Book Review: Social Theory Now

Claudio E. Benzecry, Monika Krause and Isaac Ariail Reed (eds.)
Social Theory Now
(The University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Reviewed by: Rachel Busbridge, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

In 1987, Anthony Giddens and Jonathan Turner published Social Theory Today (STT), a provocative albeit prominent effort to canvas shifts and debates in the (then) landscape of contemporary social theory. Claudio Benzecry, Monika Krause and Isaac Ariail Reed’s (2017) Social Theory Now picks up where Giddens and Turner left off some thirty years later, attempting to document and intervene on dominant strands and emergent undercurrents of sociological theorising as we move into the 2020s. Social Theory Now stands as a well-curated and instructive edited collection comprising of state-of-the-art developments in social theory, as well as an important book on the status of social theory itself in contemporary sociology.

While it takes STT as its jumping-off point, Benzecry et al.’s project is a rather different one. Giddens and Turner were responding to the role of social theory in the epistemic turn away from logical empiricism towards an understanding of science as an interpretive endeavour. They were thus driven largely by questions concerning the nature of social science and sociology’s place in this. The ‘interpretative turn’ is now well and truly behind us, having effectively been established as the dominant doxa in the social sciences, and Social Theory Now deals with many of its consequences, namely the intellectual complexity and fragmentation that comes along with the recognition of a decentred standpoint and a greater diversity in what counts as knowledge. As Benzecry et al. point out, the most pressing questions in the current context are not epistemological in nature but rather rest on how to bring different theoretical traditions into conversation with one another. Accordingly, they ask their contributors to deal with common themes in their respective chapters, such as how social order is possible and the roles of materiality, meaning and practice. Whereas Giddens and Turner’s book was criticised on account of its relatively light-on introduction (e.g. Crook, 1990), Social Theory Now’s thoughtful, thematically-organised introductory chapter carefully lays out the rationale and parameters for the project.

Giddens declared poststructuralism ‘dead’ (p. 195) in STT, but Social Theory Now tells a very different story of the influence of poststructuralist thought in contemporary sociological theorising. In addition to Claire Laurier Decoteau’s thorough, sympathetic and surprisingly practical chapter ‘Poststructuralism Today’, the poststructuralist emphasis on heterogeneity, contingency and the inextricability of knowledge and power shapes many of the contributions. (It is worth noting on this point that not only were all authors in STT white men, but that Giddens and Turner neglected to include any reference to feminist theory – something for which they were rightly chastised for at the time e.g. Crook, 1990, p. 257). Interestingly, much of this manifests in the take-up of postcolonial theories from the humanities, literature and cultural studies. Julian Go’s chapter on postcolonial thought as social theory naturally makes the strongest case for the relevance of Empire to social theory, but it is striking that his recommendation for ‘Southern theory’ already informs other contributions, demonstrating the seriousness with which many social theorists approach the task of reckoning with non-Western perspectives. Dorit Geva’s chapter on feminist sociological theory and globalising gender, for instance, both traces and advocates for the importance of Southern theory in decentering hegemonic Global North understandings of gender and sexuality. Ho-Fung Hung’s contribution on world-systems theory demonstrates this shift on an empirical level, starting with Immanuel Wallerstein (who contributed the original chapter on world-systems for STT) and ending by examining the changing contours of US world hegemony in a time of Chinese ascendancy.

Benzecry et al. make a point of establishing the uniqueness of STT, which, they argue, was neither a textbook nor a handbook but instead a different beast altogether because of its prioritising of original scholarly essays (1). This ambitious and distinctive format is something they seek to emulate in Social Theory Now: like STT, contributors were encouraged to not simply provide a summary or overview of a theoretical tradition, but instead to place an individual slant on it as per their own research. However, in prioritising contributions from scholars who conduct empirical research within different theoretical traditions, I think Benzecry et al. have come closer to producing a handbook-type text than they might submit. Alongside what are for the most part clear and lucid summaries of the main premises, tenets and assumptions of different theoretical paradigms, contributors have variously flagged crossovers and points of divergence with other theories, potential research applications, methodological considerations and possible future directions. Monika Krause’s chapter on field as a conceptual variable is exemplary in this regard. She does not only sketch the history of field theory but asks important conceptual and methodological questions pertaining to its empirical claims and their intersections with actor-network theory and the sociology of conventions (233). This foregrounding of social theory as a tool rather than an end in itself makes for a handbook in the best sense of the word and will prove of immense value for scholars working within any of the theoretical traditions engaged. Some chapters additionally lend themselves almost directly to the classroom setting, laying out complex theoretical problematics in easy-to-follow hypotheticals. Benzecry and Daniel Winchester’s chapter on microsociology, for instance, uses the example of an interaction in a bar in order to explicate the different approaches of theories like ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and phenomenology and would be a beautiful addition to any undergraduate sociological theory syllabus.

The practicality of Social Theory Now is possible primarily because its chapters are so clearly written, which is no mean feat in an edited collection and therefore something for which the editors should be commended. Social theory all too often suffers from opaqueness and a God complex, but this collection is refreshingly lucid. This ultimately makes for some very transparent chapters that demystify the stances and assumptions of otherwise complex theories, like Javier Lezaun’s contribution on actor-network theory and Dirk Baecker’s account of systems theory. Baecker’s chapter, in particular, is very accessible for novices, covering the lineage of systems in social theory from Auguste Comte, Talcott Parsons and ultimately Niklas Luhmann before concluding with a helpful methodological note for research conducted within a systems frame.

Overall, Benzecry et al. have made an important contribution to a more dialogical take on contemporary social theory where, rather than battling it out from their respective theoretical corners, scholars are encouraged to develop shared questions and a common conversation. Its practical emphasis on empirical research – no doubt a result of its trans-Atlantic but United States-heavy context of articulation – should make it particularly valuable in the context of Australian sociology, where an interdisciplinary bent sometimes dulls the edges of distinct methodological and theoretical traditions.

References

Crook, S. (1990) ‘Book review: Social Theory Today’, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 26(2), 257-259.

Gidden, A & Turner, J. H. (eds.) 1987. Social Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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