Sociological Analysis Of Interests Research Paper

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It is not an easy task to define the notion of interest. Throughout the tradition of sociological analysis, it is often referred to without further specification. In ordinary language, there are two general meanings of this particular idea: The first is that of an agent’s special commitment toward some kind of object, or activity, like music. This meaning can be studied by sociology as far as it is concerned with tastes or cultural practices. But the second and more important meaning is the one that implies a certain selfishness. This is mainly the case with ‘economic’ interests, those concerned with the appropriation of scarce goods. But this idea can also be extended to noneconomical goods, like power or prestige.

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1. Sociology And Economic Interests

1.1 Three Problems

Economics has been described as a science of human interests, when they are considered apart from any other motive. This definition is implicit in Adam Smith’s analysis, while explicit in Pareto’s general statement on the division of work inside social sciences. According to this description, what should the role of sociological analysis be regarding interests? Three major problems come to the forefront of the discussion.

The first one is that of social order. Any economic activity occurs within a social framework, made up of varied institutions, rules, and rights. There are two options here. The first one is to explain this framework in terms of interests, following the tradition of Hobbes and Hume. There is a trend, especially in contemporary sociology inspired by economics, to try to revive this kind of explanation of social norms in terms of interests. But the major part of sociological analysis has tried, on the contrary, to define a specific attitude toward social order that cannot be reduced to interests.

The second problem is that of economic attitudes themselves. In the economic tradition, these attitudes are generally considered from a nonhistorical point of view, in a constant way. For instance, in his description of economic equilibrium, Pareto makes no direct reference to any historical evolution of economic attitudes. For him there are only random distributions of different attitudes toward interest among different people (Pareto 1963). In most of the sociological tradition, this has been seen as irrelevant, since economic attitudes do vary historically. Therefore, various attempts to explain the logic of these changes can be found. Such is the aim, for instance, of Mauss’s (1954) celebrated Essai sur le don. More generally, sociological analysis tries to relate interests to the background values that encourage or discourage them. In fact, there are two aspects to be stressed from this standpoint: The first is that the very notion of what is to be considered as an interest for an individual can vary socially. For instance, Mauss tries to show that in archaic societies there is no real interest in personal consumption. The second level is that, any kind of interest being admitted as such, there are social values that reinforce it or restrict its expression.

Therefore, the third problem is that of the extension of the role of interests in social life. Economics mainly studies the exchange of scarce goods. But interests arise in other fields, such as political conflict, family attitudes, etc. The problem will be then to understand how far an analysis in terms of interests can go to explain social phenomena.

1.2 The Problem Of Social Order

Three major sociologists have tried to describe the problem of social order as the main area, in social life, where it seems that interests alone cannot suffice to produce the norms that unify people into a society. Comte, first, in a radical attack against what appeared to him as an ‘abstract’ view, namely that of social contract and economic exchange, stressed the existence of a social consensus foreign to any calculation, and prior to any economic exchange. Following Comte, Durkheim built all his sociological theory on the assumption that individual interests cannot be seen as the root of social solidarity. In a Kantian fashion, he understood morality as a repressive force against individual interests. But, in opposition to Kant, he did not find the roots of such obligations in an individual rational sense of morality, but rather derived it from a specific social level that exerts coercion upon individuals. Parsons, in his attempt to build a general theory of society, continued this tradition. He stressed the existence of common shared values on which economic interests depend. The main point that these three authors made is that selfish interests cannot always lead to cooperation. These same interests can also lead sometimes to opposition among individuals. Hence, the social primacy of cooperation should not be based only on interest.

These three authors can fairly easily be grouped under the ‘holist’ tradition. But even in the tradition of methodological individualism, there has been a similar trend to refer interests to the values behind them that allow or restrict their development.

1.3 Economic Attitudes

Weber is famous for having, in his work on the Protestant ethic (Weber 1974), stressed the influence of religious attitudes on economic ones. He links the development of capitalism to a complex religious background. Demagicalization, universalization, and moralization of relations among people, commitment to an ascetic lifestyle, and interpretation of worldly success as a sign of eschatological salvation are the key religious elements that can contribute to explaining capitalism’s rise in Western societies. These religious elements are joined to other values, namely the general importance of rationality, and its effects on other institutional contexts, like the extension of rational legal systems. The specific modern capitalist attitude cuts itself from its religious roots: It becomes an acquisitive trend in a society oriented towards constant increase of goods rather than satisfaction of stable needs (Weber 1981).

