Political sociology is a discipline that is widely known as the study of states, societies, and political affairs. The analysis of social trends that directly affect political progress is the major focus and to understand this, the historical context of political forces and theories, formation, and behavior of social groups concerning the state is majorly researched. The state is looked at from a macro and micro perspective, and this entails nation-states and their political background, social and political movements and what caused them, and so on. The main idea is to understand why political affairs are the way they are in a certain state and why they take the form they do. On the contrary, the micro perspective focuses more on social groups and their effect on individual political behavior and how their attitudes affect affairs such as voting and participation.
One might confuse political sociology with political science as in fact, a lot of political sociology overlaps with political science but the difference is that political science focuses more on the internal working of the political system and political sociology tries to understand the social forces that affect the political affairs of a state and how they shape the system. The discipline only became prominent after World War II due to the major effects the war had on society and vice versa. Political sociologists turned towards social groups and aspects such as race and education and their behavior towards the political system. Furthermore, it also developed into looking at the big picture and they were looking into the effects of revolutions and war, large-scale development of the state, and so on. This article aims to introduce the discipline by discussing its various definitions stated by various thinkers over time and also discusses the scope and importance of the same. Moreover, it details the different approaches and theories that have been developed in the discipline over time and ends with a discussion of the most famous sociologists and their contributions to political sociology.
Political Sociology: Definitions
The discipline of political sociology dates back to Aristotle’s time. His word for politics or ‘politike’ is derived from politike episteme which means political science. However, it was developed into an actual academic field in the late 19th century at Columbia University. With the 20th century around, it gained a lot of attention and sociologists were researching the state concerning the historical context and political thought and different approaches of the same. Over time, many sociologists have defined political sociology according to their backgrounds and viewpoint. Some of them include:
- Robert E. Dowse & John A. Hughes stated that “Political Sociology is the study of political behavior within a sociological perspective of the frame (Das, 2017).”
- Giovanni Sartori defined it as “a cross-disciplinary breakthrough” that entails the “sociological and politico-logical approaches combined at the point of intersection” (Das, 2017).”
- Bendix & Lipset stated that “while political science starts with state and examines how it affects the society, political sociology starts with society and examines how it affects state (Das, 2017).”
- Michael Rush & Phillip Althoff defined that it “ examines the links between politics and society, between social behavior and political behavior (Das, 2017).”
- Lewis Coser opined that it is concerned with social causes and consequences of power distribution between societies and that social and political conflicts lead to allocation of power (Das, 2017).”
- Keith Faulks said that it is “concerned with the relationship between politics and society and the acknowledgment of political actors and social movements function from a wider social context (Das, 2017).”
- A.K. Mukhopadhya defined it as “ a product of cross-fertilization between sociology and political science that studies the impact of politics on society and the reverse (Das, 2017).”
Scope and importance
It is widely known that political sociology aims to analyze the relationship between social and political structures. The discipline entails the concept of the political system and its analysis and also stresses the study of the sectors of government such as legislature courts. It also stresses the analysis of social structures that affect political aspects such as parties or interest groups and caste alliances. A majority of scholars have immensely discussed the scope of political sociology from various perspectives. Greer and Orleans believe that the discipline is concerned with the structure of the state, legitimacy, the flow and use of monopoly, and the overall structure of the institutions and their relationship to the state. Laswell stated that politics affect all aspects of society, no matter what their class is. Andreu Effrat opined that the discipline analyzes the causes, effects, and results of the influence of the political system over the social systems. While the main focus is on the building of nation-states, contemporary political sociology has divided itself into four main areas of research and these are 1. The formation of social-political affairs in modern states, 2. Social structure (class, race, ethnicity, gender, etc) and inequalities in relation to politics, 3. Revolutions, movements, and personalities out of institutions affect politics, 4. Power relations between social groups such as families, media groups, workplaces, and so on.
One of the main aspects of contemporary political sociology is the study of political culture in the current society and how that affects politics. This has been prominent as it helps us understand the propensities that affect political performance and results. Participation in politics and its mobilization is also entailed in the scope of sociology. Furthermore, the study of social stratification is considered one of the main sectors of the discipline. The study of various social strata such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, and caste and how their interactions affect politics determines how the system functions. Its study can also be used to understand inequalities and analyze the difference between the classes such as middle class vs elite class and how their lifestyles and decisions affect political affairs.
The discipline has a significant amount of prominence within the academic field as it highlights the underlying tendencies in societies that determine and lead the political system and its affairs. Over the decades, political sociology’s focus on the state and how society has a direct effect on its affairs has helped us to improve the state and vice versa. Contemporary political sociology has also made major contributions to comparative politics and public administration. A major aspect of contemporary political sociology is its focus on development and it is widely used for third world development approaches. The state’s policies and their approaches regarding the economic, social, and cultural globalization of developing countries are something that has helped us understand world politics overall. Furthermore, the recognition of socio-political affairs on the development of nations and how political affairs should be altered to make sure that developmental approaches can be implemented is also a major focus in the current times.
