Is sociology stuck in the middle? The uses of Marxist general theory

By | 2018-10-25T12:22:18+00:00 Oct 24, 2018|

Middle-range theory is a sociological orientation that goes back to the discipline’s founders in thinkers such as Max Weber. But it is most associated with the person that gave it its name, Robert Merton, and today is seen as one of his most significant contributions.

With the concept of the middle-range Merton argued two basic things – (1) that it is impossible to identify an independent variable that operates across all contexts and that (2) social theory is best advanced as separate hypotheses that are related to separate observations or types of phenomena. At best, sociologists could have theories of particular things: revolutions, racial formation, bureaucratic organizations, the division of housework, and so on.

In developing an approach to constructing middle-range theory Merton explicitly distanced himself from what he negatively termed general or grand theory – such as that of Parsons theory of the social system and Marx’s historical materialism. But he also urged sociology away from what Clifford Geertz referred to as “thick description” – that is, richly detailed accounts of behavior, social context, and the researchers interpretations of the meanings people give their particular behaviors.

Merton appears to have won in the battle of ideas. The scope of social theory can range from the very particular to the very general. In sociology today, especially exemplified by the rise of analytical sociology, Merton’s middle range dominates. But should it?

Marxism With Less Ambition

In a way, theorists of the middle range have an easier task than the generalists. They don’t aspire to create comprehensive research programs and see no problem in choosing from a menu of concepts in the explanations of their puzzles.

But there is value in general theory. And here I think the Marxist variant is particularly useful for people that want to make sense of our world. While there are many epistemological traditions that fall under the Marxist umbrella, at its core Marxism remains relevant because it plausibly identifies structures, processes, and mechanisms that matter for a wide range of more particular social questions. This includes revolutions, racial formation, bureaucratic organizations, the division of housework, and so on.

This is not to say that Marxism is exhaustive or a sufficient theory to understand all social problems – Marxism is not a theory of all things. So much lays outside of its scope. What does Marxism tell us about falling in love or the fear of being rejected by our peers? Very little. To take up Clifford Geertz’s classic example, Marxism has little to say about the difference between a twitch and a wink. To the extent that Marxism is useful for sociology depends largely on what we want to explain, the research question. But even though it is not a theory of everything, it does offer the possibility of putting seemingly isolated social issues into a much greater context of social relations and, critically, a historical narrative.

Marx probably would have viewed much of middle rage theory as residing at “the level of appearances” with deeper hidden causes. But that is not to say that appearances are inconsequential. Even things that are caused themselves carry their own weight in the world. It is just to say that Marxism argues that any particular thing cannot be fully explained without analyzing the hidden social reality behind that thing. General theory’s challenge for sociologists is to put seemingly isolated social processes into a broader whole or structure.

Marxism provides a coherent set of problematics and concepts that can be used to do just this. Employing the framework effectively only deepens our understanding of more middle range phenomena. Its core task is to uncover, analyze and explain the background conditions that so often far from view. This is, afterall, precisely what Marx does in his critique of political economy when he moves from the realm of exchange – the sole focus of political economy in his time – into the “hidden abode of production.”

Modes of Production, Capitalism

What in Marxist general theory might mid-range sociologists find useful? If you are interested in gender inequalities in the household, for instance, why should you care about so-called economics? For Marx, it all comes down to the things people need to do to survive.

The key organizing concept in Marxism is that of a mode of production. In any given society there are specific combinations of technology and configurations of social relations that produce what Robert Brenner called, “the rules for reproduction.” To put it simply, there are basic strategies for survival that are determined by the relations of appropriation and production. These basic strategies vary across types of mode of production. In capitalism, for instance, most people have to find an employer to rent their labor to survive. Others, do the renting. And still others, might live off their investments and inherited wealth.

Mode of production is of course pitched at a high level of abstraction – primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism – it is after all general theory. So for those of us more akin to the middle range it might seem too far removed the specific empirical realities of anyone’s particular life. But Marx understood full well that historically specific modes of production are often articulated in ways that incorporate elements outside of their category. Just look around the world, no society is purely capitalist. Even the staunchest red states have libraries – socialist institutions to be sure.

Of immediate relevance to sociologists concerned with contemporary social problems is of course the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism has four basic features.

  1. Production is for exchange (not consumption) and profit (not barter)
  2. Productive assets are privately owned by a small minority
  3. The majority of people need to work for someone else to survive
  4. There is a monetary system that produces bank-credit money

Marxists argue that the combination of these elements structures certain regularities or tendencies in all capitalist societies – ranging from hyper-capitalist ones like America to societies that are less capitalist, such as Sweden, from less developed to more, and so on.

