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Journal of Classical Sociology 2013 Scott 30 46

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Journal of
Classical Sociology
Capitalism as culture and statecraft: Weber− Simmel −Hirschman

Alan Scott
Journal of Classical Sociology 2013 13: 30 originally published online 5 December 2012 DOI: 10.1177/1468795X12461411
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JCS0010.1177/1468795X12461411Journal of Classical SociologyScott

Special issue article

Capitalism as culture
and statecraft: Weber–

Journal of Classical Sociology
13(1) 30­–46
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1468795X12461411

Alan Scott

University of New England, Australia

This paper offers a critical exposition and a comparison of the arguments of three key thinkers – Max Weber, Georg Simmel and Albert Hirschman – who rejected purely economic accounts of the development and nature of capitalism – whether Marxist or neo-classical – and sought to develop an account of capitalism as culture; as a form of life, conduct, an ethic, a system of ideas and ideals. Such approaches are characterized by (i) their emphasis on the resistance that capitalism faced, and continues to face; (ii) the examination of capitalism at the level of meaning and experience; and (iii) an interest in its institutional and cultural framing. Both the similarities and points of disagreement between these three accounts are discussed. Taking up David Frisby’s concern with Simmel’s politics – Frisby being the dedicatee of this special issue – the paper concludes by focusing on Simmel’s ‘sociological ambivalence’ in his analysis of the money economy as the source both of greater personal freedom and of the fracturing of personality and growing subservience to ‘objective culture’.

Capitalism, culture, Hirschman, Simmel, sociological ambivalence, statecraft, Weber

The attempt to counter the claim that capitalism is to be understood primarily as an economic fact – whether as a ‘mode of production’ (Marxism) or ‘spontaneous order’ (neo-classical economics) – has produced some of the classics of social theory, from the Philosophie des Geldes (1900; enlarged edition 1907) and Die Protestantische Ethik und des Geist des Kapitalismus (1904/5; revised 1920), through Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1957 [1944]) and on to Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests (1997 [1977]). Perhaps one could go further and argue that a whole strand of sociological thought, which now goes under the name neo-institutionalism, is a response to the economic analysis – whether Marxist or neo-classical – of capitalism and transforms Corresponding author:

Alan Scott, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England, New South Wales, Australia.

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the criticism that such approaches are caught within what Polanyi called the ‘economic fallacy’ into an alternative and comprehensive analysis of the emergence and nature of market society.1 This latter perspective is characterized by (i) its emphasis on the resistance that capitalism faced ‘before its triumph’ (part of the subtitle of Hirschman’s 1977 classic), and indeed after it; (ii) a curiosity about capitalism’s appeal even to those who stood (and those who still stand) to lose by its advance that draws the analysis into an examination of capitalism at the level of meaning and experience; and (iii) the contention that capitalism can only be understood in relation to the emergence, on the one hand, of the modern state and, on the other, of modern culture; that, in other words, it is just one – albeit central – aspect of our ‘becoming modern’ (Pocock, 2009: 130). Underlying all three aspects is the claim that capitalism is also culture: a form of life, a way of conducting ourselves (Lebenführung), an ethic, a system of ideas and ideals. In this article I seek to identify Simmel’s contribution to two of these three aspects of the sociological critique of economic explanations of capitalism. This contribution – or still potential contribution – is not even across these themes but it is nowhere absent. It is particularly strong in relation to the second and to the cultural aspects of the third area (he has remarkably little to say about the state). In this way I hope to locate Simmel’s work in the wider – and continuing – debate about the nature of capitalism.

Capitalism in the face of resistance: Hirschman–Weber
Here we examine that aspect of the cultural analysis of capitalism in which Simmel’s contribution is the slightest, but it is necessary to discuss this in order to set the scene for what follows. The more significant contributions to understanding the emergence of capitalism in the face of opposition come from Weber (not just in the economic sociology, but also in the sociology of religion – including the Protestant Ethic, and with particular clarity in his so-called ‘St Louis Lecture’, 2005 [1906]) and Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, which in part complements and in part contradicts Weber’s analysis. With respect to Weber, I shall concentrate here on the St Louis Lecture, perhaps his clearest statement on the institutional and cultural embeddness of capitalism. But we start with Hirschman.

Hirschman’s and Weber’s accounts of the emergence of capitalism have much in common beyond the simple recognition that it had to oppose powerful forces.2 The most striking similarity is their shared view that this process required, if not quite ‘die Umwertung aller Werte’ (the re- or trans-valuation of all values), then at least the revaluation of certain key values rather than a ‘simple victory of one fully armed ideology over another’ (Hirschman, 1997 [1977]: 11). Contra Weber, Hirschman traces this sea change not to a new ethic governing the conduct of individuals that emerged with the Reformation, but to changes in the theory of the state and in their translation into statecraft from Machiavelli onward, paradoxically in an attempt not to overthrow the existing order but to secure it. Hirschman’s story is that the early modern solution to the question of guaranteeing social order and peace – the repression of the viler aspects of our natures by a sovereign power – slowly gave way to the view that our self-regarding propensities should be harnessed rather than repressed, acknowledging the fact that the sovereign is also subject to the weaknesses of human

