Science in Christian Perspective



The Nature of Man and Scientific Models of Society
Department of Sociology
University of Georgia Athens, Georgia 30602
Department of Social Science
Trinity College Deerfield, Illinois

From: JASA 28 (December 1976): 181-185.

Most contemporary models of society spring from philosophical positions which are based on the Kantian dilemma. On the one hand certain commonly held models are based upon the positivistic tradition and view man as a determined object to be observed objectively. On the other hand, more recently developed models are based upon phenomenological tradition and view man as an undetermined subject who escapes scientific scrutiny. These models of society are examined in light of a Biblical view of the nature of man and society. Although these models do make some contributions, the positivistically based models fail to take into account man's unique humaness, the phenomenologically based models fail to take into account man's creatureliness, and thus both fail to see man as created in the image of God.

Thomas Hobbes (1947) wondered if it were possible to discover the foundations of social order in human society. He characterized the "state of nature" as one of "continual fear, and danger of violence" and human life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." While contemporary sociologists are preoccupied with the Hobbesian question of social order, they have for the most part rejected his view of man in the state of nature being base, brutish and self-centered. Likewise, most contemporary scientific models of society assume a basic order in society. Some leave room for social conflict, but they do not relate conflict to a model of man which views him as a free agent acting in a selfcentered way.

Most contemporary models of society have been greatly influenced by the contrasting analytic and phenomenological philosophical traditions. These traditions are variants of the same basically post-Kantian themes. They both start from Kant's distinction between "noumena" and "phenomena"-between things as they are in themselves and as they appear in consciousness. Both traditions rejected Kant's notion of things-inthemselves; but did not revert to a preKantian position. Instead, they dealt with the concept of "things-for-consciousness." Most significantly, the analytic tradition has emphasized the objects of consciousness, while the phenomenologists have emphasized the intentionality of consciousness.

The primary influence of the analytic movement on the contemporary social sciences has been the attempt to apply the logical positivist defense of reductive analysis to the methods of sociology and psychology. This has been the ease both among the hard core behaviorists and among "positivists" in general. Behaviorism and structural-functionalism are models of man and society which are based on the positivistic tradition. In these models man is viewed as a determined object to be observed objectively.

On the other hand, more recently developing models of man and society are based upon the phenomenological tradition. In these models man is viewed as an undetermined subject who escapes scientific scrutiny. In this paper these models of man and society are critically examined in the light of a Biblical view of the nature of man and society. Then, based on a Biblical view of man, the elements of an adequate model of society are suggested.

The Nature of Man

An adequate model of society must be based upon a Biblical view of man in which man is seen as created in the image of God and exists as a distorted image of Cod. More specifically, as pertains to models of society, man should be conceived as: (1) an indeterminant being who can in part behave creatively and spontaneously; (2) a self-conscious being who is capable of goal-choosing activity; (3) a being capable of doing evil as well as good, and (4) a being who is responsible for his own behavior.

To affirm these aspects of the nature of man is not to say that man is not in a certain sense a product of society. We are not denying Durkheim's claim that society is a reality sui generis with a nature of its own. However, men's/women's actions in society are to a large extent determined by certain basic universal qualities of human nature. Society is both shaped by and limited in its effect by these qualities. Man and society are best seen as maintaining their distinctiveness in a dialectic relationship, where society is a human product, but nevertheless an objective reality, and man is a social product, but not only social.

Models of Society

Basic to scientific investigation are either explicit or implicit assumptions about the phenomena which are being studied. For the last three centuries the universe has been conceived as a machine, whose movements are precise and predictable and which can best be understood in terms of causal sequence. For a time only man escaped being thought of as part of this great machine, but then, man too came to be conceived as subject matter which could also he studied according to this causal model. Although behavioral scientists have not completely agreed in the extent to which they have assumed a mechanistic position, most have until recently held to a positivistic or nco-positivistic model of society. In the past decade there has been a movement among humanistically oriented social scientists toward phenom-enological and existentialist models of man and society.

At the risk of over-generalizing, we will attempt to discuss most contemporary models of society as either positivistic or phenomenological. Two additional types of models of society, conflict and symbolic interactionist, will be discussed separately due to their uniqueness.

