Role of Conflict & Change in American Sociology

This paper was written in 1978 and asks the two questions: “What has been the trend of development of American Sociology? In the light of this trend, what should be the role of American sociology in the conflict and change process?”

American contemporary sociology is a descendant or brain-child of European sociology. This observation and assertion has been made by several prominent sociologists. For example, Gouldner (1970) in “The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology” states that the basis of American Sociology is functionalism. This notion is the central theme in the Parsonian social theory; and he happens to dominate ideas in American sociology today. It is inherent in the sociological theory of Comte (1798-1857) Frenchman; and Durkheimian theory (1858-1917). These were Western European Sociologists. This perhaps is adequate illustration and confirmation that American sociology may be truly a descendent of European Sociology.

The trend of development of American Sociology since the turn of the century seems to have gained its impetus from an internal intellectual crisis in sociology itself as a discipline and the social crises that occurred within the American society itself.

Bottomore (1974) in his essay on “Crisis in Marxist Sociology” quotes Birnbaum as saying that an intellectual crisis occurs if two conditions prevail; if possibilities of internal development exhaust themselves and if categories that prevailed in the original form are no longer applicable in new situations. These two factors are said to be inseparable and that in fact the crisis occurs quite frequently. He further asserts that the “progressive” sociology of the 1930s represented mainly by the work of Robert Lynd (1939) and Marxist writers was found irrelevant after the economic depression and events that occurred during the Second World War and after.

In his work : “Knowledge for What”, Lynd (1939, 1967) mainly brings to our attention the nature of American culture, epitomized by the notion of laissez-faire, and suggestions about how sociology could possibly serve as a tool for some of the contradictions that were at that time apparent in the American culture. “In a culture like ours, which is casual as to its structuring and integration, it is not surprising, therefore, that the social sciences are not integrated; or that, in a culture patterned to oppose changes in fundamental rituals and beliefs, social scientists manifest some hesitation as regards for the right teaching and research on problems explicitly concerned with fundamental change.” (Lynd, 1939: p. 116)

It is evident in this quotation that the social sciences in general and perhaps sociology in particular proved to be inadequate. Lynd (1939) claimed that the apparent crisis could be attributed to emergence of wide areas of study in the field of sociology and the inability of the discipline to stretch itself far enough to cover all of them reflected in the non-existence of factual data. He quoted 25 new areas of study among which were Social Theory, Social Classes, The Family, Crime and Delinquency, Demography, Race Problems, Sociologies of Religion, Leisure, the Press and Communication, and Social change.

The Second World War and the accompanying social change produced a “conservative” sociology in American society which was represented by such writers as Parsons, Lipset, Bell, Shils, and Aron.

Ideas which alluded to ‘stable democracy’ ‘end of ideology’, ‘equilibrium’, and ‘values’ were very evident in Lipset’s views which were from a functionalist school of thought. “These ideas, (Bottomore; (1974) observes) depended to a large extent, as did functionalism itself, upon the political climate of the age.” (p.21) This was the era of the 1940s and early 50s.

However, a new sociology on the American scene emerged out of the conservative sociology. The post-World War II developments could no longer be explained by the conservative functionalist sociology. During this period there was social turmoil and reconstruction in the industrial societies. The source of internal conflict in the American society as a stimulus to change shifted. “In the 1940s and 1950s the Western democracies were engaged in conflict first with the Fascist States, and afterwards with the USSR and the newly created communist states of Eastern Europe, and democracy as a form of society was sharply contrasted with these other forms. In these conditions it is comprehensible that the sources of conflict within societies should have been overshadowed and largely neglected.” (Bottomore; 1974; p.21).

A new sociology is said to have been proclaimed mainly emerging out of the work of C. Wright Mills during the late 1950s and early 60s. In “The Sociological Imagination” (1950), Mills is very critical of the trend of American Sociology at that point in time. For example, in his Chapter on Grand Theory, he criticizes Parsonian Sociological Theory. It seems Mills’ sociology was stimulated by the overwhelming nature of assimilation of sociological ideas from Western Europe and thought. This is evident in the following quotation. “In the United States today there has come about a sort of Hellenistic amalgamation, embodying various elements and aims from the sociologies of the several Western Societies. The danger is that amidst such sociological abundance, other social scientists will become so impatient and sociologists are in such a hurry for ‘research’ that they will lose hold of a truly valuable legacy.” (Mills; 1959, p. 24).

