Ways of seeing obscure view of heritage

Journal of Classical Sociology
April 26, 2002

Recent decades have wrought havoc on sociology's one-time assurance that it was a worthwhile discipline possessed of a distinctive heritage. Post-structuralism, deconstruction, queer theory and much more may have opened up the field of social analysis, but this has been at the expense of abandoning any idea that there is a core to sociology that all practitioners should endeavour to master.

Postmodernism has led the charge, eager to suggest that all claims for classical status are but "discourses" that reflect power struggles between different ways of seeing. This being so, it has been easy to ignore "dead, white, European males" (Michel Foucault apart), who, it is alleged, cannot possibly have something to contribute to understanding of gender, youth or conditions prevailing in Asia. An unfortunate consequence has been the production of often intellectually slight work that lacks disciplinary rigour but makes bold statements on matters ranging from sexual behaviour to post-colonial relations. Once key figures in the sociological tradition, such as Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, may remain unacknowledged by today's interdisciplinary enthusiasts who feel able to comment on deviance or family relationships without mentioning these towering figures.

The Journal of Classical Sociology would be welcomed if it were simply a backlash against such know-nothing tendencies. But its editors, John O'Neill of York University in Canada and Bryan Turner from Cambridge, insist that it is much more than that. They agree that simplistic assertions that there is an unchanging canon are untenable - the claims of forebears cannot be accepted just because they have been around for a long time. However, their journal forcefully argues that a disciplinary canon, even if contestable, is essential if sociology is to be a convincing and legitimate subject of study. Classic writers such as Marx, Georg Simmel and Henri St Simon have much to offer contemporary sociologists, as do their analyses of core topics such as capitalism, urban life and science and technology.

The early issues of the journal, not surprisingly, carry a good number of articles on Max Weber, surely the most influential and seminal of all sociological thinkers, one with as much to offer today's analysts of "identity" as those interested in "reason" itself. Contributors to re-examinations of Weber include such luminaries as W. G. Runciman, Randall Collins and J. M. Barbalet. The simultaneous appearance of another promising journal, Max Weber Studies (Sheffield Academic Press), does much to re-emphasise the need to remember the classics.

The Journal of Classical Sociology has already captured first-rate contributors from Europe and North America, ranging from Hans Joas on Parsons's religious thought, to Nico Stehr and Reiner Grundmann on why Werner Sombart is not part of the canon, to Anne Witz's feminist critique of Simmel. It has got off to a flying start and should be on the subscription list of any university that offers programmes in sociology.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Journal of Classical Sociology

Editor - J. M. Barbalet, Bryan S.Turner and John O'Neill
ISBN - ISSN 1468 795X
Publisher - Sage
Price - Individuals £35.00; (introductory offer £28.00); Institutions £170.00
Pages - - (Three times a year)

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