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Sociological Theory

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					Sociological Theory. Bert N. Adams and R. A. Sydie. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press. 2001. 612 pages. $69.95 In her theory class, the instructor is confronted by a daunting task. Her students (at least some of them) believe that theory is not only “dry” but too “abstract” to be related to the everyday-everynight life. Sometimes students bring to her attention (of course jokingly) that so and so—referring to the theorist under discussion—must have been too lonely to create all these ideas! Besides, the material to be covered in the theory class is overly extensive. Often the instructor encounters the problem of doing justice to the arguments of a single theorist on a specific issue, let alone examining in detail the thesis of his/her theory in its entirety. For instance, as Randal Collins has once aptly noted, one can literally spend one’s entire life studying Weber’s Economy and Society. Put simply, although the theory instructor has the paramount responsibility of acquainting her students with major perspectives/concepts, the academic figures responsible for constructing them and the intellectual and social conditions under which they theorized, she needs a good deal of help. Adams and Sydie’s Sociological Theory is one of those books that provide such prop—a good one for that. Sociological Theory has nine sections, viz., The European Roots of Sociological Theory; Conservative Theories; Radical Theory; Sociological Theories of Complexity and Form; Sociological Theories of Politics and Economics; Other Voices in Sociological Theorizing; Twentieth-Century Functionalism and Beyond; Criticism, Marxism and Change; Transitions and Challenges. All in all, Adams and Sydie have covered 45 figures that have an important place in the intellectual landscape of social theory, the advantage being that almost every noteworthy theorist is discussed, except the treatment, at times, (for obvious reasons) is brief. The dilemma of balancing between extensive coverage and discussing every theorist in some detail is something that all textbooks on theory encounter. Although the contents of the book are uniquely organized and there is wide-ranging treatment, Sociological Theory’s most important merit lies elsewhere. The most important virtue of the book is that after the discussion of a particular thinker there is a part in which race, class, and gender are discussed from the vantage point of the same social theorist. These sections shed light on how sociological perspectives/concepts are applied to the study of specific social categories. Often a separate reader accompanying a textbook accomplishes this kind of task. With Adams and Sydie’s book, the student has the advantage of simultaneously reading theory and being au fait with sociological theory in action. The student thus understands that social theorizing is a means to the purpose of exercising sociological imagination. Moreover, the treatment on race, class, and gender allows the student with the opportunity to examine the relative worth of a specific theory. Why is a particular theorist interested in the issue of one social category and not in another? Does it mean that his/her theory is not rigorous enough to address all of them? Or, if a theory is robust in many respects, why has a theorist discussed one of the social categories extensively at the expense of others? Is a social theorist consistent in his/her treatment of the issues of race, class, and gender? The discussion of these and other pertinent issues stimulate the sociological imagination of

