Symposium on Social Theory Now: The Stakes of Social Theory

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

Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz
Northwestern University

The intellectual and institutional landscape of sociological theory has changed dramatically in the two decades between the publication of Social Theory Today and its successor, Social Theory Now. In the introduction to Social Theory Now, editors Claudio Benzecry, Monica Krause, and Isaac Reed describe two major changes. First, sociologists are currently not the sole exporters of social theory. Some of the most cutting-edge and innovative theorizing is coming out of ethnic studies, science and technology studies, communications, and gender and sexuality studies, among other sites. Second, the triumph of post-positivism—and its many faces—has called into question the pursuit, if not possibility, of universal knowledge. Thus, sociology today can neither make sole claim to social theory nor presume or privilege a single standpoint on the social. Given these changes and growing intellectual fragmentation, does anything hold contemporary social theory together?

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In their view, contemporary social theory may not exhibit much consensus or agreement over “first-order” issues but does show “some coherence around some second-order assumptions on what might be worth disagreeing about” (p. 2). Benzecry, Krause, and Reed organize the book around four such assumptions or themes: order, meaning, materiality, and practice. Along with these, they add two cross-cutting concerns: epistemology and history. But even though these themes and concerns appear to offer some connective tissue across diverse substantive and conceptual terrain, their answer is conditional; they recognize and remind that sustaining and generating shared questions and concerns, especially in times of dispersion and hyper-specialization, requires work. In short, the answer they give to the above question is a conditional yes.

Social Theory Now aspires to inspire more conversation—dialogue and debate—across theoretical approaches. Interestingly enough, most of the individual chapters focus exclusively on a particular tradition. Many readers will likely seek out specific chapters. For instance, those interested in network theory will turn to Emily Erikson’s chapter and those concerned with the current utility of world-systems theory will seek out Ho-Fung Hung’s contribution. Yet, although each of the chapters stand alone, they can and should be read together. It is only when set against each other, as the editors intend, do the similarities, differences, and stakes become evident.

Take, for example, the question of materiality, which appears in diverse ways—subtle and explicit—across several chapters, whether in discussion of the body and embodiment in Dorit Geva’s chapter on gender and Claire Decoteau’s chapter on post-structuralism, or in discussion of material objects in Javier Lezaun’s chapter on actor-network theory and Claudio Benzecry and Daniel Winchester’s chapter on microsociology. A diverse set of questions about materiality emerge from these chapters, such as how are elements of the physical world (e.g., bodies, cocktails, and audits) made discursively and emotionally meaningful, how are they constituted and configured in time and space, and how and under what conditions do they exercise agency? In this way, the book accomplishes its primary goal, namely, to facilitate dialogue across distinct approaches. Yet, as I read the book and reflected on the intellectual-normative aims of its editors, I think there are several tensions that deserve further discussion. Briefly, I’d like to flag three.

The first has to do with reflexivity, by which I mean the recognition that social theories, like all knowledge, are socially and historically situated. The chapters of Social Theory Now vary widely in their thematization of reflexivity. Among those that do, and do so most explicitly, are Dorit Geva and Julian Go’s respective chapters. In her chapter, Geva charges that Northern feminist theory has largely failed to interrogate its “first principles,” particularly what Geva describes as its “metaphysics of embodiment.” Go argues for a postcolonial sociology that examines and confronts the discipline’s colonial unconsciousness. These authors call for sociologists to interrogate our conceptual categories, analytic operations, and substantive problems. This emphasis on the conditionality of social theory contrasts with chapters—the majority of the book—that imply or insist on the reach of social theories and concepts. The editors of the volume note that reach is what distinguishes “theories” from “topics.” Neil Gross and Zachary Hyde’s chapter, for example, does not take up the kinds of inward-facing inspection found in Geva and Go’s chapters. It proposes an alternative (and I think generative) conception of norms based on mental images. Although the chapter traces the intellectual history of norms, the value and scope of their intervention is not located sociohistorically. Thus other ambitions, besides reflexive self-interrogation, animate most of the volume’s contributions. For instance, Monica Krause’s chapter sets out to clarify and extend the purchase of the concept of fields. It does not aim to ground the concept historically or politically. I do not raise this to prescribe or endorse a particular engagement with reflexivity, but rather to point out that there is little consensus on how—and to what extent—this epistemic stance should inform the discourse and doing of social theory now. There remains a tension between the rejection of what the philosopher of science Donna Haraway memorably characterized as the “the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere” and the search for theories and concepts that are, to some degree, transcendent.