There is, however, another element important in the analysis of economic attitudes: the description of tastes which are behind interests. Parsons and Smelser (1956), for instance, in a general theorization of the relations between economics and sociology, insist upon the fact that the economic preferences that constitute interests are rooted in common social values. The analysis can apply also to the very constitution of economic markets and the value of profit making (Polanyi 1944)

1.4 The Scope Of Interests

The paper so far has stressed the importance of the social background that narrows or enlarges the field where interests play a role, and has also indicated that, from a sociological point of view, the very definition of interests depends on a social valuation of some kind of ends.

But to this description should be added the opposite trend, that insists on the role of typical standard interests in several aspects of social life. This move does not only refer economic exchange to selfish interests, nor does it try to explain social values or institutions in terms of interest, but it also considers that even beliefs can be referred to interests. That has been the general meaning of a Marxist analysis of ideologies. But the main point here is that a critical attitude towards social order is related to the revelation of hidden interests behind common moral or political beliefs. The main difficulty of such a conception is that it does not take into account the specifically cognitive side of any ideology that cannot be so easily reduced to noncognitive contents.

But the extension of the scope of interests can also intervene without any critical intention: It is only then an effort to show that attitudes in some areas apparently removed from any economic dimension, can be interpreted in terms of interests: not only social norms, but also attitudes towards marriage, children, voting etc. Becker’s (1976) or Posner’s (1981) work are representative of such ambitions.

2. A Methodological Di Ide

2.1 Altruism And Selfishness

There is a common assumption shared by the two traditions that try to explain social order in opposed fashions regarding interests: the selfishness of individuals. Individuals are considered to act according to their interests because they are selfish. This common assumption leads to two alternative results, as we have seen. The first is to consider that social order and social norms can be explained in terms of social interests. The second is that it is not possible to do so, but, since there is a social order as well as something like a morality, which leads individuals to act morally, in an unselfish manner, it has to be referred to something different from interests.

But why should individuals be considered selfish? There are basically two reasons for this. The first is empirical and arises from the evidence of the selfish attitudes that prevail in economic exchange, where there is a huge tendency to avoid systematically letting someone’s else interest prevail over one’s own.

The second element is methodological: Since commitment to social values is to be explained in a way that is not tautological, it seems convenient to try to show that these norms derive from a sense of interest, that should not, for its part, be explained.

Durkheim admits straightforwardly that individuals are selfish when they are taken alone, but he does not justify this assumption. This assumption is, however, at the core of his effort to describe a specific social coercive level that could explain why individuals act in an unselfish way on certain occasions. His argument could be worded as follows: Individuals are selfish; sometimes they devote themselves to others, but since others are just like me, I should have no reason to prefer them to myself; therefore, it is not to them that I show my respect, through my moral behavior, but to society, as a distinct entity from any individual (Durkheim 1996).

But this statement rests on the idea that such altruistic behavior is always strange. One gives another individual what one has denied oneself, despite the fact that this other being is just another version of oneself not worthy of such an attitude. But in fact, most often, this so-called altruistic behavior does not correspond to this description. Usually, it intervenes in three different scenarios. The first relates to symmetrical attitudes of reciprocity. In this case, there is an admission of the idea that different individuals should have the same rights, and therefore, be allowed to have the same opportunity to pursue their own interests within a common framework. The respect of the right of the other is not the seemingly absurd renunciation of one’s self-interest for the other’s benefit, with no reason to do so, since the other is just another self. It can be derived from the acknowledgement of the fact that both individuals can be granted the same rights since they have the same interests. It is not that one favors the other at the expense of oneself. It is that everyone can understand, precisely, that since someone’s interest should not systematically prevail upon the other’s, the solution to this problem is the adoption of norms of reciprocity. A related analysis can be find in Harsanyi (1969)

The second case for altruism occurs when a stronger or wealthier person helps a weaker or poorer one. But, in this case, it is obvious that if people renounce their own interests in favor of someone else, it is precisely because they are in a position to help someone else who does not have the same means. This indicates that it is not another equivalent self that is helped, but someone who is in a worse position.

Third, it is true that sometimes there is a ‘sacrifice’ of the self in favor of others. Durkheim insists strongly on this kind of situation. But it could be understood, also, by considering the specific position of the person: If the captain of a ship is legally considered to be responsible for a vessel’s safety because of his or her specific competence, it is therefore consistent for the captain to remain on board until everyone has evacuated.

