Social Facts, Social Actions and Historical Materialism: a Theoretical Comparison

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In the first part of this essay, I will locate the three thinkers in the broader historical and epistemological context of their times. I shall present the main concepts of their theories and their methodologies.Then in an attempt of comparison, I will spot similarities and differences between them and summarize the sociological research strategies, which are coming from their ideas. In the concluding part of this essay, I will argue that Social Facts and actions are useful conceptions for the study of social phenomena, but Historical Materialism, provides a far more robust method of analysis. Identifying the causes of social phenomena in the material grounds of the process of production and class antagonism, Marx offers a rigorous scientific method for the understanding of social relations and their workings at large.

Historical context

The 19th century is the age of Darwin and the theory of evolution (Berger, 2006). Combined with the unfolding of internal socioeconomical powers, through the division of labor of the complex industrialized world (Szirmai, 2005), Europe enters modernity by creating a linear progressive time metaphor (Osborne, P. 1995, p.xii). It celebrates it’s emergent position in the world and propagates optimism for the future. But, although, the industrial revolution starts in the early nineteenth century, fifty years later the leading British economy is not fully transformed yet (Hobsbawm, E. 1999, p.98). In France, the revolution of the Jacobins provides the political context (Fehér, F. 1990, p.3) but it‘s only by 1870 when a political regime manages to stabilize and Germany is a new state that never went through a revolution. As Giddens points out, this is the historical context within which sociology is formed (Giddens, A. 1971, p.xii-xiii). Sociology is adopting the evolutionary and the structural functionalist models.

Durkheim is concerned with the problem of Social cohesion. Being a Socialist reformist himself (Hughes, J.A. and Sharrock, W. W. and Martin P. J. 2003, p.147), he is committed to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Therefore he sees the rise of individualism as a threat (Thompson, K. 2004, p.6). His aim is to help reconstruct the French society and set up sociology as a rigorous, science. Max Weber, on the other hand, stands as a defender of Methodological individualism (Wetherly, P. 2000, p.149) reflecting his liberal political views.

If, both Durkheim and Weber, worked with the aim to facilitate the individual in the new social context of Modernity, Marx, could be said, that he did the opposite. As an evolutionist and a communist he did everything to unsettle his times and established a theory based on history and the rational ability to progress. He thought that Germany, needed a leap -if it were to keep up with the developed European states- and tried to express it. His main effort was to bridge philosophical criticism with knowledge of the material forces - theory with practice (Giddens, A. 1971, p. xiii).

Marx - Historical Materialism

Based on Hegel's claim that the course of history is “a dialectical "development of [the human] capacity or potentiality [for freedom], striving to realize itself” (Berthold-Bond, D. 1993), Marx, proposed the "materialist conception of history" (Engels, F. 2010, p.3, ch.2, par.1): A methodological approach with which one can understand social, economical and historical phenomena. Marx accepts materialism’s main assumption that ideas are epiphenomena of material conditions but opposes its substance that men are products of circumstances. On the contrary he declares that it is men who change circumstances. (Marx, K. 1999, p. 572-573).

Therefore the study of history is necessary for the understanding of society which is in a state of continual change. But History is the creation of man by human labor (Giddens, A. 1971 p.19 citing Marx, K. 1844,). Society in its totality is a superstructure based...
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