Kill the classics: Are the social sciences living in the past?

“In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subject […] Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact.”

- Max Weber, ‘Science as a Vocation’ (Wissenschaft als Beruf)

Lecture at Munich University, 1917


The discipline of sociology stands in an exceptional position within the sphere of the sciences – it is one of the few disciplines in which the past, as opposed to the present or the future, performs an extremely significant function and occupies a very prominent position.  What defines many sociologists, and provides an identity to them and their work, is an intimate knowledge of certain classical thinkers, and adherence to schools of thought or traditions founded in the late 19th century and early 20th century particularly in France, England and Germany later to be extended to the American continent. This obsession with the past makes sociologists, in a fashion unfamiliar to natural scientists but relatively similar to scholars within the humanities, constantly evoke and praise their founders, celebrate the classics, adhere to specific predefined canons and curricula, position themselves according to paradigms established decades ago by charismatic analysts of the days of yore and dwell in and regurgitate past academic achievements in an endless stream of new sociology books about the great classic books of the old sociology.


There is a stark difference between the cultures of the social sciences and the natural sciences. Hardly any respected researcher working within the natural sciences would today think of quoting Newton, Copernicus or Lavoisier as sources of ultimate wisdom or as defences in academic disputes. However, sociology continues to quote Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel from the last couple of centuries as if they were the lasting authority on social and economic issues of today – a world that has probably changed dramatically in technology and global arrangements since these masters were alive? The reasons are to be found in the origins of sociology in the Golden Age of modernity and can be traced to the frequently discussed widespread confusion ever since in sociology pertaining to its own scientific status and identity: was the “social science” a child of the natural sciences or an offspring of the humanities? The result of this confusion was that the classics seemed the only secure, solid and unchanging point of reference and have remained so for the past 150 years in sociology. The term ‘cult’ seems appropriate to describe the way sociologists deal with their ancestors.


classics 3 together


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘cult’ refers to reverential worshipping of or devotion to a person or thing and paying homage to their perspective or existence as done by a body of professed adherents or admirers often by way of specific rituals or ceremonies. These ceremonies or rituals in connection to the cult of the classics become obvious in the endless – some would even say mindless – use of citations, quotations and exegeses over the thoughts, lives and deeds of long-dead scholars by their devoted individual predecessors or generations of followers. The classics stand at the centre of attention, as the pioneers, legends, bigwigs and totems, in these sociological cults. And although many cults may compete internally with each other to take pole position in the discipline of sociology; the fact that many such cults of past-worshippers exist and thrive in the discipline also reinforces the hold of the past over the present. This hold of the past on the mind-set of sociologists obviously affects their way of seeing the present day world and the construction and discovery of new theoretical, methodical and thematic perspectives in sociology. Does this feature of sociology, an obsession with classics, hamper or facilitate the social sciences to move ahead the way a science should?


There is an ongoing debate within the social sciences and there are two schools of thought. One group of scholars in contemporary sociology want to rid themselves of the classical heritage, regarded as outdated and obfuscating. They argue that substantial amounts of the intellectual baggage of their discipline will necessarily have to be dumped on the historical scrapheap; that what ‘dead people’ said is not necessarily important today, and that the theory-heavy section of sociology is expanding beyond reasonable dimensions at the cost of sensible empirical research relevant to today. This group often find the classics a burdening ballast that hinders academic progress and view the excessive interest in theoretical dissection as being detrimental to empirical research.


Still others, it seems the majority, revere and embrace the classical traditions and the invaluable insights they contribute to contemporary sociology as well as to understanding today’s society. This second group dominates the academic agenda and have created a veritable cult of the classics in which identity, status, community and veracity is based on the reading, interpretation, rereading and reinterpretation of classical texts. In turn, certain academic normative and comparative reference groups, inclusive or exclusive, are developed in connection to these personalised classics – one is either a Marxian, a Weberian or a Durkheimian and so forth – but whether the one or the other, it is required that one specifically defines oneself as a sociologist by defining oneself exactly in relation to the classics.


The study of classics are also besieged by another serious contender that is external to the discipline – the pressures from new neo-liberal university reforms in many countries, including Scandinavia, demanding quantifiable bench-marking, pragmatic use-value and a mentality attuned to present needs of society instead of a re-reading of the past. In such a climate, a concern with the classics appears unacceptable and academically unrewarding. The neoliberal side questions whether the classics serve any purpose whatsoever in today’s age and time?


The Dead Sociologists’ Society


Dead_poets_societyThe book by Nancy H. Kleinbaum, which later turned into a box office success, titled The Dead Poets’ Society vividly demonstrated exactly from within the realm of the humanities how the teaching of and gathering around the classical past could create a sense of togetherness, inspiration, heightened awareness and mutual interest between the younger generation in times of radical social change, academic uncertainty and uprooting but also how this immersion in the classical tradition could equally lead to personal factions, strife and institutional conflicts. The background for the book was the literary classics such as Keats, Yeats, Shakespeare, Whitman and Lawrence but could equally illustrate how scientific, and thus also sociological, classics constitute mental monuments around which scholars and academics ceremonially and ritually gather.