In general, therefore, Bottomore states that in less than a decade, there has been a critical sociology and a radical sociology. Some aspects of the sociology have had less ties to political commitments; ethno methodology, structurism, and sociology of liberation movements. These dynamic changes in American Sociology reflect the constant intellectual crises which occurred in society sometimes with internal and at other stages external causes.

It must be pointed out at this point that perhaps the developmental trend of American sociology has followed identical steps to that of Western European Sociology. In which case, this allusion would imply that the expanding fast growing nature of industrial capitalist society has demanded an equal constant shift of social thought among intellectuals. Bottomore’s views seem to support this assertion; “As Robert Nisbet observed in ‘The Sociological Tradition’ sociology was formed in the crisis of the transition to and industrial capitalist society in the European countries. Its distinctive array of problems and ideas was formed in the period from the 1830s to the end of the nineteenth century when the urban, democratic, industrial bureaucratic, secular societies in which we now live were being created, and it may be argued that we continue to see the social world through the medium of these ideas.” (1974, p. 74)

The development of American society and that of other societies it seems will necessitate the changing of the intellectual orientation in sociology. It seems this necessity has partly been answered by Gouldner’s approach in his sociology.

When Gouldner discusses “The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology,” he does not mean that there hasn’t been any crisis, but he means perhaps that sociology will be confronted with well-articulated theory of society based on his suggestions with regards to structure of sentiments and New Domain Assumptions. What does “Reflexive Sociology” offer to the discipline of American sociology which is different from its previous posture?

The essence of “reflexive sociology” of Gouldner is a call for the total involvement of the sociologist in his work. Contrary to the historical positivism which has sought to emphasize objectivity in sociology, reflexive sociology treats this phenomenon as a myth. Gouldner contends that when a sociologist seeks to conduct an empirical study, it is wishful thinking to believe that his values, beliefs cannot influence the results of the study. Reflexive sociology, according to Gouldner, is the “transformation of the sociologist’s self and the relationship between being a sociologist and being a person.” (Bottomore, 1974, p. 54) In this respect Gouldner sees it as carrying a historical mission. It promises to be radical. “The historical mission of a Reflexive Sociology as I conceive it, however, would be to transform the sociologist, to penetrate deeply into his daily life and work, enriching them with new sensitivities, and to raise the sociologist’s self-awareness to a new historical level.” (Gouldner, 1970, p. 489)

If Gouldner’s sociology could be taken with sincerity and the seriousness it demands, then it would mean that would be a positive step in the right direction. Sociology, since Auguste Comte, has had so much confidence in empiricism and positivism that the issue of objectivity vis-à-vis the sociologist has been taken for granted. As a result and without being conscious of it, sociologists have sometimes influenced the results or findings of apparently “objective” studies by letting their personal values determine interpretation of the problems as well as original choice of problem areas.

Gouldner states that knowledge in the depersonalized form, in books and libraries, is different from knowledge as awareness. Awareness is the ability to recognize and acknowledge one’s values, beliefs, practices, and how these, as a sociologist, can influence and perhaps bias the reactions to and even acquisition of new knowledge. In my view, so long as sociologists ignore this phenomenon and continue to believe that they are objective, progress in the realm of knowledge in sociology will always constitute a showdown of conflicting cultural and ideological stances. This means that an American Sociologist looking at demographic figures in China, Russia and seeking to make an analytical comparison will always do so in terms of growth of “capital” and “investment”. It appears to me this is a serious irregularity for a discipline which formally claims to be objective and following empirical methods and principles of positivism. The latter essentially says; that knowledge is neutral, that there is a unitary scientific method and that the standard of certainty and exactness in the physical sciences is the only explanatory model for scientific knowledge.1

On the other hand, if the sociologist is fully aware of his values, this puts his interpretation of social facts and survey into a less hypocritical posture. “Awareness is an attribute of persons, even though it is influenced by the location of these persons in specific cultures or in parts of a social structure. A culture may assist or hinder in attaining awareness, but a culture as such cannot be aware.” (Gouldner, 1974 p. 494). This is another statement which has wide reaching implications on the trend of development of American sociology. At this point let me back-paddle and recapitulate the implication of certain aspects of this quotation.

