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The Institutional Shape of European Sociology
Several obstacles must be kept in mind when “European sociology” is on the agenda. First, European sociology encompasses quite diverse scientific activities so that we will have to deal selectively with it. By far the largest subunits of European sociology are constituted by French-, English-, and German-speaking sociologists. Furthermore, the major scientific language is English. It has become good practice for many European sociologists to spend some time in the English-speaking community and publish in English. However, we must keep in mind that—even though most classical studies have been translated into different languages—current research diffuses selectively between the German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, Scandinavian, and Eastern European languages. Only rarely is it worthwhile for publishers to have foreign manuscripts translated into a language other than English. Although the competition for university chairs in Europe still works on a national level, it will not be rational for scientists to invest much time in studying French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, Austrian, Polish, Scandinavian, and many more research results—let alone understanding the language. This kind of competition leads to a continuously high level of reputation of national professional journals that are often considered the most desirable place of publication in the quest for academic recognition. Quite similar to the slow rise of a European public, European sociology has only partially developed a central focus of attention. The labor market of European sociology is only theoretically open. As long as this insulation continues, there will not be a unified European sociology (Nedelmann and Sztompka 1993:3).
This is not to deny that there is much exchange within European sociologies as well as many common research activities, often inspired by funds from the European Union. Also, there is a common institutional platform: The European Sociological Association (ESA), founded in 1990, is a professional association of sociologists and nonprofit organizations related to sociology. With more than 700 individual and institutional members, its main goal is to facilitate sociological research and teaching as well as the communication between sociologists in Europe and to give sociology a voice in European matters. An ESA Conference is held every two years.
Historically, both commonalities and diversities of the national paths have developed. On the one hand, first chairs date back to the early twentieth century throughout Europe. After decades of growth, fascism and World War II brought about a setback to sociological research. The second half of the twentieth century is characterized by Western European sociology’s amazing expansion at the universities with many new chairs, institutionalization of empirical social research heavily influenced by American standards, and emerging special research areas. However, this extremely successful institutionalization also led to an increasing specialization of scientists. In Europe, the crucial line of such specialization divides social theory from social research, each developing its own discourse and most unfortunately not sufficiently taking note of each other. By mid-1970, enthusiasm for both educational expansion and sociology started to cool down. Chairs were occupied and at the latest by mid-1980, a phase of continual shrinking was set in motion.
On the other hand, European history has led to some distinctive national developments. Stalinism defined sociology as a bourgeois pseudoscience to be replaced by Marxism-Leninism. The Cold War forced many Eastern European sociologists to follow Goffman’s strategies, distinguishing between cautious front stages and authentic back stages. Despite long-lasting political suppression, Polish sociology produced many outstanding scholars with international reputation, that is, Florian Znaniecki, Ludwig Gumplowicz, Stanislaw Ossowski, Wlodzimierz Wesolowski, and Zygmunt Bauman, who were forced to emigrate from Poland or had left the country before communists came to power. The same applies to Hungarian sociology where many scholars risked their careers and lives in their struggle to correct the apologetic orthodox Marxist “two-class-one-stratum” model by their empirical research results.
In contrast, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have contributed to a specific “Scandinavian” sociology with some continuity by strongly believing in sociology as an empirical and value-free science. In these “Nordic” countries, social research in social problems and theAmerican style of “positivistic” sociological creed were favored. Among their outstanding scholars, we find such names as Johan Galtung, Stein Rokkan, and Jon Elster.
Looking at major achievements of European sociology, we shall look at major lines of research by showing that sociological research focuses on empirical knowledge about the continuity and change of human conduct in all areas of society and of its consequences for societal development. Goldthorpe (2000a:262) has called this the ideal of a “new sociological mainstream” involving both questions about theory, that is, the concepts and categories used to understand and explain human conduct and empirical tests.
To demonstrate sociology’s journey through periods, national idiosyncrasies, and inventive concepts, in the following sections, we will present the European “founding fathers,” the theoretical discussion of the concept of meaningful human behavior as the microbasis of sociological research, and the constitution and development of social research in stratification, class, and mobility. It should be clear that this distinction does not perfectly reflect the complete set of European sociology, although it should be helpful in delineating its distinctive character.2
The European Founding Fathers
Émile Durkheim (1897,  1982), Georg Simmel (1908), Werner Sombart ( 2001), Ferdinand Tönnies ( 1957), Max Weber ( 1930,  1949), and Vilfredo Pareto ( 1980)—all born around 1860—are considered the European founding fathers of sociology as an academic discipline with specific methods and objects of research. Many other European scholars could be mentioned, such as the Germans Karl Marx (1859) and Norbert Elias ( 1978/1982), theAustrians Karl Renner (1953) and Franz Borkenau (1973), the British Herbert Spencer (1898), the Polish Stanislaw Ossowski (1963), and the Russian PitirimA. Sorokin (1937/1941). In the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, this generation set standards of sociological imagination and developed systems of thought on which sociology keeps on relying up to the present. In contrast to Continental, particularly German and French sociologists of this first generation, British sociology has resisted the European theoretical tradition and was, at least until after World War II, overwhelmingly empirical.
Until today, Durkheim and Weber have remained most influential among the European founding fathers. Durkheim’s (1897) Suicide has certainly become the sociological paradigm as it deals with a social phenomenon making the object understandable to the reader while using (at that time) elaborate statistical data and methods, thereby appearing scientific, empirically saturated, and professional. Even though it may seem that no other human action could be more individual than the decision to end one’s life, suicides are not caused by individual, idiosyncratic reasons but correlate with the social integration of the individual.
