Modern Social Theory

Course lead: Prof Gurminder K Bhambra & Prof John Holmwood

In this module on Modern Social Theory, our focus on Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Du Bois addresses what they have bequeathed to sociology and the social sciences. We look at how that legacy is structured by a failure to treat colonialism and empire as central to the development of modern society. As such, our purpose is to ‘decolonise’ the concepts and categories they have given to us, rather than simply critique the canon itself. This requires a process of contextual understanding and reconstruction.


1. Decolonising Modern Social Theory

Prof Gurminder K Bhambra

Modern social theory is a product of the very history it seeks to interpret and explain. In this module, we address the categories that form mainstream sociology in order to reconstruct modern social theory. We focus on five key sociological figures of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Du Bois. Our purpose is to expose the significance of colonialism and empire in the organisation of the thought of these writers and, thereby, in the legacies they bequeath to social theory. Addressing colonial histories is a necessary preliminary to the reconstruction of social theory.

2. Early Modern Social Theory: Europe and its ‘Others’

Prof John Holmwood

This session looks at the beginnings of modern European social theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The English political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), set out a distinction between the ‘state of nature’ and the ‘state of society’ in order to identify rights and obligations associated with private property. Their writings are widely seen in the context of the later development of capitalism, but are much more directly concerned with the justification of colonialism with which they were each directly engaged. In the eighteenth century, writers associated with the Scottish Enlightenment –for example, David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790), William Robertson (1721-1793), John Millar (1735-1801), and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) – developed a typology of different types of society as stages of historical development. In this session, we consider how these ideas contributed to the view that ‘freedom’ was a product of European modernity and that modernity operated in terms of an internal logic from which colonialism was effaced.