Encyclopedia Britannica Entry, 16th Edition




The term refers to a broadly-based, late twentieth century,

intellectual endeavor that has developed in many nations and many

academic disciplines to examine the strong relationship between

ideas, concepts and metaphors with the institutions directly

associated with them.


The phrase "ideas, concepts and metaphors" is intentionally broad in

order to include a wide range of entities that are associated with the

mind, as opposed to non-mind categories such as economic,

utilitarian or theological entities that are considered by earlier

traditions to have strong relationships to institutions.


The term "institution" refers to communalities of behavior in human

groups. At its broadest, language is an institution, so are cultures,

nations and religions. In everyday life corporations, fashion, clubs,

occupations, bookstores, governments, bars and driving on the right-

hand side of the road are institutions.



Max Weber's series of two articles published in Germany in1904-5,

"The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," is one of the few

documents that is clearly seminal for the later movement. Weber

was part of a German verin that debated the relative merits of 19th

century Marxist economic determinism vs the idealist school of the

same period. Marxist thinking established the proposition that most

human institutions, including social ideas, were the product of

economic forces ranging from class interest to the needs of capital.

The idealists found other social values to be driving forces in social

structure. Weber looked at the problem of laborers who were willing

to sell their services for wages and to work hard in circumstances

where their earnings exceeded their survival needs. At the turn of

the 20th century this was still a recognized anomaly because many

workers in well known parts of the world would only work until

their daily needs were met. Weber argued that individual workers

were willing to defer gratification and accumulate wealth as a result

of religious-based ideas they held concerning the positive value of

ascetic self-control. Weber saw ideas as driving forces in history. He

spent the next and last five years of his life expanding his research

into Islamic and other religions.


A secondary root of Social Thought may be associated with the work

of W.G. Sumners (Folkways) who worked in the U.S. at the same as

Weber and found a hierarchic structure of ideas that shaped social

customs and sanctions in everyday life.


Neither Weber nor Sumners stated the main proposition of social

thought explicitly, but both worked on mechanisms that connected

ideas to institutions. Weber's gigantic contribution to sociology was

not recognized immediately. The 1910 Britannica does not mention

him. The entry for sociology at the time derives from the work of

Darwin, Marx, Bentham, J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer.



The earliest recognized use of the term in its current meaning is

found at the University of Chicago, which created The Committee on

Social Thought just after WWII. The University was a center for

intellectuals from its founding in the 1880's and, under Albion Small

in 1893, was the earliest American university to establish a sociology

department . The Committee on Social Thought was the product of

President Robert M. Hutchins, Edward Shils and Leo Strauss. It

focused on the relationship between Greek classics and contemporary

trans-European society. A typical Committee paper would be:

"Platonic Thought in Modern Romance Novels". However, the

Committee has remained focused on this narrow conception long

after social thought blossomed into a full-blown, independent field of



It has not yet possible to identify the forces acting within the

academic community which resulted in the development of social

thought in a dozen fields in the 1960's and 1970's, but the explosion

occurred, unrecognized, nearly everywhere. The following is a

limited sample of the dominant thinkers from a variety of fields.



In the early 1960's, E.R. Leach and Claude Levi-Straus laid the

groundwork by viewing social structures as models derived from

social ideals. The preeminent writer to emerge in the field was

Clifford Geertz who showed that the common Balinese cock fight was

an institution directly derived from Balinese conceptions of the State

and divinity. In Morocco, he and his wife showed that everyday

market negotiations for meat and credit were institutions based on

high-level ideas of family behavior and conceptions of religious




Summarizing the work of many field specialists, including Brent

Berlin and Eleanor Rosch, George Lakoff established the direct

connection of ideal conceptions and metaphors to the structure of

everyday words. He showed that meaning for words such as blue,

chair, over and above are derived from idealized conceptions and

metaphors. Over is derived from a metaphor of a surface with a

cylinder rising from an object. He showed that words such as love are

based on metaphors of a journey. The institution of language is an as-

semblage of specifically perceived and widely, but not overtly,

recognized concepts and metaphors.



