History of Sociology Research Paper

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George H. Mead (1936:116f.) taught us that each generation will write anew its history. Many histories of sociology have been written before, and the sociology of knowledge has made an interesting object of research out of them. However, today’s history of sociology will set different priorities than those written 50 or 100 years ago, and it would be interesting to detect the reasons behind such changes. We want to present an overview of three aspects constituting much of sociology’s dynamic development. The first aspect is the stepwise emancipation of sociology from philosophical thought. The second is the discovery that societal change and continuity are causally based on meaningful human behavior that needs to be understood and explained in social research. The final aspect is sociology’s growing empirically validated knowledge. Finally, we will ask if there is a current tendency aiming at the reintegration of theories of human conduct and social research.

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From the Origins to the Founding Fathers

The History of Ideas

The more people began to understand that society is not simply god-made, natural, or the traditional, unchangeable way of life it always used to be, the more we see sociological thought emerge and develop. However, it is impossible to draw a clear historical line where sociology comes into the picture. Society has always been an object of curious interest of mostly philosophical thinkers such as Aristotle (1943), who considered the human being as zoon politikon that naturally tends to build up communities. Hence, his works discuss the essence and the tasks of the “good” state. Aristotle tries to determine institutionalized forms of power adequate to the human nature and, therefore, considered legitimate. For Aristotle, humans are unequal by nature. It is the main task of the state to help realize the good life of its citizens. Society is seen as something that is on the way to reaching a good, natural form. Empirically, Aristotle made clear that there is a wide variety of factual states and that societies he analyzed critically were at different stages of “goodness.” But the point to be stressed here refers to the quite unquestioned assumption about the nature of society.

This assumption breaks down in modern social thought. It is quite common to see in Thomas Hobbes’s (1588–1679) Leviathan (1904) the fundamental turning point. The reality of the British Commonwealth with its growing cities and spatial immensity, its ceaseless conflicts and problems, provide the empirical data from which Hobbes attempts to derive principles to solve a concrete social problem: the origin and persistence of social order.

Hobbes reverses Aristotle’s assumption of the state of nature and conceives of it as one of war of all against all. This change fundamentally determines his social thinking. Since human desires are random and all men seek to realize them, individuals must necessarily strive for commanding means that secure the realization of these desires. Furthermore, since these means are limited, the control over means toward ends results in zero-sum games. Power becomes the facility for getting what one party wants by preventing another party from getting what it wants. If man is no longer considered a zoon politikon but rather relentlessly driven by passions, desires, and the will to survive, reason demands the overcoming of the state of nature. The Hobbesian state must be understood as a natural necessity. The social contract as the foremost goal of the state is not meant to protect man’s freedom but to provide security to the people. In return for vesting the state with power monopoly and for being obeisant and loyal, the sovereign protects the subjects’ right to live and to own property. The price for social security consists in restricting natural freedom.

Hobbes’s man does not appear as capable of moral responsibility, but an atom whose movements in the social space must be regulated through socialization and social control. Social order is thus based on man’s coercive subjection to the authority of a powerful state. Hobbes posited war as primeval and inherent in human nature and justified political absolutism in the name of peace and security.

As Hobbes’s Leviathan shows quite clearly, the sociological quest for more knowledge about a society that evidently got involved in far-reaching social change and shocking revolutions and wars did not develop in a linear direction. Modern social thinkers were more or less stuck with the great philosophical tradition and combined their contemporary knowledge and experiences in often amazing ways with traditional certainties. The social thinkers who followed may also be characterized along the lines we want to highlight in our history of sociology: gathering more and more knowledge about events and amazing changes of their times while at the same time reconciling these changes with traditional assumptions.

We should look at these thinkers in a sociological way: Human beings are mostly conservative insofar as they do not easily give up expectations they have learned. Therefore, even those theorists we call visionary today have tried to grasp the salient change and adapted it to the traditional views of society they have learned from their teachers. This is, as we will show, why the history of sociology is characterized by many hybrid systems of thought that combine an increasingly radical sociological view with unquestioned traditional assumptions.

The trend, however, unequivocally pointed to giving more and more weight to man-made facts instead of discovering natural states, and looking for empirical proof of this shift. Even Hobbes’s contemporary Spinoza (1632–1677; 1899) stressed the importance of social institutions for guaranteeing freedom. For him, the institutions of the state mirror the changing relations of social power. He rejected the proposition that the problem of social integration could be solved through a general value consensus or by subjecting people to an all-powerful state. Charles de Montesquieu (1689–1755; 1999) for the first time formulated social order as independent of such presuppositions as natural law or rationality. He did not deny the existence of a substratum of history like human nature. However, what can be deduced from human nature characterized by a drive for self-preservation, peace, reproduction, and sociability is merely the existence of human society, not its specific structure. The latter, and the social laws by which it is explained, can be derived only from the conditions of real human associations. Montesquieu did not believe that the structural principles of social order could be derived from abstract ideas. Rather, these principles were to be recognized through observation and analysis of “positive” facts—that is, social realities. To discover the structural laws of society, he focused not on moral principles (like Rousseau later) or some rational will of a powerful state (like Hobbes before) but on the variety and causality of existing social facts. In his examination of the relationship between types of political superstructure and their social foundations, Montesquieu argued that the problem of social integration was a different one in different societies. Analyzing different forms of state and society, he confined himself to stating that social conflicts spring from society. Contrary to Hobbes, he thought that they are less a human or natural than a social phenomenon. Conflict, war, and inequality of men are rather related to the essence of society, inseparable from collective life, and in need of being mitigated and moderated. Today, the pluralism attached to this concept appears particularly modern: Social order was not to be established on the basis of commonly accepted norms and values but by tolerating and legally channeling the various interests and rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), like Hobbes, was interested in discovering the laws that governed human action in society. Unlike Hobbes, however, he arrived at the conception of the absolute sovereignty of the people by means of which the state should force the individual to be free. Whereas Montesquieu and Hobbes had been concerned with the integrative and disruptive effects of human action, the intellectual, social, and political changes the eighteenth century was undergoing generated the need for a new perspective. The focal point now shifts toward altering those forms of integration under the auspices of progress. This new frame of reference transcends the existing society and provides the potential view that man is the master of his own history. Man’s will should now be translated into social reality. It was no longer important to determine the equilibrium of social powers by studying social laws. The imagined commitment of all members of society to a central cause, the volonté générale, now provided the criterion of relevancy and is, by definition, never wrong. The ideal of happiness replaces the ancient ideal of virtue.

