Political Sociology Research Paper

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Political sociology is a border field between political science and sociology, and the term encompasses the overlap between these two neighboring disciplines. It denotes the analysis of the inter-relationship between the social and the political, social structures and political institutions, between the society and the state. There is no stable consensus of what counts as political sociology in contrast to sociology and political science proper. There have been great variations over time in the popularity of political sociology and in the tendencies to emphasize it as a genuine field of its own. Nevertheless a common element is that political sociology is related to the distinction between the social and the political.



1. Historical Roots Of Political Sociology

The historical development of political sociology can be roughly outlined by emphasizing three periods of special importance.

(a) The birth of political sociology can be dated to the mid-nineteenth century, when the founding fathers of social science began to conceive of the social and political, the society and the state as separate entities, and to analyze their relationships (Runciman 1963, pp. 22–42, Pizzorno 1971, pp. 7–18). This type of inquiry had its intellectual roots in the writings of earlier philosophers about the state and the social life, however, as a broad and joint interest of an academic community, political sociology emerged in the scholarship of the nineteenth-century fathers of social science.

(b) The post-World War II studies of the conditions for and the citizen activities in political democracies with a special focus on parliamentary elections conceived them as expressions of the political competition between different social groups. The joint focus on the prerequisites of democracy and voting patterns proliferated during the 1950s and 1960s, receiving institutionalized expression in the work and activities of the Committee of Political Sociology, founded in 1959 with Seymour Martin Lipset as chairman and Stein Rokkan as secretary and functioning under the auspices of both the ISA (International Sociological Association) and the IPSA (International Political Science Association) (Rokkan 1970, pp. 1–20).

(c) The late twentieth-century studies of nation and state building placed a special emphasis on great political transformations and breakdowns of regimes. This type of inquiry received a strong impetus from the renaissance of Marxist thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was not restricted to social scientists with a leftist orientation (Linz and Stepan 1978, Skocpol 1979).

1.1 The Establishment Of A Distinction Between Society And State

In a great number of their texts, most of the path breaking social science theoreticians of the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century analyzed the relationships between the social and the political. One of the first thinkers to delineate an empirical political sociology was Karl Marx in his systematic insistence on seeing politics as an expression of conflicts between different social classes. His theorizing had a factual historical background in the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the industrial working class as distinct and dominant social groups (Pizzorno 1971, pp. 7–9).

Max Weber on his part wrote many of his works as rejoinders to Marx, but even apart from his counterclaims against Marx, there is in Weber’s writings continuous analyses of the social institutions and the types of authority existing in modern society (Runciman 1963, pp. 53–7).

Among the great founders of sociology Emile Durkheim is not normally thought of as a scholar of politics, but his preoccupation with order, social integration, and social solidarity had considerable implications for the analysis of the relationship between society and politics.

Vilfredo Pareto was a pioneer both in econometrics and in the sociological study of elites. His ability to relate the circulation of elites to large-scale social and political changes makes him one of the founding scholars of political sociology.

Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto were not primarily political sociologists, but instead more generally the great founding fathers of social science theory building. There are, however, some nineteenth-century scholars who can be labeled as specialists in political sociology. They are not unknown as scholars in history and in the study of politics, but their fame rests basically on the fact that they were important creators of the tradition of political sociology with its focus on the relationship between society and politics. Among them Lorenz von Stein, Alexis de Tocqueville, Mosei Ostrogorski, and Robert Michels deserve special mention.

