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Classical Sociological Theory, 4/e
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Herbert Spencer
Classical Sociological Theory

Chapter Summary

Spencer and Comte

Although the sociological theory of Herbert Spencer (1820-1902) has but a small following today, his work was quite popular during his lifetime, particularly in America. Spencer's theory of society does represent an advance over Comtian theory, even though Spencer, like Comte, characterized himself as a positivist and derived his concepts of structure and function from the field of biology. Spencer used the Comtian terms of social statics and social dynamics, but not in a descriptive way as Comte did to refer to all types of societies, but rather in a normative way to describe his version of the future ideal society. Furthermore, Spencer was more interested in studying the progress of the external world or objectivity, while Comte focused more on the subjective nature of the progress of human conceptions. Finally, there are important political differences between Spencer and Comte. Spencer had little regard for centralized political control and believed that the government should allow individuals the maximum freedom to pursue their private interests. Comte, on the other hand, desired society to be led by the high priests of positivistic religion.

Spencer's Evolutionary Theory and Sociology

Spencer defined sociology as the study of societal evolution and believed that the ultimate goal of societal evolution is complete harmony and happiness. Spencer's theory of evolutionary change is built upon three basic principles: integration, differentiation, and definiteness. Spencer argued that homogenous phenomena are inherently unstable, which makes them subject to constant fluctuations. These fluctuations force homogeneous systems to differentiate, which results in greater multiformity. In other words, homogeneous systems grow to become heterogeneous.

Spencer focused much of his energy on trying to legitimize sociology as a scientific discipline. He argued that laypeople might think they deal with the same issues as sociologists do; however, they are not trained to adequately comprehend these issues. One of the ways that Spencer believed sociology could become more legitimate was for sociologists to study other disciplines, especially biology and psychology. Biology could be linked to sociology through the search for the basic "laws of life," understanding society as a "living body" and focusing on human beings as the starting point of sociological inquiries. Psychology is useful to sociology because it helps to show that emotions or sentiments are linked to social action. According to Spencer, individuals are the source of all social phenomena, and the motives of individuals are key to understanding society as a whole.

Spencer's Methodology

Spencer realized that studying social phenomena was inherently different from studying natural phenomena; therefore, sociology could not simply imitate the methods used by biologists. Spencer also argued that the psychological method of introspection was ill-suited to studying objective social facts and processes. Sociologists are also faced with the methodological problem of how to keep their own bias in check and gather and report trustworthy data. Spencer advocated a "value free" methodological approach for sociology and cautioned sociologists to be aware of emotional biases that might influence their work, including educational, patriotic, class, political, and theological biases. Spencer was committed to empirical research and employed a comparative-historical methodology in much of his work.

The Evolution of Society

As stated above, Spencer's general theory of social evolution involves the progress of society towards integration, heterogeneity, and definiteness. It also includes a fourth dimension, the increasing coherence of social groups. Social groups, according to Spencer, strive towards greater harmony and cooperation through the division of labor and the state. It is important to note the Spencer does not develop a linear theory of social evolution; he acknowledges that dissolution or no change at all may occur at any given moment. Spencer was a social realist in that he viewed society as an entity in and of itself—thus, the whole of society can live on even if its component parts die. As society grows, it becomes more complex and differentiated. Structures accompany this growth, which function to regulate external concerns like military activities and sustain internal issues like economic activities. Distributing systems eventually emerge that function to help link together regulative and sustaining structures.

Spencer uses his evolutionary theory to trace the movement from simple to compounded societies and from militant to industrial societies. Society evolves from the compounding and recompounding of social groups. It also evolves from military societies dominated by conflict and a coercive regulative system to industrial societies characterized by harmony and a sustaining system of decentralized rule. Spencer thought the society that he was living in was a "hybrid society," exhibiting traits of both military and industrial societies. Although he ultimately hoped society in general would progress towards a state of industry, he recognized that the regression to a militant state was possible.

Ethics and Politics

Spencer argued that individuals were the source of moral law in a given society, but that God ultimately determined good and evil. Evil itself, according to Spencer, was a result of nonadaptation to external conditions, and that in a perfectly evolved society it would disappear. Spencer's politics can be best described as libertarian—he saw a limited role for state intervention in everyday affairs, especially economic activities. Spencer also opposed state-administered charity, education, and even basic services like garbage removal. Following his doctrine of the survival of the fittest, Spencer even opposed private philanthropy. State and private charity both helped to maintain "unhealthy" or unfit members of society, and this stifled present and future society from evolving to perfect harmony.