Great Classical Social Theorists

In the Classical Tradition: Modern Social Theorists

Glossary of Social Science

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 Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
What is Social Theory?

by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University


In earlier times, maps often did a poor job of adequately reflecting actual geography; they were not often drawn to scale, misrepresented many geographical features, and left many areas blank or decorated with pictures of mythical beasts or phrases such as hic sunt dracones (“here be dragons” in today’s popular phrase) denoting the fear of the unknown. Over time, as people explored the world around them and maps became a sorely needed tool in these explorations, cartography became more specialized, systematic gathering of information from explorers and travelers became more common, new technologies such as the compass, printing press, longitude and latitude were employed, and maps gradually became more accurate and useful in understanding the lay of the land (and waters). Now our map making skills are more accurate still through the professionalization of cartography, the further development of technologies such as global satellites, and the creation of government and private bureaucracies that employ cartographers, produce and distribute their maps, as well as promote education, research and development in the field. Theories of society have much in common with the evolution of map making as well as the maps themselves.

The knowledge base of a culture becomes broader, deeper, and more reflective of empirical reality with experience, discovery, and contact with other sociocultural systems. The accumulation and empirical accuracy of this knowledge base begins slowly through human history; very often this accumulated knowledge based on observation and reason was confounded by tradition, folklore, myth, as well as religious and political beliefs. The Enlightenment and the development of science, however, greatly sped up the process of attaining ever greater empirical accuracy. Science has a strong connection to the rigorous observation of the physical world. Because its accumulated body of knowledge is continually checked and replicated by other scientists, the practice of science gradually filters out the wishful and mistaken, tradition and emotion, mythical, political and spiritual, and arrives at ideas, concepts, and theories that more closely approach physical reality and the relationships between objects in this reality.

Weber's concept of rationalization refers to the process by which modes of precise calculation based on observation and logic increasingly dominate the social world. As has happened with maps specifically, our mental map of empirical and social reality has been refined; elements based on tradition, values, and emotions have gradually been replaced. Of course, many irrational elements stubbornly remain, particularly those that are held by elites because it is in their material interest to hold them (rejection of global climate change comes to mind, but there are many others), or by large numbers of a population who feel their interests, values or traditions directly threatened by the findings of science (evolution comes to mind, but there are many others). But in general and over time the knowledge base of society is undergoing constant rational refinement.

Social theorists are much like cartographers of the sociocultural world. Like cartographers, they attempt to determine on the basis of evidence what phenomena are real and how they are related to one another. They decide on what social elements they wish to map, what social processes and relationships they are trying to capture—from micro-theories of interactions among bureaucrats to macro-theories that attempt to cast in language the relationships of entire world-systems of societies. Like cartographers, theorists attempt to eliminate objects from their theories that are not relevant to the generalizations they are trying to make; and like cartographers they attempt to reduce the complexities of the characteristics and the relationships of their theories, the better to produce a framework that can actually be used to promote understanding of the sociocultural world. Finally, like cartographers, they learn from their own and others observations, from the maps that have been made before; their theoretical postulates are constantly checked by their peers and by new observations of social reality. Like a map of a given geographic territory, a social theory is judged on its parsimony and clarity of expression, as well as the accuracy of the symbolic reflection of social reality that it creates. I believe that the macro social theory created by the founders of sociology—as revised and refined by those who have followed—provides a very useful map both for understanding and navigating our world.

Marx, Weber, & Durkheim

Are you interested in what is going on out there? What are the relationships between capitalism, bureaucracy, war, and democracy? Is  the world becoming more civilized and more barbaric at the same time? Are the two related? Why is inequality increasing? Is work becoming more dehumanizing? For answers to these and other social riddles take a look at the "big picture" as described by classical and contemporary social observers in the following works:

Sociocultural Systems
Macro Social Theory
Macro Social Theory
Four Modern Theorists

Industrializing America


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