Sociologists also have a tendency to hail their ancestors, heritage and classics and one can actually find an Internet domain titled ‘The Dead Sociologists’ Society.’ Based at Pfeiffer University in the U.S., this site is devoted to an undisguised glorification of the great sociological past. It contains links to special journals, thematic discussions, conceptual clarifications, etc. explicitly canonising the classics. Moreover, when surfing the Internet it is interesting and quite telling to note that a simple search on academic articles dealing with ‘the classics’ only lists hits from within either the social sciences or literary studies – the latter, as part of the humanities, containing by far the most hits.


Natural science journals apparently do not take a keen interest in these matters. In hardly any other scientific discipline are so many pieces published year in and year out on the past deeds and practices of the founders as in sociology or the humanities. A large proportion of the books and articles published deal with origins, the past, pedigrees, ancestry and heritage and the dissection of the life and deeds of the founders. This would never be the case within the natural sciences; books showing a scientist’s scholarly understanding of Copernicus, Newton and Galileo are seldom used as justification for one’s own current scientific practices.


shoulders of giants hawking


The leaning on the shoulders of the classics, according to Machlup, is an attempt to escape the so-called scientific ‘inferiority complex’ of the social sciences in general and sociology in particular. Some would claim that the result of this extensive scholarly research and time spent on the past paralyzes and incapacitates social scientists. However, others would quote Alvin Gouldner, and argue that the predilection for the theories and perspectives of the past show a reverence for where we are coming from in order to understand where we are going. However, it also points to deep chasms within and between different scientific cultures.


The humanities have, more than social sciences, been haunted by the classics as indispensable authorities without whose continuous invisible presence, the scientific status and legitimation of these disciplines would severely be in danger. The shadow of the past has encircled the present in these supposedly ‘softer’ sciences and sociology has to some extent also come to suffer from the same ailment. Perhaps this is due to sociology’s proximity to the humanities more than is the case of other social scientific disciplines such as economics, law studies or political science. This proximity is perhaps most obvious when looking at the style of sociological writing which often comes close to that of the humanities, or the way scientific discoveries are made and creativity is utilised, the way data is reported, and how the historical self-understanding of the practitioners of sociology is currently professed.


Robert K. Merton observed this tendency to immortalise the classics within the so-called ‘softer sciences’ such as the humanities when claiming that “firsthand acquaintance with the classics plays a small role in the work of the physical and life scientists and a very large one in the work of the humanistic scholars.” The social sciences, including sociology, stood, according to Merton, in a middle-position between the soft humanities and the hard, exact natural sciences, which meant that they imitated traits from both disciplinary ‘cultures’. Another sociologist Bennett M. Berger, writing in the same time period as Merton, commented on the hybrid nature of sociology: “It is the bastard son of the humanities, from which it gets its subject matter, and the sciences, from which it gets its methods. Fully acknowledged by neither parent, it finds itself in the role of upstart”. Yet another central figure in the sociology of the mid-20th century, C. Wright Mills described this outspoken uncertainty about its own origins, identity and unique status as a hybrid as sociology’s ‘moral and intellectual confusion’, leading to a necessity to hang on to the work of the classics in order to acquire the status of legitimised scientific discipline.


Sociology is seldom about stern principles or prediction, as for example law studies or economics, and thus the proximity to the humanities is substantial in many respects – cultural sociology being merely one of the most obvious examples of this disciplinary kinship. Moreover, sociology is unique in the sense, together with most of the other social sciences, that very few ‘scientific revolutions’ or ‘radical discoveries’ occur that entirely alters the research agenda, as is sometimes the case within the natural sciences. This means that it is seldom that the wisdom of yesteryears and erstwhile scholars are abandoned altogether; and this buttresses the position of the classics within the discipline in the long run. This is perhaps why Marx, Weber and Durkheim are discussed as vividly today in sociology as the work of, for example, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dostoyevsky appears to be recurrent themes within the humanities.


Generally speaking, one can claim that where natural sciences appear to be cumulative when it comes to the production of knowledge, the humanities and the social sciences, on the other hand seem repetitive. This repetitiveness lies at the heart of the humanities and also sociology, and as Lewis Coser, one of those scholars who himself has turned into some sort of classic, once remarked: “We neglect the classics only at our own peril. Were sociology as cumulative a discipline as, say, physics, it would hardly be necessary for the practicing sociologist to study the classics.” In Coser’s view, it is because we are repetitive, we study the classics – I would rather suggest that it is because we constantly return to the classics that we are repetitive (and not cumulative). As a consequence, sociology, to use Luhmann’s term, has become ‘self-referential’ or as Robert W. Connell suggested the social sciences have become ‘internalistic’.


