Is sociology an art or a science? Is it philosophy? Social psychology? Economics and political theory? Surveying the great sociologists since the mid-19th century, one would have to answer “yes” to all of these questions. Sociologists like Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno conducted serious scholarly and social-scientific analyses, and wrote highly speculative theory. Though it may seem like we’re all sociologists now, making critical judgments about large groups of people, the sociologists who created and carried on the discipline generally did so with sound evidence and well-reasoned argument. Unlike so much current knee-jerk commentary, even when they’re wrong they’re still well worth reading.
Having already surveyed Marx in his series on Euro-American political philosophers, School of Life founder Alain de Botton now tackles the other three illustrious names on the list above, starting with Durkheim at the top, then Weber above, and Adorno below. The first two figures were contemporaries of Marx, the third a later interpreter. Like that bearded German scourge of capitalism, these three—in more measured or pessimistic ways—levied critiques against the dominant economic system. Durkheim took on the problem of suicide, Weber the anxious religious underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and Adorno the consumer culture of instant gratification.
That’s so far, at least, as de Botton’s very cursory introductions get us. As with his other series, this one more or less ropes the thinkers represented here into the School of Life’s program of promoting a very particular, middle class view of happiness. And, as with the other series, the thinkers surveyed here all seem to more or less agree with de Botton’s own views. Perhaps others who most certainly could have been included, like W.E.B. Dubois, Jane Addams, or Hannah Arendt, would offer some very different perspectives.
De Botton again makes his points with pithy generalizations, numbered lists, and quirky, cut-out animations, breezily reducing lifetimes of work to a few observations and moral lessons. I doubt Adorno would approach these less-than-rigorous methods charitably, but those new to the field of sociology or the work of its practitioners will find here some tantalizing ideas that will hopefully inspire them to dig deeper, and to perhaps improve their own sociological diagnoses.
Note: For those interested, Yale has a free open course on Sociology called “Foundations of Modern Social Theory,” which covers most of the figures listed above. You can always find it in our collection, 1200 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.