Based on these rates, Durkheim determines three types of suicide completing his explanation by providing the corresponding motives: egoistic, altruistic, and anomic. Despite Durkheim’s (1897:297) own prohibitions and his claim to explain the social by the social and nothing else, such a typology comes close to Weber’s parallel call for “sociological rules” and the underlying understanding of motives of behavior. The relative isolation of man in society—if, for example, a young single seeing all other boys walk with their girlfriends on a summer day—is a precondition for an egoistic suicide. In contrast, the altruistic suicide protects the community in which the person is strongly integrated: The military officer kills himself because he has done something dishonorable that threatens his professional group. The term “anomie” is Durkheim’s contribution to sociological theory and means, virtually translated, “without law.” It signifies a state of normlessness, irritation, confusion, and breakdown. Durkheim assumes that anomie will be found in times of increased social change. Traditional values do not have their binding authority anymore, and the new norms do not yet have enough power to guide human behavior. People will commit suicide more often in such a state of depression because they do not know what way their life is going.
Durkheim’s (1897) way of arguing with official statistics has made Suicide a paradigmatic study of sociological research and generalizing probabilistic explanations on the basis of correlations. Its combination of understandability and professionality has been quite charming to later sociologists, and Suicide is therefore read and taught with high frequency at the universities—probably much more than his Rules of Sociological Method (1895), which spells out this same conception in a more theoretical fashion.
Weber was aware of and agreed with Durkheim’s search for the so-called sociological rules that combine social regularities, that is, all kinds of probabilistic distributions, with motives of human conduct. He came to a quite similar conception of sociological explanations—but got there on a completely different route. The reason is biographical: Weber was trained as a lawyer, did his dissertation and habilitation thesis on legal issues, and became a sociologist only in his late years. He was quite “theoretical” in his discussions, even though for him it went without saying that such work must go hand in hand with empirical efforts. He started several projects of data collection and social research (Lazarsfeld and Oberschall 1962).
From his dispersed methodological writings, later sociologists quoted mostly the definition of sociology: It is meant to understand human behavior in order to explain its course and consequences. Applied to Durkheim’s example, this means that the statistical form the number of suicides takes on must be made understandable by looking at the reasons humans themselves actually attribute to ending their lives. For Durkheim, the question of motives was settled by distinguishing several types of suicide that match the social regularities of suicides. Probably the question of motives was much more prominent for Weber because, as a lawyer, he was well aware that in everyday life, the reasons man’s behavior is actually based on are much more complicated to determine as may seem at first sight. He knew that if we ask people about their motives, we will not necessarily receive valid answers because the actual reasons for conduct are often not clear to humans themselves. Nevertheless, Weber insisted on the significance of the named reasons and advised separate empirical efforts, that is, psychological experiments and surveys, in detecting their causal power.
Also, Weber’s own empirical research efforts stress the weight of meaningful motives to explain social change. In his work on the Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (Weber  1930), he develops his thesis that in order to explain social change, we must look at the altering selectivity of human behavior. The decisive change was to be found in Calvinism, which made people believe that one could not simply do good works or perform acts of faith to assure one’s place in heaven. However, wealth was considered a sign a person was one of God’s elected, providing encouragement to acquire wealth and be successful. The protestant ethic thus provided religious sanctions so that the social world was no longer experienced as externally natural and eternal but rather as an object of internal control of man—with far-reaching consequences. For Weber, it was clear that the rapid social change modern society has been undergoing can only be properly attributed to change in human behavior. This is why the study of motives was so central to him. He made clear that the greatest part of everyday behavior simply follows traditional rules, and only a small part of it is calculated in rational terms. But it is this difference that accounts for the Western style of disenchantment of society.
Unfortunately, Weber (1968, 1981) was clear neither in his Categories nor in Economy and Society about the crucial role of understanding (Verstehen) in doing research on social change in modern society. But how could he have been? Weber did not even try to present perfect research results, let alone develop a theory of society. His Protestant Ethic was not more than an exemplary illustration with scantyempiricalproof.Rather,hiseffortswerebutapreliminary approach to a research program to be filled later on. As later discussion showed, it was far from clear what “understanding” actually means in social research and in what way valid data can be constructed on the course and consequences of meaningful human behavior.
The Meaning of Meaningful Behavior
Whereas American sociology discussed the question of understanding only occasionally (Goldenweiser 1938; Tucker 1965) and preferred to analyze available data causally (Abbott 1998), the major representatives of European sociology have spent a lot of time discussing what Weber’s concept of meaningful behavior means exactly and what the nature of explanations is really all about. One of the major historical crossroads between American and European sociology was the discussion between Schütz and Parsons. The differences are best demonstrated by their exchange of letters about how a theory of action should be developed. Schütz claimed that it was the perspective of the actor that should guide sociological research. He disputed that Parsons’s theory was an analysis adequate to meaning (Schütz and Parsons 1977:57ff.)—an argument that Parsons, in turn, disputed. Schütz’s phenomenological sociology and its later interpretive variants stressed, against structural functionalism, that sociological explanations must aim at meaningful adequacy. Schütz (1932) explained this idea on the basis of the phenomenological reorientation of philosophical thought. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), founder of the European phenomenological movement, reformulated the classical epistemological relation between knowledge and the object of knowledge (Husserl 1931). He insisted that it is not a lonely subject that meets objects of knowledge in the world but that acts of consciousness always “intend,” that is, encompass or, as it is said later, constitute their object. Therefore, it is not the allegedly problematic difference between subject and object but rather the horizon character of the world that needs to be analyzed. Speaking of the world as a horizon means replacing the old idea of the world as a sum of things by relating a “thing” to its environment from which it—by means of distinction—receives its identity. A chair remains a chair—no matter from what angle we look at it. Through our perception, we know that even the parts of the object we do not see immediately are still there. Perception simplifies the chaos of incoming stimuli into constant and variable units. It overemphasizes the stability of certain data while leaving out other perceptual aspects. Without such one-sided certainties, perception would not be possible.
