Steve Fuller’s Guide to Reading Social Theory

Yesterday I was speaking with a doctoral student, Morteza Hashemi Madani, about the point of social theory, especially given the recent revelation that Zygmunt Bauman plagiarises not only himself but also Wikipedia – shock, horror! As someone who has always had mixed views about ‘this thing called social theory’, I addressed ‘the point of social theory’ in terms of the spirit in which one might read such works. Below I offer a fourfold typology for your consideration that theorizes my own practice of reading social theory.

  • Most works of ‘social theory’ are simply exercises in scholasticism, including the ones written by some of the top names in the field, such as Habermas. What I mean by ‘scholasticism’ is the original academic practice of summarizing what others have said on a common topic, weighing the opinions and drawing a conclusion that does some justice to all of them. This was a notable medieval practice of knowledge transmission, especially given the paucity of books and translations. Scholastics pre-read everything for you, which is why textbooks continue to have this character. The practice also stamped one’s own authority on a topic, as the scholastic basically tells students who is and is not relevant to the topic and how seriously their respective opinions should be taken. In the High Middle Ages, the scholastics themselves – as personalities – were quite powerful people since their judgements varied significantly (consider: Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham were all scholastics). However, in the modern period, scholasticism has maintained its power through sheer redundancy of content across scholastics, which in turn gives the impression of a continuous ‘tradition’ of thought. In that case, the logical next question is ‘Who from the current generation will be included in the next generation’s canon?’  But if you look at the so-called canon, you’ll realize that virtually all the names could be replaced by others, and that only the repeated scholastic presentation holds the ‘tradition’ together – just as was the case in the Middle Ages when the scholastics presumed that Aristotle and the Bible were natural bedfellows.
  • Some works of social theory are better read for their references than their main text – a bit like Wikipedia articles. Anthony Giddens falls in this category for me. This is clearly a guy who can spot a good text when he sees one, which he then incorporates into his own text, which turns out to be a pastiche of the contents of several such well-spotted texts, overladen by a vague but dispensable conceptualisation that is Giddens’ own original theoretical contribution. The trick here is to read what Giddens has read but then re-theorize it for yourself, ignoring Giddens’ own weak formulations. I single out Giddens but he’s by no means the only social theorist in this vein. Anglophone postmodern theorists (not the original French guys, more about whom below) apply here too. The way to think about such people is as art connoisseurs who make the mistake of creating artworks themselves, failing to realize that their hand is not as good as their eye. However, my guess is that such people would be quite good at running academic institutions, in terms of knowing the right people to hire, the fields in which to invest, etc.
  • Then we turn to people like Bauman – and possibly Beck – who are the jingle writers of theory. Jingles are those catchy tunes used in marketing campaigns to keep a product in the listener’s mind, which work not only because of their own play on words but because they also trigger some deeper sonically coded memories, perhaps from the history of music itself or the sounds of everyday life. Starting in the 1950s, New York jingle writers were instrumental in the conversion of popular music to the 3-minute sonic ‘hit’ that we take for granted today. Bauman and Beck can be seen as theory tunesmiths in this sense. Thus, we might think of Bauman’s career as modulating between ‘Adorno Lite’ (in his more normative moods) and ‘Simmel Lite’ (in his more descriptive moods). So what might make a music purist recoil from saying that Burt Bachrach is a great composer equally applies to those who might claim that Bauman is a great theorist. In this respect, Beck is a bit different because more concerted efforts have been made to translate his theory-jingles – especially the ‘risk society’ — into proper empirical research programmes on the basis of which policy has been made. They make Beck more ‘serious’ than he himself was capable of being. Behind this move is what Stephen Turner a quarter-century ago identified as ‘conceptual capture’, the technique Robert Merton used to streamline and repackage difficult (often because untranslated) continental social theoretic conceptions for the empirically oriented American sociological market. Thus, one might think of the resulting ‘middle-range theory’ as akin to ‘middle-brow music’, at least vis-à-vis its original sources.
  • Finally, there is the most interesting category of ‘social theory’, which is where it really earns the right to be seen as something different from ‘sociological theory’. Here the author is literally thinking his/her way through a body of data. This is neither an application nor a testing of theory. Rather, it is something closer to realizing an idea in an artistic medium, where the theory is the idea and the data are the medium. In terms of recognized ‘modern masters’ of social theory, Bourdieu excels at this. Seen in conventional academic terms, Bourdieu is provincial in his scholarship and sloppy in his method. After all, we always warn students to distinguish theory and data and then show how they interact. Bourdieu profoundly failed at that task – but to good effect. What he gives us instead is a sense of the process by which one tries to come up with a coherent understanding of disparate bits of evidence that he feels need to be understood together. Moreover, he does this in a way that is sufficiently constrained and even driven by the evidence that we don’t think he’s just making it up — yet that very fact then makes it difficult to figure out exactly what the theory is. Hegel attempted this sort of understanding on a world-historic scale, but I also think this is the best way to read people like Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida – all of whom are usefully understood as re-thinking different slices of the history of the sciences, often getting into remarkable detail (albeit distorted, so say critics) about past events. This is a more ‘participatory’ style of theorizing in the Platonic sense of literally merging with what one is talking about. I know that sounds mystical, though there are precedents in philosophers of history such as Collingwood, in turn influenced by Dilthey. One concrete effect of this mode of theorizing is that it becomes easy for the theorist to be him/herself a moment in history. I don’t simply mean that you become a celebrity (though that is one manifestation) but more importantly, you are seen as a kind of prophet in your own time.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory

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6 replies »

  1. I agree on Habermas and Bourdieu. But I would love to know where would Steven clasify the only guy who worked out not just social theory but a theory of society in society (or is he folloween the conventional anglosaxon desdain towards him?): Luhmann.

  2. Which category does Steve Fuller fall into?

  3. These responses are short because they open up into too many issues. To Cristian M: I think Luhmann falls into category 4 (unlike his mentor Parsons, who despite using the same systems-language, is more in category 1). However, I think Luhmann’s enterprise is closer to the early Hegel (of Phenomenology of the Spirit) than the later, more explicitly historicist Hegel (which is the model for most of the people in category 4). To Christo22: I think of myself as instinctively in Category 4, though there are elements of the other categories. I actually think that each of the 4 categories has a role to play in intellectual life. For example, I don’t think you can really give a good academic talk unless you have something of category 3 in you: You need to be able to self-vulgarize.

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