Rousseau’s conclusions and practical hopes are based on the assumption that man is a reasonable creature. Present evils could therefore be eliminated through emancipation of the individual by releasing him from the current form of society. The new society, or contrat social, should enable the individual to be absorbed into the common will, thus securing reconciliation among men as well as equality of all before an external power (Rousseau 1972). Man’s “second nature” would thus be grounded in normative principles in accord with collective interests and social solidarity—the general will. When Rousseau submitted his prize essay, “The Origin of Inequality,” he based his theory on the assumption that there is natural equality among men, thus replacing the Aristotelian premise of a natural rank order.

Because theoretically sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible, therefore for government to represent the general will would require, in practical terms, that the divergent opinions of individuals be brought to a common platform through permanent exchange of arguments and political conviction. Permanent discussion should guarantee that people become aware of their common interests, which are geared toward collective maintenance of the body social and toward general welfare. In contrast to Hobbes’s compromise between liberty and security through subjection, Rousseau offers the alternative of radical emancipation through free submission to the general will. Rousseau envisions a society united by reason and founded on liberty. Finally, Rousseau states in the last chapter of the Contrat Social that a civic religion of sentiments of sociability could provide the primary integrative force to which everyone could commit himself.

Rousseau’s fantastic ideas, to a large extent a reflection of his personal creed, stand in remarkable contrast to the tradition of sober empiricism in Great Britain where statisticians and world travelers initially developed the idea of a general theory of society on the basis of worldwide experiences of manifold cultures and diverse human societies. In the social sciences, the old empiricism had received important methodological impulses from Francis Bacon and later indirectly from Isaac Newton. Society was seen as a construct of nature. However, it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that the first scientific system of this sort was presented by Adam Ferguson (1723–1816; 1773) in An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Ferguson showed perhaps even more than Adam Smith (1723–1790) that a science of society was an oppositional discipline against the ancient regime and developed new ideas of social order. Whereas Hobbes had committed men to common values and total institutions and Rousseau proposed the free choice of the general will, the Scottish moral philosophers now gave up the underlying assumption of a given human nature. They began to attribute to society the capacity to mold human nature, thus making man open for society. Man is now believed to be able to learn from his experience and subordinate his actions to rules and natural rights of others. The reason imputed to the alter ego limits the claim to rational efficiency in ego’s action. This limitation on utilitarian rationality has been achieved by introducing the postulate of the “natural identity of interests,” thus evading successfully the Hobbesian problem of order. The new conception of the state of nature is materialized in a particular social structure with the cooperatio omnium as its basic principle. Under the guidance of reason and the subsequent recognition that human association is mutually gratifying, Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes turns into associative cooperation of all with all.

Among the Scottish philosophers, Adam Smith stressed the invisible hand that integrated the self-interested striving of individuals, while Ferguson and John Millar (1735–1801) stood at the beginning of a social conflict theory highlighting that social change resulted from conflicting interests. Smith pictured a society that, by means of a system of mechanisms, sets man’s basic interests free and controls them at the same time. He did not see the Cartesian principle of reason as the great means of revelation to man. Rather, sensations and sentiments were taken as the empirical foundation of thinking. Therefore, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith (1971) analyzed such elements of interaction as passions, propensities, affections, and feelings, which make society last. Moral sentiments should be regarded as the immediate expressions of social life. According to Smith, man is endowed by God with moral sentiments that serve to bind men to each other. At the same time, his science of the social order is founded on the theory of reciprocity rather than conflict between the individual and the collective. In The Wealth of Nations (Smith 1963), he converted the concept of mutuality into the problem of exchange relations, fundamental to the economy of civil society.

It seems that the French Revolution (1789) destroyed this optimism of early social thinking about order. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who gave the discipline its name, grew up in a counterrevolutionary environment and was continually disturbed by the disorder of his time (Lenzer 1998). Like his teacher, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1852), he saw the revolution as a turning point in the history of social affairs. Their message, like that of many other social thinkers of the nineteenth century, consisted mainly in the search for the new principles of the emerging industrial society (Strasser 1976). They also agreed that the actions of men were ill-directed, their system of thought disoriented, and their feelings lacked coherence and were without worthwhile objectives. Therefore, Comte’s fight against the negative heritage of the revolution embraced all those individualistic ideas that had weakened the sources of morality and social solidarity. He felt strongly the need for an order of institutions that would be able to cope with the changes in society. For him, in its stringent legislation against French society as it existed at the time, the Revolution led to an intolerable centralization of government in the sense that the state absorbed social functions belonging properly to other institutions, thus accelerating the rate of moral disorganization. The essential problem was consequently neither a political nor an economic one but rather one of societal organization. Thus, in some pamphlets he called for the replacement of theology and war by science and industry and even drew “a plan of the scientific operations necessary for reorganizing society.” All his life, he was devoted to the creation of an intellectual basis for a new social organization. Positive philosophy, he believed, could eventually deliver society from the peril of dissolution.

In this attempt, the law of the three stages is his key notion as it describes the evolutionary development of the individual and, finally, of all humanity. The theological stage supposes the phenomenon under consideration to be due to immediate volition, either in the object or in some supernatural being. It can be seen in the thinking of children and primitive societies with regard to the phenomena of nature. In the metaphysical stage, abstract force residing in the object and, yet existing independently of the object, that is nature, is substituted for volition. In this stage, men do not deify objects but they do reify and personify abstractions. They imagine that they are making deductions from eternal truths, when they are really neglecting in their reasoning what needs to be examined most. They imagine that freedom, equality, and sovereignty actually exist, whereas these are really human constructs with many meanings.

The final stage, the positive, is reached when the quest for certainty is abandoned, and men accept the scientific laws derived from experience as the highest form of knowledge within human grasp. Inherent or external volition and inherent force have disappeared from the minds of men. Therefore, the explanation of a phenomenon is meant to refer, by way of succession or resemblance, to some other phenomenon, resulting in the establishment of a relation between the given fact and some general fact. Comte’s philosophy of science is inseparable from his philosophy of history and from the theory of progress. What the sociologist does is simply give an accurate account of the realization of the essential order of each society in history. Comte’s sociology assumes a harmonious evolution as a progress of social order in which one stage is the inevitable result of the preceding one and itself the motor of the next stage.