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

nature (or, as Martin Hollis used to put it, that a blind trust in sovereign authority can lull you into leaving your house in the care of a bent copper).3 The final stage of Hirschman’s story is that this process is complete once a distinction emerges between the ‘hot’ and uncontrollable passions (for example, ambition, the lust for power and ‘lust proper’,1997 [1977]: 12) and the ‘cold’ passion of personal gain (greed). The redefinition of the latter passion as ‘interest’ provided a new solution to the problem of order: the idea that these cold passions can hold the hot and uncontrollable passions in check; the ‘principle of countervailing passion’ (1997 [1977]: 27) that first arose in the seventeenth century and subsequently played itself out. This is, of course, one of the arguments for which Hirschman is rightly famous, but it is just one attempted solution to a puzzle that runs through modern social thought from Weber and Nietzsche through Polanyi to Foucault: how is the modern, rational and predictable subject constituted? Hirschman’s answer is: through the elevation of self-interest and gain into virtues rather than sins: ‘One set of passions, hitherto known variously as greed, avarice, or love of lucre, could be usefully employed to oppose and bridle such other passions as ambition, lust for power, or sexual lust’ (1997 [1977]: 41, original italics). The consequences of such a transvaluation of values, Hirschman emphasizes, were never intended. Our becoming modern was the unforeseen and unintended consequence of a contingent shift in the theory of the state, but no less profound for that: ‘… predictability in its most elementary form is consistency, and it is this quality that was perhaps the most important ground for welcoming a world governed by interest’ (1997 [1977]: 52). A world ‘governed by interests’ is a governable world; the modern solution to the problem of statecraft.

Before moving on to Weber, I want to make one critical observation on Hirschman’s account. He is largely concerned with a rather selective group of the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, avarice, pride and vainglory (and perhaps wrath). He has little to say about sloth, or indeed gluttony. Yet, as Marx, Weber and Polanyi recognized, the modern ‘market subject’ (Polanyi) is not merely predictable, he/she must also be capable of what Alexander von Humboldt called ‘Selbsttätigkeit’, self-motivated and selfdirected activity. If one half of the story of our becoming modern concerns the predictability (and thus governability) of our actions, then the no less important second half is about our motivation to work hard and responsibly (within or without a calling). Hirschman’s emphasis upon statecraft, rather than upon business itself, means that he has relatively little to say about the motivations of the modern market subject beyond his or her desire to pursue his/her self-interest. I shall return to this issue in the following section.

Even in such a brief précis of Hirschman’s famous argument the divergence between his position and Weber’s should be clear. First, rather than view the ‘political arguments for capitalism’ (the other half to the work’s subtitle) as emerging from an initially marginal position, for Hirschman, while the opposition to capitalism was no less real for him than for Weber, capitalism’s triumphal march took place within the centre: The expansion of commerce and industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been viewed here as being welcomed and promoted not by some marginal social group, nor by an insurgent ideology, but by a current of opinion that arose right in the centre of the ‘power

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structure’ and the ‘establishment’ of the time, out of the problems with which the prince and particularly his advisors and other concerned notables were grappling. (1997 [1977]: 129)

It was a revolution from within, which leads Hirschman, in contrast to both Marx and Weber, to emphasize elements of continuity between the old and the new order. Secondly, particularly in comparison to the Protestant ethic thesis, while Hirschman – like Weber – emphasizes the role of ideas, these ideas are linked not to an ‘ethic’ but to the practical problem of rule, to statecraft. In this sense, Hirschman’s argument appears more materialist than Weber’s; more political, concrete and less culturalist.4 But rather than rehearse the arguments of the Protestant Ethic again here, I want, before we get on to Simmel and Weber in the next section, to examine some of Weber’s arguments that (i) challenge Hirschman’s view of the emergence of capitalism as an endogenous process and (ii) emphasize the degree of struggle and the level of antagonism between emergent capitalism and the existing institutional order; a view not fully compatible with Hirschman’s thesis.

Weber’s topic in the St Louis Lecture was the nature of agricultural capitalism in the United States in comparison to the situation in Germany. But this comparative approach taking two contrasting cases – one in which the market is ‘older than the producer’ (2005 [1906]: 330) and one in which it is younger – enables Weber to make more general points about the relationship between capitalism (whether agricultural, industrial or financial) and its historically rooted institutional and cultural context. In contrast to the United States, in what Weber here calls the ‘countries of old Kultur’5 (of which Germany is but an example), capitalism met not only tighter resource constraints, but also hostile social force: For under the conditions of countries of old Kultur, the differences caused by capitalism assume the character of a Kulturkampf. The old economic constitution asked: How can I give, on this given soil, work and sustenance to the greatest possible number of men? Capitalism asks: How can I produce as many crops as possible for the market from this given soil with as few men as possible[?].

