Social Theory for Today: Making Sense of Social Worlds

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Alex Law

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    About the Author

    Alex Law is Professor of Sociology at Abertay University in Scotland. His research and teaching interests include the relationship between social theory and social, political and cultural change. His more recent publications include Key Concepts in Classical Social Theory (Sage, 2011).

    Acknowledgements

    This book is a result of trying to make sense of social theory over many years. During that time I have benefited from teaching social theory and learning a great deal from students and former colleagues Norman Gabriel, Alex Howson, Peter Kennedy and Mick Smith. Recently, my understanding has been aided greatly by critical discussions with Christos Memos. I am most grateful to Bridget Fowler for reading and commenting on the manuscript and saving me from making numerous errors. John Scott, David Inglis, Neil Davidson, Ian Wall, Duncan Forbes and Eric Royal Lybeck have in different ways contributed to the ideas developed in this book. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the patience, encouragement and unstinting support of Chris Rojek and Gemma Shields. They understood the often overwhelming demands made on the time and space needed for undivided scholarship by officious managerialism and the many distractions of audit culture. Mostly, I have Jan to thank for inoculating me against tedium and to Daniel as the bearer of unadulterated joy.

  • Conclusion

    Today, as in the past, crisis sits at the core of social theory. This is so in a double sense. Social theory responds to crisis in the social universe and is itself productive of a seemingly permanent theoretical crisis. This is reflected in the constant need every few years for theoretical ‘turns’. Every such turn finds it necessary to dismiss what went before and to present itself as overcoming past deficiencies and aporia. In the serious game of theoretical turn-taking it is necessary to construct earlier theories as profoundly mistaken. It is all too easy for social theory to wage polemical struggles against waxwork adversaries of their own making, just as the brutality of the past or faraway places is easily denounced by the self-righteous moral tones of the present from places nearby. Denouncing ‘brutal methods in the age of gentle methods’ is one way to misrecognise contemporary forms of institutional domination (Bourdieu, 2008a: 196).

    It is the contention of this book that placing reflexive controls over theory-baiting creates a chance that the crisis afflicting social theory might be alleviated. A necessary stage in theoretical progress is to understand adversaries in any theoretical dispute as potential allies, not enemies to be demolished, since they may well have uncovered genuine problems demanding substantive sociological analysis. It is essential to control the gratuitous misrepresentation of competing theoretical perspectives, especially ones that have come to be marginalised as barely worth a second thought. Certain types of social theory are overlooked or treated with disdain today while more familiar survivals in sociology, ‘the big names’, are returned to ritualistically for ever-increasing commentary that runs in ever-decreasing circles.

    Too often the crisis of social theory has been a consequence of an internal, esoteric struggle to dominate the field rather than a response to social novelty. Domination is the power to define the reality of others from the standpoint of imposing particular norms as if they were universal ones. Institutional power allows opponents, past and present, to be cast as deluded fools who failed to recognise the fundamental theoretical errors uncovered by opponents whose conceptual faultlines will, in turn, also be exposed.

    There is no more self-deluded a figure in sociological texts than Comte. Comte responded to post-revolutionary crisis in France by raising a fundamental challenge to metaphysical philosophy. While Comte's dreams for positive sociology failed to bring the crisis to a close it nonetheless exercised a grip on the sociological imagination from John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim through to Norbert Elias. This did not prevent ‘positivism’ from becoming a cartoonish form of ‘scienticism’ in the tradition of ill-informed theory-baiting. Even today, unfounded clichés and caricatures are routinely trotted out about Comte's project despite substantial scholarship demonstrating their speciousness. Indeed, the caricature of Comte's positivism is often the exact opposite of what he attempted to do.

    Although Marx has been treated with more respect than Comte in social theory, indeed with uncritical reverence in some quarters, the tradition of Marxist social theory has, of course, been subject to more than a century of intense theory-baiting. Despite the profound crises of social survival that capitalism reproduces along with itself as a system, Marx's theory today is among the most vigorously denounced. It is described as a ‘grand theory’ indifferent to the varieties of social life, which is in any case reduced to the economic base and vulgar materialism. However, Marx saw his own social theory as concrete, specific and processual. Its focus was on definite social forms, social relations of class above all, not timeless abstractions. Marx developed an original constructive method that attempted to presuppose the concrete at every stage of theoretical abstraction. Marx insisted on locating social forms in terms of historically specific conditions and opposed all attempts to transcend definite social relations by theoretical worldplay and wishful thinking.

    Theorists who claimed to be legitimate heirs drew diametrically opposed lessons from Marx's social theory. In one type of Marxism, therefore, objective historical structures determine the possibilities for action while, in the other type, subjective political action determines the fundamental structures. This tension persisted as Marxist theory went through various changes in post-war Europe, with a rediscovery of praxis and everyday life by the ‘existential Marxism’ of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lefebvre and, in opposition to the lingering influence of idealist philosophy in Marxism, emergence of the ‘structuralist Marxism’ of Althusser and the formal philosophical logic of ‘analytical Marxism’ (Callinicos, 1989).

    Like Comte and Marx, Nietzschean social theory also broke with traditional notions of philosophy as a search for universal truth, beauty and morality. Nietzsche developed a new kind of theory, an anti-philosophy, which some saw as having important consequences for social theory and sociology, not least Simmel and Weber, but also Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Lefebvre through to Foucault and other ‘post-structuralists’. At the furthest extreme of anti-philosophy was the social theory of Otto Neurath. Similarly, the relational sociology of Bourdieu and Elias aimed to control the excesses of prophetic speculation in social theory by synthesising theoretical traditions as ‘tools for thinking’ about substantive problems, not as scholastic exercises in constructing an abstract methodology or epistemology. Phenomenology, pragmatism, and feminist standpoint theory, for instance, insist that since theory is context-dependent it requires detailed, ethnographic studies of power relations in everyday life, although here also satisfaction is taken from abstract conceptual puzzles that obscure power relations behind static categories.

