Social Theory: A Historical Introduction

The material side of the human condition

February 28, 2008

Social theory" is a uniquely British field of study that is not especially sociological or British in its coverage. It is rather an intellectually engaging, if sometimes abstruse, discourse inspired by what social science might have become had it not devolved into distinct specialities in the early 20th century. Britain is the natural home for this fantasy field because it is here that the social sciences remain least professionalised.

The history of social science is usually told in terms of ancient problems in political philosophy getting divided and conquered by empirical and mathematical methods. Marx, Durkheim and Weber thus appear as our worthy but less rigorous and less informed precursors. In contrast, social theorists treat the very same people as virtual contemporaries whose ideas are discussed at largely the same level of precision as in the late 19th century but against the backdrop of more recent historical developments.

Alex Callinicos's Social Theory puts this fantasy field in the best possible light. Callinicos is sociologically well-positioned to do this: first, he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, which means he never really had to specialise. Second, he remains committed to Marxism, the paradigm case of a "social theory" that blurs not only disciplinary boundaries but also the fact-value distinction. Those who instinctively recoil from "social theory" normally lack some of this background.

The book's strongest point is its robust engagement with the material character of the human condition. I mean here not merely political economy, as might be expected of a Marxist. More importantly, Callinicos also deals with biology, from Lamarck and Darwin onward, something that social theorists and social scientists have for too long treated in an ostrich-like fashion. At the same time, Callinicos does not let down his critical guard. I hope the next edition will solidify the link with political economy more clearly with a discussion of "bioliberalism" as exemplified by biotech industries, bioprospecting and the emerging post-social science of "evolutionary psychology".

Who is it for? Potentially beyond social theory to any course concerned with theorising the modern world.

Changes since last edition: New chapter on critiques of globalisation by Slavoj Zizek, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

Presentation: Clear critical essays of major figures and themes from the 18th century to the present.

Would you recommend it? Best of its kind on the market.

Social Theory: A Historical Introduction

Author: Alex Callinicos
Edition: Second
Publisher: Polity
Pages: 376
Price: £18.99
ISBN 9780745638409

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