Social Theory: the Multicultural and Classic Readings
Westview Press, Oxford
Given the current (some might say continual) state of anxiety over the future of social theory, it is both welcome and gratifying to see a new edition of Charles Lemert's edited Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. That this is the third edition produced since 1993 is in itself an encouraging sign for those who are worried about the current status of social theory: firstly, it demonstrates that there is a steady stream of quality sociological theory still being produced and perhaps more importantly, that there are still people who want to read it.
In overview, the content spans the length and breadth of social theory, from its beginnings in the so-called 'classical age' (using Lemert's categories) to the postmodern and post-colonial 'rethinkings' of a world characterised by rupture, loss and risk. A quick tally of authors shows that the number of theorists whose work is included easily tops the 100 mark. As is the custom with introductory sociological anthologies, this is a real door-stopper. But as a collection that has cherry-picked some of the most essential and provoking selections from original works, the size, combined with Lemert's excellent and brief introductions, it is easily justified.
Having used the previous edition as a core text for my teaching on a number of first-year undergraduate and continuing education courses, I can say with confidence that the size and range of the book are both among its greatest strengths and practical weaknesses. On the one hand, it allows Lemert scope for some essential but also engagingly eclectic inclusions. The temptations to peruse previously unread authors is irresistible. With a hard cover, photos and shinier paper, this could be a coffee table bestseller, it is so amenable to serendipitous 'thumbing-through'.
The changes in this latest edition reflected in the different section titles is as interesting and in many ways as revealing of the current state of social theorising as the updates to the actual selections. The familiar taxonomies of modernity's 'classic age' still gives way to a world in 'conflict', succeeded by 'golden moments' only to dissipate in a centrifugal move away from a galvinized 'centre' into the ether of the postmodern. But instead of ending by 'Searching for the Millennium', 'Rethinking a Globalizing World' and examining 'The New Social Formations' as we did in the halcyon days of 1999, post-9/11 we find ourselves 'Thinking the Unthinkable After 2001', focusing on theoretical responses that expose 'Global Uncertainties' and 'Hard Realities'. If the world had not already been thoroughly disenchanted by the end of the millennium, this latest edition would suggest that it certainly has now.
As for Lemert's selections themselves, while it is certain that virtually every sociologist would include different thinkers, by and large the quality and quantity of Lemert's selections are convincing. However, there are what I consider to be a few simple errors of judgement, which have for some reason persistently been overlooked despite new revisions. The most serious of these is at the beginning of the book in the sizable section on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; the more accessible sections on class struggle and ideology from 'The Manifesto of the Communist Party' and the excerpt from Engels' excellent essay 'The Patriarchal Family' are far too short and sometimes frustratingly cryptic. This is presumably to make way for a passage from Marx's mature work on economics which is too long, and a puzzling editorial inclusion, given that readers who are interested in Marx's mature economic theory are unlikely to be reading it an introductory compendium of this kind.
I am also sorry to see the excerpt from Bill Gates' The Information Age expunged, as students love to deconstruct this paradigm of modernist dogma, but equally glad to see that Jane Addams is among the new inclusions, and that Audrey Lourde remains.
This is a stimulating and in many ways revealing book about the current state of social theory, deserving of its status as a classic of the first year sociology syllabus.
University of York