Schütz applied this phenomenological revolution to the social world. By use of language, we generate stable characteristics in the form of typifying interpretive schemes shared by the inhabitants of lifeworlds. They select observations and rely on an unproblematic “stock of knowledge at hand” (Schütz 1967:7). It is sociology’s task to focus on the typifications suitable in the lifeworld, establishing second-order constructions about first-order constructions. Such a sociology of knowledge shows, as Berger and Luckmann (1966) stress, how typifications become institutionalized.
From the unresolved controversy between Parsons and Schütz, European sociology was left behind with an abyss that has not proven fruitful. For several decades, it seemed that distinctions such as “action versus system,” “micro versus macro,” “conflict versus integration,” “social definition versus social structure,” and “explaining versus understanding” generated irreconcilable paradigms that must exist side by side. Looking back, one could argue that the exaggerated confrontation between those who insist on guarding the perspective of human conduct and those who allegedly did not was rather the result of a phase in European sociology in which it had lost sight of the research program that Weber had in mind when he stressed the importance of meaningful behavior for social change. It would not seem completely unfair to blame Parsons for this fatal misunderstanding: Parsons’s theory was so challenging that many European sociologists saw their task as sufficiently fulfilled by confronting Parsons’s analytical realism with the meaningful character of the social world (as Schütz did) or by criticizing his alleged neglect of material factors (Lockwood 1956). We do want to stress that this criticism has been necessary. However, it did not bring us closer to realize the research program of the founding fathers.
At least three European sociologists of the next generation have made substantial contributions to this debate that may be considered as real advances and shed some new light on the concept of the explanation of meaningful behavior. Anthony Giddens, in his typically British, antisystem thinking fashion, stresses duality of structure. In his New Rules of Sociological Methods, Giddens (1976) insists on the interpretive foundation of sociology and calls for a double hermeneutic: Understanding is not only an inevitable source of hypotheses about human behavior but also an element already inherent in the research object. Sociology needs to take into account that the social world is always preinterpreted. In this respect, Giddens criticizes “positively” the traditions of Schütz’s phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and the Anglo-Saxon theory of action, which follows the late Wittgenstein.
At the same time, Giddens stresses that we would be mistaken if we looked at the social world only from the angle of its meaningful production. Rather, research must also keep in mind the material reproduction of social practice. In The Constitution of Society, Giddens (1984) summarizes his theory of structuration and provides a wide definition of social structures. These encompass not only rule structures, that is, meaningful expectations of humans’ behavior, but also structures that limit human action, as illustrated by unequal distributions of resources. The term structure, as is well established in European sociology by now, therefore takes on a twofold meaning: It is seen as both enabling and restricting human conduct.
Similar thoughts have been laid down by Niklas Luhmann and Pierre Bourdieu (Nassehi and Nollmann 2004). Luhmann’s theory of social systems has become quite influential in European sociology. At first sight, his devotion to systems theory seems to connect him closely with Parsons. This connection is, however, justified only in a very limited sense. Actually, like Weber, Luhmann insists on meaning as sociology’s basic concept. However, Luhmann (1990:53ff.) believes that the Weberian typology of action as a means-value-ends relation is a far too selective view of human behavior to be able to constitute the basic analytical tool. Instead, Luhmann favors the attribution model, which categorizes conduct in four directions: internal versus external, stable versus variable interpretation. Internal attributions of behavior will appear as “action” based either on ability and/or effort. External attributions are interpreted as (passive) experience of the world, either as luck or fate. Hence, “action” is not an ontologically given object of sociological research but a practical internal attribution of conduct. It is for this reason that Luhmann (1995:137ff.) assumes that human conduct is “systemic”; that is, the meaning of a behavioral event is constituted by the next event that selectively understands its predecessor. Luhmann’s concept of understanding follows Schütz who had objected to Weber’s methodology that ideal-type understanding is not a privilege of the social scientist. Luhmann insists on practical first-order understanding as the object of sociology. Accordingly, communication consists of three combined elements: utterance, information, and understanding. The meaning of behavior is constituted by the communicative act of understanding that follows the actor’s utterance of information (Luhmann 1995:139ff.). Selective understanding constitutes meaningful social rules that help actors secure certainty about what to expect in the social world. Luhmann defines meaning phenomenologically as a means of selection from a horizon of other possibilities.
Luhmann makes three basic statements on the empirical distribution of practical first-order interpretations of behavior: First, in the course of societal evolution, there is a general trend toward more internal attributions. Organizations especially are based on the assumption that any kind of conduct can be interpreted as decisions so that people can be held responsible. Attributions to nature and God do not disappear completely but require a specialized context to find support. According to Luhmann, however, it would be a mistake to assume that all actors can really shape the world according to their intentions in situations that are attributed internally. The internal attribution of meaning as responsible action is just one suitable way of interpreting the social world. Therefore, “freedom” does not mean that causal strains on human conduct are absent or that voluntarism has finally appeared in the social world. Rather, Luhmann sees modern appeals to freedom as a mere correlate of this general trend toward the practice of internal attribution. It is a reflex of societal structure, not the rise of human emancipation from external influences, that makes us describe ourselves as “free individuals.” The recent discussion of individualization reflects just one more step in this direction.
