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Understanding Contemporary Society: Understanding the Present

Gary K Browning, Abigail Halcli and Frank Webster (editors)
Sage Publications: London
0761959262 (pb)
16.99 (pb)

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Front Cover
This book grew out of a seminar series at Oxford Brookes University in the mid 1990s, and contains over 30 chapters commissioned from different authors on a wide variety of themes and issues under theoretical discussion in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. It is designed to help the undergraduate in these disciplines find his or her way through the promiscuous and bewildering tangle of theories, concepts, critiques, claims and assumptions which passes for contemporary social theory today.

Each chapter includes sub-headings, bullet points, and guides to further reading; and the chapters are organised into sections ('theories' and 'themes') each with their own introduction by the editors. This helps to make the collection user-friendly, students can dip into and out of sections, or chapters, as and when they need to.

The collection is informed by the recognition - surely undeniable - of the kaleidoscopic variety of modes of thought a Social science or Humanities student is likely to encounter. However, according to the editors, " more perplexing is that there scarcely appears to be an 'inside' (or core) to one's discipline...instead of the roots of a discipline, there are routes by which academics have arrived at their partial versions of the discipline" (page 2). Attempts to identify dominant theoretical traditions are 'difficult' and 'fiercely contested' (page 5); " dead white European males [Durkheim, Marx and Weber are the usual culprits cited] are read - if read at all - in deeply sceptical ways" (page 5)

Citing Andre Gundar Frank's view that " Europe and the USA are, in the long term, but a blip in history while Asia has been the centre of the world since time immemorial, but for a couple of centuries", the editors maintain..."if should this be so, scholars will need to re-examine all presuppositions underlying concepts like industrialism,. science, and the enlightenment itself, and thinkers such as Karl Marx and Max Weber need to be seen as distinctly parochial" (page 6).

If the Social Science and Humanities disciplines are in turmoil, this reflects, so the editors argue, a world in turmoil too: "the sort of world in which we now find ourselves.... is in constant flux, is astonishingly malleable, and unpredictable (page 6). The editors and their contributors eschew..." any attempt to replace the uncertainties of our times and the turmoils of social theory with arguments that resolve all this upheaval with definitive statements...[this would be] out of keeping with the spirit of our times. [and] the characteristically accelerated pace of change that seems set to continue" (page 7) The editors' introduction is littered with breathless phrases to sustain this claim: ' fast-changing present', 'fluidity and uncertainty', ' the explosive growth of media and consumer activity' (page 13), 'fragmentation and instability' (page 15), 'the manifest pluralism of people and places' (page 17).

The 33 chapters are organised into 2 parts, Theory and Themes. Part 1 (Theory) includes sections on 'the present as post', 'explanation and understanding', and 'reconceiving the political'. Part 2 (Themes) includes sections on 'characterising the present', 'culture, intellectuals and the media', 'pluralism and identity', 'intimate realms' and 'trends and movements'. Each chapter is succinct and short, and the range of contributions is impressively wide. Plenty here for the puzzled student; plenty here too for the Humanities and Social Science academic, ignorant and curious about what is going on in the tangled undergrowth beyond his or her specialist horizon.

The central argument of the editors (and the authors, perhaps?) however, is deeply contentious and problematic. This argument is that there has been a 'postmodernisation' of intellectual discourses, and that this is a consequence of the 'postmodernisation' of the social world itself. Intellectual or philosophic postmodernism is the reflection of, and has a unique purchase on, 'postmodernity': real social movements and practices - such as environmentalism, feminism, fundamentalisms, globalisation, and consumerism - have disrupted and discredited fundamental enlightenment concepts such as nature/science, gender, nation, class etc. What we are left with is difference, hybridity, flux and 'de-differentiation'. The problem, as the editors admit in passing, is getting any definite fix on the present: this is what the world is like, and these are the concepts to understand it. Why students should continue to sign up to disciplines which cannot provide reasonably confident (if conditional) answers to these questions is a mystery.

A different story could be told. University academics have multiplied the quantity and variety of inter-disciplinary programmes in the Humanities and Social Sciences, largely in response to student demand (using the vulgar phrase, to get 'bums on seats'). The effect of this has been that the harder edges of both Social Science and Humanities - economics, for example, or quantitative methodologies, or archival history - have found it very hard to recruit. Unconstrained by any claims to truth and objectivity, and effective peer review, post-modern discourses proliferate, each with their own insular languages, sacred texts and high priests. Academia becomes the recruitment ground for a credentialised new middle class (Pfiel), interpreting and reproducing the cultural logic of late capitalism (Jameson).

Reviewers should not charge a book with a story to tell, that they should have told another story. This book will prove extremely useful to academic and student alike, and it makes a vigorous case for the claims it is making. It is notable, however, that the book fails to engage with economics in the main (apart from 3 interesting but tangential chapters on globalisation, restructuring, and rational choice theory), there is no discussion of quantitative methodologies at all, and economic, social and cultural policy issues are conspicuous by their absence. In the long run, I suspect, the post- modern turn in the humanities and social sciences will be buried in this engagement, and will come to be seen (to mangle one of the editors' own phrases) as merely a historical blip in the cultural horizon of Europe and the USA.

Phil Mole
Manchester Metropolitan University

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