The centrality of the classics in the social sciences


Ever since the debate between Alvin W. Gouldner and Alfred N. Whitehead on the classical heritage and its importance, sociologists have either opposed or supported the necessity of the central status the classics have occupied. Some see the reading and regurgitation of the classics as a pathological feature of modern thinking, others as a necessary evil and the price paid for disciplinary identification, while yet others welcome it without reservation.


classic book (1)


Niklas Luhmann made critical observations in the foreword to Social Systems on the reproductive tendency in writing and re-writing the biographies and theoretical accomplishments of the classics:


To a great extent, those interested in theory return to the classical authors. One constraint by which one earns a right to claim the title ‘theory’ is recourse to texts that already bear this title or have been treated as if they have. Then the task becomes one of dissecting, criticizing, and recombining already-existing texts […] The classical authors are classical because they are classical authors; their use today is identified by self-reference. Reliance on illustrious names and specialization in them can be proclaimed as theoretical research […] All of this is not without interest and effect. But the further the classical authors recede into the history of a discipline, the more necessary it becomes to distinguish a theoretical from a biographical, an abstract from a concrete treatment of them. If one dismembers them in this way, however, can one manage without them? (Luhmann 1995).


While Luhmann generally seems critical or sceptical of the classical control of the contemporary sociological agenda, the Journal of Classical Sociology, first published in 2001, also but on a much more positive tone takes the recent revival (or rather immortality) of the classics seriously. In the introduction to the journal, titled ‘The Fragmentation of Sociology’, the editors made it clear that “a commitment to defending classical sociology is important if contemporary sociology is to flourish without destructive fragmentation and dispersal […] Our approach to sociological theory is to avoid writing sociological theory as simply a history of ideas, or treating theory as merely a list of substantive areas […] or suggesting that sociological theory is only an exegesis of conventional texts.”


The reason behind the virtual immortality of the classics in sociology is that they fulfil, as Rune Åkvik Nilsen and Jeffrey C. Alexander, both noted, is a ‘functional need’ in the integration of the discipline or discourse, which would otherwise be in danger of becoming fragmented. Although the classics can create coherence and cohesion and function as bulwarks against a ‘decomposition of sociology’, as Irving Horowitz remarked, they can, however, also have a fragmenting and splintering impact on sociology, when their perspectives produce a myopic or paradigmatic following who are unsympathetic or hostile to the ideas or notions expressed by others.


Scholars who believe that only Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, Schütz, Goffman, Luhmann, Bauman, Bourdieu, Habermas or Giddens etc. exclusively have been able to understand, theorise or investigate society in a satisfying manner are equivalent to people trying to stand on one leg for a long time. First, their posture is obviously unstable, looks ridiculous and is for that reason often also a rather lonely activity. Second, their academic enemies will know exactly which leg to chew at to make them crumble. Finally, when their sole supportive leg is eventually undermined, which is always a matter of time, they will experience the agony and embarrassment of collapsing.


An extreme example of the cultish, paradigmatic and sometimes even sectarian cultivation of the classics, or certain flamboyant figures within this category, could be witnessed in the worshipping of Marx in many academic departments of social science in general and sociology in particular during the 1970’s. Here the excessive worshipping of and subordination to a single unified perspective, which initially appeared as a collective and united endeavour to revive an exorcised thinker, ended in bitter strife, internal fragmentation and a cutthroat mentality between structural Marxists, capital logic, and critical theorists.


 Talking about the classics in sociology, especially and almost exclusively three names (excluding Simmel in this particular context) are often mentioned as so-called ‘paradigmatic’ figures – Marx, Durkheim and Weber. By paradigmatic is meant, in the words of respectively Kuhn (1970), Ritzer (1975) and Brante (1985) and numerous others, that they, when it comes to theoretical, methodical, analytical, historical as well as social factors such as status, prestige and relative importance, are seen as role models and have set the standards of scientific practice to be emulated by others. This means that they have been instrumental, unwittingly perhaps, in creating certain ‘disciplinary matrices’ or ‘tracks’, for later generations to follow – C. Wright Mills (1960) denoted such tracks ‘models’ serving as fertile foundations for theoretical development within many specific areas. These three central classic tracks have also had a heavy impact on how they have been regarded and evaluated by later generations of scholars; who on the basis of such tracks have been able to identify themselves and the practice of sociology they perform or adhere to.




Thus, the status of the classics in sociology, as Lawrence Sherman (1974) reminds us, is bound up with the general paradigmatic view on sociology, one holds – either individually or institutionally. Sherman illustrates three possible ideal type sociological scenarios: (1) That sociologists search for and want to discover universal social laws (Durkheim), (2) that they want to interpret and understand the social world (Weber), and (3) that they want to change it (Marx). These three general views on sociology could be described respectively as a natural scientific progressive position, a hermeneutic humanistic position and a critical revolutionary position. These positions are relatively similar to Jürgen Habermas’ (1971), by now itself classic, description of empirical-analytic science, historical-hermeneutic science and critical science in that they point to how sociology is practised based on abstract ideals and concrete procedures.


