Thinkers of independent means

The Rise of Social Theory
November 17, 1995

This is an excellent book. First published in the Netherlands in 1990, the publication of this English translation now is timely. Johan Heilbron does not assume the necessary existence of social theory. There is no ideal structure of knowledge in which a place for social theory must always be earmarked. Instead, this book seeks to analyse the conditions from which social theory emerged.

Living as we still do in the gloom cast by the assertion that there is no such thing as society and that, by extension, there is no value in sociology or social theory, Heilbron's text is illuminating. It should give social theorists encouragement. Rather than take refuge defensively in transmitting past social theory because it is there and has been handed down, they should look to this book to consider how it might now be reconstructed with the same kind of vitality that went into its construction in the 18th century.

Heilbron is a follower of Pierre Bourdieu and his endeavour can be described in the terminology which Bourdieu has developed. Heilbron presents a detailed account of the "genesis" of the "field" of social theory. He follows Bourdieu in arguing that intellectual "fields", whether of science or literature, have acquired disciplinary autonomy. As a result of the acquired autonomy, disciplines possess their own exclusive discourses and can develop self- referentially, but it is possible to analyse both the conditions which gave rise to all specific fields in the first place and the conditions within which they are sustained.

The use of the word "condition" here is the key problem. Early in his career, Bourdieu expressed reservations about the universal applicability of Marxist explanations, of the prominence given by Marx to economic conditions. He argued that historical changes in social conditions generated the economic conditions which made economic explanation legitimate. Homo economicus was socially constructed and it would, therefore, be possible for him to be deconstructed and for social organisation to regain dominance over economics, for sociability rather than capital to be the basis of society.

The interest of Heilbron's book is that he subjects homo sociologicus to Bourdieu's treatment. He provides a fascinating and well-researched social and intellectual history of France from the ancien regime through to the time of Comte. He also makes thoughtful comments about the differences between the historical conditions in France and other European states. In the end, however, his analysis suggests that the construction of a social space, one in which people possessed the leisure to discourse consciously about their sociability, was a precondition for the articulation of "social theory". It could be argued, in other words, that the evidence demonstrates that it was relative economic independence that allowed social groups to indulge in the luxury of sociological thought. One could go further to argue that it became a necessary feature of sociology to conceal those economic factors which had made it possible.

Two remarks suggest themselves, provoked by this stimulating book. First, it is clear that arguments about the precedence of sociology or economics are sterile. Social relations are economic and social at the same time. If the information society now allows an extension of the space for sociability, making available to all the opportunity to celebrate social relations, it becomes, second, undesirable to suppose that an adequate social theory can be founded on that past theory which was the invention of an economically privileged minority. The challenge now to social theory is to respond to new conditions to allow all contemporary participants in social relations to generate their own functional theories.

Derek Robbins is reader in social sciences, University of East London.

The Rise of Social Theory

Author - Johan Heilbron
ISBN - 07456 1105 2 and 1568 6
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 317

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