Accessible Books on Social Theory

The following two books are extremely useful for those embarking on a social theory journey and getting to know social theorists.  The books would suit undergraduate students in fields such as Sociology and Politics, as well as postgraduate students who require an accessible and absorbing introduction to the key themes and concepts that have influenced social theory in the past, and continue to affect contemporary thinkers and writers.  Both books use language that makes social theory easy to comprehend and enjoyable to study, whilst allowing us to consider the nature of modern society and its institutions, identities and the significance of structure v agency through appropriate sociological terminology.

 

An Invitation to Social Theory by David Inglis with Christopher Thorpe

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“Learning about theory is like learning a new language”.  For those who are keen to gain a solid and engaging introduction to the sometimes heavy and complex writings on social theory, you would do well to pick up a copy of An Invitation to Social Theory by David Inglis, to learn about the terminology of social theory.  The book invites to you to gain a good foundation in key social theorists and social theories – “what they are saying and how they are saying it” by explaining the principal ideas and concepts that are relevant to contemporary social theory.  At the beginning of the book, you can read a historical perspective about the classical paradigms of theory from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that have influenced contemporary theorists, as well as been influenced themselves by German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and George Hegel.

The three recurring themes that are prevalent in social theory are outlined for the reader: knowledge (ontology and epistemology), structure and action (agency) and modernity.  The book reminds us that the area of social theory for beginners can sometimes be exciting to venture into, yet at other times it can be confusing. The advice given is to persist in getting to know the social theories and theorists, and do not be put off by obscure jargon or elite pretensions, as in the long run you will develop your knowledge and understanding, and discover the social theories and theorists you can connect with the most. The book also reminds us that social theory sometimes reflects what we already know, thus confirming the beliefs we hold, but other times it succeeds in changing us slightly or dramatically by providing us with new perspectives about the social world.

Newcomers to social theory will feel confidently informed about the main paradigms in social theory, from Functionalism to Marxism, Symbolic Interactionism to Feminism and more.  You might just peruse certain relevant chapters of the book or you might read the entire book chronologically as it is an easy read.  However we are advised to ensure we read Chapter One first because the classical paradigms referred to are what sow the seeds for later social theory and contemporary social theory.  Readers of the book will be able to understand enough of the basic significant concepts of social theory to go onto further reading.  Readers will also, over time, become more confident in applying the concepts acquired through reading such an introductory text to social theory, and understand the significance and relevance of social theory to the contemporary world.

 

Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation – A Reader edited by Roberta Garner

2nd edition

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Continuity and confrontation are the key themes of this reader on social theory, as the editor explains: “…ideas develop both through controversies and continuities…”, and thus her aim is to “emphasize the restless, rebellious side of social thought”.  Continuities concern revisiting and rethinking of social theories, whilst confrontation refers to the development of social theory through debate, discussion and controversy. Over time, as social changes take place, theories must be revised or rendered obsolete, the editor reminds us.  Like An Invitation to Social Theory, this book also relates the excitement of studying social theory, and reminds us that we can overcome any frustrations about the sometimes dry and abstract nature of social theory. The book provides vivid and important writings for us to get a taste of well-known theorists as well as those we may not know so well.  It is a must-read for anyone who is new to social theory and wishes to gain a brilliant breadth, for the book presents a wide scope of key readings to help you develop an extensive understanding of the scope of social theory.

One of the benefits of this reader on social theory is that Roberta Garner has aimed to connect classical theory with accessible empirical studies, allowing the reader to make the vital links that will illuminate key social theory ideas and concepts, as well as the relationship between theory and empirical reality.  Further, the book highlights how it is essential to question the social world, and not solely explain it. Being critical and open to change is crucial to the works of many social theorists.  Thus, Garner incorporates works in this book that are diverse in content and style, and from both mainstream and “marginal” sociology.  Garner rightly points out that writers and readers of social theory change over the course of their lives, and therefore theorists, texts and readers do not remain static and fixed in interpretation.

The book is divided into three parts covering distinct historical epochs.  Beginning with the impact of Machiavelli’s The Prince on society’s awareness of the powerful and the political, and then moving onto introduce the reader to Edmund Burke and August Comte, the book is always engaging and surprising in the content and selections from original texts imparted to us.  The second section of Part One focuses on classical theory:  Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber.  Part Two moves onto examining the importance of ethnicity and race by introducing the reader to W.E.B. DuBois, as well as The Chicago School, Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead.  We then get to know about the social theorists like Antonio Gramsci writing around the time of the war, and then post-war perspectives from Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills.  Symbolic Interactionism is explored by examining Howard S. Becker, and Ideology is considered from the perspective of Louis Althusser.  Part Three delves into the more contemporary theorists like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as raising issues of gender and sexuality through theorists like Dorothy E. Smith and others.  Media, culture and globalisation are expanded upon towards the end of Part Three.

 

   Sadia Habib is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.        


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