of the Chicago School by Bulmer (1984). Bulmer points out that almost forgotten in previous accounts is the quantitative aspect of research at Chicago in the interwar period of its great flourishing, with such figures as Burgess, Ogburn, Thurstone, and Stouffer; equally important, Chicago sociology had a major impact on the profession world-wide by institutionalizing collaborative sociological research that stimulated theory and research interacting in the same university department (Bulmer 1984).

3.3 Schools As Strong Traditions

Attempts at categorization in terms of ‘schools’ were pioneered by Sorokin (1928), who proposed about 11 broad orientations (e.g., the ‘mechanistic school,’ the ‘geographical school,’ varieties of the ‘sociologistic school,’ etc.). Expanding on the concept of school, a strong tradition may be established where actual members of a school in or more institutional setting transmit a core set of beliefs and methodological approaches to a new generations of recruits, which in turn will add content and modify some features of the orientation of its predecessor, though retaining the core presuppositions. In this vein, Tiryakian (1979, 1986) has suggested that major advances in the social sciences stem from the collaborative efforts of ‘great schools’ founded by a charismatic intellectual leader (such as Durkheim, Park, Parsons, Horkheimer, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Freud) who in fact frames a research program. While schools are not as comprehensive as ‘great traditions’ in the number of sociologists identifying with them, the density of interaction and the network of associates provide them with a concentrated impact on the development of their respective discipline.

3.4 Little Traditions

3.4.1 National Traditions. There are many axes on which traditions of lesser magnitude than those embracing the entire profession may be drawn. One axis frequently used, explicitly or implicitly, is the national context of the development of sociology. Sociology’s unstated assumption as the science of society favors a universalistic claim for the conceptual framework of its theories; yet, sociology for the most part develops in a national context in which graduate training is offered.

This is recognized in a volume edited by Genov under auspices of the International Sociological Association, stimulated in the 1980s by growing awareness that the question of national tradition becomes salient in an era of internationalization (or globalization) and of the renaissance of social sciences in regions where they have not been in continuous contact with the mainstream (e.g., in countries blocked off from free and easy access to the West during the Cold War). The consequences of internationalization (or globalization) and/or of having been in the periphery raises the problematic of indigenization (Genov 1989). Genov’s formulation of the question is the extent to which sociological ‘newcomers,’ those national settings which have only recently begun to participate freely in the development of sociology (including Eastern Europe and Russia), can achieve a balance between being responsive to their local problems and traditions and to the international aspect of sociology as a universalistic science. Stated otherwise, how much autonomy and originality can a national tradition retain with the internationalization of sociology? (Genov 1989). This may not be perceived as a problem for American sociology because of American hegemony in world affairs, including the linguistic hegemony of English, but it is a realized challenge for even established sociological centers like the Frenchand German-speaking countries.

While a national tradition is a major factor in the institutionalization and reproduction of the sociological enterprise from generation to generation, there are limitations to giving it undue weight. First, a national tradition may obscure significant variation in theoretical and methodological orientations within a national setting, from one sociological center to another. Second, national traditions, even where well-established, may become transformed due to factors exogenous to the sociological enterprise, such as political transformations. This happened (in the 1930s in Western and Central European countries, and in the 1950s and 1960s in various Eastern European ones) by regimes becoming authoritarian or totalitarian.

3.4.2 Other Little Traditions. Miscellaneous traditions of lesser scope than national ones or general paradigms continually are evoked, invoked, and invented in the course of providing accounts and legitimization to certain orientations. A few illustrations will indicate the range of these traditions.

In their overview of the sociology of Development Evans and Stephens (1988) observe that:

‘While Cardoso and Faletto’s model (first published in 1969) was primarily concerned with internal dynamics, other work in the dependency tradition was much more preoccupied with tracing the connections between the evolution of core countries and developmental sequences on the periphery.’

Since Cardoso and Faletto are credited as having produced the ‘founding statement of the dependency approach,’ it would indicate that this tradition is of very recent origin.

Similarly, Giele in discussing pioneers in the gender field contrasts among orientations ‘liberal feminist theory (that) drew on Enlightenment ideas of individual rights, justice and freedom,’ and ‘traditional Marxist feminist theory’ (Giele 1988). Both of these recent cited traditions invoke older established ‘great traditions’ of liberalism and Marxism, not too dissimilar from new sects seeking legitimization by invoking very established older religious traditions. Also, Olick and Robbins (1998) in their overview of sociological approaches to collective memory and tradition make reference to ‘the Mannheimian tradition in the sociology of knowledge and the Mertonian tradition in the sociology of science.’ In this instance, a ‘little tradition’ is that of a specialized field of sociology—the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science—whose foundation is identified with a recognizable person; presumably, even specialty areas within broad fields may also take on the aura of a tradition, whether the designation is given by the name of a figure or an institutional setting where a certain approach is handed down from generation to generation. Lastly in this vein, a ‘little tradition’ may be invoked tacitly by former students adducing the contributions of their illustrious teachers, as, for example, the volume of Merton and Riley (1980) dedicated to their teacher Talcott Parsons and having contributors testifying to such mentors as Weber, Mead, Park, Sorokin, Frazier, Lazarsfeld, MacIver, and Stouffer.

4. The Future Of Traditions

Significant changes in the bearing of tradition(s) to sociology are likely to emerge in the twenty-first century, even if the changes that can provoke new images of tradition can only be partly anticipated.

Although some retention of the Great Tradition(s) is likely, structural, political, and technological transformations already underway will give only vestigial importance to much of the conceptual legacy of a past that was grounded in the dynamics of industrializing and late industrial society. While boundaries between national traditions may become increasingly blurred stemming from globalization and hybridization, emergent regional linkages (e.g., the European Union, NAFTA) will also prod sociologists to acknowledge established neighboring traditions. New subfields and new fields linking sociologists to other disciplines (in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) will emerge and in becoming institutionalized, new traditions will appear evoking their founding figures and documents. Already, a new historiography reconstructing the tradition of women in the development of sociology is well under way (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley 1998); it is likely that what had been the covert gender side of the Great Tradition will become recognized in terms of the contributions of women to both social theory and social research, and in the process, recasting the image of the Great Tradition. By the same token, dramatic breakthroughs in knowledge of the biological bases of social behavior could also well lead to reconceptualizing the Great Tradition.


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