The first position does not ascribe a lot of status to the classics who are generally seen merely as relics from the past but nevertheless necessary building blocs in the general and relentless advancement of science – as when Newton famously stated that he was standing on the shoulders of giants allowing him to see farther than them. The classics themselves are not regarded as the apotheosis of academic achievements in this position but are viewed as the foundation or platform for a scientific take-off to more sophisticated and refined scientific discoveries ahead.


The second position, on the other hand, often believe that the sociological heritage stands as the heydays of the discipline – as a golden past which it is worthwhile remembering and the results of which we should honour and recall whenever we embark on new endeavours. Here the classical past is believed to contain the seeds from which we can still harvest and which ought to guide our search for questions as well as for answers.


The third and last position is marked by ambivalence regarding the role of the classics and is selective when it comes to ascribing value to the classical past of sociology. Often the classics are seen as reactionary or conservative figures preventing progress or standing in the way of revolutionary changes and only those classics who somehow sought to break free from their own imprisonment in time, such as Marx, and project their ideas into the future are worshipped – perhaps not because of their concrete analyses but due to the potential and potency in their line of thinking. Here Marx’ famous eleventh Feuerbach Thesis – that it is not enough to interpret the world but more important to change it – appears as the programmatic statement of the role of science in general and social science in particular. The evaluation of the classics, then, is bound up with a double bind, as it were; on the one hand the role they have played in the development and maintaining of paradigms, and on the other hand the nature of the paradigm one is working within.


Whereas most sociologists will have to be satisfied with following the principle of publish and perish, the classics, on the other hand, show a remarkable persistence and endurance within the discipline even in times marked by rapid change and academic uprooting. However, despite their persistence through paradigmatic emulation and elevation, classics are far from immortal, as those extraordinary artistic figures, e.g. Goethe, Mozart and Novalis, in Hermann Hesse’s wonderful novel The Steppenwolf, hovering well beyond the quotidian concerns of ordinary humans and surviving the test of time, and they can indeed be ritually and symbolically killed although within sociology that is a seldom occurrence. Such patricide, keeping in mind that all the classics were male, occurs if they are forgotten, by design or default, are gradually or suddenly removed from institutional canons and curricula, are devalued or discredited (for example by political leadership or committees on scientific conduct) or simply found analytically insufficient or unfitting for contemporary concerns.


Understanding and classifying something as classic


Ernan McMullin (1994), quoting Denis Sepper, who in turn was inspired by Hans-Georg Gadamer, differentiates between two broad understandings of the classics for a scientific discipline. The first type is called ‘stylistic-historiographical classics’ which is valued because it gives the reader an insight into the culture of which it is representative. This type of classic represents a particular style, mode of thinking or cultural movement that is based upon specific historical contexts. The other type is termed ‘classics of tradition’ and they, as he notes, “address us where we live; they are fecund even in the contemporary situation.” This latter type appears to be classical not because of some historical contengency but due to universality in its perspective, analyses or understandings. The line between the two types is admittedly, as McMullin contends, blurry and the terminology cumbersome. However, the distinction illustrates that classics are equally part of the lived culture of ordinary people as well as part and parcel of academic endeavours to understand quotidian life as well as abstract principles or modes of organisation.


Is there a more objective way of determining the ‘real’ classics, and differentiate them from mere pseudo or quasi classics? This is, naturally, quite difficult if not utterly impossible to determine. However, one quantifiable way to do it is to ask practising sociologists whom they consider to be the most important contributors of and to their discipline. This was exactly what ISA, The International Sociological Association, did when asking their members in 1998 during the Montreal World Conference to list the most important sociology books of the 20th century. The resulting Top-Ten, in the originally rated order, consisted of Max Weber: Economy and Society, C. Wright Mills: The Sociological Imagination, Robert K. Merton: Social Theory and Social Structure, Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann: The Social Construction of Reality, Pierre Bourdieu: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Norbert Elias: The Civilising Process, Jürgen Habermas: The Theory of Communicative Action, Talcott Parsons: The Structure of Social Action, and finally Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The author of eight out of the ten titles listed above is already dead.


Another, equally quantitative, way to find out the importance of the past is looking to the quantitative weight and presence of the classics in the articles and books written within the confines of the discipline. Here a simple content analysis would probably, lacking any concrete data material, reveal that the classics are still very much present and frequently quoted and debated in most of the major journals and maintained in the indexes of most books published if not occupying large proportions of them.


Another concrete way to document the importance of the classics in contemporary sociology would be to inquire about the status and importance of the classics in study programs of sociology courses around the world. Here one would probably discover that the classics still occupy the core position in most curricula whether in the North, South, East or West.




