Great minds flex their concepts

Teaching Yourself Social Theory. First edition - A Beginner's Guide to Social Theory. First edition
February 28, 2003

Given the range of existing introductory books on social theory, new textbooks need to adopt novel approaches to their subject. Both these books attempt this with differing degrees of success. They are written as introductory guides to social theory for students with little or no background in sociology. Both assume that social theory is difficult and that most existing textbooks are too abstract and, as David Harris puts it in Teaching Yourself Social Theory , "scholastic".

To counter this, Shaun Best intersperses A Beginner's Guide to Social Theory with activities and exercises that students will find useful, although in my copy these were not printed clearly. Apart from this, however, the text is clearly set out and each chapter begins by listing what the reader should have achieved after completing it. Best organises his account into functionalist perspectives, Marxism, action perspectives, feminist approaches, Anthony Giddens (on agency and structure) and postmodernism. All this is fairly standard except for the inexplicable omission of Weber, who is occasionally mentioned but receives no systematic analysis.

The scope of Harris' text breaks with conventional presentations of social theory, being organised more around themes than individuals. The main topics considered are economic and moral constraints, emergent qualities of life, subjective action, Weber and class, the turn to Gramsci, critical theory, feminism, otherness, Foucault, politics of the everyday, language and postmodernism. Although familiar figures feature within these topics, Harris attempts to focus on core concepts and debates, with an eye to contemporary relevance, rather than to engage in lengthy exposition. He frequently refers readers to a list of reading guides on his personal website, which, he says, explore the arguments in depth, enabling students to write better assignments. This link ( www.arasite.org ) is worth pursuing. It contains a wealth of readings, commentaries and discussions of assessment practices in sociology.

Best provides a reasonably comprehensive review of social theory, although the range of topics sometimes looks over-ambitious. The chapter on Marxism, for example, rolls together Marx, critical theory, cultural studies, post-Fordism, Jean Baudrillard, post-communism, Jacques Lacan and Chantel Mouffe, Frederic Jameson, Alex Callinicos, Karl Mannheim, Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells. But the different theories are carefully delineated through the use of tables and bullet points, and the result is a usable set of summaries and pointers to further reading. Again, there are good accounts of functionalism (though no mention of neo-functionalism), symbolic interactionism and reflexive modernisation. The last is included in the chapter on Giddens, which also deals with Ulrich Beck, Pierre Bourdieu and Norbert Elias.

Best's accounts are generally balanced and informative but occasionally marred by overgeneralisation and dogmatic polemic. For example, he says:

"For Marxists, feminists and functionalists the self has very little agency." This ignores debates about subjectivity and agency in each of these areas. The worst example occurs in his discussion of Zygmunt Bauman and postmodernism. Best aims to debunk Bauman's postmodernist credentials, revealing what he claims is an underlying modernist concept of ethics. This is reasonable enough, but to claim that therefore "Bauman is no different from the Nazis he so strongly condemns in Modernity and the Holocaust " is crass and offensive. Does he really mean no different? Surely not. Anyway, this demonstrates a misunderstanding of Bauman's arguments about modernity and the Holocaust, which are primarily about bureaucratic state mobilisation rather than morality.

Harris maintains a high level of detail in most discussions, although some chapters work better than others. There is a well-informed account of functionalism, for example, that both renders Talcott Parsons' Agil schema intelligible and relates this to contemporary neo-functionalists such as Jeffery Alexander. It is good to see Elias feature in both these books, and Harris has a useful discussion of figuration and the civilising process, which feature as examples of emergent properties in social life. Again, his accounts of Foucault's theory of discourse and the politics of everyday life are valuable introductions. On the other hand, his chapter on Marxism focuses on discussion of its contemporary relevance at the expense of thorough presentation of its core concepts, and the discussions of critical theory and Jurgen Habermas rely mostly on rather old debates. Given his emphasis on context and relevance, Harris might have noted that classical critical theory was located within Fordist and state-managed forms of social organisation that are very different from those of the early 21st century.

All textbooks must make selections but a notable lacuna in both of these is globalisation, which Best mentions in passing and Harris not at all. An opportunity is missed to explore the limits of traditional sociological concepts in an increasingly fluid and unstable world. In all, these are useful resources for teaching social theory, although inevitably perhaps both have limitations.

Larry Ray is professor of sociology, University of Kent.

Teaching Yourself Social Theory. First edition

Author - David Harris
ISBN - 0 8039 7687 9 and 7688 7
Publisher - Sage
Price - £55.00 and £18.99
Pages - 256

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