16 Sep 2014

Economic Sociology: Marx’s Materialist Conception of History

(Karl Marx)
Karl Marx, as you all should know, was a sociologist who often criticized capitalism for what it will do to society in the future. He was able to “foresee” this because he believed that history would follow a predictable course. This belief was based on his materialist conception of history, or historical materialism, a methodological approach that he used to study society, economy, and history.
The general premise of historical materialism is that how people provide for their material needs will condition their dealings with other people, with social institutions, and with dominant ideas.

Marx describes this theory in his 1859 book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will. These relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
Though this theory was criticized for being unfalsifiable, it is an interesting take on how society and the economy are organized.

  • Superstructure – Noneconomic relations
  • Base – Economic relations
  • Forces of Production – Tools used to satisfy human needs (machinery, factories, etc.)
  • Relations of Production – Associations people have with each other in terms of satisfying needs.

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