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Social Theory in a Changing World

Gerard Delanty
Polity Press: Cambridge
1999
0745619185 (pb); 0745619177 (hb)
13.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)
224

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Social Theory and Modernity

Nigel Dodd
Polity Press: Cambridge
1999
0745613144 (pb); 0745613136 (hb)
13.99 (pb); 49.50 (hb)
288

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Front Cover- Delanty


Front Cover - Dodd These two Polity books are both excellent guides to the state of the art in contemporary social theory. Both are aimed at third-year undergraduates, MA students and beginning PhD students. Both books adumbrate a compelling synopsis of the development of social theory from the classical founders to the cultural crises of the mid-twentieth century, to the rise of postmodernism, reflexive modernisation, and beyond. The emphasis is explicitly on the European tradition of social theory, rather than on the more Anglo-American tradition of sociological theory. Both books begin, naturally enough, with Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel, then moving on to the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Habermas, Lyotard and Bauman, and concluding with Beck and Giddens; but where Delanty's narrative passes via Touraine and Melucci, Dodd opts for Baudrillard and Rorty. These choices inevitably entail some omissions: neither author spends much time on, for example, Bourdieu, Latour, Luhmann or American developments since Parsons. Both authors identify the central ambitions and conflicts of modernity, the challenges of fragmentation, pluralism and indeterminacy, and the possibilities of integration and dialogue.

For Delanty, the central conflict of modernity consists in the struggle between the search for autonomy of the Subject and the social facts of fragmentation, or between the cultural discourses of creativity, reflexivity and political agency and the socially resistant limits of structure and risk. For Dodd, modernity poses a special challenge for the enterprise of social science in the confrontation between globalising scientific ambitions and the increasing contingency and elusiveness of the social. In both narratives, classical modernism reaches a crisis-point in the despair of the Frankfurt School and the seeming reversion of the Enlightenment project from reason to unreason. Habermas' proposals for the reconstruction and communicative differentiation of reason are played out against Foucault's sceptical interventions from the side of power and discursive control; while postmodernism's discourse of the implosion of the social behind the failure of representation, the virtualism of the media and incommensurable local narratives are pitted against the more positive inquiries of Bauman into the singularities of ethical responsibility after the demise of traditional morality and the social movements theories of Touraine and Melucci. The great strength of these books here is that neither gets bogged down in the dogmatic and now highly sterile fracas of the 1980s over modernism versus postmodernism. Both canvas Beck's and Giddens' reflexive modernisation theses as possible solutions to modernity's crisis of identity, but both also emphasise important tensions and insensitivities in the theses: in Dodd's case, the tension between the statement of reason's interconnections with doubt and uncertainty and the implicit return of an overarching normative schema; in Delanty's, the importance of differential cultural meanings of risk and the role of culture as a space for growing discursivity in society.

Dodd's concluding assessment concentrates on the implications of the arguments at stake for the reflexive conditions of their utterance, and especially on the tension between the very enterprise of social theory and the deconstructive logics of fragmentation in society at large. Delanty, on the other hand, looks for a more programmatic diagnosis of our social condition after the turn of the millennium under the political aspect of democracy and its prospects in a globalised world. Picking up from Nicholson's and Seidman's (1995) concept of 'social postmodernism' in the turn away from the rather text-centred bias of earlier postmodernism to more constructive culturalist approaches that grant a greater agency to collective actors, Delanty takes up Manuel Castells' (1996) magisterial work on the network society and flows of information and adds to this one crucial qualification: that information is not directly to be equated with knowledge. If the rise of network society is to become a basis for democratic politics rather than a highly fragmented society in which information becomes a new tool of domination, we must able to convert information into the reflexive cultural competencies of knowledge. According to Delanty, the fate of democracy therefore lies in the ability of actors creatively, reflexively and discursively to mediate flows of information and communication in the collaborative construction of critical public spheres. It lies, as he puts it, 'in what might be called discursive institutionalisation, [in] in the discursive regulation of power by a reflexively constituted and self-regulating society of creative citizens' (p.186). It is in insights such as these that the immense synoptic value of Delanty's book resides. Both books provide excellent critical accounts of the evolution and contemporary relevance of modern social theory, and Delanty's book in particular leaves us with a superb structured vision of the way forward.

Austin Harrington
University of Leeds

References

CASTELLS, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society (3 vols), Oxford: Blackwell.

NICHOLSON, Linda and SEIDMAN, Steven (eds) (1995) Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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