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Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a realist as well as a materialist. He is considered a realist because he believed in the existence of hidden, underlying forces which affect human society. He is also considered a materialist because he emphasises the importance of economic factors in human history.

The Marxist approach emphasises conflict and is also a macro (holistic, top down) and social structural approach to the study of society.

Marx borrowed the concept of the dialectic from Georg Hegel. Using this concept, Marxists look at contradictions, conflicts and reciprocal relationships, e.g., the famous thesis, antithesis and synthesis scheme.

Marx talked about how society rests on an economic foundation (economic base structure or infrastructure) and how changes in the economic base structure will result in changes in the superstructure of ideas, religion, law etc.

Marx said that human society has passed through various stages and modes of production. The mode of production has changed from primitive communism to ancient slavery, then to feudalism and to capitalism. After the working class rises up and overthrows capitalism, a communist society will be established.

Marx sees society as being divided into two main classes - the class which controls or owns the means of production (the exploiting class) and the class which does not control or does not own the means of production (the exploited class). In ancient slavery, the slave-owners exploited the slaves. In feudalism, the lords exploited the peasants. Under capitalism, the capitalists (bourgeoisie) exploit the workers (proletariat). Exploitation occurs through the expropriation of surplus value. Under capitalism, surplus value is the total value of the products made by the worker minus what the worker is paid. The exploited class will resist this exploitation. The resulting class struggle or class conflict is what drives human history forward.

With the ending of private property (private ownership of the means of production) after the overthrow of capitalism, there will be no exploitation under communism.

Marx wrote about alienation. According to Marx, work should allow people to be creative and achieve their full human potential. Instead, work under capitalism is organised for profit and alienates workers in the following ways:

Workers are alienated from their work. Their work is boring, monotonous, meaningless and can even be dangerous to health. They are forced to do such work in order to earn money to stay alive. Under capitalism, the worker is treated like a commodity or a machine rather than a human being. Marx said that work "mortifies his body and ruins his mind".

Workers are alienated from the products of their labour. What the worker makes belongs to the capitalist. The worker may not even be able to buy what he or she makes e.g. luxury products such as expensive cars and fine houses.

Workers are alienated from each other. Instead of co-operation, capitalism promotes selfishness, greed and competition.

Workers are alienated from reaching their full potential. Workers and children from the working class have lower life chances. As mentioned earlier, the jobs done by the worker may ruin the worker's physical as well as mental health. Workers are reduced to being beasts or machines because of the nature of their work and because of being exploited under capitalism.

Marx's predictions of the future of capitalism:

Marx predicted the following - pauperisation, polarisation, homogenisation and monopolisation. Pauperisation means that the workers will become poorer and poorer as the capitalists exploit them more and more. Polarisation means the relations between the working class and the capitalists will get worse and worse because of this exploitation. Eventually the workers will develop class consciousness and rise up and overthrow capitalism.

Homogenisation will occur within the capitalist class as well as within the woking class. Within the working class, the skilled workers will be replaced by unskilled workers doing assembly line work. (The Marxist economist Harry Braverman calls this "deskilling"). Those capitalists who lose in competition with other capitalists will fall into the working class.

This will lead to monopolisation as the number of capitalists becomes smaller and smaller but more and more powerful.

Marx's work can be criticised in the following ways: Marx overemphasised conflict and the class struggle. He has also been accused of overemphasis on economic factors in human history ("economic determinism"). His concept of alienation can also be criticised, e.g., workers find their work alienating not because of capitalism but because of the very nature of industrial work. As the standard of living of the working class rises, workers will be able to afford to buy more and more of what they make. Defenders of capitalism say that competition is a good thing because it leads to innovation, efficiency and excellence. Furthermore, increasing equality of opportunity will improve the life chances of workers and children from the working class.

Many of Marx's predictions were not realised. Instead of pauperisation, the living standard of the working class rose in Britain, America and other capitalist countries. Instead of polarisation, there has been class accomodation, i.e., many workers have accepted the capitalist system. Many trade unions and working class-based political parties are part of the capitalist system. Instead of homogenisation, the class structure of capitalist society has become more complex. A large middle class has appeared.

Marxists emphasise class conflict. But conflict between ethnic groups and between different religious groups can be very serious also.


Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a realist who also believed that there can be a "science of society". He believed that social facts can be studied like things and that society has its own realities which cannot be reduced to actions or the motives of individuals. Individuals are constrained and shaped by the society they live in.