Second, in modernity, interpretation of conduct depends on the context of media of exchange. For example, the appeal to “truth” leads to external attributions as “experience”: In scientific discussions, we publicly discuss competing accounts of truth while we assume that the reason for rival concepts is not our dislike or hate of each other but rather our belief that the rival has not reached the externally given instance of truth. In contrast, conduct in the area of “power” accounts for interpretations as “action” for both ego and alter because political communication (and organizational behavior generally) aim at collectively binding decisions controlling citizens’ behavior (Luhmann 1997:332ff.).
Third, as Luhmann (1973) shows in a study of the German civil service, attributional preferences and “styles” are distributed according to hierarchical positions in organizations. Civil servants were asked to determine the reasons for their own and their colleagues’ promotions or the absence of promotions. More specifically, the interviewees had to locate the perceived causes of promotions according to Heider’s (1958) attribution model. The general result of this study demonstrates that civil servants were more inclined to attribute promotions internally, the higher their position, success, upward mobility, satisfaction, and positive attitudes toward the organization. Those who reached higher levels prefer internal attributions of their professional careers as resulting from effort and ability. The lower the position, the more servants tended to interpret their life course as externally dominated by fortune, chance, and conduct of others they could not control.
Luhmann does not, as Parsons might have, take this result to be a proof of the view that in modern society “effort makes a difference.” He preferred to refrain from normative statements of this kind and was content with interpreting his findings as supporting his theory, which predicts that attributional preferences are not randomly distributed in society but rather structured in a specific way. It is the elaboration of such “subjective” meaningful preferences that Weber wanted sociologists to pursue by combining social regularities with meaningful rules.
Pierre Bourdieu, in turn, developed his social theory against the background of French structuralism as represented by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–). In The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu (1990) summarizes his views in a more theoretical fashion, whereas in Distinction (1984), he presents his major findings on the stratification of French society. Bourdieu identifies the structuralist tradition with the objectivist search for systems of rules. It aims at a complete and logically consistent model meant to analyze social phenomena. Individual and collective actors appear to be mere executors of social structures. The scientific observer is in a privileged position to have a more complete knowledge of social contexts than participants do. Bourdieu contrasts this viewpoint with the subjectivist tradition, which he sees represented by Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology, theories of rational choice (RC), game theory, and neoclassical economics. In these perspectives, the subjectively intended meaning actors attribute to their conduct is reconstructed. These attempts, according to Bourdieu, overemphasize the alleged decisions of the “lonely” consciousness.
Bourdieu sees the need to mediate between both traditions. He sees the main weakness of objectivist approaches in their tendency to project their own constructs into their object and to ignore the paradoxical statements, intentions, and motives found in practical behavior. The central category to synthesize these traditions is the habitus. It consists of schemes of perception and evaluation capable of generating practical behavior. They become internalized and form the self-evident preconditions of conformity and continuity of human conduct. They do not presuppose plans and reflexive decisions but enable humans to know automatically what should be considered reasonable and useful in practical terms. Like Weber, Bourdieu argues that human conduct is mostly nonreflexive and traditional. Such automatism is inevitable because practical behavior is under enormous pressure of time.
In Distinction, Bourdieu (1984) distinguishes between the space of social classes (high, middle, low) and the space of lifestyles with its corresponding types of “taste.” The volume of capital, assembled in the course of life, determines the individual’s position in these spaces. The habitus works as a mediator between objective societal distributions and subjective interpretive schemes and to some extent indicates the duality of structure as discussed by Giddens and Luhmann.
So far, we have highlighted major European statements on the meaning of meaning in sociological research. This is not to say that European sociology offers much more relevant discussions. In the 1960s and 1970s, a widespread discussion took place, later known as Positivismusstreit, which was basically a controversy about Max Weber’s call for a sociology devoid of value judgments. Critical theory played the major antipode in the Positivismusstreit and attacked assumptions of Gadamer’s (1975) hermeneutic circle. Critical theory is usually associated with the Frankfurt School of Social Research and its leading figures Theodor Adorno (1903–1969;1972), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979;1969). This tradition criticized instrumental reason as increasingly dominating the history of man. Their pessimism considers modern industrial society as a totalitarian form of domination. Instrumental reason not only sees the world but also sees other human beings in terms of efficient exploitation. Adorno’s famous dictum that sociology should not simply reproduce the facts about society but rather take part in criticizing them constitutes the opposite of Weber’s research program, which stressed that we actually know so little about the domain-specific regularities of human conduct.
The work of Jürgen Habermas (1929– )—the most well-known figure of the second generation of critical theory—draws on its heritage, but is more closely linked to the sociological mainstream. At the center of his theory of modernity is his twofold concept of society combining action and system theory. Two forms of integration correspond to these paradigms in social theory: social and system integration. Mechanisms of social integration refer to orientations of actors constituting societal order of values, norms, and communicative process. In contrast, market exchange and power as mechanisms of system integration transcend the orientations of actors and integrate nonintended contexts of action through functional networks. Whereas socially integrated interaction remains at least intuitively understandable for actors and can therefore be captured meaningfully, system-integrated contexts lie beyond the self-explication of actors and can only be explained from the point of view of the observer.
There are two concepts of society assigned to the mechanisms of integration, the concept of lifeworld and the concept of social system. From a practical point of view of actors, society is seen as a sociocultural lifeworld, whereas from the observer’s point of view, it is regarded as a social system. By means of this conceptual duplex, Habermas describes all kinds of societies as systemically stabilized contexts of socially integrated groups.
