Badly aimed canons and when to blow off

A Short History of Sociological Thought. Third edition - Sociological Lives and Ideas - Durkheim. First edition - Anthony Giddens - The Civilizing Process. Second edition
March 1, 2002

You are told to teach "introduction to sociological theory". Unavoidably, you will need to nominate key thinkers, but who to include? Whoever one suggests is bound to be challenged from one quarter or another, a recipe for the vacillation that pervades universities today.

Surprisingly, Fred Pampel, of the University of Colorado, appears to have none of these hesitations. His classical sociologists are Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead. If Pampel is rather orthodox in his choice of theorists, it ought to be said that his approach is direct, clear and accessible. The writing is unpretentious and appealing - rare qualities when it comes to discussing the classics. The book also includes useful summaries at the end of each chapter, along with intelligent discussion questions that will help students learn. Moreover, Pampel presents the main ideas of these thinkers firmly within a context of biography and history. As such, the book should appeal especially to first-year students.

It probably helps novitiates stick with Marx when they learn of his youthful passion for Jenny von Westphalen, with whom he eloped and went into what became a lifetime of exile. Similarly, Durkheim's loneliness and isolation while a student at the Ecole Normale gives an insight into his abiding concern with collective belonging. There is a danger here of reducing complex ideas to personal foibles - for example, presenting Weber's tormented personality and experiences as explanation for his scholarly work - but Pampel judiciously avoids such traps.

Gianfranco Poggi's short and punchy essay on Durkheim appears, like Pampel, untroubled by the selection of classical thinkers. Poggi's book comes in an Oxford series, "Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought". His assurance in his choice of Durkheim as a "founder" is reflected in his style: short chapters, trenchant opinions and elegant expression characterise this book. This study will make a first-rate supplementary source for second or third-year students who have some sense of Durkheim's concerns but who wish to go further. Poggi works through Durkheim in chronological order, from the Division of Labour in Society to The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life . He also effectively undermines the usual presentation of Durkheim as a conservative, drawing out his reformist orientation and staunch republicanism.

A problem with Pampel in particular is that his choices of classical theorists are all men, all white and all European. And it is precisely this which is under attack from a good deal of current thinking. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are no given "founders" of sociology, since the canon is always a selection from a range of possibilities. It can be annoying to older members of the profession to be challenged when we introduce theory by way of the "holy trinity" (Marx, Weber and Durkheim, perhaps with Simmel added), as to why we do not have anyone of colour, from Asia, or female in our curriculum. When the challenge is pushed to extremes it becomes stupid, but the general principle retains its force - no canon is self-evidently made. Evidence for this is readily available - of the "big three" Durkheim was included only in the early 1960s, thanks largely to Talcott Parsons's campaign for functionalism, and Marx had to wait until the upheavals of 1968. The inescapable conclusion must be that the curriculum for sociological theory always has to be up for discussion, its designers constantly reminded that their choices of who to include and who to exclude are necessarily ones for debate and revision.

This edition of Alan Swingewood's excellent A Short History of Sociological Thought is well aware of the issue, which becomes especially pressing in the 20th century when the potential list of theorists is enormous. Swingewood's is now a standard work, which is singular in offering a historical review from the 18th century to the present day. First published in 1984, the book has become a staple of second and third-year undergraduate courses, selected by teachers because it is well written, of a high scholarly standard and capable of presenting a sense of intellectual development. Emphasising that sociology's preoccupation is with what brought it into being (modernity), the study's premise is that sociology is intrinsically dialogistic, identified by its systematic consideration of the character and direction of change.

One important merit of Swingewood is that while he agrees that the tradition is created by today's thinkers, he still insists that sociology as a discipline must have roots. We may make a canon, but we do not make it entirely by our own designs. His text is divided into two parts, classical and modern. Marx and Marxism loom large, and we have also Swingewood's well-known enthusiasm for the Scottish Enlightenment's contribution, notably Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith.

Swingewood is refreshingly unfazed by contemporary fashions, and Foucault is expertly reviewed, exposed and given short shrift. His final chapter simply has too much in it to be satisfactory, but overall this is a superb book.

The late Norbert Elias is a significant absence from Swingewood's survey. Many would insist on his inclusion in the canon, not least for his magisterial study The Civilizing Process. Written in the 1930s, but published in England much later, this is a revision of the 1994 edition. In my view a better introduction to Elias's work for students is Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell's edited Norbert Elias Reader , which covers more ground in much more digestible parts. Nonetheless, The Civilizing Process is remarkable: eclectic, insightful and constantly surprising. It traces the development of what one might call civility, and associated feelings of delicacy and shame. Elias looks at matters such as how to get rid of snot, when it is okay to fart out loud, whether it is permissible to vomit and whether and how one should spit. It initially surprises, but reflection on the influence of the handkerchief (which superseded the back of the hand), or on the fact that suppression of farting was once thought to be quite unhealthy (toxins left in the stomach), or the idea that not to vomit was once considered revolting since it meant holding putrid food in one's throat, underline the point that such practices are modern (incidentally, it is not long ago that public spitting was commonplace in coal-mining areas, as it is in China today). Elias first details then explains the spread of such "civilising" in terms of the pacification and organisation of modern society, led by the upper strata, which became refined as its need to wage war was removed.

Although he is a thinker with whom many sociology students should be familiar, still I would not include Elias in my canon. The Civilizing Process is much the most interesting of his works, but his configurational theory lacks cogency and depth in comparison to, say, the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens, a contemporary thinker who was influenced directly by Elias early in his career at Leicester. Now known beyond academe, Giddens merits inclusion in any current canon. He is Britain's major social theorist, who has had a worldwide influence. He is so prolific and far-reaching that those who know only some of his work easily underestimate his overall achievement. This is exacerbated by the snootiness of many university teachers who will insist that students should read only original works.

No one should underestimate the value of reliable texts that can make accessible usually difficult ideas that were not written for undergraduates. The best single introduction to Giddens is his own Consequences of Modernity , but this is extremely difficult for the uninitiated. Lars Bo Kaspersen fills a real need here, presenting Giddens in the round, from his early writing to more recent political involvement. The book is unpretentious and expert, a combination that will lead me to recommend it unhesitatingly to my students.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

A Short History of Sociological Thought. Third edition

Author - Alan Swingewood
ISBN - 0 333 80198 9 and 80199 7
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £49.50 and £16.99
Pages - 269

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