At some point in his reflexive sociology, Gouldner discusses Marxism. He admits that it was in direct opposition to Western sociology. He concludes that Marxism and functionalism now confront each other in a conflicting way even along geographical divisions; Soviet Sociology and American Sociology. Although he makes an exaggeration since Marxism was a product of the problems and Western European Capitalist industrial development, nevertheless it still serves to illustrate the one implication of a reflexive sociology. Why should the two types of sociology confront each other in a conflicting manner? The only explanation is that each one of the two assumes and is confident that they are examining their social environment objectively and arrive at “objective” conclusions that it is, therefore, the best and only rational way of life. In other words, they use sociology to advance or sustain their values in the final analysis. A reflexive sociology as propounded by Gouldner has a radical and useful role to play in the development of sociological knowledge.

He further seems to be skeptical of the prevalence of the notion of objectivity in sociological inquiry by stating that information is rarely neutral when men receive it for the first time. Information is normally seen as hostile when looked at in terms of what purpose a man can use it for; it is either dissonance or consonance enduring. “An openness to and a capacity to use hostile information is awareness.” (Gouldner, 1974, p. 494). If hostile information refers to deficiencies in some existing knowledge of a system, it requires self knowledge and courage to become aware of it.

When this notion is referred to the trend of development of American sociology, it becomes evident that even there has prevailed on the scene contradictory information with regards to functionalism, American intellectuals have defended the school of thought.

Gouldner makes another interesting further analysis of the development of American sociology. He says that since 1920 when American sociology emerged in Universities it had one methodological assumption; Methodological dualism. The dualism has been along the differences between a social scientist and those he studies. It has always separated the two; treating them as object and subject or etic and emic in anthropology. Any intimate contact between the two has been viewed with fear and concern. The dualism “strives to free him from disgust, pity, anger, from egoism or moral outrage, from his passions and his interests, on the assumption that it is a bloodless and disembodied mind that works best. It also seeks to insulate the scholar from the values and interests of his other roles and commitments on the dubious assumption that these can never be anything but blunders.” (Gouldner; 1974 p. 496)

As opposed to the assumptions of the previous trends of American Sociology, Reflexive Sociology encourages the sociologist to be human and to be conscious of the fact that he can influence others as well as vice versa. In the final analysis this sociology seems to assert that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. Reflexive Sociology, it seems to me, will in the final analysis make possible meaningful sociological analysis and comparison on the cross-cultural dimension.

In light of this developmental trend in American Sociology, what should be its role in the conflict and change process?

The concepts of conflict and change and the role of American sociology will be dealt with systematically on two levels, the micro and macro level. The micro aspect of conflict and change will refer to the conflict and consequent change that occurs between individuals in society; (such as among marriage partners) and the type of conflict that occurs in or among institutions; be these political, social or intellectual. Conflict and change on the macro level will seek to examine conflict in the entire American society and how historical developments have resolved these conflicts.

The conflict approach to change will certainly introduce radical alteration to the original functionalist school of thought which place emphasis predominantly on order and maintenance of equilibrium.

Instead of making the discussion of change on the micro-level a mere series of generalizations, let us focus on Gouldner’s views on how social systems can reduce a sociologist’s autonomy. If the first instance he can be made a supporter of the status quo which is normally synonymous with traditional, conventional or popularly accepted practices. In the second instance, a sociologist can be made into a technician or member of a “think tank” in which case he will conduct, survey, or express views which support the interest of the society; irrespective of whether the interests are selfish or ethnocentric in nature.

