Social Theory in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Baert, Patrick and Silva, Filipe Carreira da
Polity Press, Cambridge
9780745639819 (pb)

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Cover of book Baert and Carreira da Silva's book is a substantially updated edition of Baert's Social Theory in the Twentieth Century (1998) and remains a comprehensive, informative and well-written read for both undergraduates and postgraduates. This second edition includes several additional sub-chapters, an entirely new chapter on current trends in social theory and a new conclusion presenting the authors' neo-pragmatist perspective. In turn, a chapter on the philosophy of science has been omitted.

Baert and Carreira da Silva start with a programmatic introduction of what social theory should be about: 'a relatively systematic, abstract and general reflection on the workings of the social world' (p. 1). Accordingly, social theories need to be consistent and coherent, are demarcated from practical orientations of empirical sociology (although they are not necessarily independent from the latter) and present general patterns instead of particularities. In addition, the authors describe their book as avoiding four common fallacies (pp. 8-10): firstly, the fallacy of explanatory reductionism which presupposes that social theories solely aim to explain. Secondly, the fallacy of perspectivism according to which competing theories cannot be independently evaluated, e.g. by their analytical clarity, internal consistency and originality. Thirdly, the fallacy of externalism which judges social theories according to external criteria; and finally, the authors oppose the political fallacy, i.e. the evaluation of social theories by reference to their political effects. The subsequent chapters implement this agenda whereby in particular the rejection of the fallacy of explanatory reductionism is rooted in their neo-pragmatist perspective to which I turn later.

Chapter 1 deals with French social theory, including Durkheim, Saussure, Lévi-Straus, Bourdieu and, a new addition, the work of Boltanski. Chapter 2 on (neo-)functionalism again starts with Durkheim and elaborates on early functionalists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The chapter then covers Parsons, Merton, Luhmann and now also Alexander's cultural sociology. Chapter 3 introduces Mead, Goffman and ethnomethodology. This chapter now also includes a section on the micro-sociology of Collins and Hardin. Chapter 4 discusses rational choice theories and, also new, varieties of new institutionalism. Chapter 5 turns to Giddens' structuration theory and, again new, introduces authors from the area of historical sociology. Chapter 6 discusses Foucault's archaeology and genealogy. Chapter 7 focuses on Habermas' critical theory though this second edition also includes a section on Offe and Honneth. Chapter 8 is entirely new and introduces diverse perspectives which account for the empirical condition of contemporary modernity (Castells' network society, Beck's risk society, Bauman's liquid modernity, Sassen's global city and Sennett's writings on intimacy, the public domain and physical space as well as the personal costs of economic globalisation). Each of these chapters is very accessible and can be read on its own. They address relevant points by contextualising theories and authors and each chapter ends with a discussion of the main points of criticism.

This brings me to the final chapter which outlines their neo-pragmatism, largely via juxtaposing the latter with deductive-nomothetical and representational approaches (pp. 288-291). In the first edition, their representatives falsificationism and critical realism were part of the chapter on the philosophy of science but now explicitly serve to highlight Baer and Carreira da Silva's neo-pragmatist agenda. The latter is anti-foundational, anti-naturalist and anti-representational. Instead, it aims for new ways of self-understanding by becoming aware (and possibly unsettling) existing presuppositions and emphasises the link traditionally stressed by pragmatists between knowledge and action. In the authors' words, social research should strive for 'the encounter with the unfamiliar to challenge them and think differently' (p. 305). Against this proposal, critics might emphasise, e.g., explanation, understanding and a strong notion of critique as its key dimensions. However, in line with the authors' proposal, let me rather follow the model of internal criticism by noting two points. Firstly, the authors' interesting plea for pragmatism might overlook some similarly interesting links between a key pragmatist, Peirce, and critical realism (c.f. Nellhaus, 1998; Archer, 2009) which they, perhaps unnecessarily harshly, reject. Secondly, while the book emphasises differences between 19th century social theory and contemporary social theory, the latter being separated from empirical sociology, professionalised and de-politicised (p. 2), the authors do point to the persistent influence of sociology's founding fathers. In particular, Durkheim is debated in both Chapters 1 and 2. However, his contemporary Weber is hardly mentioned at all. This is surprising given the book's supposed audience and given that the extensively discussed Parsons and Habermas rely heavily on Weber. Nevertheless, Baert and Carreira da Silva's book can be highly recommended, perhaps precisely because it connects a clear introduction with a stimulating proposal on the future of its subject.


ARCHER, Margaret S. (Ed) (2009). Conversations about Reflexivity. Oxford: Routledge.

NELLHAUS, Tobin (1998): Signs, social ontology, and Critical Realism, in: Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 28:124.

Bernhard Forchtner
Lancaster University