    An examination of everyday life might be thought to produce the most concrete forms of social theory. With the micrological studies of Kracauer and Benjamin the ephemera of everyday life was uncovered as historically specific constructions. Although indebted to a unique form of theological Marxism that produced its fair share of obscurities about elusive categories such as ‘aura’, what Benjamin called ‘delicate empiricism’ proved itself to be a more adequate kind of social theory than formal theoretical system-building. At a far higher level of abstraction, Lefebvre remained indebted to existential philosophy for understanding the meaning of everyday life through a reflexive critique of social relations.

    These represent different roads to substantive theory. Social theory has repeatedly turned away from the sociological constitution of problems to revisit the most general philosophical concepts, often with polemical and ideological intent. Problems in social theory are devised in philosophical terms around an apparently contradictory or mutually exclusive conceptual binary such as subject and object. Theory ‘progresses’ by emphasising now one side of the dualism, now the other, before introducing a third term to reconcile the abstract opposition. By producing a scholastic solution to a non-existent problem, a wedge is driven between theory and empirics in sociology. Priority is given to conceptual and ideological puzzles over theory developed in close contact with substantive problems of sociological inquiry. Human relations are so varied in practice that only a constant interrogation of language and concepts seems able to impose theoretical order on them.

    Exposing fatal weaknesses in rival theories is a scholastic game that necessarily induces crisis. A number of solutions are possible to control the symptoms of crisis. First, sociologists may don the mantle of the prophet, free to comment on all manner of social problems made visible by crisis from the most general standpoint possible. While prophecy is evident with Comte and Marx, they themselves thought that they stood on firm scientific ground. Nietzschean social theory ranging from Simmel and critical theory to post-structuralism measured the social world negatively against the ‘ought’ of alternative images of the highest human capacities. Prophetic philosophical constructions serve the purpose of morally damning current realities from individual examples rather than the laborious process of substantive analysis. Prophecy can also be used to justify current policies, as with Giddens’ promotion of Third Way politics, based on generalisations about social change drawn from selective illustrations.

    Second, crisis may be evaded when sociologists confine theory to increasingly narrow areas of theoretical or methodological interest. Sociology has fragmented into the specialised activities of limited sub-disciplines, for example, organisational sociology, sociology of science, sociology of knowledge, cultural studies, criminology, and so on. More and more is known about less and less. Increased specialisation is bought at the expense of increased ignorance of other fields or other traditions in social theory. This encourages the glossing of social theory into easily digestible models, rendering them vulnerable to dismissive caricatures and limited judgements of social theory's ‘relevance’ to particular sub-fields. Social theory itself comes to be viewed in terms of technical expertise. It constantly runs the risk of becoming an esoteric specialism open to initiates steeped in narrowly conceived theoretical problem solving without need of exoteric contact with substantive problems. It is easier to constantly discuss whether ‘reality’ or ‘society’ exists than to study it. Theoretical generalisation accelerates away from empirical studies to develop, almost unchecked, as a semi-autonomous game.

    A third possible solution to crisis is a context-dependent ‘critical’ sociology sensitive to the way that conceptual language is used. Such a linguistically sensitive social theory is suggested by Vološinov's sociology of the concrete utterance or, at a more removed level, Habermas’ ‘ideal speech situation’, as well as much of the ‘linguistic turn’ associated with discourse analytics and post-modernism. Here social theory might be formulated in such a way that it stands a chance of being understood and discussed by all participants, even by dissenters and non-specialists. Raymond Boudon (1980: 38), for instance, predicted in 1971 that by the year 2000 a general theoretical vocabulary would be shared by sociologists, replacing the then-current ‘impressionistic social philosophy’ and ‘the glossing of new sacred texts’. This has not yet happened. If anything the tendency to theoretical fragmentation far outweighs the tendency to theoretical synthesis.

    Finally, substantive social theory, or simply ‘sociological theory’, will temper theory-baiting. In this conception, theory and empirical analysis are co-dependent, as in the relational sociology of Bourdieu and Elias, Neurath's ‘physicalism’, or Benjamin's ‘delicate empiricism’. Theoretical synthesis provides a heuristic, guiding function for specific empirical content and generates more adequate sociological knowledge. Beyond certain general categories essential for orientation, like habitus or figuration, this need not mean a standardised conceptual vocabulary or methodology. Invariant categories rarely prove adequate to historically variable processes. Nor does it mean a return to naive empiricism since theory and research necessarily function together as an iterative process. Here concepts operate in ways similar to what Bourdieu referred to as ‘thinking tools’, useful for specific forms of sociological research and analysis but not as autonomous categories that define reality in advance.

    In this survey of social theory and crisis an attempt has been made to lessen the temptation to engage in counter-productive ‘theory-baiting’ rooted in polemical social and political philosophy. Social theory must become practical and specific. As Holmwood and Stewart argue, ‘Instead of a return to the drawing-board to find appropriate methodological procedures and rational criteria, the specific and located nature of problems ensures that creative solutions involve the resources that the schemes in crisis otherwise hold within them’ (1991: 178). Progress has undoubtedly been made in the direction of substantive sociological theory, particularly with the refusal by relational sociology to play the chicken-or-egg game of whether to prioritise social theory over social research or vice versa.

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