Robert W. Connell once asked: why is classical theory actually classical? By classical, we mean something or someone who belongs to another period of time, to a defining or fateful moment in history or to the birth of a discipline. Within the context of sociology, this period of time is the epoch we also label as ‘modernity’ – an era marked by three radical revolutions setting it apart from pre-modernity: (1) An industrial or technical revolution, (2) an intellectual revolution (the Enlightenment), and (3) a political revolution (initially in France and the U.S. but later in more reforming fashion in Germany as well as in the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere). Thus, the sociology classics are often equated with scholars during a certain period ranging from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.


The classic scholars of sociology all wrote in this tumultuous time and commented, often critically, on it. These scholars took a keen interest in grand theorizing, materializing in their ability to and interest in erecting monolithic theoretical structures dealing with manifold aspects of modernization and its impact on society – seen in an overtly optimistic or equally pessimistic perspective. They often presented a poly-scientific understanding of the main drift of society – based on historical, psychological and social insights – with a combination of broad frameworks as well as detailed studies. These figures are, it is generally agreed, Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel. They have, in and by posterity, achieved or been bestowed the status of classics – they are being read, discussed, dissected, analysed, quoted, imitated and their works are lavishly being published and republished. The classics in sociology are thus, it is generally agreed, equivalent to its founders – although it is often conveniently forgotten that the actual founders of sociology in many cases historically would be the likes of Comte, Saint-Simon and institutionally Albion Small. Today, very few articles or books, if any, within the field of sociology are written, irrespective of the topic, which refrain from lengthy discussions of or introductions and references to these four founders.


How does one, internally, within a discipline, define classicality and project it onto some person, text or tradition? Peter Baehr suggested the following understanding of the complexity involved in bestowing the label ‘classic’ to a text or person and how it can be maintained as such across temporal, cultural and geographical barriers: “In order for a text to achieve the accolade of classic, it must typically overcome a variety of cultural hurdles; while to survive as one, it must be subjected to continual critical engagement, its concepts reformulated to meet new problems and trials. Not many texts can survive, or attract, such scrutiny and productive reshaping. Those that are able to do so are quite properly described as ‘classic.’”


In short, the classics and their original formulations are capable of surviving the transformations of external social conditions as well as the changing internal scientific whims and allegiances. In line with this clarification, Danish political scientist Staffan Zetterholm, referring specifically to the work and oeuvre of Alexis de Tocqueville made the poignant observation that a classic is a person who:

is being studied by new generations, and who participates in a living intellectual tradition within as well as outside of the world of the university. In short, a classic is never out-dated but retains topicality and relevancy for our thinking, our perceptions and our interests. When we study a classic, we do it for our own sake. Within the social sciences – or more generally social thought – classics are found exactly in this understanding (Zetterholm 1988:9)[my translation].


Italian writer and fabulist Italo Calvino is a stout defender and sympathiser of the classical heritage; not as something to be addressed as awe-inspiring authorities or endlessly reproduced but as an emporium for insight, inspiration and imagination. His perspective is more oriented towards the (individual) experience the reader (especially humanities) gets when reading a classic than on the (institutional) role the classics might play for a discipline.


Calvino why read the classics


Calvino stated fourteen easily digestible suggestions for how one can understand what is a classic and the role or function they play for us today. They are recapitulated in toto below:


(1) One can characterise classics as the books about which we usually hear people say ‘I am rereading…’ and never ‘I’m reading…’. Classics, thus, are normally texts that have been processed through our mind previously and with which we are already to some extent familiar.

(2) ‘Classics’ is the appellation reserved for those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them but those who read them for the very first time will also come to treasure them.

(3) The classics exert a peculiar influence over the lifespan of collectivities or individuals because they remain the same while our perspectives are continually and relentlessly altered allowing or urging us to view them from ever-new angles.

(4) Every rereading of a classic text is as much a virgin experience, a voyage of discovery, as the very first reading.

(5) Every classic is, per definition, a rereading – this is what ultimately earns it the designation as a classic.

(6) A classic is a book that has never finished saying what is has to say – it will continuously confront us as an inexhaustible source of insight into the past, the present as well as the future.

(7) Classics are books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours and bringing with them in their wake the traces they themselves have once left on the embankments of the culture or cultures they have passed through.

(8) A classic text does not necessarily teach us anything new – but in it we can sometimes discover something we have always known but without knowing that this classic author said it in the first place or in some intricate or special way is associated with it.

(9) The classics are books which, upon reading them, we find even fresher, more unexpected and more marvellous than we had thought from merely hearing about them. The classics can continuously surprise us whenever we read them ourselves.

(10) We should use and reserve the term ‘classics’ to books that take the form of an equivalent to the universe; they are ‘total books’ that encompass a totality of ideas or notions, which can either be positively stated or presented as criticisms and antitheses to the perspectives offered by others.

(11) Thus, your classic author is someone you cannot feel indifferent towards and who assist you to defining yourself in relation to him/her – in sympathy or opposition.