Positivistic Models

The positivistic models of society are generally either causal (mechanistic) or teleological (functional). In the 1940's George Lundberg popularized the causal model in sociology with his book Can Science Save Us? Although his strict positivistic approach was a minority position, sociologists generally adopted some form of positivism and saw the method of the physical sciences as their ideal. Most contemporary sociologists who continue to assume a causal model of society are behaviorists. It is ironic that a psychologist, B. F. Skinner, has become the major proponent of a causal model of society since he began to argue for the application of the principals of operant conditioning to the societal level. Strict behaviorists like Skinner deny man's personhood by denying his subjectivity. Man is viewed as a physical object open to scientific scrutiny and description is in terms of a causal model. Events external to the individual are said to determine the behavior of the individual.

In the 1950's structural-functionalism became the dominating theoretical perspective in sociology. Structural-functionalists such as Taleott Parsons, Robert Merton, and Wilbert Moore offered some moderation in
positivistic methodology. Nevertheless man continued to be viewed as an object for consciousness in a theoretical sense. In the teleological model of the functionalists man as a person was submerged. Man was viewed as a "personality system" determined by the "social system." Society became the determining force and man the determined object. Dennis Wrong has referred to the functionalist view of man as the "over socialized conception of man."

The functionalists share three assumptions about man which negate man's individuality and conflict with other individuals. First, actors are assumed to have acquired and internalized certain dispositions, e.g., attitudes, sentiments, and to be subject to certain institutionalized role expectations. Second, actors are assumed to operate according to certain fixed psychological principles, e.g., the reinforcement principle. Third, actors are assumed to share a system of symbols and meanings which serve as a commonly understood medium of communication for their interaction. This is the assumption of "cognitive consensus." These assumptions have led to an emphasis on normative behavior or conformity. Man is seen as a choice-making creature, but only within the realm of fixed values. Creativity is submerged. Societal integration is also emphasized, with conflict, deviance, and change being seen as results of social disorganization rather than intrinsic social processes.

These positivistically based models of man and society share common errors from a Biblical perspective. First, they view man solely as a socially determined object. The behaviorists view man as completely determined by his environment; the functionalists view man as determined by societal roles, psychological principles, and a shared symbolic system. According to the behaviorists the concepts of human freedom and choice are an illusion; the functionalists view man as a seeker of goals determined by society. Both fall short of a Biblical view of man as a goalchooser. Both views are also sterile in their attempt to explain human alienation, conflict, and individual struggle. Since man is not seen in his unique humanness as having an identity distinct from society, the problems of alienation, exploitation, and human conflict are seen as merely reflections of malfunctions in the environment or social system. Although much more could he said of the variance between the positivistic models and a Biblical view of man, in short: (1) they fail to conceive of man as a self-conscious being who is capable of goal-choosing activity; and (2) they fail to account for man's ability to do evil as well as good.

Phenomenological Models

A wave of phenomenologically and existentially based models of man and society have emerged in the past decade. These models are largely a reaction to the dehumanizing effects of the positivistically based models. Rather than focusing on man as an object for consciousness, they emphasize the intentionality of individual consciousness by focusing on the individual as the creator of meaning in a meaningless world. These phenomenological models include labelling theory (Howard Becker), ethnomethodology (Harold GarI inkle), the sociology of the absurd (Lyuam and Scott), the reality constructionists (Berger and Luckman), and the neo-symbolic interactionists (Irving Goffman).

These phenomenological models make some valuable contributions to an adequate model of man and society. They deal with man as man, a subjective being who behaves meaningfully. They do not view man as completely socially determined, but emphasize man's creativity in the social situation. They also view conflict and alienation as prevalent processes.

However, these models also share some fundamental weaknesses which make them at odds with a Biblical view of man. First, man's nature is viewed as a social construction. No ahistorical human nature is posited. Man is free to define and redefine his nature with no limits. A Biblical view sees man as created in the image of God and thus having certain intrinsic characteristics which limit his behavior whether recognized or not. Human beings in other words are not the sole producers of their natures. Even the process of self-determination is carried out within a medium with its own structure. Second, all systems of belief are considered to be arbitrary and socially constructed. In dissolving the Kantian dilemma of things-in-themselves and things-for-consciousness, phenornenologists focus entirely on things-for-consciousness and deny the independence of the created world.
Objects are not the sole product of symbolic interaction as these phenomenologists contend, for even symbolic interaction itself depends upon certain criteria of meaningful cognitive activity. There are certain rules which must be followed for any discourse to be meaningful, e.g., the law of non-contradiction. As a result of these weaknesses, the phenomenological models are guilty of having lapsed into an overly subjectivistie position. By viewing all knowledge in the social world (that of the sociologists included) as merely one arbitrary perspective, the phenomenologists have substituted "perspective" for knowledge.

