Harnessing the rampant theory

The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. First Edition - Social Theory - Contemporary Social and Political Theory - Theorising Classical Sociology. First Edition - Social Theory and Modernity. First Edition - Social Theory in the Twentieth Century. First Edition
February 25, 2000

All social scientists need to be theoretically informed if they are to practise effectively. Although it may be a temptation for some analysts to deny theory, such protestations are easily dismissed since claims for an atheoretical social science entail theoretical suppositions. Recognition that theory is crucial and unavoidable has led to the creation of a generic category of social theory to which all would-be practitioners should be exposed (the exception is economics, the most methodologically and technically advanced, yet theoretically gauche of the social sciences).

Today, theory is rampant in all disciplines and, moreover, it is of a kind that promiscuously transgresses subject boundaries. This rise of social theory is reflected in the titles of five of the six books reviewed. Only Theorising Classical Sociology mentions a particular discipline.

Although a text might be directed towards a specific audience, social theory today draws upon an enormous body of material, pulling together philosophers, sociologists, literary critics, anthropologists, even the occasional economist. This catholicity means authors must make hard decisions about who to include and who to leave out, at the same time as their books resonate in a wide spread of areas. It has also become a major problem to construct the undergraduate curriculum in any social science without it being overrun by theory. There is a danger that we might teach social theory in place of getting students to do some sociology or read a literary text.

There are difficulties here that extend beyond the problems of selecting sources, defining audiences and containing the volume of materials. One is the ease with which social theory can become disconnected from substantive analysis. While there is a necessary element of abstraction, when it becomes so rarefied that theory cannot engage with empirical trends then it stands condemned as useless. An associated problem is the ease with which theory becomes an end in itself, a self-engrossed activity that is seductive of intellectuals (it is in theory that all the big reputations seem to be made). Theorists readily become obfuscatory and their books verbose and badly composed, resulting in works that are hard to comprehend and difficult to connect with substantive developments.

Still it remains essential that social scientists introduce students to theory, even if much of it is off-putting and abstruse. Larry Ray's Theorising Classical Sociology approaches the 19th and early 20th-century "classic" theorists as a means of illuminating the current state of social theory. But he faces strong competition, since there are already excellent texts covering the classics. Anthony Giddens's Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971) remains a first-rate introduction to the "holy trinity" of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and has been joined by two superb introductory books - John Hughes et al 's Understanding Classical Sociology (1995) and Ian Craib's student-friendly Classical Social Theory (1997). Ray merits inclusion in such company. His book is scholarly yet eminently readable and it concentrates on the emergence of classical sociology as a debate with the Enlightenment. The usual characters figure prominently and Ray has organised the book around a four-fold division of themes in which material (Marx), cultural (Parsons), rational (Weber) and moral (Durkheim) approaches are distinguished as ways of examining the social realm. This is not a book for first-year students, but it is highly appropriate for those with a rudimentary grasp of theory after reading introductory reviews.

The second approach fixes on more recent thought. Patrick Baert's Social Theory in the Twentieth Century provides an especially good exposition and critique of key figures and schools of thought, though may centre too much on epistemological aspects of theory for some tastes. Covering a similar time-scale, Nigel Dodd's arresting book, Social Theory and Modernity , promises much in future from an author just into his mid-thirties, though oddly enough its original qualities reduce its effectiveness as a text for students. Dodd's concern is with challenges posed to modernist theory by postmodern thought. Always with an eye to practical applications, it is divided into three parts: the Classical (the usual suspects), Modern (Foucault and the Frankfurt school), and Postmodern (a motley group, from Zygmunt Bauman to Richard Rorty). Each part contains useful exegesis and assessment, but Dodd has a strong case to make, one that will endear the book to professionals, but might limit its use for undergraduates.

