Symposium on Social Theory Now: Social Theory Now Review

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Robin Wagner-Pacifici
New School for Social Research

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The invitation to contribute to the Culture Section Newsletter’s symposium on Social Theory Now included the following prompt “[W]hat do you think are the questions that hold the conversation together (if at all), what do you think are the most distinctive approaches? what did we leave out? or what else did we miss?” These questions ignited the discourse analyst in me, and I set about to discern common themes running through and across the 13 chapters (and Introduction) of this important and (re)foundational volume of essays on the state of social theory now. Further, as an analyst of ruptures and breakdowns and interstices, I was also interested in discovering if and how the authors locate social theory’s thematic fault-lines and vicissitudes. That parenthesis in the prompt “(if at all)” regarding the possibility that the conversation about social theory may not actually be held together by certain core questions caught my hermeneutic attention. Why should our questions about social theory be held together by common concerns? What is at stake if the questions fly off into different directions? Might the social be understood so differently by different theoretical approaches that it loses its ability to provide conceptual grounding for a discipline like sociology or loses its ability to be meaningful? Well, the short answer, for this reader, is that this collection both illuminates the often radically, sometimes diametrically, distinct ways that the social is understood by social theory now and provides a reaffirmation of the core themes that hold it—and us—together (even with an ultimate uncertainty about its questions and its very nature). And that uncertainty is what holds us together. Let me explain.

At first glance, each chapter in Social Theory Now takes up either a different substantive focus (globalizing gender, world capitalism, the postcolonial, fields) or an analytical approach (microsociology, rational choice, systems theory, poststructuralism, actor-network theory). But it quickly becomes clear that this distinction is illusory—the substantive chapters are as much about analytical approaches as the analytical chapters are about substantive entities and identities. For example, while Dorit Geva’s “Globalizing Gender” chapter explicitly describes contemporary theories of the body, sexuality, and gender, an exquisitely relevant mobilizing scene of gender-making in Claudio Benzecry and Daniel Winchester’s “Varieties of Microsociology” chapter, in which a woman in a bar refuses a drink proffered by a male stranger, ends up drawing gender through multiple theoretical approaches to the social throughout the book. As well, Julian Go’s chapter on “Postcolonial Thought as Social Theory,” makes a strong case for thinking about the “postcolonial” as less an essential identity and more of an interdependent relationship and goes on to reconfigure postcolonial theory itself as “postcolonial relationalism.”

So if the substantive/analytical approach distinction doesn’t grasp the structural outlines of the book, what reading might be more illuminating? My proposal is to read the book thematically, to ask which common themes move through the different chapters and, in them, take on different values and valences. Here then, are some themes of contemporary social theorizing that stand out, and that created “ah ha” moments of enlightenment (and uncertainty) for me, in Social Theory Now.

My first theme is one I would characterize as relationality as substance, already indicated above in reference to the postcolonial. This theme appears in connection to relationality at the macro-level (among capitalism, hegemony, and empire in Ho-Fung Hung’s chapter on “World Capitalism, World Hegemony, World Empires”), in connection to relationality at the middle range levels of fields (Monika Krause notes (p. 220) that: “field theory tends to conceive of its objects relationally, that is, the focus is on relationships, not on entities,” in “The Patterns in Between: “Field” as a Conceptual Variable,”), networks (Emily Erikson devotes a good part of her chapter, “Networks and Network Theory” to relationalism, noting that; (p. 280) “it is through relations (which may be considered interactions or transactions) that those objects of analysis that we recognize as units (be they people, organizations, or nations) take on recognizable properties”), and systems (Dirk Baecker’s analysis of “Systems in Social Theory” specifies that: “systems in social theory define meaning by relative and reflective differences, not by essential or substantial identities” p. 202). It goes without saying that relationality and intersubjectivity is at the heart of multiple strands of micro-sociology detailed in the book (phenomenology, ethnomethodology, dramaturgy). While alternatives to relationalism(s)’ apparent hold on contemporary social theorizing do appear in the book—for example a Simmelian-inspired formalism of à priori structures and forms—even they are presented as ultimately map-able onto multiple structural orderings of dualities (à la Ronald Breiger’s foundational writings on duality of persons and groups). Here, as for so many of the social theorizing themes, it all depends on one’s angle of theoretical vision.