Even though “sociology” had formally entered history by Comte’s system, it is evident that in the nineteenth century, the new discipline was still far away from a completely successful emancipation from philosophy, especially from the speculations of the philosophy of history that dominated the coming Hegelian Age. The German alternative to the early French social criticism of the time formulated a conservative theory of society. Georg Friedrich A. Hegel (1770–1831) conceived of a Universal Consciousness or Spirit in place of God, existing before man and nature. Conceptual phenomena evolved and revealed themselves through world history. There was no eternal truth; rather, truth and thought were subject to constant progress and change. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel (2005) attempts to explain the social forms of history based on human free will. The progression begins with the family as a property-holding unit, paving the way for civil society based on private interests and mutual needs. The Spirit finally culminates in the socioethical community of the state. In its monarchic stage, all contradictions of civil society are reconciled in the realm of thought. Hegel, like Marx after him, thought that mankind had reached maturity. The truth actually coincided with the given social and political order.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) rejected Hegel’s separation of the act of thought from the human subject, which tended to reduce the individual to a predicate of the hypostatized thought. Nevertheless, Marx extracted the rational core of Hegelian dialectic. Marx put Hegel’s theory, the pendant of truth, to a test. The truth, Hegel claimed, is pervasive so that every single element can be connected with the process of reason. If that cannot be accomplished, the truth of the whole is destroyed. Marx believed that he himself had found such an all-destructive element: the proletariat. According to him, the existence of the proletariat was marked by universal suffering and injustice that meant, to him, the negation of the reality of reason. An entire class gives proof that the truth has not been realized. In opposition to Hegel’s society-oriented theory, Marx developed his individual-oriented theory of society. Marx implied that individual freedom presupposes a free society and that the true liberation of the individual requires the liberation of society. This emancipation required the abolition of the prevailing mode of labor that was rooted in the historical form of society. According to Marx, people’s essence of existence is expressed by a definite mode of life, which coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.

Marx and his collaborator, Frederick Engels (1820–1895), established three propositions on which they based their theoretical and empirical studies. First, in capitalist society, men work under material conditions independent of their will. Second, relations of production are fundamental in forming man’s character, including his consciousness. Third, the materialistic nature of the prevailing social order, that is, the prevalent relationship between social being and social consciousness, is to be regarded as man’s alienated condition. Marx’s unending effort to fulfill the truth of the materialistic thesis in its negation, by leaving the domain of “necessity” and entering the domain of “freedom” in which men would begin consciously to determine their fate, can be seen as proof for the unity of his early writings with those of his maturity.

The Rise of Probabilism

So far, we have stressed the history of ideas from which sociology emancipated itself later on. However, the prehistory of modern sociology would remain incomplete without its second major heritage: the so-called probabilistic revolution. 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. Such attribution of causes and effects is proposed by the structure of language, which often directs our attention to the assumed relation between one certain cause and one certain effect. As twentieth-century research on causal attribution shows, it can still be considered predominant in everyday behavior today, even though the beginnings of the probabilistic revolution date back to the eighteenth century.

The most important founding father of data collection and statistical reasoning on which later research could draw was Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874), the Belgian multitalented astronomer who in his social physics gathered all kinds of information that might provide insight into societal regularities. Moral statistics rose with the industrialization, first of England, then of other European countries. The need arose to understand what kind of new social structure was developing and the forces governing it. After the success of the natural sciences, people started believing that not only natural and technical but also social affairs were governed by regularities and even laws (Kern 1982:37).

Quetelet was familiar with Laplace’s “error curve,” or, as it was called later, the normal distribution. He was fascinated by the fact that distributions of birth, death, crime rates, physical capacities, height, weight, and strength showed similar shapes. Furthermore, he analyzed bivariate relations between mortality, occupation, yearly seasons, divorces, age, gender, and suicide. He summarized his results in many tables and constructed a “l’homme type,” a typical man with propensities to act in a certain way. By doing so, he hoped to answer questions such as which laws govern the development of man, how high the influence of nature is, and what consequences human conduct has on society. From his observations, Quetelet was skeptical about free will and its individual behavior because his statistics suggested that it was neutralized by large numbers and social conditions change only slowly and appear to be amazingly constant from one society to the next.

Looking back, one recognizes in Quetelet’s ample statistical material the problem that has accompanied empirical social research until today: Regularities of the kind that were available at Quetelet’s time may well indicate strong associations. However, they alone neither answer the decisive question what exactly accounts for social change nor tell us how we can shape such change. Causal hypotheses about social change must refer to actual regularities of human conduct. Despite great efforts and advances in attitude measurement, our knowledge about actual human behavior has remained a serious problem that is still—despite many attempts at synthesis— discussed as the irreconcilability of qualitative and quantitative research, of explaining and understanding (Quah and Sales 2000:11).

This is not to deny that Quetelet’s enthusiasm managed to make some intuitively convincing hits. Also, it paved the way for statistical progress without which sociology could not work the way it does. In Germany, Wilhelm Lexis (1837–1914) and in France, Èmile Dormoy (1844–1871) found that statistical series showed greater dispersion than Quetelet’s interest in population means had indicated and that it would be necessary to differentiate populations into more subgroups and variables such as age, ethnicity, occupation, and class. This movement finally led to breaking with Quetelet’s approach—away from the statistics of the average to the statistics of relationships (Desrosières 1993). Further research led to a deeper interest into actual variation and laid the basis for the conception of correlation and regression as methods of dealing with two and eventually any number of variables of whatever kind (Stigler 1986).

Weber, Durkheim, and Early American Sociology

Despite the successful expansion of administrative statistics, the problem of a balanced database necessary for explaining social change started to become manifest at the end of the nineteenth century. Quetelet directed the organization of Belgian official statistics, and they became a model for social statistics in other countries. So the European states and their statistical offices started producing more knowledge about contemporary societies. The conviction spread further that history is man-made. But the more that data were collected, the more often the question arose as to how one could interpret such data to achieve convincing solutions for public policy and social problems. A look at the discussion about the consequences of industrialization shows the urgency of this difficulty. Neither politicians nor scientists knew what kind of behavior would result from newly discovered regularities, especially the formation of new social classes.

It is not possible to go into the details of all early research problems, so we will focus on one of the key issues of early-twentieth-century research: the so-called social question and the state of workers’ consciousness. How would workers in the long run react to the strains of industrialized work, low wages, and unemployment? Some speculated they would revolutionize society sooner or later. Others postulated that they would rather fall into apathy. Such questions were vital to the modern state, but science had no valid information about what behavior could be expected in such crucial situations.

