Great Social Theorists

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University


In an attempt to promote greater understanding of classical macro-social theory, particularly its implications for social criticism and prediction, I have created an Internet Web Site on the nine classical social theorists listed to the right of this page. I have included bibliographies, short essays, links to primary sources, and other worthwhile Internet materials. I developed these web sites as aides for myself and my students to further our studies of these theorists. They are included for historical interest as well as their usefulness in understanding contemporary social structure and change.

Macro Social Theory (2015) is intended to introduce students to the classical social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and T. Robert Malthus as well as the modern expressions of these perspectives. It does this through two mechanisms. First, it provides an overview and critique of four major classical traditions in sociology. Rather than discussing these theories as history, the book will focus upon elements of the perspectives that have proved useful in understanding sociocultural systems. Then, the book will provide an overview and critique of the perspective and analysis of three contemporary social scientists writing within each of these traditions. As modern representatives of  Malthusian/ Spencerian theory, the book examines the theories of Ester Boserup, Gerhard Lenski and Stephen K. Sanderson. For contemporary followers of Marx the theories of Immanuel Wallerstein, Harry Braverman and John Bellamy Foster are examined. Representing the Durkheimian worldview are Stjepan Mestrovic, Robert K. Merton, Robert A. Nisbet, and Neil Postman. Finally, modern day Weberians are represented by C. Wright Mills, Norbert Elias and George Ritzer. The overarching goal of the book is to provide students with an in-depth understanding of each of the classical sociological traditions and their usefulness in understanding contemporary societies. Through study of contemporary social scientists such as Lenski, Braverman, Mestrovic, and Elias students will truly come to appreciate the breadth and depth of classical social theory as well as its usefulness in understanding contemporary and historical sociocultural systems. The book's concluding chapter demonstrates how the various perspectives detailed in the book are compatible with a comprehensive sociological worldview. (Reviews)

Macrosociology—the study of large-scale social structures and the fundamental principles of social organization—was the style of sociology practiced by the founders of the discipline. Today, the social theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Herbert Spencer (among others) are commonly studied as part of the history of the field, but, although the macrosociological approach that these thinkers advocated is still employed, it no longer dominates the discipline. Instead, sociologists typically adopt a narrower focus, specializing in areas such as social psychology, medicine, religion, or the study of social stratification. Examining the bigger picture is a task often left to public intellectuals. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change (Athabasca University Press, 2013) aims to reinstate macrosociology as the heart of the discipline by demonstrating that both classical and contemporary macrosociologists stand upon common ground. Focusing on the broad issues that concerned the founders, Elwell addresses questions such as: Historically, what factors accounted for the origin, survival, and evolution of sociocultural systems? Why were some societies more technologically advanced than others? What is the origin of capitalism? What factors determine the allocation of goods and services within and among societies? What effects do changes in government and economic institutions have on communities? As evolution does for biology, the macrosociological paradigm offers an analytical strategy that can be used both to guide and prioritize research in all of the myriad specialties within sociology and to lay forth an orderly body of knowledge for students. Clearly articulating important sociological principles, Sociocultural Systems provides a critical understanding of social institutions and issues, while also furnishing a framework for possible solutions to the perennial social crises that are part and parcel of the development of human societies. (Reviews)

Alfred North Whitehead said that "a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost." In this respect the teaching of social theory, particularly macro social theory, is too often focused on the founders. Undergraduate texts give ample discussion of the canonical works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim but little when it comes to the theories of contemporary practitioners. My book, Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists (Paradigm, 2006) seeks to remedy this with a focus on the work of four modern theorists who have taken on the larger themes of classical social theory. C. Wright Mills, Marvin Harris, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Gerhard Lenski have examined such phenomena and processes as the rise and impact of capitalism, the centralization and enlargement of authority, inequality, and the intensification of production and population. Borrowing what is useful from the classics as well as relying on contemporary practitioners and empirical evidence, each theorist adds his own insights and interpretations in constructing a comprehensive perspective of sociocultural stability and change. This book fully summarizes and documents each perspective using language and examples that resonate with the general reader. A short biography on each theorist is also provided. (Reviews)

The book is a commentary on Malthus’ 1798 Essay on Population that attempts to tie the interpretation closely to the original Essay rather than to the politically charged reactions to that Essay. Malthus' master work is not a simplistic projection of future population growth and inevitable collapse, the Essay is actually a far subtler ecological-evolutionary social theory. Malthus’ theory is fundamentally based on the relationships between population and food production. Increase the supply of food, he argues, and population will rise to meet this increase. This, he asserts, means that the race between population and resources can never be truly won by any sociocultural system. Therefore, some measure of social inequality is inevitable in all human societies. The work includes commentary and criticism of Malthus’ methodology, the materialist, evolutionary, and functional elements of his theory, as well as the application of his theory to understanding the nature of welfare programs and possibilities for social progress.

The Industrial Revolution continues. Recently, we have entered a "hyper-industrial" phase in which massive industrial and population changes begun in the 17th century are disrupting the remaining vestiges of  traditional institutions as well as the norms and values of western societies. Drawing on the work of classical and neo-classical theorists,  Industrializing America: Understanding  Contemporary Society through Classical Sociological Analysis  (Praeger, 1999) is an attempt to integrate and synthesize these insight into a comprehensive world view. Presents a coherent and comprehensive sociological analysis of modern industrial societies. An analysis of any part of the social system must be firmly rooted in a framework that outlines the whole system and the interrelationships of the various parts. Building on classical social theory, this volume proposes an original and comprehensive systems theory of sociocultural stability and change, which combines fundamental ecological relationships with social structures and culture. Relationships and concepts developed by Marx, Weber, Malthus, Spencer, and Durkheim are explained and synthesized into a coherent perspective, which is used to examine multiple institutions in modern industrial societies. (Review)

The Evolution of the Future Revisited is an update of the 1991 book that uses basic principles of sociology and a thorough background in history to evaluate and critique the forecasts of the ecologists, technologists, utopians and dystopians of the day. While most futurists rely upon simple trend analysis, Elwell contends that one must first understand the structure and dynamics of sociocultural systems—how the various parts of a society fit together and affect one another—before one can accurately identify the forces and likely direction of sociocultural change. There is a well-defined social evolutionary process, Elwell argues, and an understanding of this process is central in understanding the forces that are shaping the future. Revised and updated on its 21year anniversary, the book holds up remarkably well in its critiques as well as in its own unique vision of sociocultural systems and its forecasts for the future of industrial society.

The exclusive emphasis upon macro social theory is important because it is central to the social science disciplines but often given only cursory and incomplete treatment in modern texts. Macro social theory—a comprehensive world view of sociocultural system stability and change—provides structure and guidance in understanding world events. The promise of such understanding is the primary draw for many students of the social sciences.  Unfortunately, classical theorists are often treated as historical artifacts rather than useful guides in understanding sociocultural systems; nor are modern macro theorists given significant textbook treatment. This website and its companion (In the Classical Tradition)  will provide a vehicle for reintegrating macro social theory into the discipline. I believe Braverman, Wallerstein, and Foster do Marx better than Marx does Marx. I can get the richness of Weber’s perspective across to students through examining his influence on such exciting contemporary figures as Mills, Elias, and Ritzer. By examining the theory of Mestrovic, Merton, and Nisbet I can make Durkheim’s theories about the division of labor and anomie obvious and relevant in today’s world. Through an examination of classical theory as modified by contemporaries, I can demonstrate to students that sociological theory is indispensable in understanding the social world.



What is Social Theory?

T. Robert Malthus (1766-1834)

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)


In the Classical Tradition