The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties

Sica, Alan and Turner, Stephen (eds.)
University of Chicago Press, Chicago
0226756254 (pb)

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Cover of book This is a book of the autobiographical category, comprising a considerable variety of contributions (nineteen) from individuals active in the same period. The narrative, although personal, describes, chapter by chapter, the emergence of an entire "generation" who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We are not talking of an ordinary or run-of-the-mill generation, but instead of that which was formed throughout a turbulent and troubled period in world history i.e. 1968 and the surrounding years. All the contributions are provided by sociologists who endured or enjoyed May '68 and the following revolutionary times (Hungary, Vietnam, etc.). It may be said, therefore, that this book is the history of a 'sociological generation'. Through the autobiographies of distinguished academics such as Alan Sica, Andrew Abbott, Michael Burawoy, Patricia Hill Collins, Karen Schweers Cook, John Hall, Paolo Jedlowski, William Outhwaite, Laurent Thévenot, Stephen Turner, Steve Woolgar, Erik Olin Wright, Hans Joans, Karin Knorr Cetina, Jeffrey Alexander, Craig Calhoun, Michel Maffesoli, Saskia Sassen and Bryan Turner we learn, firsthand, of both the personal experiences of the young sociologists and of the effects of recent history upon the sociological panorama.

However, it would be a mistake to satisfy ourselves with personal anecdotes or individual biographies. This study is also an account of how the social sciences change. It is a book about the sociology of sociology, about the historical conditions in which a new and critical sociological school of thought flourished, renewing outdated post-war theories. The break with Parsons' functionalism or with the most worn-out and antiquated Marxism, the updating of structuralism, the innovative use of ethnography or ethnomethodology in social studies of science and technology, etc., were the work of a set of theorists, thinkers, students and activists who produced a great intellectual leap forward. The revolutionary years of the late 1960s and early 1970s created the basis from which emerged a type of reflection and posture which left behind certain theories and methodologies, while simultaneously proposing alternatives which were brave and original at that time. The following comparison may be made: just as Modernity gave rise to classical sociology (Marx, Weber or Durkheim), the 1960s produced another type of sociology. In that sense, this book may be interpreted as a case study of how sociological understanding evolves and develops in relation to the history it lives through and attempts to analyse.

Concretely, the text also investigates the link between sociology as an academic discipline and social movements, not only the Parisian student revolts but also the feminist, ecological and pacifist movements which were sprouting at that time. Utopias produce generational and intellectual ruptures. The collapse of Soviet Marxism and the suffocating presence of the Cold War gave rise to new forms of collective action and to new expressions in the social sciences. The cultural and political scenario in the above-mentioned decades was productive for sociology, which was refreshed and renovated, and furthermore attracted many students, due to its great popularity.

The chapters vary in their quality and length, but all make considerable contributions of reflection, experience and instruction, and thus it would be illogical to single out any of them out. Perhaps the main defect of the book is the sample selected, consisting of a majority of British authors (or non-British writers who studied in the United Kingdom), ignoring other nationalities, and mixing North Americans with Europeans, which may blur the cultural and academic differences between the two continents. However, subtleties apart, it is a study which proposes a highly recommendable and promising line of research within sociological theory and the history of sociology.

Igor Sádaba
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid