Killing Mary

The Elements of Social Theory
November 15, 1996

The title of Barry Barnes's book gives rise to the expectation that it will consider those elements of social theory from which any adequate new theory must be deduced. The first two chapters confirm the expectation. The first considers the "postulates of individualism" and proceeds to examine philosophically the validity of social theories based on the hypothesis of "economic rationality" (ER) and the projected behaviour of ER individuals. Barnes concludes that even the kind of game theory that admits inductive learning into rational choice cannot adequately account for the phenomena of collective action. The second chapter offers a lucid account of functionalism. Again, the criterion of judgement is whether functionalist theory can adequately explain the relationship between individual behaviour and social norms and Barnes argues that what he calls normative functionalism was wrong in supposing that individuals internalise and act in accordance with objective, collective norms. For Barnes, the mistake was to suppose that norms acquire a regulating force in themselves other than by being invoked by other people.

It becomes clear that the discussion of "elements" of social theory is subsumed under a defence of interactionism. Neither ER individualism nor normative functionalism can, as explanatory positions, account for collective action although they may be adopted by social agents who, interactively, construct collectivities. Barnes discusses interactionism by detailed reference to the work of Erving Goffman and he spells out his view that the challenge for social theorists is to build on the microsociological successes of interactionism to construct a macrotheory of society. In the second part of the book, Barnes tests the philosophical conclusions of the first.

The book is genuinely original. It covers the major social theorists but it does so by examining the validity of their conceptual systems. There are several passages of creative illumination, notably where the strengths and weaknesses of ER individualist, functionalist and interactionist positions are all exemplified in relation to possible explanations of a historical event - the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

Advanced students of social theory will, therefore, find this book offers a stimulatingly new way of relating to known texts. But this highlights a problem. In the last analysis, the position for which Barnes argues in the content of the book is at odds with its formal existence. Rational choice theory is rejected rationally by means which are designed to encourage the reader rationally to choose to subscribe to this rejection. What is the place of rational choice in social interaction or, equally, the role of social interaction in influencing rational choice? The rational defender of social interactionism must logically either present himself reflexively as a social agent among others who happens to be keen on social theorising or as an academic defender of the general value of exercising rationality. Barnes recognises that social theories are performative rather than descriptive, myths rather than explanations, but, as a consequence, he seems in this situation to be uncertain about the function and value of his own philosophical text. The book is written for social theorists, but his social theory is for everyone.

Derek Robbins is reader in social sciences, University of East London.

The Elements of Social Theory

Author - Barry Barnes
ISBN - 1 85728 203 5 and 1 85728 204 3
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £38.00 and £12.95
Pages - 263

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