(2005 [1906]: 331)

Weber names the ‘conservative currents’ (2005 [1906]: 331) for whom this paradigm shift was unacceptable and who resisted it. In addition to the peasantry (Bauernschaft) itself, this list includes the jurist and the administrative official, of whom Weber notes ‘a character is stamped on him which is far from the interests of money-making and places him on the side of the adversaries of their rule’ (2005 [1906]: 334), other professions (including the academic – the ‘Bildungsaristokratie’) and the church (both Catholic and Lutheran) which supported the peasant ‘with his conservative conduct of life, against the rule of urban rationalistic Kultur’ (2005 [1906]: 334). His conclusion is not without humour:

Thus it happens nowadays in the countries of Kultur – a peculiar and, in more than one respect, serious fact – that the representatives of the highest interests of Kultur turn their eyes back,

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

stand with deep antipathy opposed to the inevitable development of capitalism, and refuse to co-operate in the rearing of the structure of the future.
(2005 [1906]: 335)

There are a couple of points in Weber’s arguments here that echo throughout subsequent social thought. First, in the specific case of Germany he is making the same point about the old (allegedly Germanic) Kultur6 as the anthropologist Louis Dumont (1994) was later to make about Bildung (a rounded education/cultivation). These are central notions within what Dumont (with an obvious nod to Marx and Engels) calls ‘the German ideology’ and act as a conceptual bulwark against the forward march of bourgeois rationalism. Secondly, Weber interprets such opposition to bourgeois rationalism as an attempt by social groups whose way of life is threatened by capitalism to defend their ‘social standing’ (2005 [1906]: 333). Furthermore, these groups include not only workers and peasants, but also sections (as already noted) of the professions and of the aristocracy (at least until the renttaking landlord becomes a profit-seeking capitalist farmer); all those, in fact, who see their social standing threatened. Thus Weber is able to posit curious anticapitalist alliances such as that between the working class and the ‘aristocratic adversaries of the bourgeoisie’ (2005 [1906]: 335). This is a point that gets elaborated by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation (1957 [1944]: 46), where Polanyi argues that we act to safeguard not our ‘individual interests in the possession of material goods’ but rather our ‘social standing’, ‘social claims’ and ‘social assets’.7 Like Weber, Polanyi argues that those dispossessed by capitalism’s advance are not alone in such defensive actions.

However, on Weber’s account those who act to defend their social standing do so in the face of ever more powerful forces, including urbanization and an emerging world market, which transform their lives, whether aristocratic or peasant: ‘… capitalism had also gnawed at the social character of the Junker and his labourers’ (2005 [1906]: 343). Even within the countries of the old Kultur, capitalism is able to make progress against existing institutions and the traditional conduct of life (Lebensführung). In the United States, which lacked a historically rooted peasantry and whose emergent (Southern) aristocracy was destroyed by the Civil War, capitalism faces no such obstacles. But the conclusion Weber draws from this is surprising; perhaps indeed the opposite to that which one might expect. Rather than conclude that capitalism will eventually triumph unchallenged, even for the United States he predicts that the conditions that facilitate capitalism’s unhindered development (for example, the availability of ‘free land’) are unique and will eventually be undermined by the effects of capitalism itself: the exhaustion of ‘free’ resources (especially land) and the emergence of a pseudo-aristocracy based upon wealth and ownership. So, rather than predict an American future for the countries of the old Kultur, in the end Weber hints at a German future for America, with capitalism even there struggling against ever tighter institutional constraints: ‘… the greater part of the problems for whose solution we are now working will approach America within but [a] few generations’ (2005 [1906]: 345). In contrast to Hirschman, Weber predicts no final and complete triumph for capitalism, but a ceaseless Kulturkampf.

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The St Louis Lecture is very rich (for example, it contains a detailed historical analysis of the differences between agricultural capitalism in the eastern and the in the southwestern parts of the German empire) and the above discussion is highly selective. But I think enough has been said to enable me to draw out the differences between Hirschman and Weber on the institutionalization of capitalist Kultur in face of opposition. If, in comparison to the Protestant Ethic, Hirschman’s emphasis upon statecraft appears more materialistic and concrete, in comparison to what Weber offers in the St Louis Lecture it appears rather abstract, even ‘highfalutin’. What Weber does here is to identify quite specific institutional conditions that foster or hinder the development of capitalist Kultur, and the specific social forces that oppose or support it (or who, like aristocratic landlords in the eastern part of the German empire, shift from opposition to support as conditions change). Where the two interpretations appear to be incompatible is in their respective emphasis upon the emergence of capitalism as an endogenous (Hirschman) or an exogenous (Weber) process – that is, end- or exogenous to the ‘centre of the “power structure” and the “establishment”’. They also operate on two different levels of analysis: Hirschman’s on the level of the theories that influenced the actions and strategies of the powerful, and Weber’s on the mesolevel of institutional framing conditions and collective responses. But perhaps precisely because they work on these two distinct levels, the two approaches might be made more compatible. Hirschman might be said to be offering an explanation as to why rulers were willing to accept the existence of spheres of activity – money making, manufacture and commerce – over which they could exercise little direct control. This emphasis on statecraft might explain a feature of the modern state to which Gianfranco Poggi drew attention in an important article published in the same year as The Passions and the Interests. Poggi noted that a key feature of what he called the nineteenth-century ‘constitutional state’ was that it ‘lays down frameworks for the pursuit by citizens of the most diverse private interests’ but ‘does not itself undertake, sponsor, control, activities on behalf of those interests’ (1977: 318). In other words, while monistic, the modern state is also limited.8 It tolerates the existence of a source of power even within its boundaries over which it had only limited control, namely capitalism. This, Hirschman’s thesis would suggest, is not mere toleration but a necessary condition for the state’s ability to rule effectively. It is not simply that rulers are dependent upon capitalist as a source of tax revenue (made necessary by the state’s core business: war-making – see Tilly, 1992), but that the existence of this distinct source of social power facilitates effective rule.9 This – as we shall see in the final section – is fully compatible with Weber’s view of the relationship between the state and capitalism.