For Habermas, lifeworld and system have been differentiated in the process of social evolution. In primitive societies, social and system integration are closely related, whereas in the course of societal development, the mechanisms of system integration become disconnected from social integration. With the transition to modernity, these two principles have become largely separated. In contemporary society, lifeworld and system exist in opposition to each other. The private and the public political and cultural spheres represent the institutional orders of the lifeworld. In these primarily socially integrated areas, the symbolic reproduction of society takes place (i.e., the tradition and innovation of cultural knowledge, social integration, and socialization).Therefore, symbolic reproduction represents not just one but several functions that modern lifeworlds serve (Habermas  1996:77). The lifeworld consists of culture, society, and personality. With these three elements, modern lifeworlds develop the educational system, the law, and the family as institutions highly specialized to fill these functional specifications. According to Habermas, these lifeworld components remain connected to each other through the medium of language. Colloquial language imposes strict limits on the functional differentiation of the lifeworld so that its totality is not endangered.
With regard to the interpenetration of lifeworld discourses, Habermas ( 1988:418) speaks of the capacity of intersubjective self-understanding of modern societies, keeping borders between the socially integrated areas open. All parts of the lifeworld refer to one comprehensive public, in which society develops reflexive knowledge of itself. Although the lifeworld is structured by communicative action, it does not, however, constitute the center of modern societies. Habermas sees rationality endangered because the communicative infrastructure of lifeworlds is threatened by both colonization and fragmentation.
Outside of the lifeworld, the capitalist economy and public administration are situated. These two functional subsystems of society use money and organizational power as their media of exchange. They specialize in the material reproduction of the lifeworld. Between the economy and private households, on the one hand, and the public administration and political-cultural public, on the other, exchange relations exist. Habermas conceptualizes economy and politics as open systems that maintain a systemic exchange with their social environments. From the point of view of the economy and the political system, the lifeworld is just a societal subsystem, whereas from the vantage of the lifeworld, the economic and administrative complex appears as rationalized contexts of action transcending the intuitive understanding of actors. As the media-based exchange relations between the lifeworld and system illustrate, the separation of system and social integration is, even in contemporary societies, far from complete. The economic and administrative complex remains connected to the lifeworld because the systemic media of money and organizational power are in need of an institutional anchorage in the lifeworld. Although communicative action, on the one hand, and capitalist economy and political administration, on the other, are asymmetrically related, the lifeworld remains, in contrast to the functional subsystems, the more comprehensive concept of social order. Only by anchoring legal institutions in the lifeworld can markets and the authority of the state persist. This is why the areas of system integration are constituted legally.
In Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Habermas ( 1996) points to the significance the theory of communicative action attributes to the category of law. Modern law is connected both with the lifeworld and the functional subsystems, hence serving intermediary functions between social and system integration. Such lifeworld messages (i.e., public protest) must be translated into the language of law before they can be understood in economy and politics. Modern law works like a transformer that guarantees that normative messages circulate throughout society.
Habermas’s theory of modernity has been criticized in many ways. One important line of criticism refers to the normative texture of the theory of communicative action. Rational potential of reflexivity is only imputed to the socially integrated lifeworld even though lifeworlds constitute only a part of modern societies. Also, the categorical distinction between functionally specialized subsystems (economy, administration, politics) and the specific parts of the lifeworld (education, law, family) is not as clear as it may seem at first glance. According to McCarthy (1986:209ff.), only a gradual distinction can be observed between these areas. Education, law, and family also suffer from unintended consequences of social action. At the same time, economy and public administration remain, just as the communicative structure of the lifeworld, dependent on the use of ordinary language. Even though Habermas has tried to combine the heritage of critical theory with some of the important results of interpretive sociology, it is not easy to see in what way such a critical theory will contribute to an empirical study of social change.
Methodological Individualism and Rational Choice
The opposite of this weakness can be seen in another important stream of European sociology represented by the tradition of RC. RC sociologists are united by the conviction that assumptions about human conduct must be tested in social research. Probably all RC theorists assume that actors’ preferences (i.e., goals, wishes, motives) are conditions of their action. From the individual’s point of view, such action contributes to the fulfillment of his goals. Many variants of RC are used in research. Therefore, it has become common to distinguish between wide and narrow versions and strong and weak versions. European sociology predominantly relies on wider and weaker versions of RC, denying the economic assumption that humans follow more or less exclusively egoistic goals. Humans are seen as guided by bounded rationality and not by completely linear probabilities. RC theorists assume that people will follow a behavior that they themselves consider to be useful to them. As this assumption is quite trivial, the discussion focuses on the question of how researchers can model such utility beliefs and the question of which designs are best to test RC empirically. One central problem concerns the way researchers should develop the so-called bridge hypotheses that are at the core of the much-discussed micro-macro link comprising the important expectations and evaluations of humans. European RC theorists seem to be methodologically open to various ways of data generation on subjective preferences, be that case studies or surveys (Opp and Friedrichs 1996). More recently, the problem of measuring valid and reliable attitudes, for example, by the so-called factorial surveys, has been one focus of attention (Beck and Opp 2001).
Important areas of German RC research comprise the worldwide largest study in reasons and causes of divorces (Esser 2002), marriage and family (Brüderl and Diekmann 1994), political protest, especially the rise of the so-called Mondays’ protests in the former German Democratic Republic (Opp 1998), ecological consciousness (Diekmann and Preisendörfer 1998), and the risky decision to help Jews in times of the Holocaust (Klingemann and Falter 1993). Probably the most well-known RC theorist in France, Raymond Boudon (1974) has widely analyzed the paradoxical and unintended effects of individual action, for example, with reference to the unexpected consequences of educational expansion or early purchases in a time of high inflation.