Conflict Models

Most conflict models of society are but a little less positivistic than behaviorism or functionalism. However, because they stress conflict, the complete antithesis of social integration, they deserve to be discussed separately.
There are presently two dominant conflict models of society: (1) the dialectical conflict model, which was inspired by Karl Marx; and (2) the conflict functionalism model, which was inspired by Georg Simmel (Turner 1974:90-91). Marx was an economic determinist who saw conflict as inevitably arising within an economic system which propitiates an unequal distribution of goods. Conflict in economic interests continues to be the explanatory springboard from which contemporary Marxist sociologists begin their analysis of society. Although Simmel, like Marx, viewed conflict as inevitable in society, he "viewed conflict as a reflection of more than just conflict of interest, but also of those arising from hostile instincts" (Turner 1974:84). Turner states that "Simmel postulated an innate 'hostile impulse' or 'need for hating and fighting' among the units of organic wholes, although the instinct was mixed with others for love and affection and was circumscribed by the force of social relationship" (84). Simmel's conflict model of society is built upon a view of man which is very consistent with a Biblical view of

An adequate model of society must be based upon a Christian view of man in which man is seen as created in the image of God and exists as a distorted image of God. Man and society are best seen as maintaining their distinctiveness in a dialectic relationship.

man. However, the leading contemporary proponent of conflict functionalism, Lewis Coser, sees the source of conflict as lying "in the unequal distribution of rewards and in the dissatisfaction of the deprived with such distribution" (Turner 1974:110-111).

Contemporary conflict models, whether in the Marxian or Simmelian tradition, or some combination of each, fail to suggest that the source of social conflict may in part reside within the nature of man himself. There are contemporary Marxist sociologists who do recognize that man is more than just a reflection of society. However, it is interesting to note that when one self avowed Marxist, Richard Lichtman, argues that although the self is social, it is not only social, he supports this view by quoting from Simmel and not from Marx (Liehtman 1970:80). Although conflict models provide an accurate description of society, they do not usually provide an accurate explanation of this conflict (Heddendorf 1972).

Parenthetically, we would add that not all conflict should be thought of by Christians as bad or as resulting from man's sinfulness. We would agree with Marxists who see value in conflict, especially attempts by oppressed groups in society to better their situations.

Symbolic Interactionist Models

Symbolic interactionism stresses that the world of man's experience consists of objects, where objects obtain meaning imputed through the process of human social interaction. An individual also gains a view of himself or his "self" as an object as he interacts with others. Thus reality is socially constructed in the process of social interaction, and what is real to the individual is real because it is real in its effect upon him. Society can exist and social organization is made possible because people share a common symbolically constructed view of reality.
On the one hand symbolic interaction has been criticized as being merely a social behavioristic orientation which provides a positivistic model of society (Liehtman 1970; Fiehter 1974), and on the other, as an orientation which views society as consisting of indeterminate actors who are "creative" and "spontaneous" (Turner 1974). Lichtman and Fiehter both believe that the principal contributor to symbolic interaction, George Herbert Mead, taught a social behaviorism in which man was explained as merely being a product of society. As Lichtman states, "For Mead too, the self disappears. This may be vigorously denied but the truth is that the self as a self-conscious subject of its own existence is dissolved in Mead's extreme social behaviorism." Fichter (1972:113), states that "it remained for George Herbert Mead to destroy that dis tinction . . . (the distinction between individual and
social aspects of human beings) ... and to hypothesize (Strauss, 1956:204) that there is only the social self which is 'essentially a social structure and it arises in social experience.' " However, these criticisms of Mead should be balanced by Turner's (1974:180) more generous assessment of contemporary symbolic interactionism. Turner (1974:180) believes that symbolic interactionism makes the following three assumptions about the nature of man: "(1) Humans have the capacity to view themselves as objects and to insert any object into an interaction situation. (2) Human actors are therefore not pushed and pulled around by social and psychological forces, but are active creators of the world to which they respond. (3) Thus, interaction and emergent patterns of social organization can only be understood by focusing on the capacities of individuals to create symbolically the world of objects to which they respond." Most contemporary symbolic interactionists probably view the self as a product of society, but man as a possessor of a human self which is indeterminant and can act creatively or spontaneously once it has been socially produced.