However, even if we make Hirschman’s and Weber’s analyses more compatible by treating them as answers to questions at different levels of analysis, there is still a sense in which even Weber’s meso-level analysis remains too abstract. It does not address the issue of capitalist subjectivity; of capitalism at the level of meaning for the actor (the imperative of his verstende Soziologie). More specifically, it does not explain why while peasants and workers were opposing capitalism at the collective level, as individuals many of them were opting for it. To try to understand this, we shift from Weber and Hirschman to Weber and Simmel.

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

Capitalist subjectivity or the strange attraction of wage
labour: Weber-Simmel10
It is consumption rather than production that now first comes to mind when one speaks of capitalist subjectivity. But here I want to focus not on consumption but on the old topics of the labour contract and wage labour. For the moment we remain with Weber and in ‘rural’ Germany,11 and more specifically with his engagement in the large-scale empirical investigations conducted by the Verein für Sozialpolitik into agriculture and the conditions of land labourers in the eastern part of the German Empire undertaken in the 1880s and 1890s (see Tribe, 1983). As Martin Riesebrodt (1986) has pointed out, much of Weber’s analysis of the reshaping of agricultural production in late nineteenth-century Prussia along capitalist lines reads like an application of Marx’s general theory of the transition from a feudal to a capitalist mode of production. The emergence of a world market in agricultural products threatened the living standards of East Elbian landlords, whose semi-feudal means of production were now manifestly cost-inefficient in the face of wider market competition. In the attempt to sustain their living standards, landlords were forced into the new capitalist discipline of efficiency; a discipline which entailed a search for cost-cutting measures so radical that they resulted in the stage-by-stage dismantling of age-old relations of dependency of labourer upon landlord. It was this costcutting drive – this drive for efficiency – that transformed the bonded labourer into a wage labourer, the landlord into a capitalist farmer (Landwirt), and rent into profit. However, we must also note one important point on which Weber’s analysis diverges from Marx’s, at least in its emphasis. Weber is also interested here not merely in how conditions of rapid social change coerce actors by removing the historically stable institutional arrangements upon which they relied, but also in how such change confronts them with new dilemmas and new opportunities. This general concern has a more specific focus in his puzzlement that East Elbian agricultural labourers frequently appeared to opt for the wage contract whenever it was on offer despite the fact that, as he constantly reiterates, their material conditions of existence were thereby worsened. In other words, Weber seeks to identify ‘pull factors’ in addition to the more obvious ‘push factors’, but he is at something of a loss to say exactly what the ‘pull’ can be: The labourer seeks money wages which free him from the dependence and good will of the landlord despite the economic decline that is a result. Just as money rent appeared to the medieval peasant as the most important sign of his personal freedom, so does money wage appear to today’s worker. The rural worker forsakes positions that are often more favourable, always more secure, in a search for personal freedom.

(1989 [1884]: 172)

He makes a similar observation in the case of migrant workers who are also prepared to accept a lower standard of living abroad than they would have had at home because ‘local employment is historically and mentally associated with traditional power relations – it is the urge for freedom that drives the worker to employment away from home’ (1989 [1884]: 174). Lucien Goldmann (1964), echoing Pascal, once characterized Marxism as a ‘wager in the future and in the proletariat’, but it would seem that Weber’s

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proletariat had made its own wager: in the future and in the wage contract. Weber’s explanation of this is, as we shall see, similar to Simmel’s: where you are exposed to both economic exploitation and political domination springing from one and the same source – where the ‘master was not a simple employer, but rather a political autocrat’ (1989 [1884]: 161) – the level of personal oppression is such that you will choose the wage relation whenever the opportunity arises, and almost irrespective of the costs. But there are indications that Weber may himself be at something of loss to explain why the labourer is willing to exchange ‘the possibility of brutal personal domination that could be only escaped by flight’ for ‘commercial exploitation which, arising almost unnoticed, was actually much harder to evade’ (1989 [1884]: 171). His appeal to ‘decisive psychological factors’ that are ‘quite unconscious’ (1989 [1884]: 172) seems unconvincing.

In contrast, Georg Simmel’s arguments, particularly in The Philosophy of Money, address this puzzle by offering us what one might almost call a social psychology of liberalism and capitalism. Take this somewhat ironic observation: By thus eliminating the pressure of irrevocable dependence upon a particular individual master, the worker is already on the way to personal freedom despite his objective bondage. That this emergent freedom has little continuous influence upon the material situation of the worker should not prevent us from appreciating it.