(12) A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognises its place in the family tree. An archaeology or genealogy of knowledge is involved in the establishment and appreciation of classicality.

(13) A classic is something/someone that/who tends to regulate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without – it directs or disrupts our attention even if and when our attention is directed elsewhere.

(14) A classic is something/someone that/who persists as a constant background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the current situation. The classics permeate the present but in a subtle and mysterious manner.


These fourteen statements about the classics may appear common sense, yet they offer a refreshing examination of how classicality, as individual or intersubjective experience, is established, maintained and transferred. The critical or observant reader might claim that these statements do not capture the entire essence of sociological classicality, and I believe that they are right, but I also believe that these statements are a representative picture of how the classics generally ought to be perceived within the discipline of sociology. They should stand as sources of inspiration, stimulation and, to some extent, also emulation, however not as a blind and uncritical rehashing of past glory and achievements. Calvino simultaneously refrains from reifying or deifying the classics, thereby making them the only authoritative path to truth or scientific status, and thereby he avoids repeating the same mistake sociology made in its eagerness to earn academic accolade and acceptance.


The ‘real’ classics are thus classics because they seem to be spiritually alive, despite perhaps having been physically dead and buried for many decades or even centuries – because the provided concepts, analyses or theories that still seem poignant, precise or potent. Moreover, the classics in sociology are often classical because they were paradigmatic or have appeared to be so in the decades following their demise. It is actually in this particular respect that they distance themselves and appear superior to those thinkers who, although they also went into the annals of the discipline, remained relatively marginal figures in a paradigmatic sense of the term. This fact recently made Norwegian sociologist Rune Åkvik Nilsen denote them the ‘die hard classics’.


Problems with excessive use of classics in sociology


I believe that two of the major functions, either manifest or latent, of the classics in sociology have first and foremost been that they throughout a long period of time have helped legitimise the discipline, and second that their central position somehow has been instrumental in preserving the status quo. The problem in sociology, as I see it, is that the classics have come to occupy a position not as background noise, as Calvino recommended, but as a resounding choir of authoritative voices hindering and hampering scientific progression and innovation. Without wishing to sound excessively dramatic, sociologists are, in short, caught up in the classics and need to ask, as global society, economy and democracy are in a churn and in the throes of multiple recessions and warfare, where do we go from here?


We therefore need to be aware of what might seem to be certain problems relating to a heavy classical inclination in sociology. Anthony Giddens (1972), himself the archetypal ‘neo-classic’ sociologist, years ago called attention to what he believed the discipline regarded as four major myths of classical sociology – coherence or social order as the core concern, conservatism, a separation from the pre-scientific past and consensus-orientation – apparently standing in the way of sociological progress. Whether these myths are real or mere fallacies based on a misunderstanding of the classics, the sociological reliance on and repetition of the classics may prove to pose as a problem and an obstacle to progression and as a source of stagnation.


Peter Baehr, who provided us with a definition of ‘classicality’, also observed in Founders, Classics and Canons: “A classical legacy can both be a source of inspiration for an epoch or a crushing and stagnating burden on it […] It can both exclude potentially valuable ideas and prove capable of embracing them. It can both be a source of mindless regurgitation and of bracing intellectual challenge.” It is, in short, the sociologists’ application of the classics that imbues them with scientific or social utility, importance and value and therefore also the responsibility of sociologists to handle the classics sensibly. Left to themselves, as Collins finds, the classics are nothing but great ideas on blank sheets of paper, the mindless reproduction of which only serves to imprison the minds of students and teachers alike and stagnate intellectual innovation.


Stagnation, however, is not the only problem posed by very rigid definitions and utilisations of the classics. Selectivity, understood as inclusion and exclusion, is another pitfall dealing with who is promoted to intellectual immortality and who is relegated to immediate oblivion. Why do we read, for example, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel, but not Condorcet, Comte, Saint Simon, Spencer, de Tocqueville, Mosca, Pareto, Tarde, Michels, Lippmann, Sorokin, etc.? Why have some previous household names altogether disappeared – such as, for example, Sombart, while others have remained part of the cult of the classics? Why has exactly this trinity of thinkers, Marx, Durkheim and Weber, obtained and maintained such a prominent position within sociology on behalf of equally brilliant analysts of their contemporary societies? What has happened to the so-called socio-philosophical ‘forerunners’ of modern institutionalised sociology such as Münster, Sansovino, Bodin, Conring, Graunt, Neuman, Petty, Süssmilch, etc., who according to some chroniclers had such a heavy impact on the foundation of the discipline as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries but who today appear so unfamiliar to most of us? These important names appear to be missing from most sociological curricula today and may have been victims of what Giddens described as a desire to distance sociology from its supposedly pre-scientific origins. It goes to show how our perception of the sociological past is, indeed, based on selective perception and that such selectivity, inclusion and exclusion is mirrored in the canons and curricula we choose for the next generations of sociologists. As James Dowd remarked:


A graduate training program constitutes a type of canon. It specifies, although not always explicitly, an authoritative, approved list of courses, authors, works, and ideas […] The canon of sociology includes a set of texts written by the sociologists of the classical period, a set of procedures for conducting the research and for analyzing the data that it produces, and a set of ideas (that is concepts, generalizations, and theories) generated by empirical research […] Even given the large number of subfields within sociology, a common set of texts and procedures is acknowledged throughout the field. The ideas that are singled out for inclusion in the canon do, however, vary across subfields as well as over time (Dowd 1991:317 in Baehr & O’Brien 1994:111).


