Rethinking Social Theory

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Roger Sibeon

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    Preface

    Although this is not a text for beginners, it is hoped not only academics but advanced undergraduate and graduate students will wish to engage with the ideas set out in the following pages. Readers will encounter exposition and critique of contemporary theoretical problems and approaches, and be invited to form a personal judgement about the author's proposals for the future development of theoretical sociology. The contents and design of the chapters, and of the notes that follow each chapter, have two principal objectives. With reference to key problems and themes in social theory and, to some extent, in the social sciences generally, the intention is, first, to critically review a range of mainly contemporary theoretical and other materials that are not currently available in one book, and second, to offer a contribution to the development of social theory and to the theoretical development of sociology. With these objectives in mind it is proposed to engage in a critique of four long-standing deficient modes of social scientific thought – reductionism, essentialism, reification and functional teleology – and to develop, in part on the basis of theoretical synthesis allied to sustained critique of these four defective forms of theoretical-methodological reasoning, a set of interrelated concepts that refer, in particular, to agency–structure and social chance, and to time–space and micro–macro. The concepts and supporting ontological arguments are brought together to form an integrated theoretical and methodological framework, elements of which figure in each chapter; an overview of the framework is provided in the final chapter.

    Three additional features of the book should be mentioned here. First, although concerned with social theory and in particular, sociological theory, reference will be made throughout to policy-related illustrations and applications of theoretical constructs; this will help clarify what are inevitably rather abstract ideas, and will serve also to make the point that social theory and theoretical sociology are relevant to empirical work, including analyses of governance, politics and public policy in (post)modern society. Second, with reference to the relatively recent movement towards a ‘return’ to sociological theory (Mouzelis, 1991; McLennan, 1995) in the aftermath of postmodern and other rejections of social science knowledge, it is intended that the book should help stimulate a climate of renewed interest in theoretical sociology while also, as stated earlier, providing a contribution to the development of sociology as an academic discipline. Third, there is no necessary antithesis between, on the one hand, an enthusiasm for sociology and, on the other, recognition of the importance of developments in other social sciences. A theme that permeates most of the chapters is that it is desirable that there should be dialogue between theorists from different disciplines and among interdisciplinary scholars; interdisciplinary work is capable of enhancing social science's explanatory powers while also contributing to the theoretical and methodological development of individual disciplines, including sociology.

    Rethinking Social Theory is, then, primarily addressed to scholars and advanced students in social theory and in sociology, though it is anticipated that some of the concepts and concerns discussed in the book will also be of interest to readers whose main disciplines are, for example, political science, policy studies and social geography, as well as those whose social science commitments include interdisciplinary activities.

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