(Simmel, 1990 [1907]: 300)

Given that Simmel asserts no correspondence between freedom and the material wellbeing of the worker – that is, that he concedes Marx’s point that ‘objective bondage’ remains – what can this freedom amount to? To the following: (i) at least the theoretical or legal possibility of leaving any particular master; and (ii) in the labour contract only a part of the personality of the worker – namely that part relevant to the task – is under control and surveillance, whereas in pre-capitalist society the whole personality is controlled by the master. I take Simmel’s general point here to be that the attempt merely to debunk the notion of freedom by demonstrating an asymmetry between formal (legal/political) and substantive (social/economic) freedom – as Marxists up to an including Gerry Cohen (1988) have done – is insufficient because it fails fully to appreciate the subjective significance of formal freedoms for those who lacked them. Simmel’s assertion of the equation of the wage contract and money with personal freedom stems from his general characterization of the dual nature of modern social relations within the money economy. On the one hand, there is an unprecedented level of mutual dependency, but, on the other, there is an equally unprecedented level of personal autonomy. While Simmel may thus well have agreed with Marx’s observation that with money ‘the individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket’ (1973 [1857/8]: 157) he would not have drawn the same conclusions. Whereas, for Marx, this is exclusively an expression of the power of the object over the subjects who created it – the latter’s ‘subordination to relations which subsist independently of them’ (1973 [1857/8]: 157) – for Simmel it is precisely the indifference of the medium towards the subject that is the source of our new-found (negative) freedom. Our increasing dependence on all within the market economy is compensated for and only bearable

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

because we are indifferent towards each: ‘… we are compensated for the great quantity of our dependence by the indifference towards the respective persons and by our liberty to change them at will’ (Simmel, 1990 [1907]: 298). Money is the medium of this indifference. Correspondingly, money ‘makes possible relationships between people but leaves them personally undisturbed’ (1990 [1907]: 303).

It is well known that for Simmel the psychological counterpart to the indifference of the medium is the increasing indifference of the subjects towards each other; their increasing ‘Blasiertheit’ (blasé attitude – see Simmel, 1995a [1903]). No less important, however, is that this individual subjective dimension has an intellectual counterpart, namely in individualism. The choice made by those who flee personal domination is not freedom at such, but one specific form or conception of freedom, namely personal freedom. Individualism on this account is not some post factum ideological reflex, nor is it merely imposed from above. Rather, it is implicit in the original act, or rather in the millions of original acts which have contributed to bringing the modern money economy into being. Simmel’s modern subjects occupy a habitus in which they are disposed to Blasiertheit at the level of personality and individualism at the level of ideas. The new urbanite and the emigrant are not individualists merely by dint of the nature of the urban or emigrant experience, but also owing to the fact that in many cases they have chosen personal freedom. This individualism – the modern ideology for Simmel to which Kant gave voice – he characterizes as follows:

The ideal of freedom and equality, which animated the eighteenth century and which now appears to us as the fusion of two mutually exclusive demands, most accurately expressed the unavoidable reaction to the dominant constitution of society. It was a time when individual powers were experienced as in unbearable opposition to their social and historical bonds and form. The privileges of the upper classes such as the despotic control of trade and development [Handel und Wandel], the still powerful vestiges of guild constitutions, as well as the intolerant coercion of the church, the unfree labour [Fronpflichten – i.e. corvée] of the peasant population, disenfranchisement in political life [Staatsleben] and the restrictions on municipal constitutions appeared as obsolete and decayed as slave chains which constricted one’s very breath. Out of the oppression of such institutions – which had lost all inner legitimacy – grew the ideal of the pure freedom of the individual [bloßen Freiheit des Individuums]: if only those bonds which coerce the powers of personality into their unnatural courses would break, then all inner and outer values for which the energy is present but which are politically, religiously and economically paralysed would unfold, and society would be led out of the epoch of historical unreason into that of natural reason. (Simmel, 1995b [1904]: 273–274)13

But the ‘pure freedom of the individual’ is not merely for Simmel the slogan of the Enlightenment struggle against absolutism, it is also the slogan of all those who, through their actions, re-create this historical movement within their own personal biographies.

So, now we have Simmel’s answer to Weber’s puzzle: insofar as circumstances allow actors to choose at all, they choose personal freedom over security and material wellbeing because the latter enters into their calculation only as a secondary consideration. Personal freedom from domination is the overriding value.

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The term that Weber repeatedly uses in his account of the motivations of the East Elbian rural labourers is ‘flight’ (Flucht). Their choices can be best understood with reference to what they were reacting against rather than as an expression of specific positive values. Likewise, Simmel ultimately distances himself from a full endorsement of the freedom the money economy offers. This he does by characterizing such individual freedom as ‘negative’; freedom from rather than freedom to. But it is, I suggest, precisely because they are negative that the freedoms of the wage contract and the money economy are so difficult to dislodge. In Weber’s characterization of the decisions of the rural labourers as flight, and in Simmel’s analysis of personal freedom as negative, there is an implicit model of human action and decision-making as reaction against the frustrations of that which one has experienced and knows. All such decisions are leaps in the dark whose aims are only dimly discerned as different from, or the opposite of, that which one knows all too well. This is less a theory of social action than one of reaction, or of action which is not so much zweck- as ‘flucht-’rational. It is – again – to Albert Hirschman (1982) that we owe an account of action as backward rather than forward looking but nonetheless as rational and intelligible. Hirschman shares the view that I have ascribed to Simmel that decisions are intelligible with reference to the past experience of the actor rather than exclusively in terms of his or her future-orientated aims (which often remain vague or obscure), but adds to this the claim that the primary motivation of such backward-looking action is the search for pleasure, which, following Tibor Scitovsky, he defines as ‘the transition from discomfort to comfort’. The key point is that pleasure in this sense can only be transitional. We cannot for long take pleasure in that which we have simply because, as the memory of what life was like without it recedes, it becomes transformed into mere environmental background; it becomes taken for granted. Conversely, and tautologically, we can only long for that which we lack. What does nonetheless increasingly impinge upon consciousness is frustration with the limitations and drawbacks of that which we have. Backward-looking action is motivated by the search for whatever appears to be the opposite of that which we currently find irksome – that is, it is flight. This structure of decision making results in a pattern of behaviour Hirschman characterizes as follows:

