Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Social Theory: A Historical Introduction

Alex Callinicos
Polity Press: Cambridge
0745616453 (pb); 0745616445 (hb)
£14.99 (pb); £49.50 (hb)
345 pp.

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This historical introduction to social theory is well placed within current debates over the position and future of social theory. Initially Callinicos asks whether it is possible to write such an introduction to social theory in view of the apocalyptic style of the coming fin-de-siècle. By situating social theory firmly in a historical and political context Callinicos justifies and makes possible such an account and indeed, takes us beyond the deadlock of debates over the loss of epistemological boundaries in contemporary social theory. He situates social theory within a political context and attempts a historical and critical exploration. Rather than simply taking theorists in chronological order his approach involves identifying certain problems, in the form of a set of questions addressed which underlie a particular theorist’s work. By doing so he avoids Whiggish versions of history and trends to historicism.

He starts with the Enlightenment, and breaks with tradition, through which he sets out the origins and definitions of social theory. He moves on to explore arguments in Hegel’s philosophy displaying modernity’s contents as the resources with which to justify a break with the past. Displaying the political focus of the book Callinicos then moves on to look at liberals such as Comte, Mill and Tocqueville. Throughout the book Callinicos while historically and politically contextualising theorists also draws parallels to current theories. For instance with Tocqueville’s analysis of the privatising tendencies of modern democracy he demonstrates evidence to support its contemporary resonance, deployed to provide the social underpinnings of one of the more interesting accounts of postmodernity. He also explores the arguments of reactionaries like Gobineau whose racist fusions of biology and social theory, mark early links between social theory ‘othering’ and the drive to modernity.

Chapters four to seven focus on an exploration of the sociological classics. These chapters are comparable in many ways to other texts on the classics and he covers Marx, Durkheim and Weber thoroughly. However, the inclusion of the development of evolutionary theories in chapter six, using the diverse examples of Spencer and Kautsky, distinguishes this text from many others. Simmel’s ever present modernity and Freudian psychoanalysis feature in the next section on the illusions of progress. This is refreshing given the neglect of these theorists in many texts on social theory. Explorations of the theories of Lukács, Gramsci and Heidegger form the pre-run to a section on the ‘golden age’ within social theory. This chapter begins with an exploration of the economic theories of Keynes and Hayek and social order theorists such as Talcott Parsons. This is balanced with the critiques by the Frankfurt School whose accounts of late capitalism leave little space for resistance let alone revolution.

In the penultimate chapter Callinicos outlines the importance of the globalisation of industrialisation in the 1960s/70s, and its implications for social theory emphasising the move to develop new approaches in social theory. Here he selects a diverse set of theorists, structuralists such as Levi-Strauss and Althusser, poststructuralists such as Foucault, and those attempting to reframe modernity, for example Habermas and Bourdieu. Concluding, he offers a series of remarks about some of the key issues raised by the current state of social theory debates, for example postmodernity, modernity and capitalism, reason and nature, theory and practice, the universal and particular, and in the process he makes his own views explicit.

On the whole this book is comprehensive and well written. My criticism lies in its bias towards structuralism and in particular to the European tradition to the detriment of symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, all important schools in the development of social theory. The book also fails to address adequately the relationship between gender and social theory and the impact of feminism. This is slightly disappointing given the overall political flavour of the text. Nevertheless, this is a distinctive and exciting approach to social theory which provides a suitable guide to a wide range of ideas for both undergraduates and academics, moving us beyond teaching and learning social theory in a vacuum.

Kate Reed
University of Southampton

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999