He rejects totalistic theories that try to explain the workings of society as a whole (in the manner of Marx and Durkheim), to this extent siding with postmodernists. But Dodd refuses to go all the way with postmodernism since, if everything is mere "discourse", then reason itself must be at risk and with it the feasibility of social analysis. Dodd ends then with a "tentative compromise" between modernism and postmodernism, siding with his colleagues Giddens and Ulrick Beck in a pragmatic commitment to universalism, an endorsement of reason (re)conceived as scepticism and doubt, and a refusal of totality (while hanging on to "core theoretical concepts").

Dodd will doubtless expand on these insights in later work, but for now it should be said that this theoretical advocacy manifests the "middle range" features of third-way thought current at the London School of Economics. This is attractive and signals a willingness to move on from established patterns, but still there remain a lot of objections to be answered.

Alex Callinicos will be one important critic who will have to be addressed, since he is at pains to hang on to the principle of totality that Dodd would abandon. Callinicos shares with Dodd the view that theory needs to relate to reality, but he insists that grand narratives remain crucial if theory is to deliver on its promise to help make comprehensible how we live and how we might do so in the future.

His Social Theory is historical as well as critical, and as such a necessary antidote to the toxins of presentism, the conceit that today things are unprecedented. Callinicos's is also an approach that breaks with the custom of treating theory discretely, his panoramic review illustrative of his own advocacy of totalistic thinking. Starting from 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, chiefly in Scotland and France, his central figures are Hegel, Marx and Weber. These deserve inclusion in the canon, but along the way we have judicious accounts of the likes of Freud, Nietzsche and Bourdieu. The author has an extraordinary command of his sources - as familiar with Hayek as he is with Parsons, as at home with Spencer as he is with de Tocqueville. Moreover, he writes cogently, combatively and with enviable clarity. Postmodern thinkers, flush with the new, are given short shrift, dismissed as rehashers of much older objections to grand theory.

The historical span and the catholicity of its subject matter are major assets of this text. The book should be commended to second or third-year students who want a textbook that is unafraid to make reasoned and pithy judgements, yet is reliable and accessible (explanatory notes at the foot of each page are particularly convenient and helpful). Callinicos's conclusion is underdeveloped, written more in hope than anything else, but the book as a whole is masterly.

Anthony Elliott's Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory takes a resolutely contemporary approach to social theory. It accordingly aims to offer cutting-edge work and to engage with major transformations now taking place. We are offered, in almost 30 chapters, extracts from some familiar sources such as Habermas and Lacan. The text is further divided into six parts, from "The theory of the subject" through "Race, multiculturalism, difference", to the "Modernity/postmodernity debate". This book reaches beyond the social to include the human sciences, touching on matters such as psychoanalysis, literary theory and post-colonialism. It is certainly helpful to have together readable extracts from the likes of Luce Irigaray, Gayatri Spivak and Alain Touraine, but the lack of editorial input to uneven and diverse contributions makes it difficult to use with other than advanced students. It would have helped too had the editor included biographical entries, since not everyone will be aware of the significance of Judith Butler and Jeffrey Weeks.

Fidelma Ashe and her colleagues in Belfast have published a most intriguing introduction to recent theory. Spurning the usual approach of names and theories, this book centres instead on issues and themes. Contemporary Social and Political Theory offers eight essays, the subjects of which range from language to power. There is a loss here in terms of the development of arguments, but the gain is in topicality and willingness to follow themes as they weave their way through thinkers and theories. The text has been very well edited, with helpful sub-headings and questions to check understanding at the close of each chapter, as well as an excellent glossary at the back of the book. This could be a liberating text for those who feel hemmed in by more orthodox approaches, though students emerging from such a course would unavoidably have gaps in their knowledge. What they would have, however, is a genuine sense of the value of theory as a means of better understanding the substantive realm. And that, surely, is what theory for.

Manuel Castells, author of the single most significant piece of social science over the past 25 years, modestly refers to his own contribution as "disposable theory". To him, theory is useful only insofar as it helps us to understand the workings of the world and he urges that it be jettisoned when it no longer connects with what is going on. Would that the multitude of contemporary theorists who make their living by writing theory (and little else) felt similarly committed.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. First Edition

Editor - Anthony Elliott
ISBN - 0 631 20649 3 and 20650 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 396

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