Newham College University Centre
Module Title: Ways of Understanding Society
Section 1: What’s the module all about?
This course provides a basic introduction to the subject of sociology through looking at how the subject itself was established by the so called ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline.
Like any other discipline, Sociology was created through the efforts of a small number of pioneers who ‘invented’ the subject towards the end of the 19th century These so called ‘founding fathers’ of sociology, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Georg Simmel were responding to the unprecedented changes ( urbanism, industrialism, capitalism etc) which taken together constitute what is sometimes referred to as modernity. This course then is about how sociology emerged as an discipline the central problem of which was the attempt to make sense of the social, political and intellectual changes brought about by the growth of modern society. But what is society and how should we study it? As we will see the founding fathers had very different views about both these questions . That’s why sociology is sometimes called a pluralist discipline . In other words there is no single way of studying society and no single sociological account of what society is or how it works. This can be seen in the optical illusion at the beginning of this guide .What we ‘see’ reflects the particular way we look at the image.
Are there any problems with this view ? Yes , a number in fact but two in particular need to be dealt with here. The first concerns the claim that the ‘truth’ about society is simply a reflection of the way we look at it . Because , according to this view, our view of the world is constructed from the ideas we have about it , the approach itself is called social constructionism . In the other first year course, Stratford Studies, we look at the other side of the argument . This is sometimes called sociological realism and instead of the concepts and theories we explore here, it concentrates on the ‘facts and figures’ of social life in the local area
The second problem surrounds the claim that sociology is an up to date discipline capable of making sense of those changes taking place in society now . But how can it does this given that many of its key ideas were developed so long ago ? This where the course title comes in . ‘Ways of Understanding Society’ is a phrase used by Ian Craib in his book Classical Social Theory to describe the work of the founding fathers of the discipline ;Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel which he insists can still be used to make sense of current issues ( the use of computers for example) which have only emerged long after the founding fathers themselves had died. So in this course we explore the different ways of understanding society which were created by these early theorists and which continue to inform sociological understanding today.
The course itself is divided into three sections.
Section 1 deals with the Enlightenment and its relationship to sociology. The Enlightenment is a term used to describe what many see as a critical phase in European history, roughly covering the 18th century (1700-1800) it is also known as the ‘age of reason’ and this is because of the growth during this time of science, reason and technology, all aspects of what we would now call modern society . This , of course , is why the Enlightenment is considered to be so important , because it marks the boundary between an old , ‘pre modern’, society heavily influenced by religious ideas and ruled by kings and an emerging form of society recognisably scientific democratic and modern. As we will see, the Enlightenment is an important precursor for sociology . In other words Sociology could only emerge after the Enlightenment itself had taken place. However although the general point being made is ‘no Enlightenment no sociology’ , precisely how sociology grew out of and responded to Enlightenment ideas is a matter of interpretation .not least in the different ways that Marx, Durkheim , Weber and Simmel understood to be the legacy of Enlightenment ideas in practice , i.e the central features of modern society.
Section 2 looks at how the founding fathers made sense of the same area of social life -religion . Having identified how the different theorists answered the general questions – what is society and how do we study it we know look at how they deal with the same specific topic . We identify , in other words , the Marxist, Weberian, Simmelian and Durkheimian approaches to religion. The main purpose is to show you that alternative understandings of reality is a central feature of sociology.
Section 3 looks at how the ideas of the founding fathers can be used to make sense of different areas of social reality, seeing how the strengths of a particular perspective can best be matched to a particular topic. By this stage in the course you may well have decided that you identify with one founding father rather than another , that you are more of a Marxist than a Durkheimian ( or the other way round) However. the point of this final section is that each perspective has strengths when it comes to a particular problem so that some issues are best explained using a Marxist perspective , others from a Weberian one , etc. Note , the above points will be introduced and developed in the first session.
Section 2: Module and Programme Learning Outcomes
On successful completion of this complete module you will be able to:
1. Appreciate the Enlightenment project and its influence on sociology
2. Understand that society can be explained in a variety of ways
3. Understand and apply the perspectives of Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel
4. Appreciate why theorising is central to sociology
Programme Learning Outcomes:-
On successful completion of this module you will have worked towards the following programme outcomes:
1. Appreciation of sociology as an evolving and pluralist discipline containing a number of different competing and sometimes complementary accounts of social reality
2. Appreciation of the possible uses of sociological understanding and the relationship of these to common sense understandings of the social world
3. Assessing the merits of competing theories and explanations
4. Making reasoned arguments
5. Recognising the values underlying social theories
The industrialisation in the society had been prevalent in the European Society since the seventeenth century. As the growth of industrial revolution had accelerated the creation of industrial society, the materialism had become dominant. On the other hand, the sincere efforts had been made in ensuring the sustainability of the so-called western morality. There was a time when European society in the nineteenth century was immersed into the religious fanaticism and the major powers in Europe had been fighting with each other (Yue, 2002). Different philosophers like Hegel, Nietzsche etc. had aired their opinions on the religion. Hegel regarded the religion as a form of self-consciousness, whereas Nietzsche opined against the religion as he considers it the medium of accepting value without using reasoning power.
The polarisation had taken place amongst the European philosophers. In this situation, Karl Marx had introduced his new idea on religion and explained his idea from the different perspective. The contribution of Friedrich Engels cannot be denied in this context. Later on, different Marxist thinkers had opined on the religion and given different opinions from various perspectives. In this assignment, the emphasis will be given to the exploration of the religion with respect to the classless society. For expanding the discourse, the brief overview will be given with respect to Marxist ideology on religion. The different aspects of the Marxist interpretation will be discussed with special emphasis on the critical analysis and evaluation with the objective of exploring different facets of Marxist view on religion. Hence, it can be said that this assignment aims to make discourse on the Marxist perspective on religion.