Besides these lines of social theorizing and empirical testing, European sociologists have stressed the significance of human conduct for social change. Michel Crozier has, together with Erhard Friedberg (1980), applied methodological individualism to organization theory without neglecting its systemic context. Alain Touraine (1969, 1983) has developed a theory of postindustrial society in which new social movements constitute the central force of action beyond the old class conflict. In Great Britain, John H. Goldthorpe (1997) has proposed a moderate version of RC for sociology. Furthermore, Peter Hedström and Richard Swedberg (1996, 1998) have shown in what way RC actually aims at the empirical realization of Weberian ideas.
European Social Research
Probabilism thoroughly changed the way of explaining social phenomena. From a traditional viewpoint, something is either the cause of some effect or it is not. Even for Durkheim, dependencies between variables seemed to be either complete or nonexistent, whereas Weber, as a lawyer, made us aware of the highly contingent and constructive character of statements that involve causality. Consequently, Weber not only devoted most of his methodological discussions to the problem of controlling valid causal statements but also explicitly demanded that sociological explanations consist of “chances,” that is, more or less high probabilities that social regularities coincide with practical attributions of goals, means, values, and other assumed causes of one’s behavior. Despite his clearly probabilistic approach, he himself—like most other founding fathers of sociology—did not have a thorough knowledge of statistics. At least, he was convinced that a close cooperation between sociology and statisticians was necessary. One of the early attempts at studying attitudes was made by the German Verein für Socialpolitik in 1908 led by Max Weber and his brother Alfred. Their motivation exactly matched the situation described above. In the Germany of that time, research was conducted on social welfare and the labor question so that one knew a lot about conditions of existence: wages, work time and loads, nutrition, and living. Little knowledge was available about their personality and the influence that industry had on their attitudes. The Verein decided to conduct a survey on basic problems concerning the quality of work and the question what exactly one was to ask workers in order to obtain the required knowledge about their actual behavior. Such questions as “Is your work very exhausting? After how many hours of work do you get tired? Which goal do you hope to achieve in life? Which goals have you set earlier in your life?” led to disappointing results. The survey was not based on any idea about the mechanisms in which objective conditions are converted into subjective attitudes and in what way such attitudes—if at all—shape structural opportunities. In 1911, the frustrated Max Weber concluded that despite ample efforts, the surveys had brought almost no reliable and applicable results. The gap between theoretical reasoning and empirical research was deep and wide.
Because of this scanty research situation, the early ideas of research questions on social structure and stratification were more theoretical than empirical. Not only did Weber see sociology’s mission of explaining human behavior in understanding, he also criticized Marx’s class theory in a fundamental way that became influential in later research. In Economy and Society, Weber extends Marx’s simple dichotomy between those who control the means of production and those who do not by stressing the importance of education and social mobility, which showed that the working class was much more differentiated. His distinction between class, status, and party was meant to indicate that the distribution of power in society is more differentiated and that it is necessary to take into account the actual expectations of human conduct in the divergent social relationships.
Weber’s classification of occupations inspired later research. Further discussion in stratification research has been sitting on the shoulders of the giants Marx and Weber. It has provided variations of the basic tension between these giants of social thought: the relation between interests and ideas, objective and subjective causal influences in the social world, the material and ideal aspects of human conduct. The heritage of Weber and Marx enables us to deduct all later research as offshoots of their core ideas. This is not to say that no progress was achieved in the meantime. But the basic positions of later research were fixed between the representatives who stress the material and structural aspects of social life and those who underline the “ideal,” meaningful character of behavior because of its consequences for social change.
Furthermore, it deserves mentioning that early European reflections on social stratification presented good reasons why sociology should actually study social stratification—reasons that were often forgotten in later research. Simmel ( 1983) in his essay “Roses: A Social Hypothesis” tells the completely fictitious story of a “terrible” form of inequality: All people have their own piece of land and can live from it. However, some of them grow roses. For a while, this difference is accepted like the natural distribution of beautiful and ugly. But slowly, the anger grows. Agitators say that all humans have a natural right to roses. With allusions to famous words of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Marx, Simmel shows how even more envy is generated. A revolutionary party is created that sees itself in opposition to the owners of roses who try to legally assure their rose monopoly. However, in the name of justice, the revolutionary party manages to equalize rose property so that everybody—at least for a while— is happy. Unfortunately, new differences now become visible. Some roses are bigger and more beautiful than others. Again, anger grows about the unequal distribution of such differences and another revolutionary situation. This way, as in a fairy tale, the story will go on and on and on.
Simmel’s sociological fairy tale makes clear what is really interesting about the study of social inequality: It is not only the change and continuity of the absolute distribution of goods but the change and continuity of people’s interpretations of differences that have the most significant consequences in modern society. This position matches Weber’s insistence on the meaningful character of modern human conduct, which needs to be studied in combination with “structural” distributions. Also, Simmel’s ( 1983) rose hypothesis stresses that more attempts at equality will lead to a higher consciousness of remaining inequalities.Humansaresensitivetodifferences.Inequality is a useful focus for political leaders aiming at popularity, but, as Simmel points out, revolutionary attempts at more equality will not be successful and do not necessarily lead directly to more happiness.
Simmel’s early study took into account only two typical interpretations of differences: At first, people see the unequal distribution of roses as natural and traditional, that is, external to their own behavior. In the following stage, it is considered as unjust. There is an expression of an assumed common will that sees the distribution internally as unwanted and calls for a change (“We do not want this . . .”). Simmel implies that the latter attribution is on the rise in modern society substituting traditional understanding of stratification.
