Understanding Social TheoryDerek Layder
Sage Publications: London
0 8039 8449 9 (pb); 0 8039 8448 0 (hb)
£12.99 (pb); £37.50 (hb)
viii + 230 pp.
Knowledges: What Different Peoples Make of the WorldPeter Worsley
Profile Books: London
1 86197 043 9 (hb)
ix + 407 pp.
By contrast, Worsley's approach draws on a far wider range of material than the writings of sociological theorists in its consideration of how we come to make sense of the world. His starting point is the observation that 'there are many kinds of knowledge in all societies' (p. 14), from which it follows that a great deal can be learned by studying how these different knowledges come to be developed and acted upon. Worsley is particularly well-placed to draw on anthropological, historical and comparative sociological sources to develop his analysis of how the explanation and legitimation of the order of things can take many forms. A good deal of the book is spent re-visiting the issues with which he has been engaged throughout his career, from his early anthropological fieldwork among Australian Aborigines onwards. Societies vary enormously in their form and operation, not least because the cultures around which social life revolves embody diverse patterns of thinking and classification. Worsley develops the point that the classifications which people employ to make sense of the world can be practical, scientific, linguistic or religious, and on this basis criticises theorists such as Durkheim for failing to recognise that thinking 'is a plural, not a unitary phenomenon' (p. 119). On the whole, though, what is striking about Worsley's book is the relative infrequency with which major sociological theorists figure in the analysis (save at the end, when a good deal of space is given over to the discussion of Gramsci's writings on culture and counterculture). Rather, what comes across is the strong sense of theorising as an everyday activity in which we are all necessarily immersed, even if some individuals attain more of an expert status. Hexter's suggestion that we are either 'lumpers' or 'splitters', depending on our predispositions regarding the value of making ever-finer distinctions, is shown by Worsley to have great practical implications, not least through the indiscriminate lumping together of pre-modern or non-Western phenomena as 'primitive'.
Over-systematized analyses are said by Worsley to be 'an occupational disease of intellectuals, for their job is to bring order to complex masses of data in which order is not readily evident' (p. 50). The thinkers considered by Layder are only a tiny sub-set of these 'intellectuals' as Worsley uses the term, but the problems with which they grapple have clear echoes in the wider debates considered in the latter's book. Both authors demonstrate that the individual's relationship to 'society' does not emerge automatically, nor is it a one-way process. Layder shows us that this issue has engaged some of the most powerful social thinkers during the present century, while Worsley shows us that these figures are necessarily building on much older knowledges.
University of Southampton