The importance of Tony

Politics, Sociology and Social Theory
November 17, 1995

Anthony Giddens was the editor of my first book. In 1982 I sent him an essay on the English social historians, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, seeking his opinion of turning the piece into a book-length work. I did so because of an argument he had made in Central Problems in Social Theory (1979). Standing on the shoulders of the late C. Wright Mills, Giddens declared that history and sociology are, when properly conceived and practised, not two separate disciplines but a single one. To my amazement and delight, three weeks later I received a contract to write The British Marxist Historians (and two years after that it was published as one of the first titles in his brand new publishing venture, Polity Press).

Because it was my first book, I had a lot to learn. And Giddens was a critical reader. He provided lengthy comments and went through my drafts like a copy editor. Like many other young academics whom he has turned into authors, I owe him a lot.

Politics, Sociology and Social Theory is not an original work. As Giddens himself acknowledges up front, its ten chapters are recycled from earlier publications and collections: the first piece, "Politics and sociology in the thought of Max Weber" was published as a booklet and the remaining nine, including further essays on the classical figures of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and others on the likes of Marcuse, Parsons, Habermas, and Foucault, originally appeared in his earlier collections, Studies in Social and Political Theory (1977) and Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory (1982). Moreover, beyond a very brief introductory chapter, no reflective postscripts are provided (in fact, no dates are provided as to when the essays were first written).

I was therefore about to decline to review the book when a younger social science colleague walked into my office and, spying the new volume, asked in a challenging tone: "Just how important has Giddens really been to sociology and social theory?" I found myself recounting the recent history of social thought and Giddens's pivotal role in its development. This "review" is therefore a summary of my minilecture on my view of Giddens's significance.

In this generation no one has contributed more than he to both our understanding of the history of social thought and the development of social theory. Whatever the field has become is due in good part to his varied and even extraordinary efforts: to redeem what is truly of value in the writings of both classical and contemporary thinkers; to rethink whole areas of social life - from the public politics of the nation state to the personal politics and intimacy of the family - in the light of contemporary history (without falling into the noxious swamp of postmodernism); to restate more effectively the dialectic of structure and action - namely his "structuration theory"; and to remake political and social theory into a truly global enterprise (by way of both his own writings and his activities as Polity's editorial director).

Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971) remains both the best study of its subject and the best of Giddens's many works. Here Giddens virtually refounded social theory by firmly establishing its modern trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Of course, he was not unassisted. The godfather of radical sociology, C. Wright Mills, had himself sought to reinvigorate the discipline by incorporating Marx and proposing an alternative reading of Weber to that advanced by Talcott Parsons, that is Weber as critical historical thinker and political sociologist rather than as formal grand theorist. But, working a generation later, Giddens was better informed about Marx and he better recognised Weber's own complex relation to Marx and the Marxist tradition. (Also, in contrast to Mills, Giddens has apparently never allowed Weber's pessimism to determine his own thinking and activity.) Moreover, Giddens successfully rescued Durkheim both from the clutches of the conservative American sociologist Robert Nisbet and from the claws of the equally ill-informed radical sociologists of the day who themselves, strangely enough, having readily bought into Nisbet's interpretations, had either written off Durkheim or made of him a rightwing intellectual antagonist of Marx. By rereading and re-situating Durkheim historically and politically, Giddens demolished Nisbet's assertions that Durkheim was a conservative functionalist and corporatist persistently obsessed with the problem of "order". Starting with Durkheim's classic dissertation, The Division of Labour in Society, Giddens revealed Durkheim's fundamental interest in social change and the development of individualism, and his personal and political commitment to liberalism (and, furthermore, his critical sympathies for socialism).

As a social theorist and, increasingly, as a social observer and critic, Giddens has practised what he preached. Whether I have agreed with it or not, the strength of his work has been that, even at his most theoretical, he thinks historically. In that respect, the pieces republished in Politics, Sociology and Social Theory are worth reading again, for they offer critically informed engagements with diverse figures from the history of social theory.

Harvey J. Kaye is Rosenberg professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, USA.

Politics, Sociology and Social Theory: Encounters with Classical and Contemporary Social Thought

Author - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0745615392 and 15406
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 304

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