Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Modern Social Theory: Key Debates and New Directions

Derek Layder
UCL Press: London
1 85728 386 4
viii + 264 pp.

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New books in social theory face stiff competition these days. The necessity to market all new contributions as 'texts' often hides some very original and thoughtful work. Derek Layder's Modern Social Theory is such a book. Though the cover describes it as 'an accessible introduction for students of social theory' it is really a continuation of an intellectual project spanning methods/methodology and theory, begun with New Strategies in Social Research (1993).

Layder's theoretical work occupies the same intellectual space as that of Bourdieu and Giddens and, whilst like those thinkers he is concerned to address the agency/ structure problem as a central issue, there are important differences, especially in the ontological status accorded to 'agency' and 'structure'. Whilst, in Layder's view, Giddens and Bourdieu (in common with Bhaskar and Berger & Luckmann) attempt resolution of the issue through 'binding together of agency and structure and macro and micro elements' (p. 228) he denies that social life is 'unitary', but instead 'must be conceptualized as multiplex phenomena' (p. 229). Layder rejects attempts at synthesis, but instead asks us to accept that social life comprises varying and distinctive characteristics, mutually interdependent and interlocking (p. 2). He proposes four 'domains' of psychobiography; situated activity; social settings; contextual resources. The first of these 'domains' requires an exegesis into psychology in which he emphasizes the importance of individuality - specifically that we are so often 'insecure' in our social participation and that we don't always perform competently in a given social situation. Here he particularly draws on Laing's work on 'ontological security'. Though his admitted starting point is to give an account of face to face encounters this does not mean that the emphasis is tilted toward action. Indeed he maintains that 'social analysis must begin from collectivist premise in order to account for the non-random and ordered nature of much social organization' (p. 242). Thus 'psychobiography' can be seen as localized forms of social integration, which in their turn are part of a wider social production/reproduction. Rather like Habermas, he prefers to distinguish between lived everyday 'experience of people and groups as they engage in, and are engaged by, the social processes that constitute society' (p. 100) and the reproduced relations and practices that give society its continuity.

As with Giddens Layder's borrowings are eclectic and he draws on both the classical social theory of Durkheim and Goffman as well as more recent work such as that of Foucault's on power. Some of the borrowings, such as Popper's 'three worlds of knowledge' are an interesting introduction into social theory of innovative philosophical ideas. The multiple strands of 'domain theory' are generally woven together well and if the reader gets a little lost in following what Layder wishes to retain or reject he provides excellent summaries at the end of each chapter. Nevertheless the temptation to compare Layder with Giddens must be resisted, for whilst Layder pays intellectual debt to a number of Giddens' insights 'domain theory' is quite at odds with structuration theory. In particular, Layder argues, Giddens' 'duality of structure' leads him to abandon all forms of objectivism (p. 23) thus privileging agents' views at the expense of other perspectives.

The depth of Layder's work over the past few years has been impressive, but it is this consideration that leads me to a criticism. Virtually all social theory that is currently written underplays the importance of theory testing through research, and sadly the current work is no exception. Layder's significant contribution to methodology would perhaps lead one to expect that the centrality of the theory-research continuum would at least have been acknowledged, or better some indication given of how 'domain theory' might be operationalized.

Finally whilst this book should have a wide appeal to sociologists and philosophers of social science it is not an introductory text in the understood sense. Rather it is a work of engagement rather than description in which the author provides selective, though accessible, accounts of some classical and contemporary arguments. It is an excellent example of comprehensive and original thinking in social theory and herein might lie its value as a 'text' for more advanced students.

Malcolm Williams
Department of Sociology
University of Plymouth

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997