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Max Weber (1864–1920) were among the first who tried to solve this puzzle. Their main merit consisted, however, in ending the long-lasting struggle between the philosophy of society and the sociological study of society by calling for a thorough empirical study of human conduct and social structures without philosophical speculation or unproven assumptions. They set the stage for the rise of sociological theory and social research and may therefore be considered as the most important founding fathers of sociology. Almost all assumptions about the nature of society and man, the relation between consensus and conflict, good and bad, progress and history, were dropped and replaced by the empirical study of the variables of “social facts.” Weber and Durkheim did not in the least postulate that efforts in theoretically founding sociology should be abandoned. The relation between theory and research was rather a matter of degree, not a question of all or nothing. But the theory of society became much more sober, guided as it is by methodological considerations and no longer by philosophical reflections. There is good reason to let the actual history of sociology start with Weber and Durkheim in addition to Georg Simmel (1858–1918), Ferdinand Toennies (1855–1936), Werner Sombart (1863–1941), Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), Norbert Elias (1897–1990), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Robert E. Park (1864– 1944), Ernest W. Burgess (1886–1966), and George H. Mead (1863–1931), while most previous theorists may be regarded as more or less philosophical speculators who built on traditional assumptions that were not meant to be tested empirically.

Durkheim’s contribution to the history of sociology appears at least twofold. On the one hand, he directed his attention to the moral elements of society. In his studies The Division of Labor in Society (Durkheim 1984) and Suicide (Durkheim 1952), Durkheim polemicizes against the utilitarian individualists and shows that the Comtean requisite of social order, the consensus of moral beliefs, requires new interpretation in the light of newly discovered social facts. Illustrative examples are the “higher” type of solidarity, “organic solidarity,” as generated by the growing division of labor, the occupational corporations that could regulate interpersonal relations more effectively, even in a socialist society, and social cohesion, a low degree of which could lead to suicide. This normative paradigm was soon to become part of social theory through Talcott Parsons’s structural functionalism.

On the other hand, in The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim (1938) left us with the seemingly clear instruction to explain the social by the social. Against much contemporary opposition, Durkheim insisted that social facts form a reality sui generis, not be reduced to individual or psychological qualities. Social institutions (e.g., marriage, court, market, church), norms, and social regularities (e.g., the growing division of labor in civilized countries, the shrinking of the traditional family, economic depressions) depend on their own laws to be discovered by sociology.

The best example Durkheim offered for this thesis is the development of suicide rates. At first sight, it seems that no other human action could be more individual than the decision to end one’s life. However, Durkheim shows convincingly that suicide rates are amazingly constant in relation to social, religious, and professional groups, to winter and summer, to married or single people. Durkheim therefore distinguishes between different types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, fatalistic, and anomic. The relative isolation of a human in society—if, for example, a young single sees 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, which threatens his professional group. The term anomie—literally translated, without law—signifies a state of normlessness, irritation, confusion, and breakdown. Durkheim assumes that anomie will be found in times of increased social change when traditional values no longer have their binding authority 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 way of arguing with official statistics has made Suicide a paradigmatic study of sociological research and generalizing, probabilistic explanations on the basis of correlations.

Weber was also concerned with the problem of social order, but in a different way. As he did his dissertation and habilitation thesis in law, he started off with a completely different view on social life. The breakdown of social order is not his starting point but rather the simple observation that human conduct shows certain regularities that can be documented. If sociologists want to explain such regularities, they need a complex theory about human behavior that Weber (1949) developed gradually in his scattered methodological writings, later known as The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Weber’s mature social theory, expounded in Economy and Society (Weber [1922] 1968) and Some Categories of Sociology (Weber 1981), calls for a combination of three elements:

  1. “Objective” regularities (“devoid of meaning”), that is, all kinds of regularities, including unknown influences on human behavior as indicated in public statistics, for example, by distributions of income, education, resources, health
  2. The meaning of human behavior, which is, as we know today, the subjectively believed reason for one’s behavior and the way people usually attribute internally or externally behavior, especially as internally set goals (“I want to . . .”) and values (“because it means so much to me”) but also emotions and traditions (“we always did it that way”)
  3. The selection of a typical social relationship or type of situation the explanation refers to (in contrast to the unclear term society, which Weber refused to use); this element refers to questions such as, Which audience is listening? How many people are present? Is the situation formal or informal? What is the time horizon of the situation? What is the problem dealt with? Do people act on a consensual or on a conflictual basis?

Weber sees the fulfillment of all three requirements as crucial to achieve valid statements on consequences of human behavior. Even though all three elements may be closely connected in practical research, they need, however, separate efforts at empirical proof. In Weber’s time, such data were not available. Weber wants us to have more concerns for local, microscopic ideas. For example, Marx neglected requirements 2 and 3 by focusing on objective regularities of surplus value distribution and exploitation and by simply maintaining that the typical motives of workers were “false.” For Marx, it seemed that behavior in nineteenth-century society looked as if it could be understood from such distributions alone. The use of language unavoidably results, as Weber stresses, in statements about regularities of behavior and meaningful, that is, attributional, ideas. Even simple sentences imply far-reaching assumptions about behavior that are indeed difficult to prove empirically.

In his methodological writings, Weber liked to exemplify the selective function of causal statements by such everyday examples as the mother who attributes the causes of her own rude behavior against her child in a particular situation. Or to use a more contemporary example: We may say that in contrast to upper-class students, lowerclass students do not believe as strongly in effort as upperclass students do. From Weber’s view of causality, such a statement tells us that there is both an “objective” influence on behavior (class of father) and a selective meaning of behavior (small causal belief in one’s effort). Furthermore, Weber wants the sociologist to locate the specific social relationship in which such a statement actually and typically occurs. Modern society is differentiated into many types of situations. Depending on where people show what kind of conduct, it will have different consequences. Weber was well aware that the rules that guide conduct vary considerably from one situation to the next. A science that was to elaborate on the consequences of meaningful behavior would have to pay attention to such situational differences, as our example demonstrates: Even lower-class students may agree to try harder in the classroom because effort attributions are highly institutionalized within school, while in the afternoon at home—the next type of situation—this attributional expectation may well lose its plausibility if the lower-class family and their peers do not impose equal pressure on more effort. The consequence of such different behavior in and outside the class may well be that lower-class students are not as successful in education because they cannot get rid of their social origin and unintentionally continue its structural disadvantages intergenerationally. In the end, their attitude and behavior at home are causally decisive for the outcome in their life course—despite all efforts on the parts of the teachers and the state. This is a consequence of unequal meaningful behavior that needs to be determined and possibly measured.

