9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN29 Social Theory

2009-09-03 15:30:00 2009-09-03 17:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 15:30 - 17:00 Contemporary Social Theory: Sociology of Contemporary Society Building AA, AA.326

Formal organisation and public observation

European Society consists not just of various nations, but contains a broad variety of cultures, milieus and social fields. From a theoretical point of view, the question arises, whether there are general principles that characterize this current type of society. Indeed, as the paper will suggest, there are two essential mechanisms ensuring social order and structural flexibility at the same time: the institutionalization of decision making processes by formal organisations and the cultural mirror constituted by second order observation of the public. Both mechanisms can be traced back to 18th-century Europe.
According to the common view, organisations are associated with political bureaucracy, and public sphere is understood as a political force. But besides the interrelation between public opinion and the state, which constitutes "modern democracy", "capitalism" is based on public markets and formal hierarchies too (Williamson), even in the post-industrial era. Modern science relies on the one hand on bureaucratic institutions such as universities; on the other hand it is geared to the current state of research, which has to be observed by means of often-cited publications. Most of the achievements of modern society including mass media and educational system can be described as special forms of formal organisation or public observation. Since there are different types of organisation (army, university, church etc.) as well as different levels of the public, this may open up a comparative perspective for empirical research.
While classic sociologists did place much emphasis on related topics such as the bureaucratisation of society (Weber) or the quasi-religious function of public opinion (Tönnies), today it may seem a trivial diagnosis to point at these general principles of modern society. The paper should encourage a debate about the theoretical status of that kind of "simple but abstract" theoretical concepts, too. Can sociology still make use of it, or do a professional organisation of scientific research and the focus of public attention force to a more explanatory format and common topics?