Another, more complex satirical story about the modern interpretation of inequality can be found in Michael Young’s (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy, which seriously challenges the common belief that effort makes a difference by taking it seriously and analyzing fictitiously to what consequences a real meritocracy would lead. Young confronts us with Great Britain in 2033 where intelligence and effort together make up merit constituting a complete justification of inequality. This code directs social selection and generates a perfect meritocracy. For Young, this is not the end but rather the beginning of his story in which he analyzes the resulting dynamics of equality and inequality. The most important means of professional careers are constituted by intelligence testing independent of social class of origin and money. Everybody has the right to get tested again after a while. All talent is thus concentrated in the upper class. The lower class consists of losers and fools. It degenerates into a stupid mass as it can no longer find such alternative interpretations of its inferiority as fate, bad luck, and the power of the upper class. There are compensatory programs so that a possible resistance against this meritocratic order will not even develop in the first place. But problematic inequalities do—despite the equalization of income—remain, and finally the alliance of young women and old socialist men leads to the new ideology of “cultivate variety” instead of “equal opportunity.”
Obviously, these thoughts are still of eminent actuality, especially today. However, Simmel’s and Young’s satirical stories hardly inspired empirical research but their ideas retain salience today. It would be more than timely to find out how such interpretations of inequality are really distributed in contemporary societies and what consequences such beliefs might have for social change. However, neither European nor any other sociology made this task its most urgent one. Empirical research in meaningful behavior was later found to be more often in cognitive and social psychology against which European sociology remained quite reserved.
Major advancements of sociological research are attached to a researcher who originated from Vienna, Austria, and who later, after his emigration to the United States, became a founding father of survey research in American sociology: Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901–1976). Together with Marie Jahoda (1907–2001) and Hans Zeisel (1905–1992), he conducted the famous study of The Unemployed of Marienthal (Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, and Zeisel 2002). Marienthal was a small industrial village founded to satisfy the labor needs of a textile company shut down in 1929/1930. Of the 478 families, 367 did not have work anymore so that the village was dominated by the consequences of unemployment. The task of Lazarsfeld’s research group from the Wirtschaftspsychologische Arbeitsstelle Wien was to document thoroughly the social psychological effects of long-term unemployment. They used modern methods of data collection that allowed insights into the mechanisms between structural descriptions and subjective experiences reported by the affected persons themselves, that is, their attitude to their situation. The measurement of walking speed especially became famous as an indicator for individual coping. The group constructed such types of attitudes as the unbroken, the resigned, the apathetic, and the desperate. The answer to the by then politically much-debated question about the social psychological consequences of unemployment was clearly the prevalence of apathy. Despite the qualitative and individual case study character, the group demonstrated with great personal involvement that it is principally possible to quantitatively measure complex social phenomena. In 1940, Lazarsfeld got a chair at Columbia University, New York, and in 1944, his Forschungsstelle became the Bureau of Applied Social Research.
After World War II, European sociology, like European societies, needed to recover, and in the period of reconstruction, the initial concentration was on the major sectors of society (family, education, work, health care) that were also critical political issues. Public funds were provided to produce more information about society in order to be able to modernize it, rebuild it, and make welfare state activities efficient. European sociology reeducated itself and imported American sociology’s triumph of empiricism and request for scientific values. American textbooks and research methods were widely adapted.
European sociology very much followed the direction of its American counterpart after World War II, aiming at the generation of new data and the quantitative operationalization of research problems, slowly replacing philosophical and theological orientations in such countries as Austria, Germany, and Spain. One of the most important achievements of European sociology has certainly to do with the development of class schemes. Occupational groups offer access to the class structure of modern societies. Class schemes uncover class relations instead of conceiving of them as a gradational difference of prestige, as social strata have been mostly defined in the United States. Gradational and relational approaches to understanding social inequality must be seen through the historical lenses of the class concept, as it developed in European and American sociology over the last two centuries. Especially since Marx, class in the European sense is understood as a historical reality accompanied by an increasing consciousness of common interests to be realized against other classes. Classes in the American sense of strata represent a conglomeration of individuals differentiated according to such criteria as income, prestige, and education. These different definitions of class are related to different historical situations and experiences. European societies were characterized by fairly low mobility that took place primarily within specific class situations. In the United States, in contrast, capitalism was not preceded by feudalism but characterized by a rather weak labor movement and fairly extensive mobility rates. Whereas the European class view has traditionally focused on large groups, the American view has always referred to individuals and their social relationships. In other words, the European perspective has been one of conflicting interests of large groups, whereas the empirical reference in America has always been the belief that everyone is the master of his fate. Typical representatives of such class concepts on the European side are Marx and Weber and their epigones, whereas the American concept, actually founded by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, has been most strongly represented by Lloyd Warner; such functional theorists as Parsons, Kingsley Davis, and Wilbert Moore; and such prestige researchers as Donald Treiman and Robert W. Hodge.
Goldthorpe (1980:40) defines the “European” class concept by typical situations of work in the labor market, including its proximity to occupational authority, the level of work autonomy, the way work is supervised, the opportunities for advancement, and job security. Goldthorpe (1980) developed his scheme in Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain. It later came to be known as the EGP (Erikson/Goldthorpe/Portocarero) or CASMIN scheme. The most important classes are farmers, petite bourgeoisie, workers, nonmanual routine, and the service class. Its fruitfulness has been validated several times (Evans and Mills 1998). Also, it has led to several controversies, for example, in the class and gender debate in Great Britain, in which feminist researchers criticized the scheme for ignoring the situation of women. In a more recent symposium, the foundations of class analysis have been criticized (Wright 2000, Sørensen 2000).