Lorenz von Stein (1815–90) was a forerunner of Marxism in the sense that he explicitly emphasized how material and social conditions mould political development. His Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich (1850) contains not only a history of the French Revolution but also analyses of the importance of the property distributions and educational opportunities for political activities, and of the phenomena of class struggles and sudden outbursts of social change. It has been emphasized how some of Karl Marx’s ideas were influenced by the writings of von Stein.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) descended from an ancient and distinguished noble French family. His visit to the United States in 1831–2, which was of decisive importance for his scholarship, resulted in a study of American democracy published in two volumes De la democratie en Amerique (1835, 1840). Although the work made him well known, his great scholarly fame was established only after the Second World War and to a considerable degree by the then growing political sociology. Especially the English translations of his works, Democracy in America (1945) and his study of the French revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution (1955; originally published in French in 1856), became standard works for political sociologists. His great contribution was that he specified the conditions for pluralism and democratic systems. He argued that social cleavages and competition between social groups and strata are necessary conditions for consensus in industrially developed societies. He emphasized voluntary associations and active, partially autonomous local communities as crucial in creating and sustaining a plural democracy. In the texts of political sociology, de Tocqueville has often been contrasted to Marx. While Karl Marx envisaged conflicts and social cleavages as one-sidedly destructive, de Tocqeuville emphasized their importance for obtaining consensus in wellfunctioning democracies (Lipset 1960, pp. 4–9).

Although Mosei Ostrogorski (1854–1919) was born in Tsarist Russia and died in the Soviet Union, during important parts of his life he worked in Paris and London. Early in his career he published studies of the suffrage demands of the women’s movement, but his main work was a critique of party democracy in Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (1902). Although it was an empirical study of the political party organizations in Britain and the United States, its main theme was that the mechanical and massive organization of political life into bureaucratized political parties, aimed at manipulating individuals and masses, was harmful for real democracy.

As was Ostrogorski, Robert Michels (1876–1936) was a critic of the emerging party bureacracies in modern states. Through his education and activities Michels had background liaisons with Germany, France, and Italy. Politically he started as a socialist with a syndicalist orientation but developed later profascist opinions. He took Italian citizenship in 1913, and although he was active as a professor and scholar in many countries he regarded Italy as his home country. His major work Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie (1911) is considered a classic in political sociology. It treats many of its central themes, including the theory of elites, political movements on the left, processes of bureacratization, and the gap between democratic theory and practice. His central thesis, known under the name of the iron law of oligarchy, is that organization necessarily leads to oligarchy, or as Michels summarized it, ‘it is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.’ Despite Michel’s pessimism and one-sidedness, his work and the iron law of oligarchy has inspired a great number of studies of political and other civic organizations.

1.2 The Institutionalization Of Political Sociology After World War II

The period between World War I and II, and especially the 1930s, were poor as regards studies in political sociology. The European political scene was turbulent, little support was given for studies in the social sciences, and in the 1930s the Nazi, Fascist, and Communist regimes ended most social science research in a number of countries. During the period between the world wars there were nevertheless some path breaking studies of voting and electoral behavior. Already before World War I Andre Siegfried had introduced the analysis of geographical variations in electoral behavior by studying voting patterns in French constituencies. A summary of his results was published in Tableau des partis politiques en France (1930). His central conclusion was that electoral behavior was steered by stable, deep-seated, regional traditions. After Siegfried the concept of political traditions became central in descriptions of voting patterns. Another innovator was the German-American Rudolf Heberle, who had started his career with an analysis of the tendencies to radicalization of the Swedish labor movement. His leading work From Democracy to Nazism (1945) about the appeal of Nazism to the rural population in the German province of Schleswig Holstein was published when he already had settled as professor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.

Large-scale studies of voting behavior, however, were not undertaken until after World War II, and this subject became a leading problem area of political sociology during the first postwar decades. It had a background in the postwar situation, as great hopes were attached to the possibility of building a better world with the aid of social science and research. Studies of the prerequisites of democracy became important, and parliamentary elections were seen as the major mechanism for establishing and securing democratic rule. Studies of the social background of political behavior represented an almost empty space between political science and sociology. Political scientists had been mainly preoccupied with constitutional problems and methods of steering the states, whereas sociologists had focused their interest on studies of social structure and behavior in social groups. Political sociology moved into a vacuum, and it became soon both an important field of research and an activity of interest to the general public. Although the study of electoral behavior later became mainly a field within political science, the first path-breaking studies were made by sociologists. Theoretically fruitful conceptions and hypotheses, such as the tendency of cross-pressures to lead to political passivity, were developed at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University under the inspiration and leadership of Paul Lazarsfeld (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944).

