Social Question Research Paper

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A modern social science not only originates within an intellectual project of widening rational knowledge, but also as a means to govern what Simmel (1908) called ‘the material of social processes.’ The making of what Comte (1848) described as ‘the preponderance of a social point of view’ implied that there were problems that no established scientific approach could successfully address. Even more, the individualistic premises of modern legal and economic sciences themselves opened new problems from the vantagepoint of social organization. If the major trend of modernity has been toward the legal emancipation of the individual and the economic emancipation of labor from the burdens of traditional society, the emergence of social thought was to make evident that this could not suffice to organize a stable modern society. There was a need for models of organization and social integration, i.e., for a ‘science of social order.’ For such a science, the first object of analysis has been the ‘social question’, that is, the mass pauperism growing alongside the rise of modern liberalism that social thought regarded as a danger for social stability. This became particularly clear in France where revolutions brought the problem of popular poverty to the forefront of the political arena.

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1. The Experience Of The Revolution

The idea that the French Revolution played an important role in the rise of sociology has been established by important sociologists such as Reinhardt Bendix and Robert Nisbet. The very term ‘social science’ became official during the French Revolution through authors like Condorcet (Baker 1964, McDonald 1993). Less common is acknowledging that its development was linked to the question of poverty and the new political importance it assumed. The Revolution was more than an intellectual advance in rationalism; it was a dramatic experience cutting bridges with most of what was known and abruptly revealing the depth of the social crisis. The new awareness of the crisis, more than the rationalist critique, was crucial to social thought.

Nisbet (1943), stressing the impact of the French Revolution over the making of sociological concepts, suggested that the experience of the crisis focused them on the ‘social group’, as their own response to eighteenth century social theory centered on the opposition between the state and the individual. Social thought developed by establishing the group as an object of science, not only with an ethical implication, but also with a primary theoretical value in the study of man.

Why the group? Because the impact of the Revolution upon traditional social groups had driven the crisis until the destruction of the whole institutional frame, eroding the very bases of social belonging. The ‘rational state,’ as Nisbet put it, that the eighteenth century social theory had been regarded as the solution to the crisis of traditional bonds (religion, family, guilds, and associations) and the correlation to individuals’ emancipation, no longer seemed able to nourish a real sense of social belonging. The group raised a new problem that could not be faced in economic or in juridical terms: to rebuild society required new foundations for the social bond. The experience of the crisis and the condition of insecurity due to the destabilization of order opened the way to a science that would fill the task of laying down the proper conditions for a new social order.

2. The Autonomy Of ‘Society’

The ‘social question’ was the most dramatic evidence for both the crisis and the need for a new social order. Poverty could no longer be regarded as a mere individual condition to be dealt with by charitable support and police repression, as in the Old Regime treatment of mendicancy and vagrancy. The political emancipation gained through the Revolution, as well as the economic emancipation guaranteed by a free labor, made the increase of poverty among the urban popular masses an issue of public concern (Simmel 1908). How could the poor play a role in the new social order, be inscribed in the political arena of universal citizenship and in the liberalized market of productive labor? As Hannah Arendt (1963) stressed, the social question broke the social unanimity around the revolutionary project—and from then onwards, it has been the stumbling block of any revolution.

The modern idea of rights, making the poor just citizens the same as everyone else, and the modern economic imperative to include them into productive labor, did converge in giving a new visibility to the social question. In fact, poverty challenged both the achievement of individual autonomy as well as the generalization of free labor. It was therefore important to act against the social causes of poverty, and therefore to know them, what neither legal nor economic sciences could do. The importance of the poverty question grew together with the political awareness that a stable society demanded an end to the revolution. Both social and political problems contributed to a realization that social change could not be understood through individual actions, but rather as the result of relatively impersonal processes. Society appeared to have autonomous conditions to its own development and an autonomous ability to resist changing, both impossible to curb by law or through the market.

The social question has been the first object of application where the autonomy of social thought’s premises, concepts, and methods was at stake. It was thus the arena for a gradual autonomization of social thought from economic and legal categories, founding the problem of order as specifically social (Procacci 1993). In this way, it represented a crucial step toward the construction of the very idea of society as a theoretical concept and at the same time a practical field of investigation.

3. The Science Of Social Order

The analysis of the social question had a crucial impact over the making of positive sociology. With Saint-Simon and Comte, the search for a new social order was firmly located within antisocial effects of industrial transformation: how was it possible to organize inequality in a way that would not prevent social stability? Their foundation concepts were marked by their source in the analysis of social inequality.

First of all, they carried a vision of society as an organic entity, essentially concerned with the cohesion of all its parts—hence the importance of the metaphor of social organism. Most importantly, this located sociology on the side of the whole social body, the common interest, the collective being—apart from the opposition opened by liberalism between individual and collective points of view.