The study of occupational classes has gradually developed into elaborate statistical ventures. Class research was also based on thoughts initially introduced by Dahrendorf (1959:153) with an analytical intention. He assumed that class theory can be divided into two elements: the theory of class formation and the theory of class action as a conflict theory. The charm of this analytical division consisted in the idea of class formation, which, till then largely neglected, now called for continuing studies. The scientist referred to the classes in themselves, but excluded the classes for themselves from his observation (Braverman 1974:26ff.). Discussions about class concepts up to the present time are based on Dahrendorf’s distinction between class formation and class action. For example, Sørensen (2000) and Goldthorpe (2000a) distinguish between three main types of class concepts with hierarchically ordered levels of theoretical ambition, beginning with a concept that provides a purely nominal categorization of populations according to significant dimensions of stratification concerning life chances and conditions, attitudes, values, and patterns of action. The second level goes beyond this first concept by delineating class positions that may turn individuals into collectivities with recognizable cultural identities. The third, most ambitious, level aims at class action as it defines collectivities in terms of common interests and the motivation to engage in conflict with other classes. Both Sørensen and Goldthorpe look for a well-constructed theory that will inform the scientific observer at all three levels of theoretical ambition.
This is not to say that class-specific interpretations have not been explored in other ways as well. One important direction of research tried to link the class concept to typical images of society. Lockwood (1966) pointed to the fact that individuals
visualize the . . . structure of their society from the vantage points of their own particular milieus and their perception of the larger society will vary according to their experiences . . . in the smaller societies in which they live out their daily lives. (P. 249)
Consequently, he developed a typology of workingclass views of society that corresponded to the fluctuations within their working situation.
A more recent direction that connected European and American research in 10 countries tried to prove the action-relatedness of class by measuring class-specific attitudes (Erbslöh et al. 1988; Wright 1997). The results more or less mirror the hierarchical order of occupational groups. Unemployed workers show the highest, capitalists the lowest degrees of class-specific attitudes. Petite bourgeoisie, wage-dependent middle class, commercial and aggregated working class, and mechanical workers, in ascending order, occupied the slots between the extremes of attitudes expressed in responses to statements such as “In strikes, the management should not be allowed to hire other workers.” But the study of social attitudes in stratification research never managed to attain the same amount of attention and data level as more “structural” research.
Another, more recent achievement of European research can be found in the German Life History Study (GLHS) and the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP). They were both developed in the context of the research group on “Microanalytical Foundations of Social Policy,” which started in 1979 and involved researchers from sociology, economics, and political science. The GSOEP is a prospective longitudinal survey in which a random sample of adults is interviewed annually. The GLHS represents a retrospective study of individual life courses consisting of different birth cohorts for which information about education and employment history, parental status, marital and fertility history, and family and household composition are provided. In comparison with other panels, for example, the American Panel Study of Income Dynamics, both studies contain relatively little information about attitudes and other social psychological scales that might provide a deeper insight into the microdynamics and consequences of human behavior (Diewald 2001).
This is also demonstrated by the National Child Development Study (NCDS) in Great Britain, which triggered a debate on the more or less meritocratic character of contemporary labor markets (Bond and Saunders 1999; Breen and Goldthorpe 1999). This “race” between the causal weight of structural and individual factors generated no definitive results, which, in turn, stresses the need for deeper panel studies into the meaning of human behavior and its consequences.
This deficiency may also be shown from the raging debate on individualization and the alleged death of class in European sociology (Beck 1992; Pakulski and Waters 1996; Marshall 1997; Grusky and Sørensen 1998). In this battle, the theorists of individualization argue that individuals no longer consider themselves as class members with a common fate and destination, while empirical studies still show a more or less unchanged effect of class membership on life courses and behavioral patterns. Despite the conflicting schools, more recently some scholars have stressed that these two points of view do not necessarily indicate irreconcilable assumptions but may simply refer to two different objects of sociological research and that more data would be needed about both “objective” regularities that indicate outcomes and antecedents of human action and “subjective” regularities of interpreted human behavior itself (Nollmann and Strasser 2002). This goes hand in hand with more recent calls for interdisciplinary data collection and the cooperation of large-scale data analyses and theories of human agency (Hedström and Swedberg 1996, 1998; Goldthorpe 2000a).
Concluding our section on social research, it seems necessary to stress that interviews and surveys have become the major methodological instrument of data collection for the measurement of both subjective attitudes and sociostructural data of classes and life courses. Whereas the origins of the survey date back to the early nineteenth century (Marsh 1982), early political polls began in the 1930s and market research emerged only after World War II. Since then, the survey and interview research have gained an overwhelming dominance so that the majority of available data today stems from this source (Kaase 1998). Programs such as the European Social Survey Program and the “Eurobarometer,” which is based on the theory of value change (Inglehart 1977), today provide sociological research with relevant data on social change. Survey and interview research have gone a long way, and not only in terms of internationalization, which makes it virtually impossible today to distinguish between European, American, and other sociologies in this field. Also, it proceeded from merely collecting objective facts about the poor in the nineteenth century to surveying subjective phenomena and measuring specific human behavior in, for example, factorial surveys (Beck and Opp 2001). In this development, we see a kind of reunion of Goldthorpe’s idea of a new sociological mainstream with some of the more recent developments in survey research, especially questionnaire designs that retrieve valid context-specific evaluations.
This is not to deny that case studies and “small N” qualitative research will play an important role in tracking down social change, especially in such highly innovative areas of society as the “new economy.” Such research will also be necessary as a preparatory measure for developing hypotheses and setting the hermeneutic basis for generalizing quantitative data.
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