Key Concepts in Critical Social Theory


Nick Crossley

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  • Recent volumes include:

    Key Concepts in Medical Sociology

    Jonathan Gabe, Mike Bury and Mary Ann Elston

    Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies

    Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelahan

    Key Concepts in Social Research

    Geoff Payne and Judy Payne

    Forthcoming titles include:

    Key Concepts in Leisure Studies

    David Harris

    Key Concepts in Urban Studies

    M. Gottdiener and Leslie Budd

    The SAGE Key Concepts series provides students with accessible and authoritative knowledge of the essential topics in a variety of disciplines. Cross-referenced throughout, the format encourages critical evaluation through understanding. Written by experienced and respected academics, the books are indispensable study aids and guides to comprehension.


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    This book is intended to help students who are working with or attempting to read about aspects of contemporary critical social theory. My immediate feeling when the idea of the book was suggested to me was that it might be used as a substitute for ‘the real thing’ and I was very hesitant about accepting the challenge for precisely that reason. There is no substitute for the real thing. To understand and engage properly with theory it is necessary to hear it from the horse's mouth, that is, from primary texts and critiques. Having reflected more deeply upon the issue, however, I arrived at the conclusion that there is a genuine need for books like this in the present era. The modularization of courses has generated a situation where students often receive less teaching in areas such as theory and where advanced or contemporary theory are taught to students who have had very little introduction to even the basics and who have little time to get up to speed. This makes theory very difficult both to teach and to learn. And that, in turn, necessitates books like this, which seek to explain key concepts and offer some insight into the reasons why theorists have used and developed them. The alternative, I believe, is that theory, which is an essential element of sociology and the other social sciences, becomes so opaque as to alienate all but the smallest clique. My view regarding the importance of primary texts still stands. I would hate to think that a student did not bother reading what Bourdieu himself writes about the habitus, for example, or what Habermas writes about ‘colonization of the lifeworld’, because my entries on these topics are more accessible. But I believe that this book could be used as an aid by readers approaching these difficult ideas and texts for the first time and I hope that it will be. I hope that students will use this book to check their own understanding of concepts, to fill in gaps and perhaps also to achieve the preliminary clarification that is sometimes necessary for pressing ahead with complex materials.

    Principles of Selection

    It was suggested to me when I was first discussing the plan for the book that it should reflect my own ‘take’ on theory, my own range of interests and priorities. Undoubtedly this suggestion found its way into the process whereby I selected concepts for the book, whether intentionally or not. Some of the inclusions that I have made would not have been made by others. I have attempted, however, to be a little more systematic and judicious in my selection. Specifically I have tried to operate according to five principles.

    Firstly, I have tried to deal with the concepts of authors who strive to be precise and clear but who are not so clear as to create no need for further clarification. In effect this has meant excluding concepts which are so straightforward as to require no discussion, in my view, but also those which are so opaque or vague as to defy reasonable definition.

    This has also meant that I have refused to be drawn in by ‘naked emperors’. A great deal of what has come under the banner of ‘post’ this or that theorizing is, in my view, deliberately obscure, often to the point of incoherence, and very weak or insubstantial. The meaning of complicated sounding concepts vacillates between simple-minded obviousness and obvious simple-mindedness. I refuse to make excuses for theoretical work of this kind or to pander to its pretentiousness. And I advise students to do the same. Writers only try to sound clever and difficult, in my experience, when they have very little of any depth or complexity to offer. One should always approach texts charitably, assuming that the author has something coherent and of interest to say. But that is not always true and when the emperor has no clothes it is as well to recognize the fact. Some of the work to which I am referring may have made its way through my filter and into this book, but not much I hope.

    Secondly, I have selected concepts which have a degree of durability to them. Some writers, some of the time, develop throwaway concepts that are intended to serve a specific purpose in a specific argument but are never taken up again after this point. There is nothing wrong with this but I believe that such concepts are best dealt with in their contexts and there is no real need to extract them and discuss them in abstract, in a work such as this.

    Thirdly, I have tended towards more sociological theories and concepts. Contemporary critical theory draws upon psychology, literary/cultural studies, philosophy, geography, anthropology, history and other disciplines besides. Indeed, part of what defines it is its interdisciplinarity. It would be impossible to do justice to the input of all of these disciplines however, and my strength is sociology (with some strands of philosophy). So I have opted here, for the most part, to elucidate the sociological input to contemporary critical theory. Or rather, insofar as I have strayed beyond the most central (interdisciplinary) concepts of contemporary critical social theory, I have strayed in a sociological direction. I have tried as much as possible to do justice to the most central concepts of critical theory, as I see them, from whatever disciplinary basis, but where I have gone beyond the absolutely central concepts I have selected from amongst the more sociological strands of theory.

    It is important to add here, that my emphasis has been upon theory. Much critical writing emerges out of a practical rather than a theoretical or academic context and most critical social movements (feminist, anti-racist, workers movements, and so on) involve certain sections who emphasize the importance of non-academic writing. They believe, with some justification, that academics obscure issues which, for political purposes, could be relatively clear, and are torn in their priorities between the demands of critique and the demands of the academy. I have not included the ideas discussed in such works in this book as I see no real need for it. These ideas are expressed clearly enough in their primary sources and are not written for the purposes of academic discussion and debate.

    Fourthly, having said this, I have tried to select from within sociological theory those concepts which are critical or which belong to projects of critique. This is easier said than done, as different theories work with different definitions of ‘critique’ and there is certainly one sense of ‘critique’ which might extend to most, if not all sociology and social theory. ‘Critique’ can mean something along the lines of ‘opening up to investigation and analysis’ or ‘exploring constituent elements’, which covers just about all sociology. Furthermore, as Robert Merton (1964) argued in his response to the charge that sociological functionalism is inherently conservative, any rigorous exploration of social practices and relations tends to disturb the natural ‘feel’ that such practices and relations can otherwise acquire and is, to this extent, progressive and potentially subversive. This is independent of the fact, also noted by Merton, that the sociological form of politically critical and politically conservative theories can be identical. Radicals and conservatives alike sometimes use functionalist explanations or rational-choice analyses, for example. It is not the sociology that distinguishes them but rather the evaluative accent that is placed upon key claims and findings, or the manner in which concepts are operationalized and used. Finally, there are very few sociologists these days, in my experience, who do not offer a least some sort of ‘critical’, ‘radical’ or ‘political’ gloss upon what they are doing – apart from anything else because the demand by our political and economic masters that we ‘make it relevant’ forces this issue. Given these arguments, my claim to have selected concepts because they are critical should be treated with caution. I have tried wherever possible, however, to draw upon those theories which offer a relatively well-developed notion of social/political criticism and which put that notion at the centre of their enterprise.

    Finally, I have attempted to draw together a mix of contemporary and classic concepts – selecting those classics which continue to have contemporary relevance and which inform more contemporary work. This combination, I believe, maximizes the relevance of my selection.

    This book has not always been easy to write. I hope, however, that it is easy to read, and that it serves the intended job of smoothing the passage of students into contemporary critical social theory. As I noted above, there is no substitute for reading primary texts. But with a bit of a leg-up that should not prove too difficult.

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