In Weber’s time, such detailed research knowledge was, of course, not available. But his writings on meaningful behavior demand that we distinguish between objective (“devoid of meaning”) and subjective (“meaningful”) regularities both theoretically and empirically and combine them because both regularities become causally effective in the end. Subjective understanding refers to typical situations in which people show differential expectations. In contrast, by elaborating objective causes, we may well detect forces (especially resource distributions, class positions, educational level) whose societal effects may overlap considerably, although they may be in explicit contrast to socially visible attributions. For example, people may think of themselves (and say this in surveys), more than ever before, as being self-determined, individualized decision makers of their life courses. And yet, as observers, we see that the influences of unequal origins, class positions, education degrees, access to institutions, and resource distributions (which can often hardly be changed by individual behavior) have not vanished. Therefore, sociological explanations must combine seemingly contradictory elements.

However, this paradox self-presentation of modern behavior is not new at all. Weber had a solution for the analysis of such a society by distinguishing between the material and the idealist aspect of human behavior. This distinction is indispensable because both dimensions have their own evolution in modern society. Material welfare has risen incredibly, and yet, at the same time, the causal ideas that people have with regard to their practical behavior have changed even more dramatically. More than ever before, people conceive of their behavior as selfdetermined and individualized so that “subjectively” the world will increasingly appear as ordered from inside instead of from outside, for example, by tradition, God, nature, or the collective fate of class. The elective affinity between religious ideas and capitalist materialism, discussed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 2001), was just one example of the type of analysis Weber had in mind.

Today, many more examples could follow. “Understanding” therefore means doing research on the selective causal ideas that people show in their behavior.

“Explaining” refers to the detection of the structural forces and distributions that “accompany” such behavior. Both views combined reflect the entire causal situation appropriately. This two-part model of an explanation will be convincing only if it is complemented by a statement on the meaning of behavior because it is the major source of social change in modern times. Therefore, Weber wants sociology to analyze human behavior by means of both an observer’s and the participant’s concept of causality.

Evidence for the argument that people have causal ideas about situations and behave accordingly has been usually taken from the tradition of attribution research established by Heider’s (1958) analysis of everyday concepts of causality. It is amazing how little attention sociologists have given to Weber’s (1949) obstinate discussion of causality. Weber insisted that human behavior can be explained causally just like explanations for natural phenomena. He therefore stressed that causality is not an objectively given feature of the external world but rather a practical tool of language that we use in our behavior. We understand both the historical and our contemporary world by attributing selectively certain causes and effects to it. The emphasis is on selection from a horizon of different possibilities that makes our views meaningful in a phenomenological sense.

Weber did work on the empirical operationalization of such a scientific concept (Lazarsfeld and Oberschall 1962)—without much success, as demonstrated by his and his brother’s early attempt at studying attitudes in the German Verein für Socialpolitik in 1908. Contemporary research had much information about conditions of workers’ existence such as wages, work time and loads, nutrition, and living conditions in general. Little knowledge was available about their personality and the influence that industry had on their attitudes. The Verein decided to conduct a survey, which faced basic problems with respect to not only professional, reliable execution but also the question of what exactly one was to ask workers in order to obtain the expected knowledge about their actual behavior. However, the scientists administering the survey had virtually no idea about the mechanisms in which objective conditions are converted into subjective attitudes and in what way such attitudes shape structural opportunities. Therefore, no theory about the interview situation and an appropriate questionnaire design existed so that in 1911 the frustrated Weber concluded that the surveys had brought almost no reasonable results.

While Weber and Durkheim tried to master more or less successfully the requirements in a unified research program, representatives of early American sociology made clear that it would be difficult to keep the sociological research train on common rails. On the one hand, we find in Mead’s theory of causality striking resemblances to Weber’s insistence on the practical first-order character of causal statements. Like Weber, Mead (1936:114) argues that “everything in experience falls under the idea of causation.” Human experience is ordered by a pragmatic construction of causes and effects:

If in the past we find one event following another and this has been repeated, then we expect that it will happen again. That is all there is to the law of causality. It does not show that every cause must have a certain effect, every effect a cause; that there must be like causes for like effects; that there must be an adequate cause for every effect. We do not know this as a law of the universe. What we find is this fixed expectation— an expectation that comes so frequently, so unconsciously, that we are not aware of it. (P. 438)

This conception of causality is surprisingly radical. Mead does not even mention science in his definition of causality and stresses—like Weber—but the ordering power of practical everyday expectations. Nevertheless, Mead does not in the least intend to devalue scientific work on causes and effects. Mead is optimistic about the capacity of science to come up with causal knowledge, uniformities, and regularities and help society in directing progress. Therefore, Mead’s (1936:286) motto is, “The law is dead; long live the law!” With these views, Mead warranted later the microsociology approach that focused on qualitative regularities of human behavior (Blumer 1954; Strauss 1956; Goffman 1961). The study of social interaction, socialization, and group psychology was firmly established within sociology (Kalberg 2005:43).

On the other hand, early American sociologists stressed the necessity to study social change in the early twentieth century in macrosociological terms. Widespread immigration led to the establishment of demography within sociology—unlike in Germany, England, and France. Social change could not be studied solely by qualitative knowledge of human behavior; it required quantitative efforts. This exigency matched a quest for distinguishing sociology from the humanities and social work. The search for scientific procedures and laws became central (Oberschall 1972). Such scientific commitment promised further implications of research for social policy, for example, by alleviating tensions caused by massive population growth.

Concluding this section on the “prehistory” and the early constitution of modern sociology, we want to stress the enormous efforts undertaken until the beginning of the twentieth century. Not only had sociology had to emancipate itself from philosophical and speculative theories of society and the “great” history of ideas, it also had to elaborate its own concepts, which assumed that society is made up of meaningful human behavior and that, therefore, a methodological individualism would be appropriate. Finally, sociology needed to institutionalize itself in the academic community, thus establishing a link to the growing statistical knowledge about social affairs. These difficult tasks took a long time to accomplish but were solved by the time the founding fathers left the scientific scene in Europe and in America.

