v31#6 Collecting to the Core — Classics of Sociology

by | Feb 28, 2020 | 0 comments

by Cindy L. Craig  (Associate University Librarian, University of Florida;  Sociology Subject Editor, Resources for College Libraries, 2012-2019) 

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL) 

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

In 1997, the International Sociological Association (ISA) asked its members to list the five books published in the twentieth century that were most influential to their work as sociologists in order to critically assess the “sociological heritage” of the century.  The top ten includes works that are foundational not only to the field of sociology, but also to economics, political science, social psychology, and religion.1  This essay will examine a selection of these titles, some of which are still assigned as required reading in many introductory college courses and endure as classics in the RCL core bibliography.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two works by Max Weber appear in the top ten.  One of the leading intellectuals of his time, Weber (along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim) laid the foundation of modern sociology.  Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, originally intended to be part of an edited multivolume encyclopedia, was published posthumously by Weber’s wife in 1921, although the first complete English translation was not available until 1968.2  Still, Economy and Society was voted the most influential ISA title of the twentieth century.  In this magnum opus, Weber synthesized his lifelong empirical research on the comparative histories of the world’s great civilizations.  Out of this analysis, he developed an organized system of sociology. Economy and Society is perhaps most famous for its detailed description of the modern bureaucracy.  In contrast to the old religious systems that dominated society through charismatic means, he argued that modern society has become dominated by political power wielded through bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies are based on the application of reason and impersonal laws wielded by professional experts. Participants obey a hierarchy of rules rather than a hierarchy of people. Because this system of authority is rational, efficient, and stable, participants believe in its legitimacy.  Bureaucracies are controlled by a small group of self-appointed leaders. Thus, the quality of life of all members of a society is in the hands of oligarchs.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ranked fourth in the ten most influential books and remains one of the most renowned, and controversial, works in sociology.4  Originally published in German between 1904 and 1905, the work was first translated into English in 1930 by American sociologist Talcott Parsons.  In it, Weber examines the historically peculiar form of capitalism that emerged after the Reformation.  Protestants, specifically Calvinists, continually accumulated wealth for its own sake, rather than for any pleasure the profits would bring.  They saw it as a moral calling to make money while maintaining a disinterest in worldly luxuries. Weber believed this behavior was motivated by the Calvinist belief in predestination, in which one can never be sure who is destined for heaven.  Success in their calling was taken as a sign of being one of the few chosen for salvation. The notion of a calling, which did not exist in ancient societies or religions, projects religious behavior into the everyday world.  Weber observed that the impact of the Protestant ethic was strongest in the United States, where it drove the development of industrial centers in the East.5  Although economic competition, rather than religious values, drives capitalism today, the remnants of this work ethic persist in Americans’ long work hours, scant vacation days, and resistance to taking sick leave. 

Coming in second on the ISA list, behind Economy and Society, C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination  carries continued relevance to scholars and students alike.6  Described by critic Donald Macrae as “an elegant — indeed, sometimes, apocalyptic — writer,” Mills, a sociology professor at Columbia University, attacked his peers’ preoccupation with “grand theory” and “abstracted empiricism” and argued instead for more concern with social policy and opposition to major concentrations of power.7  Unsurprisingly, this book was not well-received at the time of its initial publication in 1959.  Mills described the problem of individuals in mass society being “gripped by personal troubles” without understanding how these problems interact with social issues.  It is the true job of the social scientist, then, to help individuals develop the ability to understand the relationship between one’s experience and wider society.  As defined by Mills, the sociological imagination can be applied to any seemingly mundane behavior.  For example, drinking a cup of coffee can be viewed through several contexts: as a social ritual, as the use of a socially acceptable drug, and as one’s participation in a global economic enterprise.  In another example, one’s inability to pay the rent, through the lens of the sociological imagination, is recognized as the result of social problems such as economic inequality and structural poverty — issues that greatly concern social scientists (as well as activists) today.

What is reality?  In their text The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann make the bold claim that reality only exists because we act as if it does through our social actions.9  As people and groups interact with each other in a social system, they behave as if they were following conventional rules.  But they are, in fact, actively shaping and maintaining a shared reality through conversations. If actions are reinforced long enough, they eventually become embedded in society as institutions.  As young children, we come to accept institutions that existed before us through the process of socialization. Interestingly, Berger and Luckmann eventually abandoned the concept of social constructionism in their later scholarship.  However, the ideas in their shared work expanded across various disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.10

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, author Pierre Bourdieu describes how those in power define “taste,” and how one’s distinctions are based on social class.11  Born and raised in a remote French village, Bourdieu made his way to an elite school in Paris.  Observing how much easier it was for those raised in the city to fit into academic life, he decided to focus his sociological research on cultural practices and institutions.  Distinction, first published in 1979 and translated into English in 1984, is an ambitious synthesis of his body of work up to that point.  He gathered survey data from 1,217 respondents about their preferences for food, music, art, and leisure activities. Bourdieu concluded that an individual’s taste is informed by one’s cultural capital, which is provided by schooling and family upbringing, as well as by one’s economic capital.  Individuals situate themselves in society partly by the things they choose to buy, say, and do. This book is not without its critics; it has been called “self-consciously diffuse” and “an extremely difficult book to read.”12-13  (In the book, Bourdieu defends his meandering writing style as necessary to capture the complexity of the topic.)  Also, his findings were based on the rigid social structure of Europe, and may not be as applicable to the more fluid society of the United States.  In spite of its faults, this work is distinct for its emphasis on the importance of cultural capital, not just wealth, to determine class positions, making it an important commentary on cultural hegemony. 

