There is such a thing as society

Introducing Social Theory. First edition - Key Contemporary Social Theorists. First edition - Critical Theory. First edition
February 27, 2004

Textbooks ought to excite both teachers and students as they make their journey through social theory. This is unlikely with Introducing Social Theory , which is aimed at beginners. The Library of Congress data show this is not exactly a new book but a reworking of Pip Jones' Studying Society (1993), itself an updating of his Theory and Method in Sociology: A Guide for the Beginner (1985). The focus is now wholly on theory and is past its sell-by date.

The tired 1970s triadic typology of social theory, namely "structural consensus", "structural conflict" and "action", is used to present the classics, from out-of-favour Durkheim, who has the millstone of functionalism placed firmly round his neck, via a more technically adequate and enthusiastic account of Marx and the emerging opposition between the humanist and structuralist wings, and on to a few pages on Weber, the action theorist. This simple framing creates more problems than it solves in terms of maintaining intelligibility. Textbook writers have to rise to the tricky challenges in exposition, not avoid them. As an introduction to classical social theory, it will not do. Frankly, this first half annoyed me.

The second half is better. A useful chapter on feminist theories is followed by chapters on interpretive sociology, Foucault, discourse theory and body-centredness, structuralism, post-structuralism and relativism, postmodernity and postmodernism, and concludes with critical responses by Ernest Gellner, JŸrgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.

This leads smoothly and uncritically to Giddens' alternative to postmodernist accounts of postmodernity. Giddens' The Consequences of Modernity , published in 1990, may have provided the basis for the Giddensian narrative back in the 1993. Now it too seems conventional and unlikely to excite teachers or students.

Jones attempts more than can be delivered at this length and level. The modularised market's demand for such shortcuts ought to be resisted. Symptomatic is his habit of citing as authorities, and quoting, other introductory textbooks such as Tony Bilton et al. Is this "quotation writing" analogous to Adorno's "quotation listening"? There must be more imaginative starting points for the social theory journey.

Anthony Elliott and Larry Ray's Key Contemporary Social Theorists targets enthusiasts familiar with social-theory language and capable of managing compressed accounts of the biographies, theoretical contributions and major criticisms of 41 writers claimed to be "key" and "contemporary". This is an exciting if problematic enterprise. It will be consulted by experienced social theorists filling in gaps and keen students seeking shortcuts to the better-known figures. Although most of the accounts are skilful and authoritative, they demand a certain familiarity with theory talk and are not really introductory.

The editors' argument for the coherence of the collection is tantalisingly brief. Its narrative about the development of social theory in the past 20 years tends to make some things appear newer than they are. However, they identify important trends that the collection allows one to follow. These centre on the relation of "self and society", including post-Lacanian feminism, neo-modernist responses to postmodernisms and attempts to find potential for critical political practice in a world of intensifying rationalisation and globalisation. This is valuable and leads to the inclusion of writers from across the humanities.

There is scope for surprise encounters (not helped by a weak index). However, there are also damaging absences. I was bothered by the absence of writers of the stature of, for example, Talcott Parsons, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Rom Harr?, Roy Bhaskar, Alasdair MacIntyre, Margaret Archer, Harold Garfinkel, Walter Runciman, Michael Mann, Perry Anderson, Charles Taylor and Randall Collins - all important contributors to the dominant trends identified by the editors. And there are no chapters specifically on the classics, although the ghost of Weber is represented by those on the critical theorists. I felt the absence especially of Georg Simmel. We all have our biases, and I am sure these lacunae will frustrate many.

Forty-one snapshots offer comprehensiveness but fail to deliver it (although the price is low). It feels like the product of the editors' networks rather than of a well worked-out policy based on criteria for assessing the power of the multitude of theorists who populate contemporary "attention space". The durability of the more recent inclusions remains to be seen.

Alan How's Critical Theory is the best book reviewed here. In terms of its subject, it is authentic and no mere product of the culture industry. Critical theory is well served by exponents, but How offers something new and valuable.

The book's charm flows from the generosity of its author's enthusiasm combined with a near-faultless consideration of the reader's needs. Short enough to be unintimidating yet long enough to deal with the expository demands of technically difficult material, this is a personal witness to a lifetime's fascination with the riches of critical theory.

Here is a book to excite teachers and students. It would easily work as an undergraduate text for a level-three option. Relatively dense chapters are concluded by accurate summaries. There is lots of room for argument, but anybody who has tried explaining critical dialectical thought will value How's effort.

Possible criticisms are nothing set against the value of How's project to give his personal testimony and technical assessment of the value of the tradition to the young. His guiding principle is that the more recent is not necessarily truer, and he gives students reasons for continuing to take the ideas of Lukacs, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Adorno seriously.

John Parker is lecturer in sociology, University of Wales, Swansea.


Introducing Social Theory. First edition

Author - Pip Jones
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 261
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2698 X and 2699 8

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