Vilfredo Pareto: The Work
Toward the end of his life Pareto wrote:
Driven by the desire to bring an indispensable complement to the studies of political economy and inspired by the example of the natural sciences, I determined to begin my Treatise, the sole purpose of which--I say sole and I insist upon the point--is to seek experimental reality, by the application to the social sciences of the methods which have proved themselves in physics, in chemistry, in astronomy, in biology, and in other such sciences.
In this statement Pareto summarized his aim in writing his major sociological work, The Treatise on General Sociology.
Pareto's ambition was to construct a system of sociology analogous in its essential features to the generalized physico-chemical system which J. Willard Gibbs formulated in his Thermodynamics. A physico-chemical system is an isolated aggregate of individual components such as water and alcohol. The factors characterizing the system are interdependent so that a change in one part of the system leads to adjustive changes in its other parts. Pareto had a similar conception of the social system, in which the "molecules" were indi viduals with interests, drives, and sentiments "analogous to the mixtures of chemical compounds found in nature." Pareto's general sociology sets forth the concept of social system as a framework for analyzing mutually dependent variations among a number of variables determining human conduct.
The treatise does not attempt to cover all the variables that are part of the social system. Only nonrational aspects of action are considered in any detail. Pareto's interest in sociology arose out of his previous concern with economics and out of his realization that the variables with which economics operated were insufficient to account for much, if not most, of human behavior. The field of economics, he reasoned, especially in its modern form, had limited itself to a single aspect of human action: rational or logical action in pursuit of the acquisition of scarce resources. Pareto turned to sociology when he became con- vinced that human affairs were largely guided by nonlogical, nonrational actions, which were excluded from consideration by the economists. For this reason he attempts in his Treatise to understand the nonrational aspects of human behavior, omitting almost completely the rational aspects which he considered to be treated adequately in his economic writings.
Pareto searched for a rational accounting of the prevalence of human ir- rationality. He did not intend to discard economic theory, in the manner of Veblen, but rather to supplement its abstractions with sociological and social- psychological concepts that would help toward an understanding of those aspects of human conduct that had proved recalcitrant to economic analysis. It is this analytical distinction between rational and nonrational elements of action and not a classification of concrete behavior that Pareto aimed at: "It is not actions as we find them in the concrete that we are called upon to classify, but the elements constituting them."
From Coser, 1977:387-388.