I have recently re-written my introduction to social theory module. This has been re-titled Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity. The idea is that foundational and important sociological thinkers and their work will be introduced through these three themes.
This post summarises some of the things I will discuss with my students in the first session which will focus on introducing these three key concepts.
The first session is structured around the three themes but I will introduce them in the order capitalism, modernity and then sociology. This is because I see sociology as, at least initially, developing out of a reaction to the other two. So we will come to sociology last to think about how it responded to these issues.
Capitalism has been discussed by many different thinkers and in many different ways throughout history and is still debated today. But due to having limited time and in order to try to explain this complex and important phenomenon to students in the first week of university I searched for a simple way to express a slippery concept. Karl Marx provided me with this in his formula:
For Marx this is the fundamental basis of capitalism. Broadly what this formula expresses is that capitalism is a system built around using money to make more money. The two elements in this formula M and C stand for money and commodities. The apostrophe after the second M simply expresses more money more than the first M.
So, under capitalism money is invested to produce commodities to make more money. This is something we largely take for granted today but historically is quite peculiar. Of course money has existed for a lot longer than capitalism but it was used in a quite different way. Marx claims that prior to capitalism the standard formula was:
That is, commodity-money-commodity. So, commodities were sold for money in order to buy other commodities. I might work making horseshoes and produce more than I need so I sell my surplus horseshoes to get money so I can buy things which I can’t produce myself such as shoes or clothes.
What is different about the capitalist system is investment and particularly constant never ending investment. The capitalist generates profit through selling commodities but always reinvests this profit to make more commodities to make more money. Capitalists are never satisfied simply with generating a lot of of money to then relax on and enjoy their wealth. This ideal of constant re-investment is something I will return to in a few weeks when discussing the sociology of Max Weber.
Now I will discuss the two elements of the formula as these are crucial for understanding capitalism.
It is easy to assume that we all understand what money is but it is important to reflect on this a little. We can see it as having three fundamental properties.
Firstly, it is a store of value. So it is a way of accumulating value to be used later on. For instance, I might have a surplus of apples which I have grown. These have value, specifically they have a “use value” (I will discuss this more in the next post which is specifically on Marx and his understanding of value). Their use value is in their nutrition and their taste. Myself and other people want to use them (eat them). But I may produce more of this value (the apples) than I can use myself because although I might eat apples every day for the rest of my life these particular apples will rot quite quickly. However, if I sell them in exchange for money I can convert this use value (the nutrition of the apples) into an exchange value (money) which I can store and use at a later date. So the use value of my apples hasn’t been wasted.
This brings us to the second characteristic, that money is a measure of value. This means that money is a way to compare different use values with one another. For instance, the use value of an apple (its nutrition and deliciousness) is completely different to the use value of a pencil but both can be measured with money because they can both be exchanged for money. Money is universal in the sense that it can stand-in for anything (almost). Again this is an issue I will return to in the next post.
Thirdly, money is a lubricant of exchange. That is, it encourages people to trade in commodities. Because money is an objective measure of value (in the sense that it can “stand in” for almost anything else) it can be used in exchange for anything. So if people were to exchange commodities directly (through bartering sheep for pears for instance) it could be very time consuming to come to agreements on how many of one is worth how many of the other. When money is used as an intermediary in the process trade, and therefore the circulation of commodities, is made much quicker and easier. As the circulation of commodities is central to capitalism this is very important.
But what are commodities?
We can see commodities as things produced specifically to be sold in a market. Capitalism is fundamentally a system of commodity production.The reason why commodities are so important to capitalism and to understanding value is that they are the product of social labour. They are the simplest social form taken by the product of labour in the sense that they are the result of collective action. Commodities are a physical manifestation of social labour.
This type of commodity production could only occur in a particular type of society. It is for this reason that amongst others that the issue of modernity is central to understanding what sociology is all about.
Modernity is a period of time starting some time in the eighteenth century and ending sometime in the late twentieth century, or still ongoing (depending on who you ask). But more importantly it is a way of thinking about the world and a way of doing things. I think we can see modernity as emerging largely as the result of three revolutions: a political revolution, a social/economic revolution and an intellectual revolution. These are, respectively, the French/American revolution, the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment. I have discussed these and their significance for sociology in some detail in a previous post so I won’t say much more about them here other than that they provided the intellectual and practical impetus for the development of sociology. They did this by demonstrating that society and social change are things which can be observed, understood and shaped.
For me perhaps the fundamental principle of sociology as a discipline is that society (in some form) exists and can be understood. If this is not accepted then there is no point in continuing with the endeavour of sociology at all. So I sometimes see sociology as a counter to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “There is no such thing as society”:
“And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbours”
Interview with Woman’s Own 1987
There are many ways in which sociologists can approach the understanding of society. But one of the most powerful, particularly when first encountering sociology is to look for the influence of social structures. I have previously offered an outline of social structures through the work of several key sociological thinkers. But what is crucial is that these are things which exist purely on the level of the social (they are not just collections of individual, psychological or biological phenomena) and influence our behaviour, what is possible for us to achieve and how we understand the world.
The perception of social structures tells us that there are things which exist outside of individuals that shape our world. There is such a thing as society!
In the next post in this series I will discuss Karl Marx’s labour theory of value and why this is significant for a sociological understanding of the world.