It was, however, through the founding of the Committee of Political Sociology at the International Sociological Association’s Fourth World Congress in Stresa in September 1959 that political sociology became an established and institutionalized field of research. It led to a new kind of cooperation between political scientists and sociologists, and the committee also became a research committee of the International Political Science Association. The Committee’s first chairman, Seymour Martin Lipset, had already published several innovative books in political sociology, and its first secretary, Stein Rokkan, had started to develop means for comparative, cross-national research. The year 1959 represented in many senses an important mark in the development of political sociology. In 1959 Lipset obtained the copyright for his Political Man. The Social Bases of Politics (1960), which became the leading text of the period of birth of an institutionalized political sociology.

The references and data sources in Lipset’s book reflect the fact that at the end of the 1950s political sociology had become a small industry with young researchers all over the industrially developed world digging up data about the social bases of politics. The work of the Committee led to new developments. This is evident by a comparison of Lipset’s Political Man and the first comprehensive book produced by cooperation within the Committee, namely Lipset’s and Rokkan’s Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives (1967). It contains a lengthy and theoretical introduction by Lipset and Rokkan, and chapters about individual countries, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain, West Germany, Finland, Norway, Japan, Brazil, and some West African states. Both the theoretical introduction, with its application of Talcott Parson’s A-G-I-L scheme, and most of the country chapters, reflect attempts to combine a structural and institutional approach and to study both the social bases of politics and the effects of politics on social structures. One of the members of the Committee, Giovanni Sartori, described the change in orientation in a paper entitled From the Sociology of Politics to Political Sociology (1969). Political sociology had ceased to be a subfield of sociology and had become a genuine border field of its own.

Studies of voting patterns were by no means the only ones conducted and presented at the conferences of the Committee and by its members. The first part of Lipset’s book on the Political Man consists of an analysis of the prerequisites of the democratic order. At the turn of 1950s and 1960s several studies analyzed the conditions of democracy. In addition to the formal criteria of democracy such as popular representation and individual freedoms, political sociologists were keen to stress some factual social conditions as prerequisites of a democratic order. Of particular importance were effectiveness, the government’s capacity to implement policy, efficacy, peoples’ subjective feelings of being important for the politicians, and legitimacy, beliefs that the existing political institutions are appropriate and lawful. Some of the studies were particularly focused on breakdowns of democracy and the rise and appeal of Fascism and Communism, such as Raymond Aron’s l’Opium des intellectuels (1955) and William Kornhauser’s The Politics of Mass Society (1959). Democracy was studied from many angles, such as in the study done by Lipset and his associates on the conditions for democracy in labor unions, Robert Dahl’s studies of democracy on the local community level, and Ralf Dahrendorf ’s analyses of the conditions of conflict regulation in industrial society.

Even if studies of and data about voting and electoral behavior formed a central point of departure for the political sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s, their aim was more general than to give information about how people behave during elections. The basic interest was in studying conditions for democracy, breakdowns of regimes, nation and state building, and master processes of societal and political change. From the 1970s onward the electoral studies became methodologically more sophisticated at the same time as they increasingly became a preoccupation of specialists of political issues and mass media effects within the field of political science. Initially such studies had a center at the University of Michigan under the leadership of Angus Campbell.

1.3 The Re-Entry Of The State And Its Transformations

The disappearance of electoral studies from the central agenda of political sociology was not an isolated phenomenon. From the beginning of the 1970s many of the original topics of political sociology lost much of their popularity. One of the reasons was that the student rebellions and leftist radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s had severely criticized the agenda of the prevailing political sociology. Another reason was that some fields of research had become routine and were incorporated into either sociology or political science.

Despite a decline of the distinctiveness of political sociology, some research themes have remained central and typical for political sociology. The problem sphere of political sociology comprises increasingly master patterns of societal change, i.e. simultaneous changes and pressures to change in the political order, the social system, and the socioeconomic composition of societies. Such studies had been initiated by members of the Committee of Political Sociology already during its preoccupation with voting studies. Thus, there were studies of the formation and fall of empires by S.N. Eisenstadt (1963), studies of the historical formation of European centers and peripheries by Stein Rokkan (Rokkan and Urwin 1983), and studies of the breakdown of democratic regimes by Juan Linz (Linz and Stepan 1978). Also many scholars who never had been associated with political sociology as such wrote influential texts. An outstanding representative in this category is Barrington Moore’s often-quoted major work The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966).