Approaches to the study of political sociology
The study of political sociology contains two major approaches and they are the classical and behavioral approaches. These approaches entail:
- Classical Approach-
Classical contributors such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Locke and their work were prominent in the development of modern political thought. 1890-1920 was the classical period of the discipline, and during this time period, the establishment of it as a university discipline with its major response to the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution aided journals and major research. Classical social theory in specific gained its status with the establishment of it as a separate systemic knowledge that studied moral and political philosophy. People’s critical ideology towards the nature of human society resulted in the involvement of society within the political and moral levels. It started as a way to signify the importance of social change but was enhanced into making people aware of the significance of freedom and equality of people. Within the approach, several dichotomies were developed to understand and analyze societies and social groups and those are traditional vs modern division, the individual vs society division, the secular vs sanctified division, and the stature vs contract division. Overall, the classical social theory developed modern political thought and used the effect of social groups on politics to understand and aid societies better. Some of the major political sociologists who contributed to classical social theory are Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Alex de Tocqueville.
- Behavioral Approach-
The behavioral approach in political sociology came to light with the emergence of behavioral sciences and this approach specifically from a micro perspective of the actions of individual factors rather than the characteristics of institutions. A major difference from the classical approach is that this approach heavily relied on empirical research and standard research methods which had a major impact on social theory. The use of strict methods such as sampling, scoring, and scaling are used to understand political affairs and their behavior. The stress on moving away from ethical to strictly analytical and explanatory has been criticized by many conservatives stating that it lacks proper political research.
Political Sociology theories
- Pluralist theory is the view that the framework of the government determines the political affairs in society and the direction of the decision-making. This also adds to the idea that nongovernmental individuals can exert influence on the same, affecting political affairs. It is based on functionalism with a focus on stability and gradual change. The main focus would be the influence of power in politics. Robert A.Dahl is one of the most important pluralist theorists.
- Elite theory of the state describes and analyzes power relationships in contemporary times. Especially focusing on a small community, consisting of the elite or more privileged who consist of the most economic value and hold power over everyone else. The elite’s power and its effect on political processes are widely studied. The most important narrative of this theory is that the elite are concentrated in number and are unified due to aligned backgrounds and the non-elites can be diverse but are powerless. Vilfredo Pareto is a well-known elite theorist. Read more about Elite Theory
- Marxist theory refers to the implementation of the Marxist perspective within political sociology. This political philosophy focuses on society and economics, but also on the dynamics of social groups and social strata and their effect on political affairs. The division of the working class and elite classes’ division and relationship and how these individual characters affect political systems such as alliances, voting, and so on. The main subject of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with communism is a result of the socio-political affairs of society. Antonio Gramsci was one of the most significant Marxist theorists.
- Realist theory is the view that politics is just the way it is and that it should be autonomous or independent from moral struggles. The main focus of this theory is strictly the national interest of nation-states and their relationship with other nation-states. The objective of power relations and absolute power of the state differentiates this theory from the others. Thomas Hobbes was an influential realist theorist.
- Corporatist theory is part of post-pluralism and is also known as the more sophisticated version of elite pluralism. It stresses a strong central state which allows citizens to operate under their directives. The state acts as a moral authority that regulates order to maintain national unity. The state still has the role to maintain major institutions like the economy but only with an alliance between the state, organizations, and labor. John Stuart Mill was an influential corporatist theorist.
In conclusion, political sociology is the intersection of political science and sociology that deals with the circumstances of social groups and their effects on political systems. That is, how politics is molded by societies and vice versa. Many famous sociologists such as Marx, Weber, Gramsci, Miliband, Poulantzas, and Jessop have made significant contributions to political sociology. Their work has enabled us to get an understanding of the socio-political structures and their implications which is only possible with the study of political sociology. The analysis of social forces and politics rather than studying the mechanics of politics puts forth the idea that society should come over political institutions. Political sociology in specific has major contemporary relevance, especially with the current socio-political affairs going on all over the world. A prime example is the impeachment of Donald Trump. The dynamics of the republican office did not align with the individuals in society as it did not include all social strata in the policies that were being put out. When external forces, such as individuals in a society are not happy with the governmental system and its decisions, then the external forces have the power to overthrow the government. Donald Trump’s inconsiderate remarks of such an intersectional society and not understanding the effect of social forces on politics had gotten him out of the presidency. So, it is important for political sociology to be a major part of academics to be able to apply it to society and help run the social forces and governmental institutions better.
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- Das, S. (2017). Political Sociology. Tripura University. Vikas Publishing House. https://www.tripurauniv.ac.in/Content/pdf/Distance%20Education%20Notice/Political%20Sociology%20-%20MAPol%20Science_%20901C%20English_21072017.pdf
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