A little nasty rashness

The Postmodern Turn - Understanding Classical Sociology - Sociological Theory
November 17, 1995

Here are three books each concerned with the present state of sociological theory. One (by Seidman) is involved with the "postmodern turn" in recent thinking and eager to persuade others of the value of its contribution; another (by Mouzelis) is against this and other trends, committed to identifying what is wrong with present theorising and proposing a solution; the third (by Hughes et al) modestly presents a re-examination of the great classical tradition and a reminder of the pertinence of Marx, Weber and Durkheim for current thinking.

Of the three books by far the most impressive is, paradoxically, the most modest. John Hughes, Peter Martin and Wes Sharrock set out to write a textbook for undergraduates. Their major aim is to offer a sensitive and faithful interpretation of the pioneers. In this they succeed admirably: the book is made up of an introduction and conclusion set around three chapters, one on Marx, another on Weber and the third on Durkheim. Each chapter is characteristically scholarly but accessible to students.

The authors make no concessions to those common student demands for "four main points about Marx": Hughes et al insist that the great tradition is difficult, that the corpus requires intense effort and reflection. Yet they manage at the same time to convey the complexity in an appealing and comprehensible way. There are helpful subheadings, no presumption that readers are familiar with Hegel, Kant and suchlike, and skilful interweaving of biographical material, historical contextualisation and the major ideas of the three giants.

For almost 25 years Anthony Giddens's impressive Capitalism and Modern Social Theory has been the required text for classical theory. But that will now change. Less expositional, and more willing to range beyond the original texts, Hughes et al will rapidly, and rightly, become the essential student source. Totally reliable, if a bit harsh in their judgement of Durkheim, the authors of Understanding Classical Sociology have produced a book urgently needed by all those charged with introducing students to the classics.

However, they do more than that. The book also has a mission, one motivated by a revolt against contemporary theory that too often refuses to engage with these "dead white males" who, it is alleged, could not break out of an Enlightenment straightjacket that insisted they offered totalistic accounts of change, naively endorsed doctrines of progress, mistakenly considered themselves to be producing scientific truths, and were quite unable to appreciate the enormous difficulties confronting sociology that have become apparent due to recent contributions from postmodern philosophy.

Contesting such charges, Hughes and his co-authors have little difficulty in demonstrating that Marx and Weber especially "are at the heart of contemporary intellectual life", and that far too much of today's theorising lacks the roots essential to support rigorous thinking.

Against much current caricature, they detail, for instance, how sociology as a discipline was, from its very inception, a revolt against the Enlightenment premise of the rational individual actor, because the discipline always emphasised the social embeddedness of behaviour. Again, the tortured thought of Max Weber and the dazzling critiques of Marx, engage almost all the crucial issues beloved of today's theorists, from matters of intersubjectivity, observer partiality, to the role of language in conceiving reality. Reading Hughes et al one cannot but insist that all debate should be suspended until participants are thoroughly conversant with the classical tradition.

Nicos Mouzelis also has problems with contemporary theorising. Far too often it substitutes poor philosophy for sociological thinking, it has been carried away by postmodern excess, and it threw out prematurely much that was valuable in thought developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What Went Wrong? takes sociological theory to be the production of conceptual frameworks that are heuristically valuable in empirical study. In this Mouzelis admires the terrain occupied by Talcott Parsons, so long synonymous with much that was wrong with theory, though here applauded for avoiding amateurish intrusion into other disciplinary areas while not being afraid to think grandly.

Mouzelis addresses the vexed issues of agency/structure and micro/macro analysis, suggesting that, although Parsons did understate the voluntaristic dimension of action and leaned towards the macro level, since Parsons all contributors have swung the pendulum too far to one side or other. Thus, for instance, interpretive sociology has overstressed agency and the micro domain while neglecting the interpretations of the powerful in society, while rational choice theory is unacceptably reductive. Worse than this, it is here charged that those who have attempted to resolve these perennial tensions, namely Giddens, Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, have failed even when they had thought they had succeeded.

What Went Wrong? is divided into two parts, diagnosis and remedies, but it is mainly a demolition job on an entire panoply of key thinkers. Postmodern sociology is blasted out of sight with some firecrackers thrown at its internal contradictions and sloppy thinking, while Giddens, Elias and Bourdieu are not allowed to stay long in the water. The latter part of the book endeavours to wed Parsonian and Marxian sociology with some imaginative use of the institutional and figurational/relational concepts.

Mouzelis believes that the micro-macro distinctions are necessary, but that an adequate theory must endeavour to address their tensions. However, I found his solution far too abstract to convince, and, it has to be said, there is an off-putting arrogance in the writing which so readily dismisses the likes of Giddens and Norbert Elias while protesting its own modesty.

Seidman's edited collection is aimed at students, though they would have to be at an advanced level to comprehend several of the contributions. Since one does not even cite his sources, and several are written in abstruse and self-referential styles, that is an especially challenging task. His aim is to convince readers of the worth of the "postmodern turn" in social theory.

I admit that I was sceptical from the outset, but Seidman did manage to persuade me to reconsider my outright opposition to postmodern sociology. Not least this is down to a fine introductory essay by Seidman himself, as well as the arrangement of the book into four complementary and coherent parts, starting with readings in postmodernism as social theory, moving to critiques of existing theory, on to postmodern analyses as rhetoric, and finishing with some empirical illustrations.

That said, there is a good deal of oversimplification here, with rash accusations of sociologists' supposed foundationalism (ie, they allegedly seek for truth), their blindness to difference, their perverse search for holistic explanations, and their insensitivity towards discourse. Had there been an index to the book I could readily have double checked to see whether any of the contributors actually engaged with Weber, but allegations such as are made here by Seidman cannot stand against even superficial familiarity with the work of the most significant founder of the discipline.

If I did not find it already quite indispensable, I would be sending my copy of Understanding Classical Sociology across the Atlantic to Professor Seidman with a recommendation to suspend his evident enthusiasms for exotic sexualities and cognate oddities, while he takes time to read more about sociology's chief intellectual founder.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory

Editor - Steven Seidman
ISBN - 0 521 45235 X and 45879 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 213

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