Societies hold together because of social solidarity and social order generated by common values. According to Durkheim, traditional societies (e.g. simple hunter-gatherer societies) are held together by "mechanical solidarity" or conformity to customs and traditions. Modern societies (e.g. complex industrial societies) are held together by "organic solidarity" or economic interdependence resulting from a high division of labour. There is more freedom for the individual in modern society but there is also the danger of anomie (normlessness resulting from a breakdown in the value system). A sign of anomie is a rise in social problems. One can argue that the high rates of social problems being experienced by the Malays in Malaysia are due to rapid social change (e.g. urbanisation and industrialisation) which has led to a breakdown in the traditional value system. Durkheim said that in order to prevent anomie during the change from traditional to complex, industrial society, there is a need to recreate a moral consensus. Durkheim said that "humans without normative constraints are uncivilised beasts". This can be done using the education system and the legal system. The education system can be used to teach values to the young and the legal system can be used to regulate behaviour.

According to Durkheim, society has evolved from simple, hunter-gatherer to complex, industrial with a high degree of division of labour. A high degree of division of labour increases productivity and therefore the standard of living of the people is higher.

Durkheim also used the "organic analogy" in his studies. The organic analogy refers to the comparison of human society to a living organism or the human body. Just like the human body which changes from a single cell (the outcome of fertilisation of a human egg by a sperm) to a multi-cellular organism, human society has evolved from simple, hunter-gatherer to complex, industrial. As society changes, new social institutions appear. Just like the human body which has a blood system to transport nutrients to various parts of the body, society must have a transport system to move goods around. Just like the human body which has the brain to make decisions, society has the government leaders and top policy-makers to make decisions.

Durkheim's most famous book is "Suicide". Durkheim found that suicide rates tend to be stable over time and also tend to be different for different groups of people. For example, suicide rates tend to be higher for Protestants than for Catholics and tend to be higher for unmarried people than for married people. Durkheim concluded that suicide is more than an individual act and that suicide rates are affected by hidden social forces of integration and regulation. "Integration" refers to the sense of belonging to one's society and "regulation" refers to social and moral restraint on an individual's actions and desires. According to Durkheim, too much or too little integration can lead to higher suicide rates. Similarly, too much or too little regulation can also result in higher suicide rates.

Criticisms of Durkheim's work: his ideas are difficult to test empirically. For example, how does one measure the degree of integration or the degree of regulation and the relationship of these to suicide rates? How does one measure the concept of anomie? Another criticism is that Durkheim's theories have difficulty in explaining conflict and power.


Max Weber (1864-1920) is another of the founding fathers of sociological theory. One contribution of Weber is his concept of "verstehen" or understanding. Weber said that in order to better understand social action and why an individual behaves in a particular way, one can try to put oneself "in the other person's shoes" or try to see things from the other person's point of view.

Weber believed that value-free social research is possible. A scholar may use value judgment to select the topic of social research. However, once that has been done, the scholar should conduct the research in an objective, unbiased and value-free way.

There is also the concept of "ideal type". A Weberian ideal type is constructed in the following manner - the main features of a social phenomenon are selected. These are then exaggerated and used for comparative study. Examples of Weberian ideal types include "rational capitalism" (rationality applied to economic behaviour) and "bureaucracy" (rationality applied to the organisation of work).

Weber is both an idealist and a materialist. He believed that both ideas as well as economic factors can affect society and social change. Weber believed that ideas by themselves can affect society. His most famous book is "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism". Weber wanted to study why capitalism arose in Western Europe but not in China, India, Rome, the Islamic areas etc. He argued that the Calvinist version of Protestant Christianity was instrumental in paving the way for the rise of capitalism in Western Europe. The Calvinists have a doctrine called "predestination" which says that God has selected some but not others for salvation. The Calvinist cannot be sure if he or she has been selected. This gives rise to "salvation anxiety". Fortunately, if one is successful in one's worldly calling (e.g. being rich and successful as a merchant), this is a sign that one has been chosen by God. Therefore, Calvinists are encouraged to work hard and get rich. However, they are also expected to live simple and frugal lifestyles. This kind of unusual behaviour (working hard, getting rich but living in a simple manner) helped in the accumulation of capital and in the rise of rational capitalism.

Weber identified a major trend in modern society i.e. increasing formal rationality. He argued that formal rationality increasingly replaces substantive rationality. Formal rationality refers to goal-oriented and calculative behaviour while substantive rationality refers to behaviour guided by a system of values such as religious ideas. Examples of increasing rationality include the rise of science and the decline of magical thinking, a formal legal code replacing more traditional ways of social control and so on. However, Weber warned that too much formal rationality can threaten human freedom ("the iron cage of rationality"). For example, Singapore is a society which emphasises productivity and efficiency at the expense of individual freedom.