Secondly, all dangers for social order were interpreted in the perspective of social pathology, calling for some kind of therapeutics. Poverty was a pathological element within the social body—the task of social thought was to identify the means for restoring a normal society. Hence the importance of medical knowledge, with the normative character intrinsic in the idea of restoring a normal society. Methods of inquiry were also drawn out of medical practice: observation of symptoms, collection of cases, and statistical recurrences. This shaped concepts animated fundamentally by a will to reform. There was no longer a pure science; the programme of positive sociology was a science able to found the criteria for acting in order to improve human conditions on positive knowledge.

Thirdly, the foundation concepts of positive sociology inherited the moral element that had characterized the philanthropic approach to poverty. Particularly with Comte, the problem of order became a question of moral consistence of society, impossible to solve through legal or economic reforms. His main theoretical questions run about the position of bourgeoisie and the working class in the new social order (Elias 1978). For this reason, once the revolution exploded again in 1848 and the popular movement claimed political and economic reforms to solve the social question, he felt the need to engage into the public debate. His ‘Positivist Society’, created a few days after the February insurrection, had the explicit task to oppose the positivist view of the social question to socialists. Insufficient labor did not depend upon capitalist economy, but upon an irrational organization that scientific development would overcome. The emphasis was rather on society’s moral engagement to fight against poverty, a problem more difficult to solve: it required to put ‘social sentiment’ in the forefront, by promoting a sociability that the Comtian concept of ‘duty’ was to organize as the cement for new social bonds.

4. Democracy And Socialism

A different perspective is the one opened by Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy. Elected in 1848 to the parliament by the first universal manhood suffrage, he was directly involved in writing the new Constitution which was to put an end to the revolution. As such, he politically intervened against the reforms claimed by the popular movement. Political organization of democracy above all demanded fighting its tendency to ally with a centralized power. The social question implied such a danger, strengthening the state that was expected to solve it; therefore nothing could be granted, except an exclusively moral engagement of society to reduce poverty. Distinguishing moral duties (la morale) from legal rights (le droit) was strategic in preventing the state from becoming either an economic agent providing jobs or a regulator reviving old protectionism. A political solution could only come from organising democracy: pushing people to act on collective issues and promoting public virtue instead of private freedom, were the only means for undermining the spectre of state despotism. The perspective of self-government led to rehabilitate associations as the arena where people would exert their public responsibility and resist the state.

The 1848 revolution was a crucial moment for social thought consolidation through its analysis of the social question. The work of Lorenz von Stein (1850) provided important evidence and was a crucial source for Marx. Indeed it would be difficult not to mention the influence of social question over socialist social thought, as the revolution of 1848 exemplified. The experience of French revolutions was also central for Marx’s historical concept of class, conceptualizing the fundamental inequality producing poverty in a capitalist economy. But class conflict was for Marx (Marx and Engels 1848) the key to development, and not a pathology to be cured; there could not be any other solution to it but the revolution. The strategical programme of Marxian social thought deeply differed from the one of sociology: it was not a question of reanimating society through moral duties and intermediary associations. Under this light, there is more continuity with Durkheim’s theory of social solidarity. In his study on socialism, Durkheim (1895) stressed its affinity with sociology, given the central role played by organization and a set of social rules controlling the economic sphere. Since societies autonomously tend toward solidarity, the antagonism between capital and labor was a danger, and could only result from disorganization. The social question was a problem of socialization; even unions might work as a means of social integration. The concept of organic solidarity combined the characteristics of positive sociology and the attempt to enhance democratic strategies: it provided criteria for techniques reorganizing social bonds, such as the division of labor and the resurgence of intermediary groups.

In conclusion, the analysis of poverty contributed to strengthen a critique of economic and legal individualism towards a new science of social solidarity. The impact of the social question tied the fate of social science to the development of an administrative state, and engaged it into the political arena; thus promoting the re-establishment within the social body of those groups that liberalism had strategically eliminated.


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  2. Baker K 1964 The early history of the term ‘social science’. Annals of Science 20: 211–25
  3. Comte A 1848/1957 The social aspect of positivism. In: A General View of Positivism [trans. by Bridges J H]. R. Speller, New York, Chap. 2
  4. Durkheim E 1895 Le Socialisme, 1971. PUF, Paris
  5. Elias N 1978 What is Sociology? [trans by Mennell S, Morrissey G]. Hutchinson, London
  6. Foucault M 1972 L’Histoire de la Folie a l’Age Classique, Suivi de mon corps, ce papier, ce feu et la folie, l’absence d’oevre, 2nd edn. Gallimard, Paris
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  9. Nisbet R 1943 The French Revolution and the rise of sociology in France. American Journal of Sociology 49: 156–64
  10. Procacci G 1993 Gouverner la Misere. La Question Sociale en France. Seuil, Paris.
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