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Classical Sociology

Bryan S Turner
Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick
1999
0761964584 (pb); 0761964576 (hb)
16.99 (pb); 49.50 (hb)
304

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Front Cover
Bryan Turner's aim in this book is to dispute the assumption that there has been some kind of epistemological break in sociology, caused by fundamental changes in the conditions of society, and whereby the relevance of the 'masters' is challenged. Indeed, he states in his preface, 'It is also claimed that the canon which constitutes classical sociology represents a unified view of sociology which can no longer be sustained in our academic world which is fragmented, diverse and contested.' In contrast, Turner is of the view that contemporary work can and should be read as having a direct relationship with classical sociology. Classical sociology established distinctive problematics both epistemologically and thematically which remain central concerns, albeit with the proviso that the relationship between classic and contemporary work is subject to constant re-examination and revision. Overall, this is a view that I am much in sympathy with.

'Classical Sociology' is something of a structural oddity. It looks very much like a textbook and is described as a 'collection of essays'. The book is divided into two sections, being concerned in the first with classical theory, and in the second with the early sociology of institutions. The first part takes up some two thirds of the book and is itself dominated by a (re-)consideration of Weber's role in the development of a specifically sociological discipline in response to a perceived economism in Marx. Chapters on Simmel, Parsons and Mannheim all, to a greater or lesser degree emphasise their reaction to and continuity with Marx and Weber. Chapter 9 on Parsons is thus a particularly pleasant surprise in that it is both sympathetic and stresses his unique contribution to the sociology of modernity. Those familiar with Turner's work will find his view of the development of sociology unsurprising. Indeed, readers should be aware that substantial parts of the book have been previously published elsewhere. One consequence, however, of this emphasis is that the other 'classical' sociologists remain rather under-examined. Durkheim, for instance, gets a mere twenty pages, his contribution to the sociology of knowledge is described in one paragraph, and no mention is made of the debt owed to him by sociologists as different as Robert Merton and Erving Goffman.

The second part of the book also has some odd features. Most of the themes are unremarkable, consisting of chapters on, for instance, the family, city, religion, stratification and citizenship. Their treatment is comprehensive, thorough and consistent with Turner's interest in continuity and rupture. A chapter on 'generations', however deals almost entirely with contemporary work, emphasising the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and weakly justifying its existence on the grounds that this topic links with Mannheim's interests. The conclusion to the book is impassioned and likeable. Defending the proposition that sociology can be understood as being about two general themes, scarcity and solidarity, he argues that the core of classical sociology lies in its critique of economistic argument in its various forms. There is here a brief polemic against cultural studies and other forms of 'multidisciplinarity' which I enjoyed immensely, and with which I also have great sympathy.

In summary, we might ask who this book is intended for. If it is to be seen as another textbook aimed at the undergraduate market, then it has to compete with other, and in my view better, textbooks such as 'Understanding Classical Sociology' by Hughes, Martin and Sharrock. It is probably a mistake to see it that way. It is better viewed as a more or less consistent defence of sociology's central themes and the disciplinary basis of social scientific enquiry, and thus as a valuable contribution to our particular 'great tradition'.

D.W. Randall
Manchester Metropolitan University

Copyright Sociological Research Online,