In accordance with the Marxist perspective, religion can be regarded as one of the social institutions. This institution depends upon the realities pertinent to the economic and materialistic realities. In short, the Marxist perspective regards religion as the reflection of the world, which is real, not imaginary. Marxist philosophy rejected the idea of accepting religion as a higher form of the sense of value. Rather it has regarded religion as a value which is out-and-out irrational. Having faith in the religion can be regarded as the effort for moving away from the reality and heading towards the imaginary world. Most of the Marxist thinkers have regarded religion as the tool of maintaining status quo in the society and tool in the hands of tyrants and oppressors for justifying the tyrannical and oppressive rule of the capitalist society. When the oppression and tyranny in the society are at the high level and the corruption is rampant, the discontent of the people keeps growing, which may pose threat to the existence of the capitalistic structure of the society. The inequality and unjustified rule become prevalent in the capitalist society. In this situation, it becomes imperative for the capitalists to ensure that the focus of the people can be shifted to other things, which will decrease the level of people’s discontent. Religion is the best tool for ensuring this.
In the opinion of Xian-ming (2012), the religion can be regarded as the tool for ensuring the exploration of the meaning’s world. Unlike science, it does not lay emphasis on the exploration and investigation of the facts. On the other hand, Maduro (1977) opined that religion can be regarded as the dependent variable because of its dependence on the economic system of the society. As commented by Wittfogel (1960), religion is the tool for taking away the productive labour from the working class. It ensures that the condition of the oppressed people will not be changed or improved. With the help of the religion, the capitalist oppressors keep the people under tyrant rule. They fear that people will demand equal rights and liberty if radical changes are brought about in the society. Keeping the people in the distressed and downtrodden state is the only way of preventing the occurrence of changes in the society. That is why religion is misused in the hands of propagators of capitalism for ensuring the non-occurrence of the radical changes in the society. Karl Marx himself regarded the religion as the manifestation of depression and sadness of the people who are oppressed by the capitalistic society.
In the word of Comstock (1976), Karl Marx used the term “Opium of the People” while vilifying the existence of religion in the society for it helps the people in forgetting the depression they face in everyday’s lives. In this way, they are taken away from the real world of misery and depression. Religion may ease the pain for some moments. However, it will be difficult to provide permanent solutions to the problems associated with real lives. In accordance with the Marxist perspective, classless society is only of eradicating religion and it holds bourgeoisie responsible for controlling the religion as a tool of oppressing working or proletariat class. The bourgeoisie class use the religion as an ideology for making justification of their oppressive rule over the oppressed people. The oppression of the people cannot be justified in the name of God. When the classless society will be formed, the need for religion in the people’s live will not be necessary anymore. Hence, Marxist scholars have emphasised on the creation of classless or proletarian society and no sign of class division will be existent. Once the class division will be non-existence in the proletarian society, there will be no need for the religion in the society.
It can also be said that Marxism has been playing important role in the context of the promotion of the atheism related views in the society. The Marxist scholars have opposed the imaginary idea of the godly creation of earth with the help of the concept named dialectical materialism, which is based upon the scientific investigation of facts. The existence of the God has been questioned in the Marxist philosophy. The existence of God has been critically analysed. The religion has been regarded as the manifestation of the collective unconsciousness, which has been prevalent in the primitive society. In the words of Singh (1990), the religion can be regarded as spiritual oppression. Questioning the religion based upon the scientific investigation is the only way of getting rid out of the religious illusion. Atheism does not indicate the non-existence of faith over the religion and god, but it indicates that the existence of god ought to be questioned and the different facets of religion ought to be analysed in a critical manner based upon the scientific investigations. In this way, Marxist thinkers have propagated the idea of promoting science, logic and reason instead of promoting religious fanaticism.
On the other hand, some of the scholars have regarded the Marxist view on religion as an obsolete thought. In accordance with the opinion of McKown (1975), it will be absurd to suppose that religion has been made with the objective of opiating people. There are some of the countries in the northern part of Europe, such as, Denmark, Sweden etc. that have achieved progress in terms of economic development and prosperity. As the northern European society has achieved progress in terms of economic development, the need for religion has gone away from the society. Some of the scholars like Birnbaum (1968) have commented that Marxism is the efforts for ensuring the secularisation of the religion. Karl Marx himself had not been successful in pinpointing the reasons for the existence of religious belief in the society. In the Marxist ideology, the validity of the phenomenon pertinent to religious belief has been judged based on the illustration of the causes. In the Marxist ideology, no efforts have been made in showing the effective solutions for showing the alternative way of the religion in the society.
It has been seen in the many socialist countries in Eastern Europe that the people had not been convinced when the socialist Governments had made sincere efforts in eradicating the religion from the society. The role of religion cannot be denied in the development of the human civilisation from its primitive to modern condition. Marxism cannot be regarded as vanguard ideology when it comes to the matter of eradicating the suffering of the human. In the sixteenth century and seventeenth century, many propagators of utopian socialism in Europe had talked about the elimination of human suffering by removing the inequality in the society in the name of religion. Moreover, the Marxist thought of religion can be able to pose threats to the society thereby resulting in causing social unrest and disturbing the balance in the society.
Throughout the assignment, the sincere efforts have been made in analysing the different aspects of the Marxist view on religion from different perspectives. The sincere efforts have been made in showing the negative and positive sides of the Marxist view of religion with the help of the opinions of scholars. However, the role of the Marxist view of religion cannot be denied when it comes to the matter of secularising the religion. Marxism has shown the different way when the working class and common people had been oppressed in the hands of capitalism. It has helped in instilling the ray of new hope in the minds of the people who became the victim of spiritual oppression promoted by the capitalist society.