The Rise of Sociological Theory and Social Research

The Sociological Research Program

If we want to explain the directions that the more recent history of sociology has taken, we need to look at two aspects: what sociologists had in mind and the structural opportunities under which the discipline developed. To be sure, the circumstances of scientific analysis changed dramatically in the course of the twentieth century. Sociologists managed to institutionalize the new discipline in the scientific community in the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half, the history of sociology is characterized by its expansion at the universities with many new chairs and emerging research fields, at least in Western societies. However, the institutionalization of sociology had unexpected side effects, the increasing specialization of scholars in particular. Social theory and social research developed along separate routes and not without conflicting relationships. In many countries, particularly in the United States, sociological theory was accused of promoting an undesirable regression to unscientific armchair research (Turner 1989:224). In contrast, in some European countries, particularly in France, Germany, and Great Britain, sociologists promoted theoretical efforts more than ever before.

We do not want to judge whose claims may be more or less justified in these continuing struggles. Rather, we take these conflicts within the discipline as a hint at the complexity of the sociological research program devised by its founding fathers. Weber’s and Durkheim’s legacies proved to be much more difficult to realize. Soon after Weber’s premature death in 1920, a controversy started about what exactly his combination of explaining and understanding meant and in what way a theory of social action should be elaborated. Contenders to Weber’s legacy were Alfred Schütz (1899–1959) and Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), both great admirers of Weber. They did develop, however, two completely different views of the master’s intentions. Even though both Parsons and Schütz claimed that it was the perspective of the actor that should guide sociological research, Schütz disputed that Parsons’s theory represented an analysis adequate to meaning (Schütz and Parsons 1977:57ff.). Weber’s call for both causal and meaningful adequacy in sociological explanations was one thing, its concrete realization quite another.

This is one reason why sociology started splitting up in terms of its categories, intentions, and goals. Phenomenological sociology and its interpretive variants have stressed, against Parsons’s structural functionalism, that sociological explanations must aim at meaningful adequacy and that it was necessary to understand the subjectively intended meaning of Ego’s consciousness to explain social behavior and its outcomes. Some of the best discussions and exemplifications of this program can be found in Erving Goffman’s (1959) studies of the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in Harold Garfinkel’s (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, and finally, in many explications of the symbolic interactionist program originating in the social psychological writings of George H. Mead.

Another important discussion was drawn along the lines of conflict and consensus. Some of the key participants in this debate were Alvin W. Gouldner (1920–1981), Lewis A. Coser (1913–2003), and Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–), on the one hand, and Talcott Parsons (1902–1978) and Robert K. Merton (1910–2003), on the other hand. Especially in the 1960s, this debate polarized the sociological community with one side claiming a particular competence for the analysis of social change, whereas the other side was said to be obsessed by the question of social integration. Parsons never accepted the proposed challenge that his general theory of action had a conservative, static bias and was led by an oversocialized conception of man. He developed the basic postulates of his theory gradually from The Structure of Social Action (Parsons 1937) to The Social System (Parsons 1951), in which he elaborates two familiar axioms of human action. First, following the utilitarians, Parsons assumes that in every situation, people aim at an optimum gratification of their needs. The second axiom relates individuals to situations assumed to be determined by culturally structured patterns or norms. Hence, the pursuit of aims is always based on culturally recommended action patterns. These patterns discipline action— the system of order thus supersedes men’s interest. Norms, or better, the obligatory character of norms, function not only to avoid social war but also to overcome “double contingencies” generally. By recognizing that in society there are choices and uncertainties on my part and that of others, Parsons places the solution of the problem of these contingencies in the center of the interaction process. They are supposed to be overcome by internalized norms. In deciding the Hobbesian problem of order, Parsons refers to the common value system as the prerequisite for the constitution of social order.

The much-discussed relation between action and system is easy to express in Parsons’s sense: Action is system, that is, social systems are formed by interrelated actions. Parsons gradually developed a conceptual scheme for the analysis of social systems. He maintains that a social system gets its system character from boundary maintenance and a tendency toward equilibrium. That is to say, members of some social entity are generally closer to one another than they are to nonmembers; there is more mutual understanding, and anticipated responses are more often validated in relations with insiders than with outsiders; there is a tendency with regard to insiders to repeat contact, to cooperate, and to continue relationships. On the other hand, social systems are also characterized by built-in mechanisms that tend to keep society unchanged over time or that tend to reestablish a lost equilibrium. From this point of view, social conflicts and societal change can only be conceived of as temporary deviations from stable structures. If any given social system is to persist or to undergo an orderly process of developmental change, the system must solve four functional problems: adaptation to the environment, goal attainment, integration, and latent pattern maintenance (AGIL). As they evolve, societies differentiate first along these AGIL lines and then into subsystems of each AGIL function (economic subsystem, etc.). However, the principle of differentiation is not sufficient. Segmentation and normative specification are also needed.

Even though Parsons’s argument (actually taken from Weber) that empirical observation shows a certain stability of normative patterns is undoubtedly correct, his obsession with normatively stabilized social integration challenged his contemporaries to systematic criticism, and competing theories were developed that put more stress on social conflicts. In The Functions of Social Conflict, Coser (1956)a student of Merton—presented a conflict-theoretical reanalysis of Simmel’s Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations and stressed that social conflicts are not necessarily in contrast to social order and have positive effects on societal development. Dahrendorf (1958) found his place in the social sciences of the twentieth century by delineating himself from Parsons. He points out that society is always characterized by two faces that unite static and dynamic components, integration and conflict. Nevertheless, both sides are by no means structures that are self-understood and closed, but “two equally valid aspects of every imaginable society” (p. 175). Hence, he focused on an extension of the structural-functional theory wherever its claim of universality hides the immanent capacity of explaining social change and conflict. Dahrendorf (1959) argued against the structural-functional primacy of integration that “the ‘dynamically variable elements’ which influence the construction of social structures do not necessarily originate outside the ‘system’ but may be generated by the structure itself” (p. 123).