The world I am trying to understand … is one in which men think they want one thing and then upon getting it, find out to their dismay that they didn’t want it nearly as much as they thought or didn’t want it at all and that something else, of which they were hardly aware, is what they really wanted.

(1982: 21)

Where we are faced with what are perceived to be irreconcilable options, choice will be made on the basis of our past experience of disappointments rather than on an assessment of future implications and outcomes. Indeed, Hirschman argues that we cannot know what we want since if we did – that is, if we knew that alternative disappointments awaited us – we could not want it, or at least not as badly as we typically do. Instead, we project into the future and onto our new choices the hopes that arise out of previous experience; out of previous disappointment.

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

This is an account of social action that is difficult to square with Weber’s emphasis on the growth of instrumental rationality but may be easier to reconcile with Simmel’s somewhat different account of the nature of action. In the late book on Rembrandt, Simmel characterizes the differences between the inferior and the master portrait (2005 [1916]: 29). In the former the subject’s appearance is transferred ‘move-for-move’ onto the canvas. In the latter there is no such mechanical plan, the image emerges more organically; it ‘grows once again on the soil and under the specific categories of artistry’. This is consistent with Simmel’s more general view of social action in which, in contrast to Zweckrationalität, the ‘end’ is not a given and external telos towards which the action is the means, but emerges in the course of the action itself. In this sense, both Hirschman and Simmel are more radically at odds than is Weber, despite his argument that economic action is a form of social action, with the dominant, and ultimately utilitarian, account of action as typically orientated to ends.13

Capitalist Kultur as ‘congealed spirit’: Simmel–Weber
So do we find out to our dismay that we didn’t want it – in this case negative freedom – nearly as much as we thought? What price do we pay for our wager? In addressing these questions I want to turn to an issue discussed by David Frisby, to whose work and memory this special issue is dedicated: Simmel’s politics. Frisby (1984: 35) noted Simmel’s association with socialist circles in Berlin, but also, very plausibly, suggested that this relationship was a mixture of sympathy and distance.14 I shall argue that this engagement, or at least this concern, nevertheless influenced his analysis of the money economy, and perhaps, to a degree, his more philosophical work. I shall make the point by contrasting Simmel’s with Weber’s views.

In one of his late political essays – ‘Politics and Government in Germany under a New Political Order’ (1994a [1918]) – Weber deploys the metaphor of ‘congealed spirit’ (geronnener Geist) to characterize both modernity’s dead machine (the factory) and its living machine (bureaucracy). As the editors of the English translation note (Lassman and Speirs, 1994: 158, fn. 32), the metaphor may have been borrowed from Marx or from Simmel, with respect to the latter from ‘Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur’ of 1911. The relevant passage in Simmel comes near the beginning of that essay:

So the subject confronts art, just as it does law, religion and technology, science and custom: not only now attracted, now repelled by their content; now fused with them as with a part of the self [das Ich]; now in estrangement and imperviousness opposed to them, rather it is the form of solidity; of congealed being [des Geronnenseins]; of persistent existence with which the spirit, having become object in this way, opposes flowing vitality, inner personal responsibility, the shifting tensions of the subjective soul; as spirit intimately bound to spirit, but precisely therefore experiencing countless tragedies in this profound contrast of form: between subjective life, which is restless but finite, and its contents which, once created, are motionless but timelessly valid.

(1996 [1911]: 385)

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It is instructive to see how this congealed spirit metaphor works itself out in contrasting ways in Weber and Simmel.
Of the passage in Weber (1988 [1918]: 332; English translation, 1994a [1918]: 158) in which this metaphor appears, Dick Kaelser (2004: 16) notes that it leaves little wanting in way of gloominess. It appears together with a much more famous metaphor: the ‘housing of serfdom’ (Gehäuse der Hörigkeit), by which Weber also means the steelhard housing or casing (stahlhartes Gehäuse – ‘iron cage’ in Parsons’s well-known (mis) translation). This is the housing of relations of domination and obedience, which he compares to the ‘ancient state of Egypt’, only, because more rational, its potential hold on us is greater than that on Egyptian slaves. It is not difficult to see Kaesler’s point. But it is also too easy to read into this passage a general diagnosis of modernity and overlook the fact that Weber is not making a prediction here; he is issuing a dire warning: this will happen if people come to ‘consider that the ultimate and only value by which the conduct of their affairs is to be decided is good administration and the provision of their needs by officials’ (1994a [1918]: 158, original italics). He is, as the German saying has it, painting the devil on the wall. His specific fear is that via welfare measures – via what he elsewhere calls ‘karitativ-polizeilicher Wohlfahrts- und Wirtschaftspflege’ (1988b [1904]: 153)15 – our rights will once more be tied to our occupation, thus re-creating the conditions in which the master (now the administration) is both ‘political autocrat’ and employer, and so undo the gains of capitalist Kultur: the separation of economic exploitation from political domination (Herrschaft). So, the ‘congealed spirit’ metaphor is being applied not to capitalism itself, but to a possible scenario in which the institutional pillarization that separates the state from capitalism – the state from the market – breaks down and the state (as political master) comes, in part or whole, to take on the role of economic provider.16

