Out of Utopia
DAHRENDORF, R. (1958), OUT OF UTOPIA: TOWARD A REORIENTATION OF SOCIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS, IN: THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY, Volume LXIV Number 2, SEPTEMBER 1958
Dahrendorf begins this paper by outlining common elements in the construction of utopian societies. He argues that (then) recent sociological approaches tend to analyze social structure with a utopian assumption, leading to a loss of problem consciousness. Dahrendorf suggests adopting a conflict model for sociological explanations.
He references Plato’s theory:
“Then I may now proceed to tell you how I feel about the society we have just described. My feelings are much like those of a man who has beheld superb animals in a drawing, or, it may be, in real life, but at rest, and finds himself longing to behold them in motion, executing some feat commensurate with their physique. That is just how I feel about the city we have described.”- Socrates in Plato's Timaios.
The key characteristics of utopias, from Plato to Orwell, include a lack of change, uniformity in values, consensus, and social harmony. Utopias are isolated, and any conflicts are considered aberrations. Sociological theories like Parsons’ have unintentionally embraced this utopian framework, hindering the understanding of real societies.
Do we really need these utopian assumptions in sociological theories, or do we need a more realistic approach to analyze social structures and processes?
Dahrendorf criticizes contemporary sociology, drawing parallels with Plato's dialogues. Dahrendorf expresses dissatisfaction with the theoretical discussions in sociology, comparing them to unreal and irrelevant dialogues. The process of theoretical discussion is described as starting with the selection of a topic or area of inquiry, followed by initial disagreement that eventually gives way to a disengaged consensus. Dahrendorf compares this process to Plato's exploration of justice in "The Republic." He draws a specific parallel between Plato's Republic and modern sociological theory, particularly the emphasis on exploring the meaning of terms like justice or equilibrium. The comparison highlights the tendency of sociological theory to construct idealized models, such as the "social system," akin to Plato's construction of the "ideal state." However, both Plato and modern sociological theory face challenges in realizing their respective ideals in the real world.
Dahrendorf criticizes the structural-functional variety of sociological theory, pointing out its failure to address real problems and its focus on consensus and equilibrium. The notion of a social system is criticized for being disconnected from familiar reality and described as a superstructure of concepts that do not describe or explain the real world adequately. The emphasis on consensus in social systems does not align with empirical evidence and questions the necessity of assuming a unified value system.
Dahrendorf also criticizes the focus on deviance within the social system, arguing that it is treated as a disturbance caused by unspecified sociological or structural factors. The mechanisms of social control are presented as tools to re-establish equilibrium, but Dahrendorf questions the lack of consideration for serious and patterned conflicts within the system.
Dahrendorf acknowledges that Parsons' overall contributions, such as his philosophical analysis and empirical insights, are valuable. However, he contends that much of Parsons' recent theoretical work exemplifies the utopian tendency in sociological theory. He then discusses two proposed remedies against utopianism: T. H. Marshall's idea of "sociological stepping stones" and Robert K. Merton's call for "theories of the middle range." Dahrendorf expresses dissatisfaction with these formulations, arguing that they do not address the root problem.
The key argument revolves around the concept of "problem-consciousness." Dahrendorf emphasizes the importance of sociologists being deeply engaged with empirical problems and maintaining a curiosity to solve these riddles of experience. He criticizes the separation of sociological theory and research, asserting that they are intertwined activities. Dahrendorf advocates for a reinstatement of empirical problems at the center of sociological analysis. The critique extends to the notion of "empirical research" and the need to balance abstract theory with a genuine concern for concrete problems.
Dahrendorf introduces the conflict model of society as an alternative to the equilibrium model. This conflict model emphasizes the ubiquity of social conflict, change, and constraint. Dahrendorf suggests that concentrating on problems involving constraint, conflict, and change might be a more fruitful avenue for sociological analysis, challenging the traditional emphasis on utopian tranquility.
In conclusion, Dahrendorf calls for a departure from utopian thinking in sociology and a shift towards models that embrace uncertainty, conflict, and change as inherent features of society. The conflict model is proposed as a more realistic and problem-conscious approach to sociological analysis.