political sociology

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Political sociology broadly conceived is the study of power and domination in social relationships. It could thereby include analysis of the family, the mass media, universities, trade unions, and so on.

Political science and sociology began to develop as independent disciplines in the nineteenth century under the influence of marginalist economics which attempted to demarcate the study of the ‘political’ from that of the ‘social’ and the ‘economic’ (see political economy). Political science became focused on the analysis of the machinery of government, the mechanisms of public administration and theories of governance. Sociology adopted a much broader definition of its subject matter. Weber provided the theoretical underpinning for modern sociology defined as the interpretative understanding of social action linked to a causal explanation of its course and consequences. By concentrating on the reciprocal influence of social structure on social action, sociology is free to analyse all forms of social interaction (from language and sexuality to religion and industry).

Three main approaches to political sociology have considerably narrowed its subject area. The first builds directly on Max Weber's notion of ‘politically oriented action’. Weber defined an organization as ‘political’ in so far as its existence and order is continuously safeguarded within a territorial area by the threat and application of physical force on the part of an administrative staff (see state). The study of the direct agents of the legitimate use of force could, Weber argued, be distinguished from the study of groups which attempt to influence the activities of the political organization. This latter study Weber designated as ‘politically oriented’ action. Weberian political sociologists have therefore traditionally focused attention on such issues as voting behaviour in communities, ideologies of political movements and interest groups, sociopsychological correlates of political behaviour and organization, and the relationship between economic power and political decision‐making. In the late 1960s under the influence of Seymour Lipset and Stein Rokkan a second main approach to political sociology was developed. The subdiscipline now encompassed the comparative and historical study of political systems and nation‐building. By analysing the role of political institutions in social development (and revolution) this branch of political sociology has contributed to the comparative analysis of welfare systems, to studies of the relationship between democracy and industrialization, and to charting the role of the state in the creation of national identity. The third focus of modern political sociology is on theories of the state, and here the subdiscipline draws particularly on currents in Western Marxism and contemporary political theory. Building on the Marxist critique of pluralist approaches to the state, political sociologists have focused on the problem of state/society relations and developed detailed empirical studies of the exercise of power both within and between states.

Peter Burnham


Subjects: Sociology — Politics.

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