Weber by this stage had committed himself to capitalist Kultur, which, along with the institutions of parliamentary democracy, he viewed as necessary means to rebuild Germany and re-establish its position in the face of the ‘iron-hard spring’ (1994c [1917]: 84) that would follow its defeat in the First World War (see Scott, 2000). The metaphor functions then not as part of a critique of capitalist Kultur, but as a warning of what will happen if the delicate system of informal institutional checks and balances between the (capitalist) economy and (bureaucratic) administration tips too far in the latter’s favour – that is, more or less the opposite of what appears to have been happening over the last thirty or so years. In contrast, Simmel’s use of the congealed spirit idea suggests that of three major theorists of capitalist modernity discussed here it is he who most consistently emphasizes the opposing forces that shape modern culture.

In ‘Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur’ the congealed spirit metaphor is embedded in a philosophical anthropology: the ability to deposit spirit into (material and/or immaterial) culture – ‘life’ into ‘form’ – is one distinguishing feature of human beings. Consistent with this view is Simmel’s assertion that Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism merely describes an instance of this wider principle; that it is ‘only a particular modified case of the general fate of the contents of our culture’ (1996 [1911]: 408). This would apply to any ‘sociological’ application of the life–form distinction. For example, it would apply equally well to Weber’s theory of the routinization of charisma, where the personal qualities of the charismatic figure (life) have to be transferred into institutionalized form,

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

such as professional practice, that can be sustained by those who do not, or cannot, claim charismatic authority for themselves.17 But Simmel’s own use of the life–form distinction is likewise associated with a sociological claim, namely that the money economy is necessarily accompanied by the growing weight of objective culture – of form over life – and that this Übermacht der Gesellschaft (see Simmel, 1995a [1903]) is the price we pay for negative freedom.

Mathieu Deflem traces Simmel’s relative lack of, at least direct, influence when compared to the other major figures in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social theory to his ‘refusal to locate any underlying pivotal force in the course of modernity’ (2003: 89). I think this is basically right, but needs some reformulation: Simmel does identify pivotal forces, but these are never of a uniform or unidirectional kind, unlike, say, Weber’s rationalization thesis or the early Durkheim’s emphasis on organic solidarity, and thus are less easy to grasp and less attractive to those seeking a unequivocal ‘diagnosis’ of modernity.18 Rather, the forces Simmel identifies always pull in two diametrically opposed directions. Modernity is characterized not by a single trend, or set of trends, but by polarization: more of X and more of the opposite of X:

The currents of modern culture flow in two apparently opposite directions: on the one side, towards levelling out [Nivellierung], equalization, the production of ever more inclusive social circles via the subsumption of the most remote elements under the same conditions; on the other side, towards bringing out individual traits, the independence of the personality, and the autonomy of its formation. Both directions are borne by the money economy, which, on the one hand, makes possible general and in all places similarly functioning interests, means of association and communication; on the other, it enables the personality to reach new heights of reserve, individualization and freedom.

(Simmel, 1983 [1896]: 83)

This statement is indicative of Simmel’s ‘sociological ambivalence’, but it is an ambivalence more profound than Merton’s ‘opposing tendencies in the social definition of a role’ (1976: 12, original emphasis). Modern (capitalist) Kultur is characterized not by contradiction in the Marxist sense, but rather by opposed but necessary components of one and the same socio-historical development: opposing tendencies in the social constitution of our world.19 This sociological ambivalence can be seen equally clearly in Simmel’s treatment of the relationship between the individual and the social. Weber resolves this tension by ultimately coming down on the side of methodological individualism, but Simmel, via the analysis of types of ‘sociation’ (Vergesellschaftung), strives to maintain the tension between modernity’s individualism and the growing Übermacht der Gesellschaft in the form of the increasing power of objective culture (of which money is perhaps the highest expression) and the fragmentation of personality that accompanies the emergence of the money economy. On this view, our becoming modern entails a fundamental shift of values to accommodate these increasing tensions (see Sassatelli, 2000).