Based in England, Mary Douglas developed the explicit tenets of

social thought by showing that business organizations operate on

metaphors of nature, such as right-handedness, and that the notion

of a free market is dependent on the metaphor of an invisible hand.

Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky showed that personal assessments of

risk, such as risk in eating food with pesticides, are directly related

to larger views of the world, specifically the moral validity of large

business. Robert Bellah showed that concepts of American civil

institutions were directly connected to Christian religious ideas and

Jeffrey Alexander showed that debates about civil society are predi-

cated on metaphors of honesty and group membership.



The Germans T. Adorno and G. Habermas extended the earlier

positivist philosophy to cope with priority of personal perspective.

Among many Americans who created the modern landscape of

relativism one, Nelson Goodman, has focused on the way that the

personal perspective can determine the nature of rightness and

understanding. Such constructions are entirely imbedded in the

worldview of individuals, and the ideas are connected directly to the

values they hold which are, in turn, directly derived from social

experience. P. Feyerabend has shown that no large-scale mental

construction is possible; all proposed theories are merely lists of

priorities derived directly from local experience.



The advent of mature television seems to have encouraged social

thought. With many working in the field, M. Crispin Miller called

attention to the way the television milieu created the design and

environment of the 1970's shopping mall, and N. Postman showed

that childhood television experience had nearly eliminated the

popular conceptions of childhood as a time for learning, a conception

that was left over from earlier literary periods.



A Japanese comparative historian, S. Nakayama, who focused on the

the early European development of science, found that it was derived

from the conceptions and experiences of the legal system and

concepts of rhetoric. By the late 1970's, a school of historicism

emerged around S. Greenblatt that looked for ideas and conceptions

that shaped specific historic actions and events. In the case of

Christopher Columbus the conceptions that shaped his voyage were

derived from commerce and mythology.


In the history of ideas, Isaiah Berlin showed the connection between

the ideas of the French cleric Joseph de Maistre and the 20th century

fascist ideology.



D. Landes and Mancur Olson have made major contributions to

understanding the institutions of business and economies. Landes

showed the direct connection between ideas of time and the develop-

ment of clocks in China and Europe. Olson established the

relationship between the legal boundaries of central governments

and the expansion of national economies.



The history of science was primed for expansion with the

contributions of T. Kuhn and K. Popper in showing the dissemination

mechanisms of new ideas. Thomas Hughes and J. Corn carried the

model to the realm of technology to show the direct connection

between ideas and metaphors and the pursuit of new technologies.



The early 17th century protestant debates about theology and

appropriate church structure were inherently the first understanding

of social thought. While this significant theological battle doesn't

seem to have connections to modern social thought, the major issues

have been revived with Elaine Pagels and the 1950's discovery of

new Christian gospels which clearly show the direct relation to early

social teachings and the structure of the Roman Catholic church.

Similar work has grown out of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.



B. J. Frieden, J. Stilgoe and J. Garreau have looked at the urban

landscape and the development of suburbs to identify the ideas and

concepts that led to the destruction of urban downtowns, such as the

metaphor that slums were cancer and needed to be cut out, to

suburbs as the English manor. Garreau connected the concepts of

time and family to the creation of satellite cities.



Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, French scholars, elevated the

issues of social perspective as it is imbedded in language to a central

thesis of criticism. Synthesizing this approach with the American

relativist philosophy, a major critic, Stanley Fish, has emerged to as a

leader of social thought by showing how literary interpretation in the

individual case and the academic community are both by-products of

social dialog and prevailing, but often unstated, metaphors. Conflict

and debate in literary circles begins when the social perch of the

participants has changed and focuses on the communities most




The thinkers in many fields who embrace the perspective of social

thought are likely to increase in prestige and expand their influence.

While some nation's universities may elevate social thought to the

level of a new academic curriculum category, most will not. The di-

rection appears to be the creation of a social thought perspective,

with journals and sub-schools of specialization that grow vigorously

in nations with well-established civil societies. Within half a century

most of the central conceptions of social thought will be common-

place, almost common sense, and large parts of the population

will take it for granted.