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”14  Sociologist Erving Goffman gives this Shakespearean notion serious consideration in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.15  Originally published in Scotland in 1956, then in the United States in 1959, it is Goffman’s first and most famous book.  In it, Goffman outlines his dramaturgical model of social life, in which each face-to-face interaction is a scene requiring performances from its actors.  People are assigned parts to play, and these parts are sustained both by the expectations of others and the motivations of the actors. Each actor engages in impression management, which is an attempt to communicate to the audience a particular image of herself.  To do this, actors may use clothing, props, and décor as well as specific behaviors to enhance the performance and performances may be altered to match different audiences and settings. While Goffman’s work predated digital technologies, his ideas have influenced recent scholarship on the ramifications of email, mobile devices, and social media on impression management.16  For instance, those supposedly authentic vacation photos posted on your friend’s Instagram account are really a performative turn.  As Wesley Shrum noted, “the presentation of self on YouTube is everything Erving Goffman could have imagined…YouTube is everyday life, only moreso.”17 

The remainder of the ISA top ten list contains works by theorists who still influence sociology today.  Talcott Parsons outlined in The Structure of Social Action that sociology should pull away from reductionism and instead focus on meaningful social action, that is, what people voluntarily choose to do.18  Robert K. Merton and Jürgen Habermas both rejected the notion that an all-embracing, unified theory of society was possible.  In Social Theory and Social Structure, Merton instead opted to develop theories specific to certain aspects of society, including deviant behavior, social perception, reference groups, and social control.19  In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas posited that a vibrant participatory democracy is based on consensus, reasoned argument, and cooperation.20  Finally, in The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias analyzed medieval court life and concluded that civilization is not created intentionally, but emerges out of the complex, interdependent relationships between human beings.21  While the landscape of sociological scholarship has significantly expanded — both in subjects and viewpoints — in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, these classic works continue to provide a “sociological heritage” for today’s students and researchers.  


1.  International Sociological Association.  “Books of the XX Century.” Accessed August 9, 2019.  https://www.isa-sociology.org/en/about-isa/history-of-isa/books-of-the-xx-century

2.  Weber, Max.  Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology.  Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich.  Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1978.*

3.  Rourke, Brian R.  “Max Weber.” In Twentieth-Century European Cultural Theorists: Second Series, edited by Paul Hansom.  Volume 296 of Dictionary of Literary Biography.  Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004.* 

4.  Weber, Max.  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Translated by Stephen Kalberg.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.* 

5.  Abel, T.  “Weber, Max.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 666-668.  Volume 14. 2nd edition.  Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003.*

6.  Mills, C. Wright.  The Sociological Imagination.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.*

7.  Macrae, Donald G.  “Review of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills.” Man 60 (March 1960): 46.

8.  Floud, Jean.  “Review of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills.” British Journal of Educational Studies 9, no. 1 (Nov. 1960): 75-76.

9.  Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann.  The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.  Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966.*

10.  Knoblauch, Hubert and René Wilke.  “The Common Denominator: The Reception and Impact of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.” Human Studies 39, no. 1 (March 2016): 51-69.

11.  Bourdieu, Pierre.  Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.  Translated by Richard Nice.  Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1984.*

12.  Gretton, Tom.  “Review of Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu and Richard Nice.” Oxford Art Journal 8, no. 2, (1985): 63-67.

13.  Bogart, Leo.  “Review of Bourdieu, Pierre Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 51, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 131-134. 

14.  Shakespeare, William.  As You Like It.  Act II, Scene VII.  Second edition. The New Cambridge Shakespeare, edited by Michael Hattaway.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.*  

15.  Goffman, Erving.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.* 

16.  Cosgrave, Jim.  “Review of The Contemporary Goffman by Michael Hviid Jacobsen.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 35, no. 4, (2010): 640-644.  

17.  Shrum, Wesley.  “Review of Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People by Michael Strangelove.” Contemporary Sociology 40, no. 3 (May 2011): 347-348. 

18.  Parsons, Talcott.  The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937. 

19.  Merton, Robert K.  Social Theory and Social Structure.  Enlarged edition.  New York: The Free Press, 1968.* 

20.  Habermas, Jürgen.  The Theory of Communicative Action.  Translated by Thomas McCarthy.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.  

21.  Elias, Norbert.  The Civilizing Process.  Translated by Edmund Jephcott.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.


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