Neil J. Smelser

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Neil Joseph Smelser (born July 22, 1930 in Kahoka , Missouri , † October 2, 2017 in Berkeley , California ) was an American sociologist and the 88th President of the American Sociological Association .


Smelser received a bachelor's degree from Harvard College in 1952. He then studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University , which he also completed with a bachelor's degree. From 1954 to 1958 he studied at Harvard University and earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1958. At the age of 24, he was already co-author of Talcott Parsons' work "Economy and Society".

From 1962 to 1994 he was Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley . In the course of his life he was director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences , editor of the American Sociological Review , member of the National Academy of Sciences (since 1993), the American Philosophical Society (since 1976) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1968). He was also the recipient of various academic awards.

Research interests

Smelser's research interests were in the areas of social change , psychoanalysis , economic sociology , collective behavior and sociological theories. In his research he combined aspects of structural functionalism with special consideration of economic factors and areas of activity. The basis for his research was the approach of Parsons, which he expanded and expanded.

In Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry , he analyzed a model of social change. The empirical basis was the Industrial Revolution in England between 1770 and 1840. He analyzed the structural changes in business and family forms that occurred in the course of industrialization in England, in particular the growth of the cotton industry and the associated change in the family structure in the working class .

Social change according to Smelser

Smelser developed a kind of incremental model that accumulates effects and causally links historical events. In this model, the next level cannot be reached until the previous one has been completed. This means that the passage of a stage is the necessary condition for the next stage. That is why Smelser spoke of a “value added process” that comprises seven stages.

Smelser saw social conflict as a generator for social change. The first stage begins when members of the system are dissatisfied with aspects of the system, e.g. B. with the distribution of roles in the family and society or the use of resources. The direct reaction to this dissatisfaction is fear and aggression. The pent-up tensions discharge into conflicts and unrest (second stage). In the third stage one tries to eliminate or solve the unrest and disturbances by means of mechanisms of social control. If the tension does not balance out, which is usually the case in modern industrial society, the fourth stage comes into force, whereby new social problem solutions are developed and tried out. These solutions are specified in the fifth stage, in the sixth phase they become binding and in the seventh stage these solutions are recognized as successfully institutionalized and routinized.

New social units emerge when all stages have been successfully passed that are consolidated in the social system after further processes. The newly created society is much more differentiated and the new functions are more effective.

Example: pre-industrial family

As an empirical example for the model, Smelser considers the differentiation of family roles in English industrialization. He assumes that the pre-industrial family performs several functions. It is a production facility and ensures its existence by working from home. The motivation to work, which serves to secure the family as an economic unit, is secured in the children's socialization processes within the family. This dual function reflects a certain distribution of roles in the family.

The distribution of roles that is common in the company is forced to adapt due to changes in external production conditions. The introduction of new production techniques in the field of spinning and weaving leads to the relocation of production to factories. The skills required for work are reduced by the new technology. This is how women and children are also recruited into the labor market. The former main breadwinner's long-term experiences become useless. This dissolves the foundation of the father's role as breadwinner. Furthermore, the educational role is outsourced from the family association through the introduction of school education.

Tensions and conflicts arise between the new distribution of roles and traditional cultural values. The separation of family and work and the fact that many families slide into poverty contradicts the cultural value system that had been in effect until then. This imbalance leads to strikes and conflicts (1st and 2nd stage). Police measures and assembly bans as social control and containment measures are initiated and represent the third stage. In the fourth to seventh stages, the development, elaboration and institutional routinization of a new, balanced distribution of roles begins, which releases the tensions.

Smelser interpreted his observations as a process of structural differentiation of units through which a higher degree of social complexity is achieved. The role structure changes so that the functions of the units are significantly more efficient with regard to the fulfillment of tasks.


  • Neil J. Smelser: Social Change in the Industrial Revolution. London 1959
  • H. Nokielski: Introduction to Sociology. University of Duisburg-Essen, 2004
  • Gabler Economic Lexicon. Wiesbaden 2001

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Obituary , University of California, Berkeley , accessed October 17, 2017