SOC101Y1 Study Guide - Alexis De Tocqueville

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1 Feb 2011
SOC203Y-History of Social Theory 10-Jan-2011
Ideology & the Development of Sociological Theory:
Tocqueville, Martineau, Taylor & Mill
Any sociology worth its salt must be historical. There is no way to understand anything in the human condition
without studying history. When we studied Machiavelli and others, we said that memory is to the individual as
history is to society.
For example: if we perish the thought that any of us may have a medical problem and we want to solicit an
additional medical opinion, the first question that a doctor will ask is about medical history. The reason Dr.
Zeitlin is emphasizing this is that we are going to be discussing one of the really outstanding historical
sociologists and Zeitlin wants to explain what that is and how it differs to just history.
There are three (3) basic elements to what we would call historical sociology. The three elements are concerned
with social structure, i.e. the social context of the given historical event or historical individuals - if we want to
understand how Hitler came to power, we want to understand the context. We have to know the history of what
came before itthis would apply to any example. The three elements include:
1. Social structure
2. History
3. Biography
Biography means a concern with who the historical individuals were. For example, individuals like Alexander
the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Lennon, Stalin, Mao – clearly, they stand out as historical individuals.
Therefore, we need to study not only the context, i.e. social structure of a given society at that particular moment,
but we also have to look at the historical background, we also have to consider who these individuals are, and
how important are they. In other words, we are interested in the causal weight. Could there have been a Balasivic
revolution if the Germans hadn’t let Lennon back into Russia. Another example: what if a brick had fallen on
Napoleon’s head while he was still a corporal, would French history have been different after the French
Revolution. These are what we call counter-factuals.
What is the difference between a historian on the one hand and a historical sociologist?
Zeitlin thinks that the most outstanding historians drew more than what he is about to say; but, if we define
history as a unique and unrepeatable series of events, i.e. there was only one Julius Caesar, there was only one
Napoleon, there was only one Mao, etc. When we studied Machiavelli, he suggested that we have this déjà vu
and even though history doesnt repeat itself literally, there is a sense metaphorically that we see things happening
that remind us of what happened in the past and it helps us to interpret a given event. For example, we might say
the historian studies Julius Caesar, but the historical sociologist studies Caesarismi.e. when Mussolini marched
on Rome, the techniques he used and the strategy he used remind us of Julius Caesar.
If history is a unique and unrepeatable series of events, then a historian would just tell you the story – it becomes
a narrative; they will tell you what happened. That is why in elementary school they referred to history as a story.
In contrast, the historical sociologist is interested in explaining things. S/he is interested in causes and
consequences. Hence, today we are going to talk about the old regime and the French Revolution.
Somebody like Tocqueville does not merely tell us what happened, but he also wants to explain the causes of the
French Revolution; and, not only causes, he wants to explain the consequences of the Revolution. It is true that
most historians and indeed intelligent people, like your parents, recognize that this as common sense and probably
that this historical sociological approach that Zeitlin is describing, with an attention to context and history and
biography, is built into their intellectual consciousness.
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SOC203Y-History of Social Theory 10-Jan-2011
One more thing that a historical sociologist does, which helps to look at the question of causes and consequences,
is to apply a comparative dimension. Tocqueville comes from France and he has lived through and, therefore,
knows the history of France (1789).
What happened after the Revolution? Not only was it bloody and violent, i.e. the sons and daughters of the
nobility were sent to the guillotine just because they were the sons and daughters of the nobility; but, then there
was Napoleon, who turned out to be a despot, declaring himself to be the Emperor. Hence, there was the
Revolution and then there was despotism. Beethoven originally dedicated the symphony Bonaparte to Napoleon,
but he became disappointed and renamed the symphony Eroica because the revolution seemed to hold out certain
promises, but he was disappointed.
Tocqueville lived through the revolution of 1830; he lived through the revolution of 1848; and, indeed, he was a
personal witness, as a member of the party of order, to the coup d'état of Napoleon’s nephew, namely, Louis
Coup d'état means seizer of power, unconstitutionally.
The kind of question that a sociologist would have is: what were manifest and underlying causes of the
revolution, i.e. of the American Revolution, of the French Revolution? And, what are the similarities and
differences because although he is living in France and he is very concerned with the French conditions, he takes
the opportunity to come to America when it arrives. The key concept in Tocqueville is the rise of the demos,
which in Greek means the people.
Democracy literally means the rule of the people, which very rarely happens.
What Tocqueville witnessed in his time was what he calls a master trend from Aristocracy to Democracy. The
rise of the people; the people enter the historical stage and now begin to play a very significant role in history -
sometimes for better and sometimes for worse; in France, however, it was not always for good. But, in the United
States, in the early history of America, Tocqueville wants to show that there were very significant differences and
that in American democracy you did not have the kind of violence that you had in France.
Democracy in America
What was unique or characteristic of America at that time that was fundamentally different from Europe,
especially from France?