While there are countervailing forces and trends, for Marxists capitalism generates and reproduces the following regularities:

  1. It produces competing classes with distinct interests relative to the distribution of the social product. It reproduces classes as relational groups – meaning that domination and exploitation, or the extraction of profit, depends on what Erik Olin Wright referred to as an “inverse interdependence of well-being.” Some benefit because others are worse off.
  2. Competition between capitalist firms generates patterns of economic development – the tendency toward technical dynamism, the spread of capitalism globally into non-capitalist spaces, the concentration of capital into bigger enterprises, the elaboration of a division of labor and the creation of class fractions, and periodic crises and breakdowns because of falling rate of profit and crises of overaccumulation.
  3. Because of the incentives firms have to lower costs and produce more efficiently, without strong labor organization work will be subject to deskilling and workers themselves will be subject to managerial control whose particular form can depend on gender, race, and nationality.
  4. Inequality will be mapped onto groups and articulated through racial categories that firms will use to both to divide their workforces and segment the labor market.
  5. Family life and sexual roles are arranged in ways that contribute toward the reproduction of capitalist social relations.
  6. The drive for endless accumulation of capitalist firms generates environmental catastrophe in a necessarily finite world.

Structural Scope Conditions

How should sociologists and other social scientists begin to incorporate Marx’s notions of capitalism into their own work? And what use are these ideas to the public? Proceeding to understand and solve specific empirical problems given this weighty general theory hanging over our heads is no easy task. But finding ways to show how middle-range phenomena occur within and are structured through more general social processes is the best way to get the bigger picture.

Would bringing Marxism back into our social science only result in crude economic determinism and functionalism, as suggested by Merton, Theda Skocpol and other critics? One criticism of some work influenced by Marxism is that patterns of social behavior are solely explained by the functional need of capitalist accumulation.

While some Marxists have certainly embraced reductionist analyses, this is more of a caricature than an actual description of Marxist sociology or political economy.

As I will show below in a brief example from my own work, the general theory identifies regularities and structures within modes of production – but when we change the level of analysis to actual historical moments and events, we also need to bring in mechanisms and processes not identified in the general theory. This is why Capital does not simply have all the answers.

For example, considering how societies are organized at the level of a nation-state entails examining national institutions, social policies and welfare states, patterns of racial formation, the conditions for social reproduction and gender inequality, immigration politics and the flow of migratory movements, and how that societies institutions are integrated with others globally, among the many other things our research question leads us toward.

So what of the relations of these kinds of phenomena? Capitalism doesn’t mechanistically determine these middle range processes, but it does impose structural scope conditions on them. This is a pattern of causation in which structures found within the regularities produced by the capitalist mode of production establish and reproduce the limits on or constraints within which other processes unfold.

Structural Limitation in Policy Change

In my own work on the development of America’s retirement system since the New Deal, I identify the observable and measurable ways that capitalist accumulation imposes structural scope conditions on policymaking – and in turn welfare policy change.

In moments of economic slowdown or crisis or in moments in which policymakers anticipate economic slowdown or crisis, the range of possible policy paths to them will be limited by the need to promote growth and accumulation. This is a core feature of capitalist democracy.

I find that this structural imperative – which Charles Lindblom argued was a result of the “automatic punishing recoil” of the market – pushes policymakers to govern in ways that prioritize capitalist growth.

A deterministic (and functional) argument would leave it at that. It would only account for policymaker’s general motivation to encourage capitalist growth. But the general theory doesn’t tell us why policymakers try to encourage growth in the particular ways that they do.

To advance Marxism as a theory useful for the social sciences to understand the middle range, my approach suggests we also need to come to see how phenomena of the middle range in turn channel certain causal patterns. The capitalist context produces constraints on policymakers, but a whole range of issues then bear on why policymakers choose one path over another within those constraints.

In my case, contingent events and arrangements within these conjunctures channeled policy down particular paths. Constraints on policymaking that were structural – a basic feature of the context of capitalist democracy – established a range of possible policy paths. Contingencies, of the sort that fall below the level of generality at which Marxism is pitched, selected the path from within that range.

Articulating the ways in which general constraints shapes though doesn’t determine middle-range patterns of behavior offers an important way in which Marxism can – and should – be relevant to many of the questions posed in the social sciences today.

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