Elements of An Adequate Model of Society

The main purpose of this paper has been to critically examine the major existing models of society in the light of a Biblical view of the nature of man and society. All of the examined models have been found wanting in one respect or another. To attempt to construct a "Biblical" or "Christian" model of society is not only beyond the limits of this paper, but it is also an undertaking which would deservingly be suspected by both secular sociologists and Christian theologians. We would like instead to conclude more modestly by suggesting some of the elements which should be included in an adequate model of society.

To be consistent with a Biblical view of the nature of man, an adequate model of society should include at least the following elements:

(1) Man as capable of creating symbolic meaning and thus his own view of reality. Much of the emphasis within symbolic interaction and in certain of the phenomenological models is consistent with this statement. A symbolic interactionist model which stresses that man along with other men create symbolic meaning, is more consistent with a Biblical view of man than either a causal or functional model.

(2) Man as not the sole producer of reality and of his own nature. Not only do causal and functional models fall short here, but, for the most part, so do the phenomenological and symbolic interaction models. Phcnomennlogists view men as the sole producers of their own natures. To he sure, they do not make the same mistake as the positivists in viewing man's nature as a product of society, but they also do not view man as having an intrinsic nature which reflects, if in a fallen way, the image of God. Certain conflict theorists come close to viewing human nature as intrinsically posited. Lichtman (1970:91) states that although, "Human nature is not unchanging ... it is false to hold that there are no lawlike connections among its aspects.

... It is precisely because there is a lawlike connection among aspects of human activity that any kind of fore sight and planning, including socialist planning, is possible." Whereas Christians and Marxists may agree on such things as the existence of an intrinsic human nature or an inevitable eschatology, the content of such beliefs are vastly different.

(3) Man as free to distort reality. The Marxist conflict model is in obvious agreement with this statement, as capitalistic and other polarizing economic systems are seen as creating a "false" consciousness or reality. Within the phenomenological model there is no reality to distort; rather, man is "free" to create his own reality. The inadequacy of the positivistic models usually results in reality being defined in cultural relativistic terms. Reality is seen as a product of society; the individual can "distort reality" or "be out of touch with reality" only in the sense that he does not share "reality" as it is defined by society.

In regards to the "free" in this statement, while phenomenologists do view man as free (more free to create than to distort reality), positivists would offer an environmental explanation for a person's distorting of societal defined reality. An adequate model of society would posit an actual reality which man could distort because of his existing in a state of separation or alienation from the God who created that reality.

(4) Man as partially motivated by selfish interests. It is at this point that all of the models appear to fall short. While it is true that conflict theory does stress the inevitability of conflict which arises in society, it does not offer an at all clear explanation of the conflict arising out of the motivational aspects of man. In an excellent article on the concept of man in social science, Fichter (1972:117) states that, "As far as I can discover, sociologists have no model to explain that man can do evil as well as good." Fichter continues to observe that although this is viewed as a weakness by Dennis Wrong in his own classic article of "the oversociologicalized view of man," Wrong himself offers no alternative model of the nature of man. The model of society which takes into account the fact that man can be motivated by intrinsic selfish interests has not been constructed.

(5) Man as capable of justifying his selfish behavior on the basis of his definition of reality. Man is not only capable of selfishly motivational behavior, but he is also capable of defining reality in such a way that he does not interpret selfish behavior as selfish. Most of the models take into account man's ability to structure reality so as to justify behavior. As discussed under point four, however, most models fail to view man as the initiator of this selfish behavior.

In summary, an adequate model of society must understand man as in need of interdependence through shared meaning, while at the same time accounting for the pervasiveness of group conflict. Such a model of society would be consistent with a Biblical view of man and with the way men interact in society.


Fichter, Joseph, 1972, "The Concept of Man in Social Science: Freedom, Values and Second Nature," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June), p. 109.121.
Heddendorf, Russell, 1972, "Some Presuppositions of a Christian Sociology," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 24, No. 3 (September), pp. 110-117.
Hobbes, Thomas, 1947, Leviathan, New York: Macmillan Company; originally published in 1651.
Liehtman, Richard, 1970, "Symbolic Interactionism and Social Reality: Some Marxist Queries," Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 15, pp. 75-94.
Strauss, Anselm (ed.), 1956, The Social Psychology of George Herbert Head. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Turner, Jonathan, 1974, The Structure of Sociological Theory, Homewood, Illinois: The Dorsey Press.