January seems to bring out the social theorist in me. My last direct contribution to this topic was around this time last year, when a conversation with a graduate student at Warwick inspired me to propose a guide to reading social theory. A couple of days ago I returned from Edinburgh, where in just under a day I had several conversations with staff and students about different aspects of social theory. It led me to think about the best way to teach the topic, since I learned theory quite differently from how it seems to be taught today.
When I first studied what we now call ‘social theory’ at Columbia in 1976, the phrase had no clear meaning, other than perhaps a synonym of ‘sociological theory’. A standard reference work of the period that I remember consulting was A History of Sociological Analysis, edited by Tom Bottomore and Robert Nisbet, one of my teachers at Columbia. We would now say that this was a book of social theory.
However, I associate the popularisation, if not coinage, of ‘social theory’ in its current usage with Anthony Giddens, who (I think) first dubbed Habermas a ‘social theorist’ because of the way he straddled philosophy and sociology, especially after The Theory of Communicative Action.
Of course, most of what is now called ‘social theory’ has this character too, but it also has another, less admirable feature: scholasticism. Habermas’ magnum opus is basically a replay of what Talcott Parsons did in The Structure of Social Action and which Giddens would do throughout the 1980-90s in his ‘structuration’ period. All these works basically construct social theory by a ‘syncretistic’ reading of a few so-called classic texts.
Syncretism is a medieval approach to knowledge that involves presuming that there are some master thinkers who nevertheless contradict each other in ways that require some sort of textual harmonization. Thomas Aquinas was the great master of syncretism in the Middle Ages. Parsons’ syncretism provided sociology with its first proper disciplinary foundation, the basis for all subsequent alternative theoretical foundations, including those of Habermas and Giddens. The debates associated with ‘structure-agency’ and ‘micro-macro’ are artefacts of this approach that persist to this day.
An interesting feature of sociology as a discipline is the extent to which the empirical side of the discipline has simply seceded from this scholastic project. Indeed, the various breaks with Parsons that one already sees in the 1960s – be it Robert Merton’s call for testable ‘middle range’ theories, Alvin Gouldner’s refashioning of Marx as a ‘critical sociologist’ or Harold Garfinkel’s radically bottom-up ethnomethodology – were basically against the very idea of sociology needing to have theoretical foundations in the Parsonian sense. For all these thinkers, ‘sociology’ was more about adopting a certain attitude to the social world than building an edifice of knowledge from a secure set of master concepts.
Nevertheless, even social theorists who would never think of themselves as ‘Parsonian’ still teach the subject in the scholastic mould. They organize the course around a set of ‘master theorists’, each of whom is presented as possessing a coherent world-view, the mastery of which will partially unlock the secrets of the social universe. In that case, The Grand Prize for the student is to mix and match these world-views in a way to opens up new insights. And indeed, sometimes ‘new insights’ are generated. Unfortunately they probably could have been generated more straightforwardly, had the student greater knowledge of empirical social reality and not had to circumnavigate around the twists and turns of the master theorists’ reading habits.
Luckily I wasn’t taught social theory this way, which simply mystifies the so-called master theorists, turning them into celebrities, the secular equivalent of saints. Instead the emphasis was placed on looking at how a range of thinkers with overlapping lifetimes responded to events that would have been common to their existential horizon. This was the original context in which ‘modernity’ was presented to me as a focal point for sociology.
Thus, people like Marx, Durkheim and Weber were 1-2 generations removed from the Industrial Revolution’s take-off and were living in the midst of rapid urbanisation, legalisation, capitalisation, etc. There were also particular events, associated with, say, 1789, 1848, etc. Theorists responded differently to these things, and their distinctive concepts and theories were presented as grounded in their interpretation of this history. A brilliant book from my university days in this vein was Lewis Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought, which treated each of the ‘masters’ as a case study in how one might abstract from personal biography to true sociological insight – a potential model for the student to adopt vis-à-vis his or her own position in history.
What the student of theory learns is how to articulate different attitudes to the world one inhabits. Unsurprisingly, my former teacher Robert Nisbet – nowadays remembered as a founder of modern neo-conservatism – was perhaps the first to stress the cognitive significance of style in sociological writing: Is the author approving, disapproving, ironic or indifferent to what s/he is writing about? To become a good social theorist is thus to adopt a style appropriate to the manner in which one encounters the social world. Knowledge of the literary humanities becomes an essential component of the sociological imagination.
This pedagogical approach of social theory proved to be short-lived. It was partly spurred by the inclusion of Georg Simmel in the sociological canon during the 1970s. Simmel first presented much of his notable work as popular talks, which in writing retained much of his arch presentational style. Perhaps the most interesting work in this vein was Richard Harvey Brown’s A Poetic for Sociology, which was originally a Ph.D. written under Herbert Marcuse. In more recent years the German sociologist Wolf Lepenies has probably carried the torch for this approach most effectively, especially in his book, Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology.
In practice, then, social theory should be taught first by setting down some common historical touchstones, which students would try to grasp comprehensively but in some relatively theory-neutral way – typically by reading historians’ accounts of the relevant events and movements. Then, the student would look at various theorists who developed their thinking in relation to these touchstones. When I was a student, it was common to focus on the French or Industrial Revolution, since virtually every classical sociologist had something to say about them. Nowadays we might focus on the end of the Cold War, the decline of social democracy, the rise of neo-liberalism, and so forth. Students should compare what theorists say about them: which features do they take as salient for their thinking, which do they downplay if not ignore, etc.
Again, all of this would be in the spirit of getting the student to cultivate their own original theoretical imagination rather than simply acquire a facility in mixing and matching texts, which in the future we might happily assign to an artificial intelligence programme.