The confrontation between structural functionalism, on the one hand, conflict theorists and phenomenological interactionists, and on the other hand, it also posed a challenge to Niklas Luhmann (1927–1999), whose devotion to systems theory relates him to Parsons, but only in a very limited sense. Luhmann argued that it does not make sense to develop competing theories for social integration and social conflict, interactionist and societal analysis. His claim is as high as Parsons’s was: formulating a general theory of human conduct capable of treating every type of human conduct, be it consensual, be it conflictual. For Luhmann, there can be no doubt that research will inevitably lead to some alienation of meaningful first-order expressions because individual motives must be subsumed under more general categories to be part of sociological explanations. While many scientists continue to use Weber’s problematic ideal types of human conduct, Luhmann (1990:53ff.) believes that the interpretation of action as a means-values-ends relation is a far too special view of human behavior to be able to constitute a basic tool. Undoubtedly the causal relation between means, values, and ends provides evidence to the observer, but it is not fundamental enough to reconstruct the broad ways in which meaning appears in the social world. Instead, Luhmann sees the attribution model of behavior as suitable for achieving meaningful and causal—that is, generalizable— adequacy in sociological research. This model summarizes 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, social action is not an ontologically, unquestioned given object of sociological research but a first-order interpretation based on the internal attribution of conduct. It is for this reason that Luhmann (1995:137ff.) places his level of analysis on social systems, or, to be more precise, on communication instead of social action.

From Luhmann’s point of view, systems theory helps distinguish between the mental level, on the one hand, and the social level, on the other hand. This clear distinction reminds us that sociological explanations are—as Weber and Durkheim told us—based on the social rules that govern the attribution of meaning. Mental idiosyncrasies are of no interest to sociology. Therefore, the advantage of using systems theory appears as methodological—not only by providing a clear-cut distinction between the social and the mental level but also by breaking down, as Weber had intended by his notion of “social relations,” the complex object of “society” into smaller units of observation, which Luhmann calls different kinds of social systems: face-toface interactions, formal organizations, and functional subsystems of society. Such a theoretical use of the term system has nothing in common with Parsons’s notion of “action as a system.”

Nevertheless, Luhmann’s solution of the problem of intersubjectivity must be understood in the context of the discussions between Parsons and Schütz. Luhmann takes Parsons’s side against Schütz in this question and reinterprets phenomenologically the Parsonian distinction between the psychic and the social system. Both systems constitute two separate levels of meaning. Therefore, the distinction between psychic and social systems is not—as in Parsons’s AGIL scheme—meant analytically but rather empirically: Luhmann (1995:12) assumes that there are psychic and social systems in the real world. Both consciousness and communication are based on meaning but each has its own logic and dynamic. Only communication— and not consciousness—forms the “intersubjective” level of the social on which sociological explanations must be found. This solution of the intersubjectivity problem makes the struggle between “subjective” and “objective” terminologies obsolete.

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. Rather, in everyday life, actors apply interpretive schemes to grasp the meaning of what they do. Luhmann integrates this idea into his concept of communication and 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 utterance of information (Luhmann 1995:139ff.). Selective understanding constitutes meaningful social rules that help actors build up certainty about what to expect in the social world. Luhmann defines meaning phenomenologically as a means of selection. In other words, human behavior is meaningful as its motives are causal selections from a horizon.

Unfortunately, Luhmann’s integration of systems theory and interpretive sociology has not been widely discussed in Anglo-Saxon sociology. Instead, Jeffrey Alexander’s (1982) call for multidimensionality and Anthony Giddens’s (1984) theory of structuration found more attention. Especially Giddens’s approach generated some consensus on the relation between human behavior and social structures that are no longer considered as incompatible. Structures are now seen as both restricting and enabling conduct. The crucial question, however, that remained was what consequences this new consensus has for empirical research.

The Rise of Social Research

While theorists insisted on the meaningful behavior as the causal basis of social change, researchers did not wait for a consensus that might end theoretical controversies about the meaning of meaning. After World War II, Paul F. Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) became the founding father of modern social research. Together with Marie Jahoda (1907–2001) and Hans Zeisel (1905–1992), he conducted the famous study The Unemployed of Marienthal (Jahoda, Lazarsfeld, and Zeisel [1933] 2002). The task of Lazarsfeld’s research group from the Wirtschaftspsychologische Arbeitsstelle Wien was to document the 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 that the affected persons themselves reported. The measurement of walking speed became famous as an indicator for individual coping. The group constructed types of attitudes, for example, the unbroken, the resigned, the apathetic, and the desperate. The answer to the by then much politically 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 that it is in principle possible to quantitatively measure complex social phenomena. In 1940, Lazarsfeld got a chair at Columbia University, New York City, where, in 1944, his Forschungsstelle became the Bureau of Applied Social Research.

Twentieth-century social research is well characterized by the development of Lazarsfeld’s reader Language of Social Research. In the 1955 edition, Lazarsfeld and Rosenberg (1955:393) give an account of action (purchasing a good) that combines understanding and explaining, connecting the analysis of the “total make-up of the person” and “the total situation in which he finds himself.” By the 1972 edition, empirical understanding of action largely disappeared together with qualitative research in favor of extensive multivariate analysis. Such quantitative methods as path analysis fulfilled a deep wish for sociological scientism—a stance that triumphed in the generation after World War II connected with names such as Otis D. Duncan (1984), William F. Ogburn and Meyer F. Nimkoff (1964), and Hubert M. Blalock (1982). A strong concern with methodology promised to cure sociology’s inferiority complex on its way into academia and to provide equal strength in the competition of scientific disciplines.

In the quest for more quantitative, generalizing knowledge, researchers aimed at all major sectors of society (e.g., family, education, work, and health care). Funding agencies asked for more information about society to be able to modernize it, rebuild it, and make welfare state activities more efficient. Together with textbooks and research methods, American sociology’s triumph of empiricism and scientific orientation were adapted widely. This is illustrated, among other things, by the establishment of various institutes for advanced studies in Europe after World War II (e.g., in Austria, Sweden, and The Netherlands).

One of the most important achievements is constituted by the development of class schemes. Class schemes uncover class relations instead of conceiving of them as a gradational difference of prestige. Therefore, Goldthorpe (1980:40) defines the class concept by typical market and work situations, including the proximity to occupational authority, the level of work autonomy, the way work is supervised, the opportunities for promotions, and job security. It has become common to confront the European Erikson/Goldthorpe/Portocarero, or EGP, scheme as “Weberian” with the American scheme of Wright’s (1997:25) more “Marxist” scheme, which, too, is based on typical work relations but which focuses on the inherent relations of exploitation. Goldthorpe’s scheme is widely used in comparative research.

