Practice Question – How well do you think Tonnies, Durkheim, Weber and Marx predicted the character of Modern society ? Critique. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Explain the sociological concept of Modern Society, Give the views of thinkers in question and provide criticism of the same, Conclusion. 



As used in classical sociological theory, the concept of modernity has its roots in the attempt to come to grips with the meaning and significance of the social changes occurring in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, namely, the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and political democracy on essentially rural and autocratic societies. The term “modernity” was coined to capture these changes in progress by contrasting the “modern” with the “traditional.” The theme, if not the concept, of modernity pervades sociology and the work of its founding fathers, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. In their work modernity was meant to be more than a heuristic concept. It carried connotations of a new experience of the world. Modernity referred to a world constructed anew through the active and conscious intervention of actors and the new sense of self that such active intervention and responsibility entailed.

This new sense of time and future orientation applies as much to the arts as to social and political relations. In fact, the concept of modernity used in social theory and the concept of modernism used to describe movements in the arts and literature have a common basis. Both focus on the new sense of individuality, future orientation, and creative possibility and identify these attributes with both the individual and collective movements.



Modernity involves the rise of modern society (secularised societies with an institutional separation of the state from civil society, a much greater degree of social and technical division of labour, and the formation of nation-states uniting cultural and political borders), a rationalistic epistemology, and an individualistic and objectivistic ontology”

Modernity is the term used by sociologists to describe the “modern” period which began in Europe several hundred years ago. Some of the key features of modern societies are:

  • Economic production is industrial and capitalist, with social class as the main form of social division. Social classes are based on people’s social and economic position. Marx’s view for instance, was that industrial society people were divided into two main classes, those who owned businesses and those who sold their labour to them.
  • The growth of cities, or urbanisation. During the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries thousands of people moved to cities to find work and make their homes.
  • A powerful central government and administration, known as a bureaucratic state. Local and central government have played an ever increasing part in our lives, the development of compulsory education, public housing and the welfare state for example.
  • People’s knowledge is derived from scientific and rational thinking rather than religious faith, magic or superstition. During this period people have looked to science and logical thinking to explain the world. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, for example, have tended to be explained scientifically rather than as an “act of god”.
  • A widely held faith in scientifically based progress. An associated view has been that the more we trust in science and technological progress, the better our society will be.



Tradition has a tendency to become entropic and inward looking. This is true of many local level traditions and sub traditions are stamped out and disappear without leaving much of a trace. The pertinent question here is why does tradition disappear, change, ameliorate or attempt to coexist with modernity? The fact of the matter is that the vectors or chief characteristics of a tradition are themselves set to develop, change, or become stagnant. Thus tradition has many sub traditions and it is these that often linger on, indefinitely, in various geophysical territories within a specific culture area.



Karl Marx’s concern with modernity was in terms of production relations. It was the objective of the capitalist class to increase its production. More production means more profit. Capitalism, for him, was ultimately profiteering. Marx, therefore, argued that for capitalism everything is a commodity. Dance, drama, literature, religion, in fact, everything in society is a commodity. It is manufactured and sold in the market.

Max Weber scans a huge literature on domination, religion and other wider areas of life and comes to the conclusion that rationality is the pervading theme, which characterizes human actions. He has, therefore, defined modernity as rationality. For him, in one word, modernity is synonymous with rationality.

Emile Durkheim had a very intimate encounter with industrialization and urbanization. He was scared of the impact of modernization. His studies of modern society brought out very interesting and exciting data. He was a functionalist. He very strongly believed in the cohesion of society. For him, society is above everything else. It is par excellence. It is God. Despite all this, society is never static.

Ferdinand Tonnies  characterized key characteristics of simple and modern societies with the German words Gemeinschaft and  Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft means human community, and Tonnies said that a sense of community characterizes simple societies, where  family , kin, and community ties are quite strong. As societies grew and industrialized and as people moved to cities, Tonnies said, social ties weakened and became more impersonal. Tonnies called this situation a  Gesellschaft  and found it dismaying.

George Simmel is seen as investigating modernity primarily in two major interrelated sites: the city and the money economy. The city is where modernity is concentrated or intensified, whereas the money economy involves the diffusion of modernity, its extension. Thus, for Simmel, modernity consists of city life and the diffusion of money.



The concept of modernisation emerged as the response of the western social science to the many challenges faced by the Third World. With the process of political decolonisation following the Second World War, the new nations were in a hurry to launch massive programmes of economic development and technical change. The need for developing new paradigms to shape and order their development programme was strongly felt. Modernisation was one suc formulation which held out considerable promise.

A series of societal changes are implicit in the process of modernisation. Agrarian societies are characterised by the predominance of ascriptive, particularistic and diffused patterns; they have stable local groups and limited spatial mobility. Occupational differentiation is relatively simple and stable; and the stratification system is deferential and has a diffused impact. The modern industrial society is characterised by the predominance of universalistic, specific and achievement norms; a high degree of mobility; a developed occupational system relatively insulated from other social structures; a class system often based on achievement; and the presence of functionally specific, non-ascriptive structures and associations. Historically evolved institutions continuously adapt themselves to the changes dictated by the phenomenal increase in the human knowledge that has resulted from the control humanity
has over its environment. Modernisation theory does not clearly spell out its distributive objectives. The emergence of an implicit egalitarian and participative ethos does, however, indicate the narrowing of social gaps and promotion of greater equality as desirable ends.

Modernisation, as a form of cultural response, involves attributes which are basically universalistic and evolutionary; they are pan-humanistic, trans-ethnic and non-ideological. The essential attribute of modernisation is rationality. Rationality transforms thought processes at the level of the individual and in the process permeates the entire institutional framework of society. Events and situations are understood in terms of cause and effects. Strategies of action are determined by careful means-ends calculations. Rationality begins to characterise all forms of human interaction and enters into people’s vision of a new future as well as into their strivings for the attainment of the objectives they set for themselves. The concomitant structural changes and value shifts bring about fundamental changes in the entire cultural ethos.



There are important distinctions between the classical studies and the new studies of the modernisation school. For example, in the classical approach, tradition is seen as an obstacle to development whereas in the new approach tradition is an additive factor of development. With regard to methodology, the classical approach applies a theoretical construction with a high level of abstraction; the new approach applies concrete case studies given in a historical context. Regarding the direction of development, the classical perspective uses a unidirectional path which tends towards the United States and European model, the new perspective prefers a multidirectional path of development. Finally, the classical perspective demonstrates a relative neglect of the external factors and conflict. This stands out in sharp contrast to the greater attention to the external factors and conflicts bestowed by the new approach. Development, in the changed context, poses a challenge and, at the same time, presents an opportunity.



Modernity brought with it many blessings to the people including much better health and economic prospects. However, there are also some problems which have emerged with modern society e.g. the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during world war II; and the arms race thereafter. Other problems include environmental degradation e.g. air and water pollution. Modernity also creates great stress on people and alienation or being without specific interest in anything (malaise). At the present point the debate is still on whether modernity is socially positive or not, whether it has proved beneficial or not to world society.

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