Philosophy or Sociological Theory?

  • Nicos P. Mouzelis


A work which clearly illustrates the shift from sociological theory to philosophical analysis in recent years is Terry Johnson, Christopher Dendeker and Clive Ashworth’s The Structure of Social Theory,1 (henceforth referred to as TSST). According to the authors, every social theory explicitly or implicitly deals with two fundamental questions. The first is ontological and raises the issue of the nature of social reality, of whether it is material or ideal; the second concerns the epistemological problem of the nature of knowledge about social reality, of whether or not such knowledge is derived from realist or nominalist assumptions. Basing themselves on these two dichotomies (material/ideal, real/nominal), the authors of TSST construct a four-fold typology that enables them to discuss systematically and in a theoretically rigorous fashion four major strategies of sociological theorising: those of empiricism, subjectivism, substantialism and rationalism.


Social Knowledge Social Theory Social Reality Dominant Strategy Sociological Theory 
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  1. 1.
    T. Johnson, C. Dandeker and C. Ashworth, The Structure of Social Theory: Dilemmas and Strategies, London: Macmillan, 1984.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    The term convention is taken from R. Keat and J. Urry’s Social Theory as Science, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    See T. Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966, pp. 11–14; see also his Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, New York: Free Press, 1977.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    See L. Althusser, For Marx, London: Allen Lane, Penguin 1969, pp. 183–90 and p. 251.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    See H. A. Landsberger, ‘Parsons’ theory of organisations’, in M. Black (ed.), The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 219 ff.Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    William F. Whyte, Man and Organization, Homewood, Ill.: Richard Irwin & Co., 1959, pp. 40–1.Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    He also allows for external mechanisms of change (that is, outside the social system), such as diffusion. The diffusion aspects of Parsonian evolutionism have been adopted by various modernisation theories trying to explain the socio-economic trajectory of present-day poor countries in terms of a transfer of culture, technology, and capital from the fully ‘modernised’ West to the ‘modernising’ Third World. The overriding tendency of such theories is to adopt also Parsons’ lopsided system-oriented approach. Questions beginning with Who are rarely asked; the transfer of technology, culture, and capital is conceptualised as a disembodied process taking place in a power vacuum, in a situation where social classes, interest groups, relationships of dependence and exploitation are absent. For a critique of modernisation theories along such lines see H. Bernstein, ‘Modernisation theory and the sociological study of development’, Journal of Development Studies, vol. VII, 1971; see also A. Hoogvelt, The Sociology of Developing Societies, London: Macmillan, 1976, pp. 9–64.Google Scholar

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© Nicos P. Mouzelis 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicos P. Mouzelis
    • 1
  1. 1.The London School of Economics & Political ScienceUK

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