Another major achievement of the twentieth-century social research was established by large-scale panel data and the implementation of longitudinal research designs. Longitudinal research aims at the collection of data over time, which is essential if one wants to measure social change (Mayer 2000). It may be based on repeated crosssectional studies, prospective or retrospective data collection. Important examples of repeated cross-sectional surveys are the United Kingdom’s General Household Survey and Family Expenditure Survey, and the European Union’s Eurobarometer. Well-known prospective panel studies are the US Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the British Household Panel Study (BHPS), and the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP). They are based on a random sample of respondents and repeated data collections at fixed intervals (up to a year). They all aim at grasping in more detail the nature of social change. The GSOEP is a prospective longitudinal survey that interviews a random sample of adults annually.

Cohort panels constitute a specific form of study taking into account generational replacement. It is assumed that a cohort experiences relatively similar life events. Researchers select an age group and administer a questionnaire to a sample to follow it over life courses with reinterviews usually every five years. Examples are the UK National Child Development Study and the German Life History Study (GLHS). The GLHS is a retrospective study of individual life courses that collects all information from birth on at one point. It consists 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 to other panels (e.g., the American PSID), both the GSOEP and GLHS 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 a more recent struggle in British Sociology where the National Child Development Study (NCDS) provided the basis for 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 did not have a definite result, which in turn stresses the need for more and deeper panel studies into the meaning of human behavior.

Interviews and surveys have become the major methodological instrument of data collection to measure both subjective attitudes and structural characteristics of classes and life courses. Whereas origins of surveying date back to the early nineteenth century, early political polls began to appear in the 1930s, and market research emerged only after World War II. Since then, survey and interview research has become dominant so that the majority of available data today stems from interview surveying. Such programs as the General Social Survey (GSS), European Social Survey Program (ESS), and the Eurobarometer today provide sociological research with interesting data about social change. Another example for recent international collaborative survey research is the International Social Justice Project (ISJP), which has explored popular beliefs and attitudes on social, economic, and political justice through two large-scale opinion surveys fielded in 13 countries in 1991 and 6 countries in 1996 (Kluegel, Mason, and Wegener 1995). The ISJP questionnaire combined structural and social psychological, attributional concepts—a research design that might prove to be an important tool for combining quantitative and qualitative aspects. It did show that beliefs about justice and inequality are much more individualistic in the United States than in other countries (see Kluegel and Smith 1986).

Survey and interview research has 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. It proceeded from merely collecting objective facts about the poor in the nineteenth century to surveying subjective phenomena and measuring specific human behavior and its contextuality in the past decades. The relation between attitudes that people will mention in surveys and their real behavior has continuously inspired research efforts (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980) and a more recent interest in the cognitive processes of the interview situation (Krebs and Schmidt 1993).

This is not to deny that case studies and “small N” qualitative research have played an important part in tracking social change, especially in areas of society with radical social change, dealing with public and private talk, all kinds of documents and texts, interviews of different style, Internet communication, and visual data such as photographs, cartoons, videos, and advertisements (Silverman 2004). Important schools comprise conversation analysis, ethnography, ethnomethodology, and discourse analysis. Qualitative research in virtually all areas of society will also continue to be at the center of sociological efforts in the twenty-first-century sociology.

From Specialization to Reunification: Prospects for the 21st Century

In the twentieth century, sociologists have often been quite critical of their discipline because of its many rivaling schools and its seeming multiparadigmatic failure to focus on a unified approach to the study of society. One could argue, however, that it is not only the pronounced willingness of scholars to come into conflict over methodological and conceptual issues, it is also sociology’s object of study—a highly differentiated society—which enforces methodological and theoretical pluralism.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find an extensive search for new goals and orientations as well as a lot of dissatisfaction with the development of social research. The deepest dissatisfaction seems to stem from the wide gap between our everyday and theoretical knowledge about human behavior and the available data. Despite ever-larger and differentiated data sets, research does not seem to have achieved convincing explanations that make the inequality and change of life courses sufficiently understandable, not to mention the lack of firm recommendations for political goals. The relation between understanding and explaining remains sketchy despite our certainty that it is only human behavior that can be the causal source of change and continuity.

Consequently, in recent years the nature of causal statements has (again) been critically discussed. Sociological Methods & Research even printed Abbott’s (1998:174) overly pessimistic view that correlational analysis is a waste of time if you want to understand why social life happens the way it does. There is a wide dissatisfaction with the deficiency of research to make unequal human behavior more intelligible, as Goldthorpe (2000:178, 260) stresses in his quest for complementing statistics and hermeneutics. According to Goldthorpe, we do not exactly know how educational “decisions” are actually made and what kind of causal attributions people from different class backgrounds typically make. In fact, our methodology and data suffer from knowing a lot less about such situations on a general level than about the results of mobility processes, which are revealed by class schemes. As a consequence, research on meaningful behavior in such situations up to now is dominated by qualitative typologies gained from small N’s. The results are interesting, but their underlying data sets lack a level of validity that would permit the test of specific hypotheses on social change between cohorts.

Nevertheless, looking back at the history of sociology, we see no reason to be overly pessimistic about sociology’s scientific record. As we indicated at the beginning, sociology had to go a long way to free itself from philosophical theories of social life and society. Even today, philosophical, theoretical, and “armchair” conceptions of society remain rivals in public discourse. It is often difficult to find public sympathy for sociological research results, as the mass media favor simple answers to complex societal problems, and these do, however, inevitably involve multiple causal assessments. Often, political discussions assimilate sociological advice to their conflicting structures so that much of its actual value is lost when it is transferred to the public. Against this background, the sociological ideas about meaningful human behavior as the basis of societal change and continuity are difficult to defend—despite sociology’s growing empirically validated knowledge.

Keeping these obstacles in mind, both the theoretical and empirical progress of sociology and some morerecent integration of theories of human conduct and social research are impressive. We believe that sociology will have to live with a continuous critical self-perception and public distrust against attempts at a sociological “enlightenment” of societal processes. Sociologists should present their research results with more selfconfidence and insist on their high proficiency for a deeper understanding of modern societies and their problems. However, this goal will be achieved only by more integration of research and theoretical attempts at grasping the meaningful character of human behavior and its consequences. Theorists often forget that their efforts and controversies should actually contribute to or at least lay the basis for better empirical understanding and research designs. A more serious integration of theory and research could, as we believe, make sociology a leading discipline in the scientific community.


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