My second identified theme can be alternately understood as the nature and role of situations, or as the nature and role of contexts (with necessary caveats about collapsing the concepts of situation and context, they do seem to be conceptual cognates in much of social theorizing). Are situations and contexts the sites for interactions, for system bounding, for meaning making? Are there any extra-situational social lives or interactions? Are situations, rather than the individual agent or the collective society, the ground zero for theorizing the social? Opinions on these questions vary. Nevertheless, situations are a recurring focus and several characterizations and outright definitions of situation are offered in the book. For example, Ivan Ermakoff defines situations as: “dynamic configurations of relations shaping incentives and informing actors’ understandings of their options,” (p. 175) in his chapter “On the Frontiers of Rational Choice.” The dynamic—and disruptive—nature of situations and their relevant relations is highlighted in this chapter as posing one, among several, problems for the rational choice approach. The more controversial the better, it might seem, for other theoretical approaches, viz. in Jorg Potthast’s discussion of “The Sociology of Conventions and Testing,” and its general preoccupation with situated legitimations, he writes (p. 350): “It is by observing how objects are brought to controversial situations that different configurations of testing may be distinguished.” Of course, people don’t just find objects in, or bring objects to situations. They also bring norms and images, images that “might be rendered relevant for contemplating concrete situations,” (p. 378) according to Neil Gross and Zachary Hyde in their chapter on “Norms and Mental Images.” While the focus in this chapter is on the underappreciated role of images and the aesthetics in social theorizing (and I adamantly agree), this aspect of the analysis raises the theme of temporality of situations and the degree to which they operate in the present and the degree to which they pull in the past and the future. And this is one theme that is rather under-examined in the collection of essays. I would have appreciated more explicit reflection on contemporary theorizing of temporality, projectivity, memory, and events. Nevertheless, Dirk Baecker’s systems approach to situations incorporates a fascinating temporal element when he writes that social systems: “gain their individual peculiarity from so-called ‘residues’ which are logical or nonlogical derivations from earlier situations awaiting, so to speak, their bearing on a new situation. Residues make sure that with respect to human beings’ participation, no social situation is ever in control of its own conditions” (p. 206). There’s an interesting convergence here with micro-analytical social theory when, referring to the work of Gary Alan Fine, Benzecry and Winchester note that for him, “situations are not enough, as they ignore the sedimented history and the collective understanding of action beyond the immediate context” (p. 55). Thus do contexts expand and contract, in time and in space, and depending on the angle and motivation of analytical or practical approach. It is in considering the oscillation and meanings of contexts of action and interpretation that Isaac Reed, in his chapter, “On the Very Idea of Cultural Sociology,” proposes a critical role for a hermeneutic cultural sociology in contextualizing seemingly acultural acts of, for example, economic exchange or eye twitching.

My final found theme is that of uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty and ambiguity are everywhere in social theory now. They are at the heart of the sociology of testing according to Jorg Potthast who declares that that approach posits the “fundamental uncertainty of social interaction” (p. 345). It is at the heart of much of systems’ approaches to social theory, according to Dirk Baecker, who writes: “dealing with systems means dealing with issues of ambiguous or equivocal communication” (p. 201). It even lives in the apparently ambiguity-antithetical world of rational choice theory, according to Ivan Ermakoff who notes that: “Goal ambiguity is more than likely when the decision problem involves multiple types of outcomes and when the actor views these types as incommensurable” (p. 179). More explicitly edgy social theoretical paradigms like poststructuralism and actor-network theory explicitly highlight the role that uncertainty and ambiguity play in their worlds. Claire Laurier Decoteau’s chapter, “Poststructuralism Today,” asserts poststructuralism’s rallying cry that meaning is always relative, multiplicities and play (rather than binaries) deconstruct hierarchies and established systems of power, and structures and systems of meaning are always historically contingent. Finally, Javier Lezaun’s chapter on “Actor-Network Theory” pivots around the concept of “device”: “understood, in the Deleuzian sense, as a tangle or ensemble of heterogeneous elements that creates a particular sort of order (or sedimentation) while opening up trajectories of resistance and flight (or creativity)” (p. 315).

As I suggested at the outset, it is one of the strengths of this rich, challenging, and illuminating collection of essays on contemporary approaches to social theory that a recognition of our existential and analytical uncertainty holds our conversation about the social together. Are we best understood as individual agents, as congeries of agents and objects, as dually and co-constituting agents and groups, as situations occurring in the present or in a trans-temporal contingent space of interaction? Read the book and decide!