Well, in the first place there was no old regime in America at that time. What do we mean by the old
regime? We defined the old regime as the established Church, the Monarch, and the nobility. In America,
there was no established Church; there was no Monarchy after the Revolution; and there was no established
nobility, i.e. a class of aristocrats or nobles - these are three pillars of the old regime (Monarchy, the nobility,
and the established Church). This was a fundamental difference between France and America at the time.
Moreover, there were no large metropolitan cities with slums and ghettos, etc. There were some poor
people around, but nothing like the slums of London or Manchester, etc.
There was no state bureaucracy in America. In France, everything was so highly centralized that you
couldnt even repair a church steeple without permission from Paris. This centralization took place under the
Monarchy and it was even accentuated after the Revolution.
There were no great industrial centres like Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool. In Manchester,
when Tocqueville visited England in the 1930s and he went to Manchester, he noted that people were
working 69 hours per week; he couldnt tell if it was day time or night time because of all the smog; and in
the absence of water technology, people living downstream in the cellar apartments, would often use the
water that people defecated in; as a matter of fact, the Thames in London, even though it was now an
industrial city, was so filthy that the Thames was full of shit.
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SOC203Y-History of Social Theory 10-Jan-2011
Hence, if we say there was no old regime, there were no metropolitan, there was no bureaucracy, etc. this means
that one way to describe America at that time would be to say that it was one large middle class or a society of
middle strata. As Aristotle said, the only way to avoid destabilization of the society is to avoid polarization.
Polarization is where you have extremes of rich and poor. Hence, in America, you had some poor people, i.e.
poor farmers; you had very wealthy farmers, etc. But, by and large, everybody was in this gigantic middle class
or middle strata.
Tocqueville tells us that America was a kind of post-revolutionary middle-class society. On the other hand, the
French upper classes - in America at the time, there was no upper class that ruled in quite the way that it ruled in
Europe. For example, in America, you didn’t have what you had in France where the King and the Nobility – the
upper classes – had failed to make the lower classes fit to govern, which would have required the sharing of
power. This was something that was happening to a certain extent in Britain, but it was not happening in France.
In contrast to France, in America, the people did have a voice in politics. After all, in America, they introduced
the very things that we learn from Locke and Montesquieu – they recognized that only power can check power;
hence, they introduced that in government you had to have a balance of forces, a balance of power – you had to
have checks and balances and you had to avoid situations in which some of these social forces were so large and
powerful that they could tyrannize over all the rest. Hence, as Machiavelli said, you need a kind of Prince, or
Ruler, or Government that can try to create a dynamic equilibrium among the various social groups and forces
where no one or two of them can rule over all the rest, dominate them, and tyrannize over them, etc. Hence, in
America you did have situations in which lessons were learned from people like Locke and Montesquieu.
Another thing that contributed to the relative stability of early American history was the fact that the people who
came to America, i.e. the earliest settlers, had a common national origin, i.e. they were all English. And, they had
a common religious origin because they were not Anglicans, which was the established church, they were
puritans. They were the product of the Protestant Reformation, which well talk about when we get to Max
Weber, but especially Calvinists and the post-Calvinist sects, which well explain better when we get to that
subject. Hence, they had a lot in common for that reason and they introduce certain liberties of a personal kind,
which you didnt have in France, i.e. personal liberty, trial by jury, and the accountability of elected officials.
Now, as we hear this, some of us who are very sophisticated will say, well what happened to America because
when we read about whats happening today, it seems that a lot of these things have become defunct. In addition
to accountability of the elected officials and trial by jury, you have local autonomy – by which we mean, each
township – one of the things that is important to understand about the American Revolution is that when you talk
about Washington and Jefferson and Madison and all the rest of them, they didnt just wake up one day and
decide to make a revolution, i.e. to rebel against George III.
Zeitlin visited St. Johns Church in Virginia, where Patrick Henry was a member of the congregation. In all the
churches in townships of that period, before 1776, the farmers and artisansit was mostly the men – sat there and
debated whether or not to make a revolution. They were all Lockeans in a sense, even those who came here were
Lockeans. What was the difference between them? The difference was that Washington et al. believed that
George had become a tyrant; whereas, those who came here, the Loyalists, believed that he made some mistakes,
but he doesn’t deserve a revolution.
Local autonomy means that there was no centralized bureaucracy as there was in France and other countries of
Europe. France was especially vulnerable to despotism because all the local powers had been severely weakened
by the absolute Monarchy and then by the revolution as well and by Napoleon. In other words, what Zeitlin just
described, i.e. the meetings in the church and the townships to decide whether or not to make a revolution, giving
the people some real voice in what was going on – this did not exist in France.
Tocqueville says, “as the state gathered onto itself all power, nothing stood between it and the atomized
Atomized comes from the term “atom. When we get to the neo-Machiavellians we’re going to talk about the
masses. There is a difference between an educated citizenry and the masses. What do we mean by masses? The
only way, if we regard the first world war as the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century – which Zeitlin does
what happened as a result of the first world war was that all the old regimes were destroyed, i.e. the Kaiser fell,
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