In instances of conflict and change on the micro level, the role of the sociologist must not be to support the status quo because of fear of unpopularity. The sociologist must examine both sides of the issue in good detail, and bearing in mind certain crucial elements of Reflexive Sociology, must prescribe what is a good solution for resolving the conflict. For lack of a better contemporary American case I will cite a Zambian case. Zambia is a developing society in Africa. With the rapid rate of modernization taking place conflict has been evident in social institutions due to the change. This has necessitated several changes in the political and social institutions. One such case occurred this year. With modernization, ownership of extraordinarily expensive property has occurred in the form of farms, houses, and business enterprises. It so happened that in the Zambian traditional system, when a husband died, his relatives shared the property among themselves often with the claim that the wife had been responsible for her husband’s death. This has apparently increased the number of widows who live in misery. The government has shown concern by tabling a bill in parliament. When the law is passed, a widow will automatically inherit her husband’s property as the rightful owner. I need not explain in detail the conflict which prevailed over the matter. Depending on individual values in the light of modernization many different sides were taken. Without seeming to treat the issue too simplistically, I feel that the role of the sociologist should be to conduct a survey along such lines as what are the values of the society, whose interests will the law be serving? After this analysis, he should make prescription and avoid pretentious of objectivity by including his value orientation. I am certain there are similar conflict and change problems in the American society to which some elements of this aspect of sociology can be applied; for example, the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay Liberation (homosexuality).

The dilemma with this approach so far, as evident from class discussions is that a sociologist would live lonely lives. This loneliness would arise from the intellectual awareness of the type Gouldner advocates. The status quo society which apparently provides the bread and butter for the sociologist would rather have him support their stances on issued that generate conflict; however dogmatic these issues might be. I think this is unfortunate for sociology and I confidently hope that in the future intellectuals of the social sciences will have their novel ideas and opinions accepted on their own right. But this will certainly occur after instituting changes in most of the traditional styles of thought and behavior.

On the other hand conflict and change on the macro level i.e. in the entire American society, is often on the ideological level. This seems to have had a corresponding impact on the growth and change on intellectual level.

Conflict on the ideological level cannot be resolved very easily. This is because embodied in the ideology are all aspects of patterns of American culture; which have developed over two centuries. It would be wishful thinking that this type of conflict can be resolved very easily. Discussing patterns of American culture, Lynd (1939) made a summary of the basic assumptions and characteristics. For example “Life would not be tolerable if we did not believe in progress and know that things are getting better. We should, therefore, welcome new things. But: The old, tried fundamentals are best; and it is a mistake for busybodies to try to change things too fast or to upset the fundamentals.” (Lynd; 1939, p. 61). Among the 11 characteristics of American culture he mentioned I will quote two:

“The process of patterning is basically casual. Believing as we do in laissez-faire, the patterning of our culture has been left largely to chance.” (p. 63)

“The pattern of the culture stresses individual competitive aggressiveness against one’s fellows as the basis for personal and collective security.” (p. 71)

From the outlook, it is obvious that the culture is obviously in a conflicting posture with those of other societies except Western Europe. There is no way at the moment in which a solution can be suggested. But one thing which seems to be very clear to me is that a time will come when the culture will find itself in direct confrontation with the others.

The attitude of laissez-faire, which I presume has perhaps influenced a constant upsurge of intellectual ideas, can only be good up to a certain unspecified limit. This is certainly evident in the energy crisis and attempts being made now to curb or avert the situation. This might not necessarily happen with regards to intellectual ideas. For example, a “reflexive sociology” to me is an attempt at introducing an idea which will expand the intellectual horizons of a social system which has been enclosed within itself for a long time.

[1Positivist view is from Trent Shroyer in his article “Toward a Critical Theory for Advanced Industrial Society.” (8) Recent Sociology No. 2 pp. 211-234)]

Bottomore, T. B., Sociology a social Criticism (1974) William Morrow and Company, Inc. N. Y. (1976)

Gouldner, A. W., “The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology.” (1970) EQUINOX Books; Avon (1971)

Lynd, R. S., “Knowledge for What?” The place of social science in American Culture (1939) Princeton (1970)

Mills, C. W., “The Sociological Imagination” (1959) Oxford University Press N. Y. (1971-2)

Shaw, M., “Marxism and Social Science”; the Roots of Social Knowledge 1975 Pluto Press, London (1975)