Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Problematics of Sociology: The Georg Simmel Lectures, 1995

Neil J. Smelser
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA.
0 520 20675 4
xii + 111 pp.

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In the spring of 1995, Neil Smelser served as the second Georg Simmel Guest Professor at Humbolt University in Berlin. He gave four lectures under the general rubric 'problematics of sociology', the title of the book under review here.

By 'problematics', Smelser means the 'generic, recurrent, never resolved, and never- completely-resolvable issues' that influence how we pursue our work, how theoretical conflicts arise, and how we debate one another. Sociology, he argues (and I agree), has never made up its mind whether it ought to be primarily scientific, humanistic, or artistic in orientation. One result is that non-sociologists from each of these areas critique the discipline for not being pure enough. More importantly, perhaps, sociologists with different orientations define the discipline differently and, hence, often talk past one another. Should, for example, sociology strive for objectivity (a scientific orientation) or value-relevance (a humanistic orientation)? Too many those in each camp, it seems to me, demand that our colleagues and students be disciples rather than independent scholars. But this demand is only one manifestation of the more general problem. The result of our inability to resolve these issues creates doubt about the field's mission and unity.

With this preface, Smelser considers four topics: microsociology (the person and interpersonal), mesosociology (groups, formal organizations, and social movements), macrosociology (the nation state), and global sociology (international). I would have liked to learn more of Smelser's views about how our different orientations toward sociology affect research and findings at each of these levels of analysis. Alas, after setting up such an inquiry, Smelser does not carry it out. Instead, we are treated to Smelser's view of some of the problems and prospects for sociology at each level. I use the term 'treated' without sarcasm, for what Smelser does do is reflect on the state of the field - thoughtfully and with grace. He is a pleasure to read. I read the book over three evenings and looked forward each day to my time with him. His writing displays a degree of intellectual vitality and curiosity that is, alas, rare among sociologists.

One of several themes Smelser develops is that the nation-state as a unit of analysis is becoming less relevant. Its ability to influence events is being undercut by developments at the meso and global levels. As one example, meso-level social movements and cultural affinities compete for loyalty with the nation-state and make demands on it. As another example, world-wide economic development is reducing the state's ability to control its own political and economic affairs. Smelser's comments on these (and many other) issues are provocative. More generally, the declining relevance of the nation-state has important implications. Global sociology is probably the least developed of the four levels Smelser considers. If the world is seen as a system, what should the unit(s) of analysis be? How should comparative analysis be done? These issues, as he points out, have yet to be adequately weighed and determined. Much depends on how we sociologists define our mission and ourselves. In performing this task, moreover, much also depends on whether the orientations dividing us can be resolved. The intellectual vitality and, perhaps, the survival of the discipline hang in the balance.

Leonard Beeghley
University of Florida

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998