In theory, the glue that holds society together

Social Theory
November 12, 1999

Alex Callinicos claims at the outset of his most recent book that postmodernism's denial of meta-narrative has undermined the standing of social theory. Certainly this is true of the holistic and structural theorists that Social Theory is chiefly concerned with. Reading Marx is not easy, so why should one bother to do so if the current wisdom is that his whole approach is not only largely wrong but misconceived?

The result is that social theory tends to be discussed either at an arid level among a small number of sociologists or in an increasingly simplistic form on undergraduate courses. In contrast to the second tendency, Callinicos offers a rigorous overview of the historical rise and development of social theory. It is apparently the product of 30 years of studying theory, as the erudition displayed by "proper", page-by-page footnotes would seem to confirm.

The book starts from the philosophical endeavours of the 18th-century Enlightenment to discern social order and change. In an interesting comparison, Callinicos notes how Smith's stress upon the self-regulation of society through the market economy and Montesquieu's typology of political regimes contrasts with the emphasis of earlier thinkers on divine or monarchical intervention and cyclical patterns of change. However, with a possible eye upon the tendency to view the Enlightenment as a brittle and uniform assertion of progress, Callinicos then swiftly moves to its internal strains. Among them Callinicos notes the way in which different philosophers grappled with issues such as rationality and universalism. The inference is that taken together they represent the fault lines of modernity, but unfortunately they do not serve to structure or even constrain the subsequent exposition.

The remaining chapters, which constitute the bulk of the book, are of varying quality. Those on Marx and Hegel are lucid, while that on the influence of evolutionary accounts of human development on social theory in the 19th century is especially useful. Thereafter, the focus and clarity seem to slip somewhat. Some discussion of Nietzsche and Heidegger is important given their anticipation of post-structuralism, but it is very dense. The chapters on Durkheim and Weber try to cover too much ground. Moreover, Callinicos's tendency to discuss such thinkers at a primarily philosophical level leads, for example, to the identification of crime as a logical difficulty for Durkheim, when in fact he thought it had a positive social role. The final chapter ostensibly covers the contemporary social theory of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, but evidently Callinicos really wants to try to tackle the far wider question of the nature of contemporary capitalism.

There appears to be a recurring and unresolved tension throughout Social Theory. On the one hand, Callinicos seems to have tried to write a work of intellectual history that sheds light on the unfolding of modernity through the lens of social theory, with the ultimate intention of validating Marxism. On the other, he has attempted to sketch an overview of social theory for an undergraduate audience. Nevertheless, for the scale of its learning and its refusal to resort to caricature, this book is to be recommended.

Sam Pryke is lecturer in sociology, Liverpool Hope University College.

Social Theory: A Historical Introduction

Author - Alex Callinicos
ISBN - 0 7456 1644 5 and 1645 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £49.50 and £14.99
Pages - 339

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