Active social engagement sought

Social Science
May 8, 1998

Gerard Delanty argues in the introduction to this book that social science is in a deep crisis regarding its public role in society. This phase, however, could be one of transition in which social science's role as the "critical consciousness of modernity" is rediscovered. The book contributes to this task. It explores the present situation and seeks a theoretical path forward. In the process, it presents an account and critique of social theories that is well organised and thought provoking.

Delanty organises his account around a dialogue between constructivism and realism. Constructivism is the belief that knowledge of the world is socially constructed and that, therefore, all knowledge is relative. Realism, on the other hand, posits a real external reality and has a commitment to causal explanation. He suggests that this division is a false one and sets out to reconcile the two positions. Realists have to acknowledge that reality is understood and may be changed through social constructs and actions based upon them, while constructivists have to accept that subjective interpretations have real consequences.

The book argues that realism and constructivism emerged as alternatives to positivism because of the untenability of a philosophy based purely upon the possibility of value-free empirical observation. Unfortunately, the baby gets thrown out with the bath water because there appears to be no place for the empirical testing of theory in Delanty's account. Instead, he works towards a synthesis based upon social scientists engaging in a "discursive mediation" between social science and society. This is arrived at via chapters on interpretative sociology, Marxism, Jurgen Habermas, Apel's communication-based emancipatory social theory, and postmodernism.

The book is useful because Delanty has written a fluent and succinct overview of social theory, including informed commentary and critique. But it is also frustrating because some of the book is so concise, as in presenting the difficult ideas of theorists such as Habermas and Luhmann, that a reader unfamiliar with them has to take the author's criticisms at face value. The later sections of the book are less impressive than earlier commentaries on key ideas and thinkers, partly because one has the feeling that Delanty has not yet fully developed his position on these issues. More fundamentally, the book does not engage with complexity theory, which is surprising given the references to the Gulbenkian Commission report on the social sciences and Delanty's comments on the emerging commonalities between natural and social sciences.

In the end, Delanty argues against postmodernism's underplaying of agency and for a social science that is engaged with the social world that shapes it. The book presents some very good potted accounts of the various theoretical positions in the social sciences and sets out issues that are not yet resolved. It should be added to the reading lists of theory and methodology courses in the social sciences.

Tim Blackman is acting head, School of Social Sciences and Law, Oxford Brookes University.

Social Science: Beyond Constructivism amd Realism

Author - Gerard Delanty
ISBN - 0 335 19861 9 and 19862 7
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £35.00 and £9.99
Pages - 159

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