Intellectual stagnation and selective memory are thus some of the problems related to the mindless devotion to the cult of the classics in sociology.




Can we kill the classics – OR – Do classics perpetuate themselves?


Sociology is by its very nature a hybrid discipline, borrowing equally from the natural sciences and the humanities. From the former it finds the tendency for devaluation of the classics; from the latter it finds the tendency to worship the classics and the preoccupation with dissecting the past in its own right. Sociology is caught in the middle, which means that it is not exempt from the habit of either embracing or running away from its own past. This double-edged mentality is still present within the discipline and results in the fact that the classical past stands in an increasingly precarious or ambivalent situation which is furthermore enhanced by recent radical changes within the university systems, as mentioned above.


As some sort of conclusion on this commentary, an initial question in the article – can we kill the classics? – ought perhaps in retrospect to have been normatively rephrased as: Should we kill the classics?


My personal answer is in the negative. The reasons why the classics ought to be kept alive in the years ahead need to be clarified and critically discussed collectively among practicing sociologists. Some will claim that the classics need to be read and discussed because they can guide contemporary social action. This, I believe, is to demand too much of ideas and theories of the past. The functionality of the classics can no longer solely rely on their external power of explanation of the present situation, which is different from even the most visionary expectations of the founders. Therefore they will have to legitimise themselves internally and sui generis, as it were, and Italo Calvino also concluded his argument about the role and function of the classics by stating that the “classics ought to be read because they ‘serve any purpose’ whatever. The only reason one can possibly adduce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.”


Charles Tilly noted that “the nineteenth century’s legacy to twentieth century social scientists resembles an old house inherited from a rich aunt: worn, over-decorated, cluttered, but probably salvageable.” Has this characterisation changed since the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century not to mention the recent transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century? Tilly’s description could easily be recycled to describe also the present situation in sociology. The classics and their concepts still clutter the house of sociology – which is, indeed, salvageable but in desperate need of refurbishment. Norwegian sociologist Dag Østerberg, who for almost a lifetime has taken a keen interest in the classics, also recently discussed whether the classical concepts, formulated in large part in the 19th and early 20th century, are still analytically valid and still worthwhile utilising for sociologists when studying the rapidly changing social world of the 21st century. According to Østerberg, we will always have the key classical concepts of industrialism, capitalism, stratification, rationalisation, differentiation, power, community, etc. to fall back upon when the fluctuating success of fads and fashions is revealed and their analytical value or novelty wears off.


We must be careful not to forget our founders; but we must also beware not to sanctify or deify them or allow their ideas to monopolise our visions, as Danish sociologist Dominique Bouchet poignantly and recently stated: “Nothing is more dangerous than one idea, when you only have one, and nothing is more dangerous than a guru, when you similarly only have one. It is wondering, the many ideas, the many masters, the many critical perspectives that society and the sociological imagination feed on.” This not only pertains to trained scholars but equally to those being processed through the educational system and therefore we ought not to teach our students the marvels of a myopic mentality when it comes to classics. Pluralism is the best possible starting point for any education and here there should be institutional as well as individual interest in showing the broad spectrum of sociological insights offered by the classics instead of narrowing it down to one’s own favourites or heroes. It is our democratic duty to do so and the classics, collectively instead of individually, can widen our perspectives and open our eyes. As Lawrence Sherman rightly contended, “if the ascendancy of one or the other of the paradigms makes a difference in how sociology develops, or how it shapes social policy, then graduate students are morally obliged […] to give each paradigm a fair hearing. To know fully what I am doing, I need to know what I am not doing; in other words, I must know the opportunity costs. And for that, I must read the masters.”


Goethe once stated that ‘what you have inherited from your fathers, you must earn in order to possess’. The classics are an illustrative example of this insightful expression – that one must actively but also respectfully commemorate the past in order to acquire and claim the benefits and fruits associated with classical thinking. Merton, for example, summarised how the classics remain powerful presences even within contemporary thought:


Acquaintance and re-acquaintance with the classics have a variety of functions. These range from the direct pleasure of coming upon an aesthetically pleasing and more cogent version of one’s own ideas, through the satisfaction of independent confirmation of these ideas by a powerful mind, and the educative function of developing high standards of taste for sociological work to the interactive effect of developing new ideas by turning to older writings within the context of contemporary knowledge […] For that reason, sociologists in our time must continue to behave unlike their contemporaries in the physical and life sciences and devote more of themselves to close familiarity with their not-so-distant classical predecessors (Merton 1968).


