Sociology How do Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons view the social world? The view of the social world which Karl Marx (1818-1883) holds is a materialist one, which means that the focus is on economic means of production and the roles that people play in creating wealth and transferring it from person to person. It rests on ideas from Hegel and other German philosophers, applied to the context of industrialization in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. Ideas and ideologies are seen as a misleading and at times falsifying force which can alienate the worker from his natural existence.
A fundamental concern of Marx is the concept of different classes in society, arranged hierarchically in a pyramid form with a small number of people controlling things at the top, and a very large base number of workers who create the goods which society needs. This arrangement, in Marx’s view, contains an inbuilt source of conflict, since the elite levels seek to exploit the worker levels for their own profit. These tendencies can be resolved by a raising of the consciousness of the workers, and revolutionary activity which overturns the supremacy of capitalist elites and in theory returns more control to the workers.
The elites who own the means of production are known as the bourgeoisie, and the workers who supply the labour in the production process are known as the proletariat. The main concern, therefore, in Marx’s view of society is the locus of power and how it is exercised. Marx is critical of the forces that lead capitalist business owners to drive down the wages of workers in order to make more and more profit for themselves.
Work is viewed as an ennobling process which brings meaning to the life of a person, but only if there is a fair distribution of the wealth that comes from that labor. Marx was concerned about the future exploitation of workers under Capitalism. Its never-ending accumulation of money for its own sake rather than for general good sets up a cycle of opposition. The closer a worker is to the goods he produces, being able to use them himself and appreciate their value, the more authentic his experience of work is going to be.
One consequence of this view of the social world is that it emphasizes the importance of human actions, and does not leave much room for philosophy and religion, which explain things by means of concepts outside human control such as scientific principles, or divine intervention. Humans construct their social reality out of historically inherited traditions, and their reactions to what happens in their lives in relation to others around them.
Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Introduced and edited by Lewis A. Closer. New York: The Free Press, 1997 [originally published in French in 1893].
Parsons, Talcott. 1991. Social System. London and New York: Routledge. [First published in 1951)
Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Introduced and edited by Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, 1964. [first published in 1947]
Shepard, Jon M. Sociology. 10th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.