From Marx to Weber and beyond

Understanding history is an important part of developing a sound sociological perspective. It wouldn’t be possible to fully appreciate the theories of major thinkers like Marx or Weber without a review of the historical circumstances that influenced their thoughts.

Right: Professor Engin Isin

York’s Canada Research Chair of Citizenship Studies, Professor of Social Science Engin Isin (right), has recently completed work on a comprehensive handbook that documents historical sociology. Isin worked with Professor Gerard Delanty of the University of Liverpool. Their collaboration, The Handbook of Historical Sociology (Sage, 2003), was published in November.

The project was a learning experience for Isin. “Though I was not formally trained in historical sociology, I have nonetheless always approached my areas of research and teaching – cities and citizenship – as a historical sociologist,” he says. “This means that I viewed it not as a discipline but as a way of undertaking historically-engaged sociological research and sociologically-engaged historical research. Perhaps taking major sociologists such as Fustel de Coulanges, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and Otto Gierke seriously was itself a form of training, albeit an unconscious one.”

In a review of the handbook, Sociology Professor William Outhwaite of the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex wrote: “The overall conception of the volume is absolutely splendid, and the editors skilfully place the material in the context of disciplinary and post-disciplinary developments in sociology. This is a major contribution to the field, as well as a comprehensive and reliable guide to its main components.” 

Social theorists have long sought to understand the nature of societies by treating them as aspects of historical development. Principal theorists include Karl Marx, Max Weber, Robert Michels, Leon Trotsky, Edward Thompson and Michael Mann. Isin and Delanty have compiled contributions from key thinkers in social thought into one comprehensive volume divided into three major parts.

Part One is devoted to the foundations of historical sociology and covers Marx, Weber, evolutionary and functionalist approaches, the Annales School, Elias, Nelson and Eisenstadt. Part Two moves on to consider major ideas, including modernization, late Marxist approaches, historical geography, cultural and intellectual history, and post-colonial and genealogical approaches. The third part is devoted to the major substantive themes in historical sociology, ranging from state formation, nationalism, social movements, classes, patriarchy, architecture, religion and moral regulation to problems of periodization and East-West divisions.

Right: Karl Marx

A general introduction to the volume outlines the current state of historical sociology after the cultural turn in the social sciences. It argues that historical sociology is deeply divided between introductory “sociological” approaches and more practical and interpretative historical approaches.

“Editing this volume became an act of discovery,” says Isin. “I hope that others will find it equally revealing and enchanting.”