the student. In the end, the student develops the habit of observing the different facets of social reality through the lenses of sociology. The instructor can enhance the pedagogical benefits of the sections by giving writing assignments pertaining to the issues of race, class and gender. For instance, the discussion of the three major social categories can be used to compare and contrast the views of two or more than two sociologists. In the light of this investigation, a number of themes could be the subjects of discourse and reflection. What are the points of convergence and divergence between the social theorists under discussion? Who has done a better job? Can one extrapolate, say a theory of gender, out of a perspective that (for whatever reason) has not dealt with the topic? Are there methodological differences between two social theorists who might have the same perspective on the same social category (for instance, class)? Does a theory set a limit on the nature of the topic to be discussed? Or does the nature of a topic largely determine the type of theory one utilizes? The age-old problem of scientific “objectivity” can also be the focus of discussion: can one be “value-neutral” in the understanding of the themes of race, class and gender? If not, what makes sociological investigation scientific? Additionally, students can refine their understanding of race, class, and gender by examining how they are intersected. The discussion of these and other topics helps students to appreciate the value of theorizing. The undergraduate student might find the preceding questions to be too abstract, or he/she might be intellectually unprepared to deal with them. However, Adams and Sydie’s book has interesting sections that ease this problem. The sections on “Nature of Society, Humans and Change” and “Critiques and Conclusions” provide background information for students to tackle the foregoing questions. The two sections discuss the underlying assumptions and the ideological underpinnings of a social theorist, and provide a synopsis of past and present criticisms. The sections have also another very important value—the efficacy of understanding of how clusters of theories are distinct or interrelated. Often students are confronted by the problem of looking into the connection between the ideas of different theorists. In the absence of an organizing principle that ties different ideas together, one can be lost in the web of manifold perspectives. What are the central problems of a theorist? How is his/her theory related to somebody else’s theory? What makes the arguments of a group of social theorists fall in the same intellectual domain? What are the distinctive contributions of each social thinker who belong in the same sociological province? These and other pertinent issues are dealt with in the section on Nature of Society, Humans and Social change. On the other hand, the section on Critiques and Conclusions has its own unique advantage of allowing the student to reflect on the relative worth and weaknesses of each theory. In this connection, one needs to emphasize that critique of a social perspective is not intended to throw the baby with the bath water. Pointing out the strengths of a social theory must precede the discussion of criticisms. In other words, to critique means to positively transcend, that is, retain the salutary elements of a perspective while at the same time seriously considering what might be its Achilles' heel. Finally, the instructor can also take the occasion to show how, most of the time, the triangulation of concepts from different theorists helps to have a better understanding of a social issue. For instance, in

the study of a social movement the symbolic interactionist perspective heightens our grasp of its ideational dimensions, whereas conflict theory provides the intellectual device to examine the social inequality that has, in the first place, conditioned its existence. One of, but not the least, important fortes of Sociological Theory is that Adams and Sydie have taken pains to include a discussion on the salient intellectual inputs of women and members of minority groups (for instance, Harriet Matineau, W. E. Du Bois, Marianne Weber, Charlotte P. Gilman, and Rosa Luxemburg). Other theorists who are often given scant attention in regular theory textbooks are also the subjects of discussion (for instance, Niklas Luhmann, Theda Skocpol, Erik Olin Wright, Elman Service, Arlie Hochschild, Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins and Immanuel Wallerstein). Most of these thinkers may not be in par with the academic stature of giant social theorists, such as Karl Marx or Max Weber. However, their theories are extremely relevant for a number of reasons. For one thing, their impact within a particular field of sociology could be enormous. Eric Wright and Theda Skocpol, for instance, are important figures within the fields of social stratification and social movements respectively. The undergraduate theory class thus meets the objective of preparing students for the forthcoming classes that deal with specific areas of specialization. More importantly, the treatment of these theorists (especially minorities and women) brings to the attention of the reader issues and perspectives that are not normally addressed by traditional sociologists. Indeed, the discussion of hitherto unexamined themes allows students to see that sociological theorizing is not carried out in vacuum. Like any artifact, the nature and shape of a social theory is determined by the social conditions of the thinker’s time and even by the idiosyncrasy and the problems that a particular theorist has encountered in person. By and large, Sociological Theory is a readable text that undergraduate theory students would find highly beneficial. Finally, however, I would like to note that the title Sociological Theory is misleading. Rather, the title Sociological Theories is much more preferable. The former gives the impression that sociology is a homogenous discipline. It assumes as though all sociological approaches are cut out of the same intellectual cloth. Thus, the title Sociological Theory defeats the rationale of the book—the purpose of acquainting students with different perspectives. Sociology has always been a multiparadigm discipline, and that needs to be reflected even in the title of a book intended for undergraduate students who have started tasting the wines of real sociology. Or if you wish, and if as Jean Francois Lyotard has noted that the postmodern (assuming that this trend is in favor of a multi-vocal condition) has existed within the modern, sociology has been a "postmodern" discipline since its inception.


				
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