Atomism or social atomism is a sociological theory arising from the scientific notion atomic theory, coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus and the Roman philosopher Lucretius. In the scientific rendering of the word, atomism refers to the notion that all matter in the universe is composed of basic indivisible components, or atoms. When placed into the field of sociology, atomism assigns the individual as the basic unit of analysis for all implications of social life. This theory refers to "the tendency for society to be made up of a collection of self-interested and largely self-sufficient individuals, operating as separate atoms". Therefore, all social values, institutions, developments and procedures evolve entirely out of the interests and actions of the individuals who inhabit any particular society. The individual is the ‘atom’ of society and therefore the only true object of concern and analysis.
Political theorists such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes extend social atomism to the political realm. They assert that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, equal and rational social atoms that together form an aggregate society of self-interested individuals. Those participating in society must sacrifice a portion of their individual rights in order to form a social contract with the other persons in society. Ultimately, although some rights are renounced, self-interested cooperation occurs for the mutual preservation of the individuals and for society at large.
Those who criticize the theory of social atomism believe that it neglects the idea of the individual as unique. Sociologist Elizabeth Wolgast asserts that, “From the atomistic standpoint, the individuals who make up a society are interchangeable like molecules in a bucket of water--society a mere aggregate of individuals. This introduces a harsh and brutal equality into our theory of human life and it contradicts our experience of human beings as unique and irreplaceable, valuable in virtue of their variety--in what they don't share--not in virtue of their common ability to reason.” Those who question social atomism argue that it is unjust to treat all persons equally when individual necessities and circumstances are clearly dissimilar.
- Holism in sociology
- Social alienation
- Differentiation (sociology)
- Social integration
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- Wolgast, Elizabeth (1994). A World of Social Atoms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 226.
- "Social Atomism and the Old World Order". T.R. Quigley. Archived from the original on 8 March 2012. Retrieved 21 September 2012.
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