With respect to these issues, I want to suggest, finally, that while Simmel appears to be the least politically interested of all the major figures in social theory, he is, in part at least, nevertheless seeking to address a political question: how to square political liberalism with

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(i) a sociological conception of the agent and (ii) the collective demands of the socialists and early feminists, with whose causes he was sympathetic, at least from a distance. The centrality of the concern with the relationship between the individual and social that occupied so much of his effort – whether ‘sociological’ or ‘philosophical’ – is part of an attempt to work out what one might call a ‘sociological liberalism’: a way of making a sociological perspective compatible with individualism and political liberalism, which Simmel, quite conventionally, thought to be central and necessary to modernity.20 In this respect, like so much social theory, if less obviously so, Simmel’s work is the continuation of political theory by other means. By the time of the later writings, such as the book on Rembrandt (1916), Simmel seems – via the notion of the individual law – to have abandoned this attempt to keep the individual and the social in a creative tension in favour of the former. For the purposes of understanding capitalism as Kultur, his work makes the strongest contribution where the two are held in tension, for it is precisely this tension between the emphasis upon the individual (his or her choices and preferences) and the Übermacht der Gesellschaft that is so characteristic of capitalism as a cultural phenomenon. Funding

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

  1. Neo-institutionalism is not unique in this. Similar concerns have motivated much Foucauldian analysis, particularly the literature around ‘governmentality’. See Dean (2010) for an authoritative account.   2. As Hirschman (1997 [1977]: 4) points out, on this the Weberian and Marxist traditions are also agreed.

  3. I have no reference for this as it is from my memory of his wonderful first-year lectures at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.
  4. For a recent and very thorough critique of Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis, see Barbalet (2008).   5. It is worth quoting Peter Ghosh’s account of the term Kultur from his very useful notes on Weber’s text:

… the most important meanings of Kultur c.1900 were ideal and holistic; the term was a modern, secularising surrogate (or equivalent) for a receding religious vocabulary. Seen in this light it might be described as the realm of fundamental values; the values which determine the conduct of life taken as a whole (Lebensführung).

(Ghosh, 2005: 348, fn. d.S)
  6. Weber’s later political writings railed against this idea that there is a specifically German Kultur and a political form (the Ständestaat, polity of estates) appropriate to it.   7. This polarization between ‘material goods’ and ‘social standing’ is problematic since in many cases the latter will depend upon the former, but the wider context here is Polanyi’s critique of the economic model of the actor as a self-regarding utility maximizer.   8. Michael Mann (1997) makes a similar point by arguing that the modern (nation) state is ‘modest’ in the sense that it does not seek to control or reshape all social relations, and that those states that have been immodest in this sense have failed.

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Journal of Classical Sociology 13(1)

  9. For a recent and very persuasive version of the argument that there is mutual benefit between political and economic elites to the point at which the privatization of state assets can strengthen rather than weaken the position of political elites, see Hibou (2004). 10. This section reworks some material and arguments from an earlier piece (Scott, 1996). 11. The scare quotes are there as one argument of the St Louis Lecture is that the distinction between the rural and urban is now (that is, even then) of limited use. 12. Where the reference given is to the original German version of Simmel’s work, the translations are mine. In such cases in the References I have given the reference to the English version, where available, after the original. In translating these passages I have tried to stick as closely as possible to Simmel’s style, including the retention of his multiple-clause sentences (Schachtelsätze). I think this is important because Simmel seeks to capture the opposing forces that constitute modernity (see final section). One way in which this is given – at least rhetorical – support is in his attempts to pack these conflicting currents into singlesentence formulations. Simmel’s German is not only very demanding, it is also sometimes rather quirky, as, for example, in his use (for example, in one of the quotes below) of ‘nicht nur … sondern’ instead of the more usual ‘nicht nur … sondern auch’ (‘not only … rather’, instead of ‘not only … but also’), which sounds as odd in German as it does in English. 13. The similarity here may be more than coincidental. Hirschman (1998: 17–21) discusses Simmel’s treatment of the relationship between egotism and conviviality (‘commensality’) in the latter’s ‘Die Soziologie der Mahlzeit’ (2008 [1910]) and relates the arguments of that essay to his own analysis in Shifting Involvements, indeed partly adjusting his position in light of Simmel’s arguments.

14. For a detailed discussion of Simmel‘s politics that stresses his engagement with progressive – feminist as well as socialist – circles, see Leck (2000). 15. Welfare and economic care based upon the principles of charity and police. 16. This becomes much more explicit in Weber’s essay on socialism, where it forms the core of his critique of post-revolutionary Russia (see Weber, 1994b [1918]). 17. For an account of the professions as the routinization of charisma, see Seyfarth (1989). 18. This seems to me to be precisely the major source of Simmel’s continued attraction as well as irritation. His sociological ambivalence provides a sobering counterweight to the tendency of contemporary social theory to seek simplified, or indeed simplistic, general diagnoses of our times in terms of ‘risk’, ‘reflexivity’, ‘individualization’, ‘McDonaldization’, ‘network’, and the rest.

19. This is well captured by Roberta Sassatelli when she notes that – against Marx – Simmel denied that the growth of the market ‘goes hand in hand with the dissolution of the individual and with the fall of her signification space’, but nevertheless still ‘offers a critical viewpoint for analyzing the ambivalence of commercial modernity’ (2000: 12) . 20. For a much more detailed and technical discussion of Simmel on the individual and individualism, and on relation between the individual and ‘the social’, see Pyyhtinen (2010), especially Chapter 7.

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Author biography
Alan Scott is professor of Sociology at the University of New England, NSW, Australia. He has published extensively on political and organizational sociology, and on social theory. Recent publications include (as co-editor with Edwin Amenta and Kate Nash) The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology (2012). He is currently working on a book with a colleague on social theory and political economy in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

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