(submitted) Encyclopedia Britannica Entry, 16th Edition
S O C I A L T H O U G H T
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.
THE BACKROUND OF CONTEMPORY SOCIAL THOUGHT
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.
COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA
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
BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS
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.
HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
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.
LITERATURE AND CRITICAL STUDIES
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
PRESENT STATUS OF SOCIAL THOUGHT
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.