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Steven Miles, in a clearly written book, argues for the importance of social theory in addressing real world concerns – with, as he puts it in his conclusion, a key role for the exercise of imagination. His book covers the domain of recent theorizing in key areas. He begins with a discussion of the continuing relevance of the issues raised by the Frankfurt School, if not the answers that they supply, before using Daniel Bell's work as an entry into the debate about post-industrial society in a well-judged way. This discussion might have played more attention to the relatively neglected, but still significant in my view, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Miles then moves through consumer society, the McDonaldization thesis, risk society and globalisation in a systematic fashion. He concludes with a repeat of the claim for the real world engagement of social theory in an interdisciplinary context.
This is a book that will work well as an introduction to these areas of social theory for undergraduates. The guides to literature at the end of each chapter also point the way forward for the engaged reader. Miles explicitly wants to avoid the 'great men' approach to social theory and largely succeeds, but it does mean that at points he has to take some degree of knowledge of Marx, Weber and Durkheim for granted. This could cause difficulties in the understanding of the particular purchase of some of the writers discussed, and the book might need to be taught on courses that also deal more directly with some of the 'classics'. It might also have been useful to engage with the issues of identity and difference so that recent writings on gender and race could have figured more highly in the representation of the nature of contemporary theory.
In some ways, despite the international figures discussed, Miles text has a British feel in considering some the developments that have permeated sociology here in the last twenty years. Daniel Rigney's engaging book has a rather different feel. Organised through metaphors of society, it moves smoothly through a greater range of theory than Miles, and also reaches further back into the classical. Like Miles, Rigney avoids both the great men and the 'perspectives' approach to the representation of theory. After introducing his metaphorical approach and related ideas of simile and analogy, Rigney effectively considers, a range of different metaphors of society including living organism, machine, war, legal order, marketplace, game, theatre, and discourse. He concludes with a more detailed discussion of the nature of such metaphorical analysis.
This is a thoughtful and elegant book that economically covers a wide range of material. The structure adopted enables the author to introduce a very wide range of social theorising that goes well beyond the standard, if disputed, boundaries of academic sociology. It would work well as an introduction to the key points of aspects of social theory, as complex ideas are explained well without oversimplication. In some ways it could profitably be combined with Miles text in teaching as it relatively neglects some of those literatures that Miles addresses.
In conclusion it is pleasing to commend both of these books as successful in what they set out to do. They can both be recommended to undergraduate students, as they both communicate, in different ways, the bases of social theory in clearly organised ways. Moreover, they do their best to convey the pleasures of social theory, without shying away from some of its difficulties. They also show the continuing importance of engaged social theory and its importance for all sociologists, and not just the minority of specialists.
University of Salford