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Karl Marx (1818–1883)

German philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary who saw human society and history as shaped by economic conflict and who launched a scathing attack on the capitalist social and economic order.

Key Concepts
  • Mode of production: How a society produces its existence; includes both means and relations of production.

  • Means of production: Characteristic tools and methods (e.g., plow, steam engine, factory system) by which a society produces its goods and services.

  • Relations of production: Social relationships under which production takes place; includes property relations, class divisions, and exchange mechanisms.

  • Base and superstructure: Society base is its mode of production, which shapes the cultural, legal, and political institutions that constitute its superstructure.

  • Class: Every existing society is divided into two classes, one that owns the means of production and another that works under the control of the first. Capitalist societies are divided into capital owners (the bourgeoisie) and wage workers (the proletariat). Conflict is inevitable in class-divided societies.

  • Capitalism: A society characterized by privately owned means of production, production for profit, and a bourgeoisie/proletariat class division. Capitalism contrasts with other class-divided societies such as feudalism and those that rest on slavery. It also contrasts with communism, where means of production are collectively owned, goods and services are produced to meet social needs, and classes do not exist.

  • Wage labor: The type of labor distinctive to a capitalist society. Workers are free in that they possess their own capacity for labor and may sell it to whomever they wish. However, this freedom is illusory because to survive workers must sell their labor in exchange for wages and work under the exploitative rule of bourgeois employers.

  • Surplus value: Workers under capitalism produce more economic value than they receive as wages; the difference, or surplus value, becomes profit for their employers.

  • Alienation: Due to capitalist relations of production, workers are estranged: (1) from their products, because they do not own the products of their labor; (2) from their labor, because they do not control their own work activities; (3) from universal human nature, the capacity for free, conscious activity, because work under capitalism is coercive and meaningless;(4) from other people, because relationships with others restructured by class-based economic exploitation.

  • Ideology:See Elements of Society > Culture > Key Concepts > Ideology.


Max Weber (1864–1920)

German historian, economist, and sociologist who helped establish social science methodology, provided general concepts still used in sociological theory and research, and produced important analyses of the development of modern capitalism, of authority structures, and of the major world religions.

Key Concepts
  • Ideal type: An imaginary concept of a social phenomenon that presents the phenomenon only in its abstract, logical form, useful in identifying, comparing, and understanding the causes and consequences of the actual phenomenon.

  • Verstehen: Meaningful understanding of the subjective meanings of social action to the people involved, gained by researchers through empathy and concrete evidence. Weber believed that understanding the meanings of action, and not just its objective features, is crucial to sociology.

  • Value neutrality: Weber believed that social science can help us clarify our ethical values and understand how to act in accordance with them, but that it is neutral because it cannot help us decide which values to hold.

  • Legitimate authority: Any form of political rule in which rulers successfully justify their rule on some commonly accepted basis. Weber identified three types: (1) Rational/legal authority rests on belief in the legality of rules and the right of leaders to enact and enforce them; (2) Traditional authority rests on the sanctity of ancient traditions and belief that rulers have been chosen in accordance with them; (3) Charismatic authority rests on devotion to an exceptional individual and the rules that she or he enacts.

  • Bureaucracy: The form of administration based on rational/legal authority, characterized by impersonal written rules, a hierarchy of positions, a clear distinction between positions and the individuals who hold them, and recruitment on the basis of formal qualifications. Technically superior to other administrative forms because of its speed, precision, predictability, and impersonality.

  • Protestant ethic: Early Protestant ethical system including beliefs that individual salvation or damnation is predestined before birth, that hard work and prosperity are signs of salvation, and that wealth is not to be squandered. This ethic encouraged people to work more than necessary, to reinvest money in their enterprises, to perceive poverty as immoral, and to see workplace discipline as just. According to Weber, this created a fundamental transition in values and practices that helped give rise to modern capitalism.

  • Iron cage: An industrial, mechanistic world of rational calculation that is devoid of spirit, fervor, ideals, and great ideas. Weber saw this as the negative side of the modern, Western trajectory of rationalization, whereby social life is increasingly dominated by rational institutions and practices.


Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)

French sociologist who attempted to establish the field as a science, pioneered the early use of statistical analysis in sociology, and contributed important analyses of social structure, social cohesion, and religion.

Key Concepts
  • Society sui generis: Society is its own reality, independent of the individuals who make it up. The Latin sui generis means “of its own kind.”

  • Social fact: The truths a society shares that have an existence independent of individual manifestations and that are capable of exerting external constraints on individuals.

  • Social solidarity: The forces that hold a society or other collectivity together as a cohesive group.

  • Mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity in peoples’ roles, which leads to shared identities and a collective conscience that unite them into one whole. Found in small, simple societies.

  • Organic solidarity: Solidarity based on an extensive division of labor and interdependence among differently specialized individuals and groups. Found in large, complex societies.

  • Collective conscience: Beliefs, values, symbols, and ideas that are shared throughout a group or society and that contribute a sense of common identity, history, and purpose. Central to social cohesion in societies with mechanical solidarity.

  • Anomie: Without norms or laws. A condition of societies and groups with norms too weak to give their members a sense of community limits, purpose, and belonging. An abnormal condition that can lead to widespread uncertainty, unhappiness, and social disorder.