All this means that it does not seem absolutely necessary to assume that there is some global social force behind the individual restrictions to self-interest. It is possible to understand actors’ self-limitations of interest by their ability to understand the logic of a situation and the need for social rules. Therefore, three positions can be described. The first one is an individualistic and utilitarian position, that interprets most of human actions in terms of selfish interests, as in the case of Coleman’s sociology.

The second is a nonindividualistic and nonutilitarian position. As we have seen, it rests upon the idea that, as individuals are selfish, and naturally committed to their own interests, the fact that they sometimes act in an altruistic manner should lead to the recognition of a specific social (not individualistic) level that is responsible for such a change of attitude.

But since it is not obvious that individuals should definitely be considered selfish and only devoted to their own interests without the intervention of a superior force, it seems possible to introduce a third methodological position, individualistic but nonutilitarian. Actors would have then to choose to favor their interests, or instead to avoid satisfying them, because they would be able rationally to understand the appropriate course of action regarding different situations.

2.2 Rationality And Interests

It is important to introduce here the notion of rationality, which has a multisided relationship with that of interest. The classical notion of rationality that prevails in economics is an instrumental one. It designates the choice of adequate means towards ends. The important point is that ends are not integrated in this sense of rationality. They are arbitrary, given at random.

But the rational choice model, highly influential both in economics and sociology, is not entirely clear (Demeulenaere 1996). On the one hand, it is officially maintained that ends, i.e., interests, are not rational by themselves, rationality being reserved to the choice of means. But on the other hand, the description of rational behavior seems to involve an attitude that does follow selfish interests, and denies respect to any kind of value or social norm that would go against them. There is also another ambiguity. On the one hand, interests are not considered to be substantial ones, as they depend on individuals’ choice. But on the other hand, interests are described as substantial: money or wealth, power and prestige.

Thus it is not clear whether this rational choice model is strongly normative or not. It would be so if it stressed that individuals are rational only if they follow their interest, in the selfish sense. But this assumption is very costly for two reasons. The first is that it is not obvious that obeying one’s own interests should be the only rational choice. The second is that individuals do not have the impression that they are not rational when submitting to a norm that cannot be referred to interests. On the contrary, they believe they have reasons for doing so.

2.3 Axiological Rationality

Therefore, it seems possible to introduce, in sociological analysis, a third point of view that maintains the principle of rationality, without restricting it to the pursuit of interests or to the limited choice of means towards ends. This principle of rationality should allow the actor to discriminate between interests that deserve to be followed and those that should be avoided.

How should we define this axiological rationality (Boudon 1997)? The main point is that it would show the reasons actors have to act in a specific way, the reasons being not necessarily their interest. Boudon, for instance, shows the importance, in the voter’s attitudes, of normative aspects that should not be reduced to the actor’s narrow scope of interest. Those normative aspects are not arbitrary as they can be related to a system of beliefs that seems acceptable to actors regarding their general aims. Voters know that, in a large-scale election, their individual votes have no influence on the result. But they know also that other voters are aware of the same fact. If they all abstain from voting, they will lose the benefit of the democratic system. Committed to that system, they understand the importance of voting, even if it is costly in the short run and seemingly inefficient.

Such a theoretical interpretation of the actor’s behavior should thus expand the concept of rationality and depart from a narrow positivistic attitude where the ends (including interests) can never be interpreted in their own rationality.


  1. Becker G S 1976 The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  2. Boudon R 1997 The moral sense. International Sociology 12(1): 5–24
  3. Coleman J 1990 Foundations of Social Theory. Belknap Press, Chicago
  4. Demeulenaere P 1996 Homo Oeconomicus. Enquete sur la constitution d’un paradigme. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris
  5. Durkheim E [1906] 1996 Determination du fait moral. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris
  6. Harsanyi J 1969 Rational choice models of political behavior vs. Functionalist and conformist theories. World Politics 21: 4
  7. Mauss M [1925] 1954 The Gift. Cohen & West, London
  8. Pareto [1916] 1963 The Mind and Society: A Treatise on General Sociology. Dover Publications, New York
  9. Parsons T, Smelser N J 1956 Economy and Society. Routledge, London
  10. Polanyi K 1944 The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origin of our Time. Beacon Press, Boston
  11. Posner R 1981 Economics of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  12. Weber M [1904–5] 1974 The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Allen and Unwin, London
  13. Weber M [1923] 1981 General Economic History. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ


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