Classics are indeed what Italian historian Gaetano Salvemini once termed libri fecondatori – books that are full to the brim of fertile thinking and fecundity for those who read them and whose own work is inspired by them. What I would describe as the ‘fecundity function’ of the classics cannot be neglected and it is perhaps in this somewhat informal capacity that the chances of survival, but also of a continued although latent and unobtrusive presence, for the classics is strongest and it will be here they will eventually have to find their own natural level in sociology.


Looking back at the by now long history of sociology, it makes some sense to seek to distinguish between ‘classics’, those original founders of the discipline who stand out as if marked in granite in contemporary canons and curricula, the ‘intermediary classics’, who elaborated on, transmitted, modified or criticised the classics, and the ‘neo-classics’, the latter being those grand names – Luhmann, Habermas, Giddens, Bourdieu, Bauman, Beck etc. – still alive or only recently demised and actively present in contemporary scholarly debates and developments. Neo-classics will, naturally and eventually, in time, turn out to be intermediary classics and later perhaps even become real or genuine classics when time takes its toll and their contributions are looked upon in historical hindsight. Such a threefold division and clarification of the concept of the classics also suggests that there is some sense of continuity between the different generations within sociology. Even some of those influential scholars, who themselves have now obtained the status of classic or at least intermediary classic, as Talcott Parsons (1981) provides a good example, have themselves been inspired by earlier generations of classics and been instrumental in commenting as well as building on the real classics. There is inherently, as a consequence, some circularity, but also repetition and reproduction, in the concept of the classics. This may lead to some problems primarily for scientific progress and secondarily for sociological integration – both problems can prove detrimental to scientific development and coherence.


It also seems as if the 21st century is seeing a revival of the concern with the roots, founders and classics of the discipline but also the beginning of a fragmentation where some regions, paradigms or institutional settings promote their own specific classics while other regions steadfastly support theirs. For instance, books by Alexander, Boudon and Cherkaoui illustrate the cultural or geographical contingency of the classics in that one of the volumes is exclusively devoted to American classics and the other entirely to their European counterparts in sociology. What is considered classical in the U.S. is not any longer necessarily and automatically also seen as the ‘real’ classics in Europe, what has been regarded as classics in the West may not necessarily be seen as the classics in the East, what the North defends as the central canon, the South may regard merely as ponderings at the periphery of a discipline, etc. The classics are apparently represented as classics differently according to time and space. The result is an even bigger expansion in the literature on the classics where each regional, epochal or institutional sector promotes its own canons, founders and classics. So despite the fact that the status and centrality of the classics remain as consolidated as previously, the commonness of our disciplinary heritage may be endangered in the years to come due to academic disputes over who is a classic and who is not, who is part of the canon and who is not, who should be honoured and revered as a substantial founder of the discipline of sociology and who was merely playing a subordinate or insignificant part.


scaffoldingThe classics can serve as scaffolds that can buttress sociological heritage and history but, as Erving Goffman noted, scaffolds are supposed to be dismantled once the real building has been erected. As scaffolds, the classics can assist contemporary sociologists in identifying past pedigree and can serve as a common point of reference but they cannot and should not dictate current research agendas.


The thin line between utilising and sanctifying the classics is indeed delicate and one must be careful not to cross it. The use of the classics must never merely be reproduction or exegesis without anchorage in contemporary concerns. The result of such fanatic reproduction may well turn out to be sociological stagnation where scientific progress, discoveries and advancements are hindered by a preoccupation with the past instead of an open orientation towards the present and the future, where a desire to legitimise previous authoritative achievements stand in the way of discovering or inventing something new.


Another danger is if the sociological imagination only turns into a repetition of past achievements. As Danish sociologist Klaus Rasborg pointed out, today we need a renewed sociological imagination based on late modern realities instead of relying on a sociological imagination that belonged to the erstwhile modern age where nation-state, the class society, industrial production, tradition-bound kinship relations and so on were the signs of the times. Although remnants of these features may still be with us, modernity has gradually but also thoroughly and relentless been transformed on almost all levels of social reality – the macro, intermediary and micro – and the interests of sociologists need to mirror these changes, document, record and analyse them. A sociological imagination worthy of its name and useful to generation after generation of students and scholars never sleeps but is continuously kept abreast by the changes in society. If one is not awake and watchful the ship of sociology can sink much like the Titanic. Therefore, the classics can be used as a navigational guide, like the stars or the compass, but a dead sociologist cannot be made the captain of the sociological ship.






© Michael Jacobsen, 2015 (with inputs from The Essayist team)



For a list of the books and authors voted important of the 20th century in sociology differentiated according to the voters’ gender and age, see

Image of 3 classic together from


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