Towards a Theory of Human Society
Elias was never concerned to spend much effort criticizing or commenting on, let alone outlining or reconstructing, other theorists’ ideas. He devoted detailed critical attention to only a handful of writers, including Karl Marx, August Comte, Talcott Parsons and Karl Popper, but he tended to treat them as exemplifying dominant trends in contemporary social science, rather than aiming to make any contribution to a better or different understanding of their work. Other comments on theorists such as Weber, Freud and Mannheim were made only in passing, and often they have been regarded as superficial, sometimes erroneous. His understanding of Weber’s concept of ‘ideal types’, for example, is best regarded as problematic. When he was being critical of other sociological approaches, he frequently preferred to keep his critique implicit, so that only a careful ‘reading between the lines’ could unearth the positions he was distancing himself from. He tended to speak in a very vague and global way of ‘sociologists today’, ‘philosophy’, or ‘historians’, rather than specifying particular authors or positions, and hardly ever indicated where other social scientists might have been pursuing similar lines of argument. It was far more important for him to engage in the empirical investigation of particular research problems. This has often given the impression that he was not a strong theorist —some have suggested a weak one-with his primary strength lying in his empirical historical studies.