Another tension I found in the book pertains to the normative stakes of social theory, particularly regarding social critique and social change. What is sociology good for, besides sociology? This is an old (and, for some, perhaps tired) question, one that resonates with, but is not reducible to the previous point on reflexivity. By and large, the contributions of Social Theory Now—as we should expect—stress the intellectual value of discussed theories and traditions. However, some chapters, a minority of them, do address the critical edge of social theory, particularly its capacity to challenge received wisdoms and the apparent naturalness of existing social relations and conditions. This is evident, for instance, in Jörg Potthast’s discussion of the “sociology of conventions and testing.” Potthast argues that the sociology of conventions, inaugurated by Boltanksi and Thévenot, has been taken up without its most critical and original aspect: testing. Given the hegemony of rankings, audits and evaluations, Potthast contends that the study of testing is essential for understanding the present. But social critique, as captured within this volume, is not limited to diagnostics, that is, an account of what is. It can also be prognostic. In his chapter on systems theory, Dirk Baecker argues that this tradition can help “describe the ecology of the next society” (p. 219). Drawing inspiration from Boltanski’s challenge to “critical sociology,” Baecker claims that criticism offers a “means to open the space for indeterminate alternative possibilities, which act like a mirror for actualities that are already determined” (p. 220). Recent work in and around actor-network theory (ANT) has begun entertain not only the envisioning of new worlds, but their material enactment. As Lezuan discusses, the past two decades has witnessed ANT shift away from its earlier “antinormative” stance and towards a willingness to make “normative discriminations.” These chapters elaborate a broader understanding of the stakes of social theory. Efforts to combat fragmentation and to build communicative space on the terrain of theory will have to deal with and validate those that exceed purely intellectual or academic considerations.

The final tension I’d like to highlight has do with the relationship between social theory originating in sociology and social theory emanating from elsewhere. By adopting the label “social theory,” the editors of the volume wish to not “draw a boundary between sociological theory and social theory” (p. 7). But, as they acknowledge, the majority of contributors are sociologists, by training and/or appointment. Consequently, most chapters are situated squarely within the sociological tradition and speak directly to sociological theorists. For instance, Isaac Reed’s chapter strives to get at “what is at stake in the very idea of cultural sociology.” Though Reed draws from a wide well-spring of cultural theory (e.g. Saussure, Geertz), the audience and primary interlocutors are in sociology. Some chapters engage in significant translation work, aimed at rendering non-sociological work legible to sociologists, such as in Go’s and Decoteau’s chapters. Among the exceptions to this focus on sociology is Ivan Ermakoff’s chapter on rational choice theory, which seems written to social scientists, writ large. In this context, what does it mean to collapse the distinction between “social” and “sociological” theory? What are the implications of this move for how sociology relates and engages other, more interdisciplinary sites of social theory? The lines separating some of these sites are blurring, such as with science and technology studies, but remain quite strong in others, such as ethnic studies. The picture becomes even more complicated in light of the fact that, as the volume’s editors note, sociologists themselves are increasingly working in non-sociology departments and interdisciplinary fields.

To conclude, Social Theory Now deserves wide readership, not only for the top-rate substance of its chapters, but also for the reflection it stimulates on themes and tensions that animate contemporary social and sociological theory.