Sociocultural Systems:
Contemporary Expression of Classical Theory

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University

Classical Sociological Paradigm, Exemplar, and Modern Practitioners:  
Evolution Capital Anomie Rationalization
T. Robert Malthus (1766-1834) Karl Marx (1818-1883) Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) Max Weber (1864-1920)
Marvin Harris Immanuel Wallerstein Stjepan G. Mestrovic C. Wright Mills
Gerhard E. Lenski Harry Braverman Robert K. Merton Norbert Elias
Stephen K. Sanderson John Bellamy Foster Neil Postman George Ritzer
Robert Carneiro Andre Gunder Frank Robert A. Nisbet Krishan Kumar
This project is intended to introduce students to the four major macro-sociological traditions. These theoretical traditions have been variously named in the past, usually after the major exemplar, but I think it more useful to use a descriptive name for each based upon the prime determinant of sociocultural stability and change identified by the perspective. The four distinct traditions are: Ecological-Evolutionary, Capital, Anomie, and Rationalization. Each of these theoretical traditions has an exemplar or a classical theorist considered to have introduced the representative themes of the paradigm. For the ecological-evolutionary perspective the classical exemplar is T. Robert Malthus, the prime determinant is population and production; it is the interrelationships of these two material factors that produce evolutionary sociocultural change. For Capital Theory the exemplar is Karl Marx, and the prime determinant of sociocultural stability and change in the modern world is identified as capitalism, both within the nation state and on an international scale. For Anomie Theory the exemplar is Emile Durkheim, and the prime mover in the theory is the increasing division of labor and the resulting anomie among the population. And finally, the exemplar of Rationalization Theory is Max Weber, the prime mover being the bureaucratization and rationalization process. The contemporary theorists in each tradition represent different directions or emphases taken within that tradition. While it should be noted that the contemporary theorists often integrate other influences into their perspective, the major thrust of each is very much within the indicated tradition.


I am currently working on Sociocultural Systems: The Contemporary Expression of Classical Theory for the Edwin Mellen Press. This book is intended to introduce students to the classical social theory of Malthus, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber as well as the modern expressions of these perspectives. It does this through two mechanisms. First, it provides an overview and critique of the four major macro-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 two contemporary social scientists writing within each of these traditions. 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 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 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.


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. 

The Industrial Revolution continues. Recently, we have entered a "hyperindustrial" 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.

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