Weber's model of stratification is multidimensional. Marx argued that inequality arises from ownership and non-ownership of the means of production. Those who control or own the means of production will not only have wealth. They will also have power and prestige. (Marx's model of stratification is therefore unidimensional). But Weber argues that wealth, power and prestige do not necessarily go together. One can think of examples such as the folowing - some of the Chinese in Indonesia control a lot of wealth but they have little political power. Police officers and immigration officers do not have much prestige or wealth but they have quite a lot of power. Weber discussed "class, status and party". Weber's definition of class is different from that of Marx. "Class" , in the Weberian sense, refers to market position (which is related to possession or non-possession of property and skills). Weber's classes include the propertied upper class, white collar workers, the petty bourgeois and the unskilled manual workers. The propertied upper class own property (they are "positively privileged in respect to property"), the white collar workers possess marketable skills (they are positively privileged in respect to skill). The petty bourgeois (e.g. small shopkeepers) are neither negatively or positively privileged in respect to property or skill while the unskilled manual workers possess neither property nor skills. "Status", in the Weberian sense, refers to the amount of social honour or prestige which a person possesses while "party" is a group of people organised to seek power.

Weber also talked about "power" and "authority". He defined power as the ability to get things done your way in spite of resistance from others. Authority is power which is considered to be "proper" or "legitimate" by subordinates.

Authority consists of three kinds - traditional authority, charismatic authority and legal-rational authority. Traditional authority is authority derived from traditional customs and practices e.g. the sultans in Malaysia have traditional authority.

Charismatic authority refers to the authority which a person has because his or her followers consider that person to be "special" or extraordinary. Examples of charismatic people include Jesus, Gandhi, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Ayatollah Khomeini etc.

Legal-rational authority arises from one's position in a bureaucratic organisation or from being elected into political office. For example, a high level civil servant possesses legal-rational authority. The Prime Minister of Malaysia also possesses this kind of authority.

These three kinds of authority may overlap. A person can possess legal-rational authority as well as charismatic authority at the same time. A good example would be Anwar Ibrahim when he was holding the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Weber's "Protestant Ethic" thesis can be criticised. Some Calvinist areas such as Scotland did not witness the rise of capitalism until later. Furthermore, non-Calvinist areas such as Japan became major capitalist economies. Some economic historians believe that the Calvinists turned to business and capitalism because they were discriminated against by the dominant Anglicans (followers of the Church of England). Weber also did not explain the sources of power and inequality in a satisfactory manner.


Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was influenced by Durkheim's functionalism. Parsons and his followers established a school of thought called structural-functionalism.

Structural functionalists believe that society is held together by common values. They see society as an integrated system whereby its different parts work together to maintain equilibrium or balance and social order. The common values of the society are "internalised" (become part of the value system of the individual and guide his or her behaviour) through socialisation carried out by major social institutions such as the family, the school system etc. Deviance (behaving in ways which go against the norms and values of the majority of the society) is viewed as a form of social pathology.

The structural functionalists also use the organic analogy, i.e., comparing society to a living organism or the human body. According to the structural functionalists, just like the human body which changes from one cell to a complex system of many cells, organs etc, human society has evolved from simple, hunter-gatherer societies to complex, industrial societies. Society has undergone "structural differentiation" and many new social institutions have appeared. For example, hunter-gatherer societies have no schools, police, court system etc. However, complex industrial societies cannot function without an educational system.

Parsons argues that for societies to continue to exist, four functional imperatives or functional needs need to be performed. This is his AGIL scheme which refers to Adaptation, Goal-attainment, Integration and Latency (or pattern maintenance). A society has to adapt to changes in its environment. This is done by the economic system in which resources are utilised to satisfy the needs of its people. Goal attainment: a society has to set goals and work toward achieving these. This is done by the polity, i.e., the leaders and policy-makers use the political system to make decisions and guide the society toward reaching these collective goals. A society also has to remain integrated. This is done by the legal system which can be used to keep order in the society. Latency or pattern-maintenance is carried out by the socialising institutions such as the family, the school and religion which transmit common norms and values to the next generation of people.

Parsons and the structural functionalists have been criticised for overemphasising consensus and social order. Parsons' theories tend to ignore conflict and have difficulty explaining revolutionary change. His theory is overly deterministic and allows little scope for the individual to negotiate the social situation. In reality, individuals do have the ability to challenge dominant norms and values e.g. "deviant" subcultures exist in many societies (homosexuals in America for example). Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. The conflict generated by the anti-colonial movement has led to the independence of many nations in the Third World. The civil rights and feminist movements led to better life chances for minority groups and women in America. The environmental movement has led to higher awareness of the damage done to the environment because of industrialisation. Lastly, conflict can arise from basic changes in the structure of society itself. For example, immigration of non-whites into Australia, France, Britain, Germany etc. has led to the rise of ethnic conflict in these countries.

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