In the 1980s and 1990s interest in master patterns of change, and in state and nation building proliferated. The state was reintroduced as a truly central concern. Major representatives of the new orientation were especially Theda Skocpol (1979), who penetratingly emphasized the state as the originator of social outcomes, and Charles Tilly (1975), who rather than seeking one particular important unit, has stressed how national developments were formed by a complicated web of warfare, fiscal policy, bureacratization, and state-making. Goran Therborn’s (1995) studies of modern developments in the European states have also emphasized the multidimensional nature of national development and warned against beliefs in irreversible tendencies. The increased interest in state and nation building also went beyond a focus on national states by studies of worldwide tendencies of development, as seen in the work of Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) about the origins of the European world economy in the sixteenth century.

The developments from the 1970s onward made it increasingly difficult to define the borders of political sociology. There was for instance a recrudescence of studies of ethnicity, ethnic groups, and the role of ethnic identities in the formation of nations. The studies of ethnicity are sometimes counted as part of political sociology, sometimes as a field of its own. Yet, the borderline problem is fairly clear. It is a question of where the main emphasis is. When the aim is to describe the role of ethnicity and ethnic identities in the formation of nations and political development on the macro level, as in Stein Rokkan’s (Rokkan and Urwin 1983) studies of the formation of European centers and peripheries, they are of great relevance for political sociology.

It is much more difficult to evaluate the character and place of Marxist-oriented and radically critical studies which multiplied from the second half of the 1960s onward. Earlier this type of scholarship had been mainly carried out by specific individuals. In studies of the power elite, C. Wright Mills definitely treated the relationship between the social and political, but he was not generally counted among the political sociologists (Kimmerling 1996). In the 1960s there was a rise—indeed a renaissance—of whole schools of critical sociologists such as the Frankfurt School of dialectical sociology and the dependence theorists who emphasized the hopeless fate of the underdeveloped countries in a world dominated by international capitalism. It is an open question whether these and kindred groups should be included in political sociology. Usually they were not counted as such. It is again a question of how one conceives of their main emphasis. If the main intent is to present social critique, the studies are usually not counted as political sociology, however, if the studies present hypotheses and concepts useful in most studies of societal and political development, they are regarded as political sociology. In the 1980s the radical thrust in the social sciences came to an end. The studies in political sociology began to combine elements from studies of very different political shades. It is characteristic of most of the studies of nation and state building mentioned above that they had assimilated elements from both Marxist and liberal thinking and scholarship.

2. The Consciousness-Creating Functions Of Political Sociology

Whatever solution is reached as regards the labeling of radical social critiques, it is obvious that political sociology is always directed towards expanding and creating awareness of macro changes and fundamental problems of societies. Nevertheless, it is seen as important that political sociology should not basically serve political aims. There are strong claims that political sociology should be empirically oriented, aim at theory building, employ a comparative approach, and systematically consider historical factors. The combination of the two claims, the consciousness-expanding function on one hand, and the quest for systematic comparative, historically based, and theoretically oriented studies on the other, has been astutely analyzed by Birgitta Nedelmann (1997) in a critique of the failure of German postwar political sociology to account for the period of National Socialism in German history.

Even if a successful delineation of political sociology never emerges, some main problem areas can be listed with the help of the two claims and objectives listed above. Political sociology studies (a) master patterns of simultaneous social, cultural, and political change in society, (b) dominant sociopolitical and emerging new cleavages, (c) the formation of states and nations as well as breakdowns of social and political orders, (d) prerequisites of and threats to democratic regimes, (e) problematic features of modern states such as bureaucratization, centralization, tendencies to corporatism, and (f ) the political consequences of globalization such as the formation of continent-based political units and institutions.


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